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Mt. Athos: A visit to the Holy Mountain

Mt. Athos, Part 1 14:23

On this Easter Sunday, 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 there every day, with no interruption, for more than a thousand years. It was set aside by ancient emperors to be the spiritual capital of Orthodox Christianity and has probably changed less over the centuries than any other inhabited place on the planet. The monks come to Mount Athos from all over and do everything they can to keep what they call "the world" far away.

Traveling to holy Mt. Athos
Producer Michael Karzis takes you on a high-stakes adventure: shooting a "60 Minutes" story in one of the holiest places on Earth.

Not surprisingly, journalists are not exactly welcome. For more than two years, we've been corresponding, negotiating and, frankly, pleading, for an invitation, but ran into one monastic wall after another. Then, much to our surprise, and delight, a few months ago, the monks invited us to visit.

A Byzantine cross by the sea marks the border between Mount Athos and the 21st century. The monks come there, as they always have, for the beauty, the tranquility and the isolation. But mostly they come for the religious way of life that has hardly changed in more than a thousand years.

Photos: A visit to Mt. Athos
Video: Patriarch Bartholomew

Father Iakovos is one of a few Americans on the mountain; he's been there more than half his life. "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," he told "60 Minutes" correspondent Bob Simon.

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 at Simonospetras, one of 20 monasteries that dominate the peninsula. It was Abbot Elisaios who invited us - and never let us forget what a rare privilege it was.

He told Simon the last time anyone was invited to film at the monastery was back in 1981. "We weren't going to invite you but your persistence convinced us to open the door," he said.

Extra: Life on Mt. Athos
Extra: Don't call it art!
Extra: Bastion of the Orthodox faith
Extra: Mt. Athos' autonomy

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 Sea. 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.

Some of the monasteries on Mount Athos 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 at Simonospetras.

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.

"The monks here have one goal, and that is how they can get closer to God," Father Serapion explained.

Father Serapion wanted us to understand that there is no place on Earth closer to heaven than Mount Athos. "Everyday a thousand divine liturgies are celebrated on the peninsula. It's unique in the world and in the Orthodox church," he explained.

Asked what exactly makes it unique, Father Serapion said, "It's sort of (an) 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, and 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. The "first meal" lasts 10 minutes; the "second meal" also lasts 10 minutes. There's no meat and no dinner table conversation - the only sound is a monk reading from sacred texts.

Produced by Harry Radliffe and Michael KarzisWe 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. "Many Christians in the world, they are looking for the original church, you know, for the ancient church," he said.

Asked if he thinks this is the closest to the original church, Father Thedosios said, "Yes. When you come to orthodoxy, you will see, it has everything you ever sought for."

Father Averkios takes care of the ancient footpaths by clearing 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.

"I've been to many places," he said. "From Switzerland, of course, from Sweden, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Canary Islands, Singapore, Australia and Texas."

Asked how he liked Texas, he told Simon, "I liked very much. I liked mostly the people."

So how did Father Averkios end up at Mount Athos?

"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," he said.

The family at Simonospetras consists of 54 monks from eight countries. Father Iakovos arrived there 25 years ago from Winthrop, Mass.

He took us on a tour of the monastery.

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

"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 ...'Are you crazy?' Of course. And he said, 'Yeah, but this was from a miracle. And I have to build this monastery,'" Father Iakovos said.

"So being crazy was not a bad thing," Simon remarked.

"Not at all," he replied.

Asked how they got building materials up the steep inclines of the mountain, Father Iakovos explained that they used mules.

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

"It was just so impressive," he remembered. "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.'"

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

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

He said it was a reasonable request from a father, but his response was negative - he 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," he explained.

"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?'" Simon asked.

"Not at all," Father Iakovos said. "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.

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

"I'm not being distracted now," Father Iakovos replied, laughing.

"Why are you laughing? First, tell me why you're laughing?" Simon asked.

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

Asked what's funny about that, Father Iakovos said, "That's not what's funny about it. What's funny is, how you think I can stop praying."

He told Simon he's praying every minute of the day, even while they were conducting their interview.

You don't see Father Iakovos praying while he's talking, but when you look at other monks, you can see that 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.

"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?" Simon asked Father 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," he explained.

"I bet you know a lot sooner than three years," Simon remarked.

"Certainly," he replied.

Once a novice is accepted into the community, it's a lifetime commitment. And life never changes there. Never.

