Christ is Risen!
This year I had the blessing to spend Holy Week and Pascha on Mt. Athos. I went with a few friends (one from the States, one from Serbia, one from Congo) to Zographou Monastery for the first two days of Holy Week and to Grigoriou for the remainder of Holy Week and Pascha. I would like to share with you, my friends and family, some experiences and reflections surrounding this week, not to brag (because our Pascha is the same wherever we celebrate it I think) but just to share with you our particular humble blessing on this Feast of Feasts!
I was told to go to Mt. Athos at least one time for Pascha. I decided to take this advice (now that I am in a stage in life where I would not be leaving a family for the visit) and packed my bags for the Holy Mountain.
Until the very last moment we had some logistical difficulties. I had arranged for all of us to stay at Zographou monastery for 2 nights, Xenofontos for 1 and then for at least 2 out of the 4 of us to stay at Grigoriou for the remainder of the trip (the monks were not sure if they could take all of us at Grigoriou or just two). Without hearing back from them, however, we proceeded on our way, hoping that we would be able to spend Pascha as a group and not have to go to different monasteries if there was no room. This was a great opportunity to practice putting things into God’s hands, and that is exactly what we tried to to. Thankfully, everything worked out perfectly and we did not have to split up at all.
There is a thickness to Holy Week that cannot be described. The richness of the prayers and hymns, the absence of food, the weight of an event in time happening so long ago but with so many ramifications for us today. The air is thick with meaning. A normal week passes by in an instant, but there is something that doesn’t allow you to pass Holy Week so quickly. It’s not worth, I don’t think, to try to dive deeper into this mystery.
The first two days we experienced the services in Church Slavonic. We were in church for the greater part of each day. When got off the boat at Zographou we walked up a road for about one hour to get to the monastery. The monks were already in church. We entered the katholikon (main church of the monastery) and were immediately met with the site of 20 or so monks and a dozen laymen making prostrations silently (reverent bows that one makes at various times during the services, especially those of Lent, which entail bending your whole body until you are on your hands and knees). Holy Week had begun. Zographou is a beautiful monastery, of enormous size, tucked away in the mountainous landscape of Mt. Athos. It is very quiet and does not have quite so many visitors as some of the other monasteries (which can be a good thing at times).
After the two days had come to an end we packed our bags again and headed for the boat. Embarking upon the second half of our journey we were also becoming more focused on the reality of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, three-day burial and Resurrection. We arrived at Grigoriou ready to continue this journey toward Christ’s resurrection, and toward our own!
At Grigoriou we were met with traditional Athonite hospitality. Some of the monks that I know there were very kind to us and spoke with us a number of times to discuss various matters in our lives and to talk to us about the spiritual life, giving us tips for how we can carry out Christ’s commandments in the world.
There were a few “moments” that struck me very deeply (among many of course) throughout our pilgrimage that I would like to share:
Banging the Talenton
The talenton is a thin, flattened wooden staff-like instrument that is held in it’s center and struck with a wooden mallet. It is used to call people to prayer, but also to promote the joyous atmosphere of the various church feasts (Pascha included). We were standing in the Paschal liturgy a little after midnight (or it might have been the Paschal Orthros during the canon) when one of the monks that I know tapped us Americans (and our Serbian friend) on the shoulders and asked us if we would like to help bang the talanton’s to bring in the Paschal feast. We readily accepted and were led outside with a group of pilgrims, and each given a talenton and mallot. Armed and ready we were told to follow in a single-file line behind a monk who would lead us in our talenton-banging procession. We began to strike our wooden “bells” and processed joyously around the entire monastery. It was such an innocent and simple moment of joy but we were all grinning from ear to ear and banging away at our wooden toys experiencing the infectious joy of the Paschal joy.
