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Mount Athos: A visit to the Holy Mountain

Mount Athos, part 1 14:26

Bob Simon gets rare access to Mount Athos, a remote peninsula in northern Greece that is the spiritual capital of Orthodox Christianity. For more than a thousand years, monks on Mount Athos have lived lives wholly devoted to prayer, work, contemplation, and isolation, with little time left either to eat or sleep. In this two-part story, the monks reveal that little has changed in their secluded, sacred world since their Byzantine brethren lived and prayed here.


The following is a script of "Mount Athos" which originally aired on April 24, 2011 and was rebroadcast on Dec. 25, 2011. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Harry Radliffe and Michael Karzis, producers.

Tonight - for Christmas - we're going to take you to a place outside our world. It's not Mars or Venus but it might as well be. It's a remote peninsula in northern Greece that millions believe to be the most sacred spot on Earth. It's called Mount Athos and prayers have been offered here every day, with no interruption, for more than a thousand years. It was set aside by ancient emperors to be the spiritual capitol of Orthodox Christianity and has probably changed less over the centuries than any other inhabited place on the planet. The monks come here from all over and do everything they can to keep what they call "the world" far away. Not surprisingly, journalists are not exactly welcome. For more than two years, we corresponded, negotiated and, frankly, pleaded for an invitation but ran into one monastic wall after another. Then, as we first told you last spring, much to our surprise, and delight, the monks finally said, 'Okay, come see who we are.'

Behind-the-scenes travelogue to holy Mt. Athos

This Byzantine cross marks the border between Mount Athos and the 21st century. The monks come here as they always have for the beauty, the tranquility, and the isolation.

But most of all for this: (panoramic view of Mount Athos)

Father Iakovos is one of a few Americans on the mountain. He's been here more than half his life.

Father Iakavos: You have to understand, the words that we're saying in today's liturgy, are the same words that Christ was saying, are the same words that saints from the first century, the second century, the third century, the fourth century.

And nothing has changed in orthodoxy since then - it's the only branch of Christianity that can make that claim.

Father Elisaios is the abbot. The top man at Simonospetras, one of the 20 monasteries. It was Abbot Elisaios who invited us here - and never let us forget - what a rare privilege it was.

Father Elisaios: It happened once! In 1981.

Bob Simon: The last time you invited a television crew here was 1981?

Elisaios: Correct. We weren't going to invite you, but your persistence convinced us to open the door.

The door he opened revealed the wonder that is Simonospetras which fits like a crown on top of a rock 800 feet above the Aegean. It was founded in the 13th century and the monks will tell you it must be considered a miracle that it hasn't fallen into the sea.

There are 20 monasteries on Mount Athos - some look like medieval fortresses - others are so large, they resemble small cities. They rise from virgin forests and line the coast, shrouded in mist. There's nothing on this 130 square mile peninsula other than monasteries and monks. Nothing!

We expected Mount Athos to be a quiet place but we couldn't have imagined how quiet until we were dropped off here. The silence is only broken by the occasional tapping on a chiseled piece of chestnut. It is a call to prayer and started being used here before there were bells.

Father Serapion (translator): The monks here have one goal and that is how they can get closer to God.

Father Serapion wanted us to understand that there is no place on Earth closer to heaven than Mount Athos.

Serapion: Everyday a thousand divine liturgies are celebrated on the peninsula. It's unique in the world, and in the Orthodox Church.

Simon: Exactly what makes it unique?

Serapion: It's sort of-- absolute way of life of the monks.

It's a Spartan way of life, but all the monks we talked to said they never want to leave, not even for a day, so they try to be self sufficient. They grow their own fruit and vegetables, do their own tailoring. And when they get sick, there's an in-monastery doctor, Father Ermolaos who is not very busy because the monks are in excellent shape. There's remarkably little cancer, virtually no heart disease or Alzheimer's. They must be doing something right. In addition to drinking wine at nine in the morning.

They eat two meals a day! There's what they call "the first meal" - which lasts 10 minutes. And "the second meal"- which lasts 10 minutes. There's no meat and no dinner table conversation. The only sound - a monk reading from sacred texts.

We were surprised by how busy the monks are. When they're not praying, they're working. Father Thedosios, born a Lutheran in Germany, is a mechanical wizard, who has given the monastery continuous electricity and occasional hot water.

Thedosios: Many Christians in the world, they are looking for the original church, you know, for the ancient church.

Simon: You think this is the closest to the original church?

Thedosios: Yes. When you come to orthodoxy, you will see, it has everything you ever sought for.

Father Averkios takes care of the ancient footpaths here. He clears the trails. We went with him on what was, for us, an exhausting hike on the hills above the monastery. It wasn't tough for him though. He says that after decades of roaming the world, this is his path.

