A Brief Respite: Nikos Kazantzakis on Mt.Athos

by James Miller

As the thick reinforced door shuts behind me, closing out the secular world, I listen to the silence and breathe in the smell of pine and ocean. The sun has just extinguished itself into the sea and the warm night settles down on the monastery like a smooth blanket. I am on the Holy Mount, and am anxious to begin writing. Mt. Athos juts out like a crooked finger into the azure Aegean from the Greek mainland. It is home to twenty ruling monasteries and some 2,000 monks. Considered to be the Virgin Mary’s private garden, no other women are allowed to step foot upon its shores.

The monasteries look like medieval castles as one approaches them. They were built this way in order to withstand piratical raids during the Crusades, which threatened to strip them of gold and religious relics. Here on this quiet peninsula, one can sit in peace and lose themself in true serenity. Little has changed on Mt. Athos since Nikos Kazantzakis visited eighty-seven years earlier.

Nikos Kazantzakis, the prolific writer of great works such as Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ, was born on the island of Crete in 1883. He came into the world during a very turbulent time in Greek history. The Turks were invading Greece and civil unrest plagued his homeland. Kazantzakis wanted to help Greece overcome her problems, so he set out to educate himself in Athens and get involved in politics. He had a sense that Greece was falling behind in a world where change and industrialization signified the stability of a nation. Kazantzakis knew that he could help restore Greece to her former glory.

After finishing school, he set out from his Greek homeland to drink up the multicultural world. He traveled to Russia, Spain, China, Japan, England and other countries, writing and sharing in the life experiences of others. He saw how other nations dealt with their problems and turned his mind toward educating the Greek people. Kazantzakis decided that the change Greece so desperately needed would have to start with the individual. Therefore, he set out to write about the essence of man, his spirituality and place in the world. In order to do this, Kazantzakis felt that he had to get away from the politics, conflicts, and the congestion of secular life. His sanctuary was Mt. Athos, and he traveled there in order to meditate on the human condition. From a diary of his pilgrimage we learn that Kazantzakis went there to conquer pettiness, fear and death, through faith.

In 1915, Kazantzakis traveled to Mt. Athos and stayed there for most of the year. Almost a century later, I follow in his footsteps in order to get a glimpse of his life there. Being Greek myself, I became interested in Kazantzakis’ work at an early age. His ability to capture the essence of the Greek people in his writing is very nostalgic. His exploration into the spirit and drive of mankind held a personal interest for me, as my writing tends to focus on similar themes. When I learned of Kazantzakis’ pilgrimage to Mt. Athos, and heard about its magnificence from my uncle, I eagerly awaited the chance to visit the Mount for myself. I wanted to go there and see the majesty of the historical Mount, witness the art and architecture, and to be affected, as Kazantzakis was, by its spiritual essence.

In order for Mt. Athos to keep its raison d’tre, it must remain in isolation. Therefore, visitors must first be granted permission before they can witness its splendor. Only 100 visitors per day may visit, and can remain for a total of three days and two nights if the Monasteries have room. Once the proper papers are presented, the traveler boards a ferryboat at Ouranopolis and embarks on a panoramic ride over blue-green waters. I imagine Kazantzakis sitting on the top deck, a notepad in his calloused hands, listening to the cry of seagulls like diamonds skating across glass. As the boat approaches the first monastery, you can see the monks appearing like tiny black ants, hurrying along the cliff face to reach the dock. They are extremely shy and scatter as soon as they are done unloading cargo. The boat travels along the peninsula stopping at several of the main monasteries along the way.

Once inside the monastery, the traveler is taken to a reception hall where he meets the monks and, if there is space, is offered a room for the night. The monks are not very receptive to conversation, but they do allow you to explore the monastery at your leisure and attend their long and frequent church services. Instead of attending mass, Kazantzakis preferred to work in the gardens, cut wood, and assist the monks with duties less canonical in nature. I spent some of the morning walking around the outskirts of the monastery, examining the garden and surrounding hillside where Kazantzakis had set about his daily chores. Near the garden is a stone building that houses the skulls of monks who have past away. They live and die here, unconcerned with the secular world.

Around mid-morning, I decided to walk to one of the neighboring monasteries. A dirt path connects the monasteries and since no vehicles are allowed on the peninsula, the trek in the hot Mediterranean sun can be somewhat daunting. At each monastery along the way, the monks are very hospitable, offering cool water (ice is a scarcity on the Mount) ouzo, and snacks to the weary traveler. Every monastery has something different to offer and the monks are very proud of their home. Some will guide you through the monastery to show off their churches and relics. The bones of venerated saints are kept in boxes and treated like precious gold. In one of the Russian monasteries, an olive tree grows from the spot where John the Baptist’s head was severed from his body. Hand-painted murals depicting religious scenes are breathtaking and the art and history surrounding each monastery is overwhelming. Kazantzakis would have needed forty years, let alone forty days, to take in Mt. Athos’ beauty.

Upon returning, I had acquired a voracious appetite. The monks hold church service before dinner and the clear ringing of bells heard throughout the monastery signifies its commencement. Inside, the church is beautifully adorned with intricate wooden carvings and marble floors. Vaulted ceilings are built to naturally capture the building’s acoustics. The monks stand together and sing the liturgy, their voices undulating and chasing each other in a hypnotic cadence. After communion the monks leave and the congregation is invited to join them for dinner.

The evening meal is shared with the monks in a hall across from the rectory. The tables are already laden with bowls of macaroni in tomato sauce, fresh vegetables from the garden and wine that is made in the monastery’s cellar. Meat is only eaten during special holidays and festivals, but the food is so delicious that one does not notice its absence from the table. When the monks have finished their meal, the guests must follow them and the rest of the evening is left to the guest’s discretion. However, the door to the monastery is closed and locked right at sundown, and the guest must be within the walls if they wish to stay the night.

The rooms, called cells, are conducive to peaceful meditation. Kazantzakis had to be treated for rashes that developed after prolonged periods of sitting in his room and meditating. In my quiet room with its cot, clean white walls, and bare light bulb the only sound is the sea. Its dark waters drenched in moonlight and far below crashing on the rocky littoral. And perhaps it is here that Mt. Athos had the most profound effect on me. During my short stay I wrote poems in ode to tranquility and felt a peace in my heart that I never knew before. While Kazantzakis was here, he finished a novel that was subsequently lost somewhere on Mt. Athos. I too, left my poems there in homage.

From Mt. Athos, Kazantzakis returned with a sense that man and the spirit were not separate but inextricably bound to one another. In reading The Last Temptation of Christ, the reader gets a sense of this in the characterization of Jesus. Kazantzakis used his experience to play out the struggle of man who is bound on one side by the society in which he belongs, the role he plays therein, and on the other side by his spiritual relationship with God. I too left Mt. Athos with an inner peace, a soul touched by something not readily found in the secular world. I came away with the feeling that I belonged to something greater, and that I had only scratched the surface of this knowledge.

As I left the Monastery, the first sensation was the smell of diesel from the boat’s engine. The smell was the precursor of my return to the civil world. I came back to the congestion, sounds of people and traffic with a greater understanding of an esthetic lifestyle. After several days I readjusted to the city, but the moments of peace I felt on Mt. Athos remain with me. Kazantzakis had wanted to escape pettiness and the fear of death by visiting Mt. Athos, and I believe the time he spent there contributed to the words on his epitaph:

I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.

James Miller is a published writer of fiction and poetry and currently at work on his first novel.

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