Every day 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 every day, 365 days a year. A monk never gets a day off.

"60 Minutes" was able to film the brotherhood at Simonospetras celebrating the Divine Liturgy, the life of Christ, observed 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.

There are no musical instruments in the church, just the monks' voices, chanting without end. Many of the voices, the basses in particular, could have made it at the Metropolitan Opera.

We didn't understand the words; we didn't really have to. One phrase we did know: "Kyrie Eleison" - "Lord have mercy."

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 filmed the ferry from the mainland to the Holy Mountain and it was packed with pilgrims from all over the Orthodox Christian world, including Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, and Russians.

It wasn't long before the first monasteries came into view and we thought we were sailing to Byzantium, to a fantasy land 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 and from the marble font for holy water. But then there was the monastery's secular looking centerpiece: the clock tower.

There's nothing remarkable about the clock tower in the Vatopedi monastery, except for one thing: there is a six hour time difference, as 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 its flag still flies at Mount Athos' monasteries today.

Keep in mind that the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453.

"This peninsula is the only place in the world that still keeps Byzantine time, isn't it?" Simon asked Father Serapion.

"It has maintained this time for some 550 years," he replied.

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.

"This place looks like a summer resort," he told Simon. "Like a retreat, but it's not. It's an arena."

Asked what he means by arena, Father Nikandros said, "Unseen warfare."

"We fight against the angels of the dark side, you see. Of the demon, of the devil, Satan," he explained.

The battle against Satan and the dark side is waged there every day.

The spiritual leader at Vatopedi is 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," he told Simon.

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 Archangels 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 every day and pilgrims ask for the blessings of the saints. The most sacred relic on the entire peninsula is stored in an ornate case and contains fabric said to be part of a garment worn by the Virgin Mary.

The irony is that while the Mother of God is revered there, no other woman is permitted to even set foot on Mount Athos, a ban that's been in effect 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 there, the monks became distracted and couldn't devote themselves entirely to prayer. They say it became a lot easier after the last lady left.

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

"I don't believe so because the monastery itself and all the land around it is our property," he replied. "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. "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 attraction and (no) longer a place (of) silence."

If we wanted to experience profound silence, we were advised to go to the Monastery of Stavronikita. 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, so the icons and mosaics are illuminated only by shafts of sunlight and a few candles. There are images of Saint Nicolas, the patron saint, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.

We were stunned by the magnificence of the art there. 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.

"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 put it starkly," he explained.

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 when the Nazis were coming their way.

"In the spring of 1941 the Germans invaded and occupied Greece," Father Maximos said.

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.

The monks wrote a little to Hitler. "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," Father Maximos said.

Asked what kind of response they got, Father Maximos said, "It seems that Hitler liked the idea. And accepted the invitation to become the personal protector of the Holy Mountain."

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.

"The professors were sent as an advance team to catalogue the treasures of the Holy Mountain so that a selection of things could be made to be removed," Father Maximos explained.

But it didn't happen that way and not a single item was taken.

Father Maximos believes they have the Russians to thank for 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 at Mount Athos. 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 then, the food there 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 ancient 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.

"Do you keep all these keys in your pocket Father?" Simon asked, as Father Matthew unlocked an intricate set of locks with enormous brass keys.

"I try not to," he replied.

Father Matthew, from Fond du Lac, Wis., was given the abbot's blessing to let us into the inner sanctum. Once inside there's still another hidden door.

We walked into the world of Byzantium. It was hard to imagine that everything in the rooms 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 is 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.

"The first thing a monk does is embrace and love death," Father Serapion told Simon. "Because death is the ticket to the other life. And without a ticket, you can't travel."

"Where do you get the ticket?" Simon asked.

"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," he replied.

Father Matthew offered to take us to the transit point between this world and heaven. When a monk dies, he's buried until there's nothing left but bones; then he's brought to where every monk who's ever lived at Mount Athos ends up: the ossuary.

"Any idea how many skulls there are here?" Simon asked, looking stacks of skulls - one on top of the other.

"Thousands. I'm not sure how many thousands," Father Matthew said.

Asked if he had any idea how far they go back, he told Simon, "The ones here would be to the 16th century."

"When you look at the ossuary, what comes to mind?" Simon asked.

"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," he replied, laughing.

There was nowhere for us to go from there, so we headed back to the mainland.

The monks invited us to come back any time. 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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