Averkios: I've been to many places.

Simon: Tell me where?

Averkios: From Switzerland, of course, from Sweden, Finland, Spain, Portugal, (Canary Islands) Singapore, Australia and Texas.

Simon: Texas? How did you like Texas?

Averkios: I liked it very much. I liked mostly the people.

Simon: Now, with all the traveling you've done, how did you end up here?

Averkios: I was searching for as well any of life. I can give all of myself to that. And I think the God of Jesus is above all the others: money, lifestyle, even family.

The family at Simonospetras consists of 54 monks, from eight countries. Father Iakavos came here 25 years ago from Winthrop, Massachusetts.

Simon: This is about as beautiful as it gets.

Iakovos: I think so.

He took us on a tour of the monastery.

Simon: It would be tough enough, to build a monastery on a rock today, but how did they do it in the 13th century?

Iakovos: You know that's something which even modern day architects are amazed at because what happens is when the workers came and saw the site where Saint Simon, the founder of our monastery wanted to build that monastery, they looked at him and the said ...

Simon: Are you crazy!

Iakovos: Are you crazy. Of course and he said, 'Yea but this was from a miracle. And I have to build this monastery.'

Simon: So being crazy was not a bad thing?

Iakovos: Not at all.

Simon: Back then, how did you get stuff up here?

Iakovos: We had mules.

It takes 15 minutes to walk through the monastery into the sunlight - enough time to find out that Father Iakavos' journey to Mount Athos started at the age of six when his father showed him a picture.

Iakovos: It was just so impressive and I turned around and I said to him, 'Dad, you know, I don't think that I'm gonna be able to believe that somebody lives in that building until I step on those balconies myself.'

Simon: Destiny?

Iakovos: It is a little bit--

Simon: From the age of six--

Iakovos: Yes.

Father Iakovos doesn't follow what's going on in Winthrop or anywhere else today. There are no newspapers, no radio, no television on Mount Athos. There are a few telephones. And Father Iakavos got a call last year. His father was dying.

Iakovos: Prior to his death he was asking if I would go, so I could see him one last time.

Simon: Reasonable request?

Iakovos: From a father, I think so. My response was negative though.

Simon: You didn't go?

Iakovos: I didn't go. I didn't go because of the fact that, monastics do not go to funerals of their relatives or their friends. They remain here at the monastery.

Simon: When your father asked you to come see him one last time and you said, 'No,' was there any feeling of 'I'm letting my father down?'

Iakovos: Not at all, I know that we're gonna see each other in paradise one day.

The whole idea at Mount Athos is not only to isolate oneself from the outside world, but to let go of all memories of one's past life.

Simon: The purpose of your being here, as I understand it, is prayer without distraction?

Iakovos: I'm not being distracted now. (laughter)

Simon: Why are you laughing? First, tell me why you're laughing?

Iakovos: Why am I laughing? Because Saint Paul says, "We're to pray unceasingly."

Simon: What's funny about that?

Iakovos: That's not what's funny about it. What's funny is, how you think I can stop praying.

Simon: You're praying every minute of the day?

Iakovos: Even right now when we're talking.

Simon: Really?

Iakovos: Of course.

You don't see Father Iakovos praying while he's talking, but look at these other monks. Their lips never stop moving. Not for a second. They just keep reciting the Jesus prayer day and night: Lord Jesus have mercy on me. It becomes like breathing. Some monks say they can pray when they sleep. And they get no more than three hours sleep a night. But Mount Athos gets more applicants than it can handle. It's harder to get into than Harvard. A man comes as a novice. He's free to leave if he doesn't like it. And the monks can tell him to leave if they don't like him.

Simon: When a novice arrives here, can you tell whether he's going to make it or not? Can you tell whether he's going to qualify to be a monk?

Serapion: After a while, it becomes pretty obvious whether or not someone is cut out for it which is why we have a trial period which can last up to three years.

Simon: I bet you know a lot sooner than three years.

Serapion: Certainly.

Once he's accepted into the community, it's a lifetime commitment. And life never changes here. Never.

Everyday at three in the morning a single bell rings informing the brothers that it's time to stop praying on their own and start praying in church. On a typical day - and every day is a typical day - the services last eight hours. The monks say it's an eight hour conversation with God. A dress rehearsal for eternity. And remember, this doesn't only happen on Sundays. It happens everyday, 365 days a year. A monk never gets a day off.

This is the divine liturgy - the life of Christ celebrated by men whose only passion is to move closer to Christ every day. The depth of their devotion defies description.

They didn't look like the same monks we had met in the gardens and the workshops. They were utterly transformed with a concentration so profound, they were immune from distraction. There were occasional flashes of ecstasy. This old monk could have risen out of a Rembrandt.

