Three days later, down by the sea at Dochieariou monastery, we make friends with a gentle young monk called Father Parthenios. His religious name means “Virginal”—I couldn’t but wonder if he was, and if that was why he’d chosen the name. He enquires after the Royal Family, asks if I could possibly despatch him some loose leaf Earl Grey tea when I get home, and that night he gives us a tour of the monastery’s medieval cellars. But even Parthenios pointedly wonders aloud how anyone could fail to see the truth of Orthodoxy. The clue, he tells us, is after all in the name—orthos means “correct,” doxa “belief.” Well then.
We only meet with actual hostility in the plus-sized and bloated church of St. Andrew, just outside Karyes. The gleaming marble basilica is the largest in the Balkans, but it sits almost completely deserted besides an overgrown five-a-side football pitch. Inside, we fail to prostrate ourselves correctly before the Miraculously Fragrant Forehead of St. Andrew, and one white-bearded monk takes issue. Josh bravely pipes up that Anglicans don’t really go in for prostrations. This is all in vain. “This is an Orthodox holy place, and you are not here as tourists!” the monk barks. We don’t point out that we’d just found him manning a gift shop.
The world moves fast, and we couldn’t cope with it
The dissident elephant in the room is the monastery of Esphigmenou, home of the hundred crustiest old monks on the Holy Mountain. Convinced that the Pope is the anti-Christ, they’ve long resisted the Patriarch’s policy of inter-church dialogue. Anathemas were exchanged in 2002, and the monastery has been in schism with the rest ever since. “Orthodoxy or Death!” proclaims a black and white pirate banner flying from its battlements. This is more than a falling-out among friends: Seven monks were airlifted to hospital in 2006, after a night-time skirmish with crowbars and fire extinguishers. The episode might have some comedy value, but this is a zeal foreign to modern Europe.
And in this zeal, the monks seem thoroughly content. Athos feels as rooted and as secure as an all-male fairy tale kingdom: The castles in the wood will stand there forever and the big wooden gates will be barred shut each dusk. Life here might be austere, but it’s comforting. “We’re not here because we’re strong,” says Father Parthenios. “We’re here because we’re weak. The world moves fast, and most of us couldn’t cope with it. It’s easier to give yourself up to God.” Hence, I suppose, the flight from all things female. This is what the Holy Mountain keeps of the Middle Ages: a bestowed order of things, with all the stability and all the rigidity that it entails. There is one true creed, there is one true calendar, there is a rhythm to the day and a lie of the land, and these things will endure here forever and ever.