Monastic Mount Athos offers a glimpse back in time
By Daniel Flynn
MOUNT ATHOS, Greece (Reuters Life!) - A dozen black-robed monks chant in the gloom of a candle-lit chapel as sunset brings a new day to Greece's 1,000-year-old monastic community of Mount Athos.
"Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison," sing the deep voices of the monks beneath the gaze of frescoed saints in the fortress-like Vatopedi monastery, one of 20 on the Holy Mountain where life's routine has changed little since Medieval times.
A bearded monk carries out the monastery's relics -- the Holy Girdle of the Virgin Mary, the preserved ear of Saint John Chrysostom, a piece of Saint Gregory's skull -- and a handful of pilgrims file past to kiss their silver reliquaries.
"These relics have performed countless miracles," said Michael Savko, whose eyes redden as the 62-year-old from Los Angeles told how oil from one of the chapel's lamps helped cure his colon cancer. "For a Western mind, it's hard to believe."
Mount Athos is like nowhere on earth. Despite protests from the European Parliament, women are still banned from the rugged 300 sq km (115.8 sq mile) peninsula, dedicated to the Virgin Mary since 1060.
Even female livestock are forbidden. Only cats are allowed, preening themselves in the sun in the quiet courtyards of the monasteries. Hens are kept for their eggs, which monks use for cooking and to mix paint for their icons.
Athos still uses the Medieval Julian calendar, running 13 days behind the modern Gregorian one. Days begin at sunset with vespers and after a few hours sleep, prayers restart at 3 a.m. Side-by-side clocks show the hour on Athos and the outside world.
"Are you Orthodox?" is often the first question a monk will ask a non-Greek visitor. Confessing that you're a Roman Catholic can be met with everything from smiles to stony silence. Continued...