There are no musical instruments in the church just the monks' voices, chanting, chanting without end. Many of the voices - the basses in particular - could have made it at the Met. We didn't understand the words. We didn't really have to.

This phrase we knew: "Kyrie eleison".

Lord have mercy.

The most miraculous thing about Mount Athos, when we return...

The most miraculous thing about Mount Athos may simply be the fact that it's still there. Over the centuries, it has been invaded by crusaders, Ottomans, mercenaries, pirates and Franks. The Nazis had their eyes on it too. The 2,000 monks attribute their survival, not surprisingly, to divine intervention. But they've also been pretty crafty. Some of the measures they've taken will surprise you. If you'd like to come for a visit, though, it can be arranged but it's not easy. First, you'll need a visa issued by the monks and unless you're an Orthodox pilgrim, it can take a while.

Next you'll fly to Athens and make your way to a scruffy little town in northern Greece where there's no airport and where the roads are dicey. Then you'll hop on a ferry, unless the trip has been cancelled because of rough seas. That happens all the time, but on a calm day, it can be a very pleasant ride.

The monks will tell you it takes years of prayer and soul searching before they're ready to leave the world for Mount Athos. For the likes of us, though, it takes little more than an hour.

It was the beginning of Lent when we took these pictures and the ferry was packed with pilgrims from all over the Orthodox Christian world. Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Russians.

It wasn't long before the first monasteries came into view and we thought we were sailing to Byzantium, to a fantasyland of castles and palaces.

We were headed for Vatopedi, one of the oldest and largest monasteries on Mount Athos. It had the feel of a medieval city.

Holiness seemed to seep from the very stones from the frescoes on the 10th century church, from the marble font for holy water but then there was the monastery's secular looking centerpiece.

There's nothing remarkable about the clock tower here in Vatopedi monastery - except for one thing! Check out the time: 6:15. My watch reads 12:15 p.m. A six hour difference! And there's nothing wrong with their clock or with my watch. It's because the monks on Mount Athos keep Byzantine time. The day begins at sunset, not at midnight.

The monks measured time this way during the days of the Byzantine empire. That's the Christian empire that followed the fall of Rome and that's the flag they still fly here today.

Simon: How long ago did the Byzantine empire fall?

Serapion: That's a well-known day.

Well, it wasn't to us. But to Father Serapion 1453 is the day before yesterday.

Simon: This peninsula is the only place in the world that still keeps Byzantine time, isn't it?

Serapion: It has maintained this time for some 550 years.

It was harvest time when we arrived and dozens of monks were hard at work in the olive groves on the hills overlooking the monastery. That's where we ran into Father Nikandros from Melbourne, Australia.

Nikandros: This place looks like a-- like a summer resort.

Simon: Sure does.

Nikandros: Like a retreat, but it's not. It's an arena.

Simon: What do you mean it's an arena?

Nikandros: Unseen warfare.

Simon: Unseen warfare?

Nikandros: That's right.

Simon: What does that mean?

Nikandros: We fight against the angels of the dark side, you see. Of the demon, of the devil, Satan.

The battle against Satan and the dark side is waged here everyday. The spiritual leader at Vatopedi is Abbot Efraim.

Abbot Efraim: Here, the life in Christ is experienced in a genuine way. And this doesn't happen in many other places in the world. What I'm talking about is the art of salvation.

It just so happened that while we were there the monks celebrated an elaborate seven hour vigil. And the church was packed with pilgrims. It's held once a year to honor the arch angels Gabriel And Michael.

According to the Bible, Gabriel And Michael led the army of angels that expelled Satan from heaven.

The church's relics are brought out everyday and pilgrims ask for the blessings of the saints. The most sacred relic on the entire peninsula is in this case fabric said to be part of a garment worn by the Virgin Mary.

The irony is - that while the mother of God is revered here - no other woman is permitted to even set foot on Mount Athos; it's been like that for a thousand years.

The reason for the ban, according to Orthodox doctrine, is that Christ gave the peninsula to his mother and all other women are excluded so as to fully honor the Virgin Mary. It's also said that in the days before the ban, when women did come here, the monks became distracted and couldn't devote themselves entirely to prayer. They say it became a lot easier after the last lady left.

Simon: Keeping women out, certainly wasn't much of a problem three-- four hundred years ago. Do you feel that's becoming problematic today?

Father Arsenios: I don't believe so because the monastery itself and all the land around it is our property. And, if we don't want women coming onto our property we have every right to do that.

Mount Athos may be the last all-male bastion in the world. And Father Arsenios says it has to stay that way.