Paschal Light and Procession
When the hour to begin the Paschal service came, all of the candles in ancient chapel were put out and the monks and laity stood in silence and wrapped in expectant darkness. Gradually and quietly the priests began to sing within the alter and to pass around the paschal flame one to another. We were all encourage to received our flame directly from the serving priest at the front of the church, so we squeezed our way to the front to light our candles. Slowly but surely the pitch blackness disappeared as a golden flickering light grew within the chapel one candle at a time. We made the typical procession around the main chapel for Pascha, singing the paschal hymn, reading the Gospel reading, and finally coming back to the enormous monastery doors at the entrance of the chapel, where the priests conversed with “someone” inside using the words from psalm 23 (24) “Lift up your gates you princes and be you lifted up you everlasting gates and the king of glory will enter!”...and the response from within: “who is this king of glory?”...and the triumphant reply: “the Lord strong and might,y the Lord mighty in war.” And this is repeated twice more until the doors are flung open and everyone floods the church which is literally alive with swaying golden candalabras, flickering candles from all corners of the chapel and a gauntlet of priests and monks sprinkling you in the face with holy water and wishing you Paschal greetings, yelling: Christos Anesti (Christ is Risen), and waiting for the response: Alithos Anesti (Truly He is Risen)! With every step that you take, back into the church, your heart is lifted higher and higher, and it continues to ascend in an unbroken chain of beautiful hymns and sites as everyone is flung, head-first, into the Paschal hymns. Christ Has Risen!
Paschal Divine Liturgy begins with the singing of the Paschal Hymn: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. This is chanted multiple times and in many languages. We heard it in Greek, French, Romanian, Arabic, Swahili, English. A group of us were asked to chant it in English!i There were around 15 priests celebrating the liturgy together and 3 or 4 deacons. All of the priests wore matching vestments, and the deacons wore their most radiant and celebratory garments. It was truly a beautiful manifestation of the Kingdom!
After the service we went to the refectory for a celebratory meal, and then went to bed.
Pascha Sunday and Simonopetra
We awoke the next morning to the beautiful site of a thin fog on the water and remembering the night before as if it were a beautiful dream. We spent the day so peacefully. A group of young men from various different countries (2 serbs, 1 palestinian, 3 americans, 1 from congo, 1 greek) all gathered together to take an enjoyable hike to the neighboring Simonopetra monastery. We were all together singing songs, talking about our lives in our respective countries. We took a break by the beach and climbed some of the rocks and relaxed in the sun. It was hard for us to believe that we could be the recipients of such a wonderful opportunity to be together, sharing the feast with another--all on the same page, all rejoicing at eachother’s existence. We clung desperately on to every moment of our time together, and the time passed so richly and almost as if we had entered into a twilight zone of sorts...everything was so real, and liberated (at least for brief moments) from the tensions and psychological stress of pressing obligations and schedules. Glory to God.
When we arrived at Simonopetra we were a bit tired from our walk but happy to be there. We went into the guesthouse and waited for the guest master. He brought us all some tsiporo (a deliciously refreshing traditional alcoholic beverage which is perfect to cool you down after a hike) and loukoumi (turkish delight). He asked us where we were from and we burst into a joyful “apo pantou” (from everywhere!). It was such a great group of young men, all sharing the grace of the feast together--indescribable!
We stayed at Simonopetra for the Agape Vespers where we heard the gospel being read in at least 7 languages in beautiful byzantine chant. We returned to Grigoriou as it began to get a bit dark, after an incredible meal of fried fish, homemade wine and delicious dairy products. The following day, our day of departure, we finished the service (which included a Litia and procession around the monastery) and were invited to speak with one of the elders of the monastery who shared some spiritual advice with us, but most of all, showed us a true example of humble love.
We were overjoyed but a bit saddened to leave, but all the while remembering that the Paschal flame--the joy of Pascha--is not a one time/year event, but occurs all year round.
Also the Grace that we received from the feast strengthened us a bit, freed us a bit. This is a reality that can be found everywhere! We were grateful, however, to experience it this year on Agion Oros.