Father Arsenios: Here we're concerned solely with purity and our elevation to eternity. If women are permitted, they would bring their families and children. This place would become a tourist's attraction and no longer a place of silence.

If we wanted to experience profound silence, we were advised to go to Stavronika. It's the smallest monastery on the mountain - but has some of the most remarkable treasures. You stain the silence just by walking in. There's no electricity here so the icons and mosaics are illuminated only by shafts of sunlight and a few candles. Saint Nicolas, the patron saint, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.

We were stunned by the magnificence of the art here. But then we ran into Father Maximos - a former professor at the Harvard Divinity School. He told us what we were looking at cannot be described as art.

Simon: There's no art on Mount Athos.

Father Maximos: They're devotional objects. And they're part of the living, liturgical life of the church. So we don't have any art. And we're not a museum. I mean, to-- to put it starkly.

Whatever you call it, it's priceless. That's why the monasteries have been invaded and plundered so many times over the centuries. The monks most recent brush with history happened only 70 years ago. The Nazis were coming their way.

Maximos: In the spring of 1941, the Germans invaded and occupied Greece.

They marched up the Acropolis, raised the swastika beside the Parthenon and were about to invade. The monks asked for a meeting with Nazi officers who told them to appeal to Hitler himself.

Simon: And the monks wrote a letter to Hitler?

Maximos: A letter was written. And in the letter, the monks identified themselves. They said, "This is who we are." And they asked Hitler to place the Holy Mountain under his personal protection.

Simon: What kind of response did you get?

Maximos: It seems that Hitler liked the idea. And accepted the invitation to become the personal protector of the Holy Mountain.

Simon: Let me just get that straight. Hitler, the personal protector of the Holy Mountain?

Maximos: That's right. That's right.

Hitler sent a team of German academics to Mount Athos. They took 1,800 pictures of the mountain's treasures, and it wasn't because they enjoyed photography. Hitler wanted the monasteries riches in Berlin.

Maximos: The professors were sent as an advance team to catalogue the treasures of the Holy Mountain so that these could-- so that a selection of things could be made to be removed.

Simon: Didn't happen, did it?

Maximos: No, it didn't. Not a single thing was taken.

Father Maximos believes they have the Russians to thank for that. That by the time the Nazi scholars completed their work, Hitler was bogged down in Russia and wasn't thinking about icons.

That Nazi period has been largely forgotten here. To the monks - it was just one more blip on the road - and a small one at that. Today, Vatopedi is the most popular destination on the mountain. It hosts 35,000 pilgrims a year and offers more than spiritual sustenance. The monks have their own fishing boats and the catch is pretty good. The fish are served fresher than in any Greek restaurant. The refectory dates from the 12th century - and since the 12th century, the food here has been free.

Vatopedi has been supported by rich benefactors, emperors, princes, kings and today partially by pilgrims with deep pockets, who commission icons in the making, but the ancient treasures? Not a chance, they can't even see them. They're under lock and key.

It's not a new security system, but it works. Normally it takes more than one monk to unlock the door because no one monk is allowed to have all four keys at the same time. It is sort of a medieval version of the nuclear launch control.

Simon: Do you keep all these keys in your pocket Father?

Father Matthew: I try not to.

Father Mathew, from Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, was given the abbot's blessing to let us into the inner sanctum - once inside there is still another hidden door.

Matthew: And behind the curtain.

We walked into the world of Byzantium. It was hard to imagine that everything here was at least 600 years old because the brilliance had not faded. There are almost 4,000 icons stored in this monastery alone. The highlight: a 14th century icon of Christ.

Every monk will tell you the sole purpose of life on Mount Athos is to get closer to Christ every day. And they say total union with Christ is only possible when they leave this world.

Serapion: The first thing a monk does is embrace and love death.

Simon: Embrace and love death?

Serapion: Because death is the ticket to the other life. And without a ticket, you can't travel.

Simon: Where do you get the ticket?

Serapion: Here, in this life. That's what we do each day, we prepare for death but with joy. We are joyful about our journey to heaven.

Father Matthew offered to take us to the transit point between this world and heaven when a monks dies he's buried, until there's nothing left but bones. Then he's brought to where every monk who's ever lived here ends up. The ossuary.

Simon: Any idea how many skulls there are here?

Matthew: Thousands. I'm not sure how many thousands.

Simon: Any idea how far they go back?

Matthew: The ones here would be to the 16th century.

Simon: When you look at the ossuary, what comes to mind?

Matthew: Mostly, I see that this is where I'm going to be. You know, these are-- I always like to say, these are my future roommates.

There was nowhere for us to go from there so we headed back to the mainland. The monks invited us to come back anytime. And, if we do or if our grandsons or great grandsons do, after ten days here, this much we believe: Mount Athos will not have changed at all.

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