The Unceasing Prayer of Mount Athos: A Short Trip to the Edge

After years of saying the prayer, I still hungered for unceasing prayer. I wanted to know always that sweet sense of God's presence, which I tasted only fleetingly, intermittently.
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On Easter Sunday this year, I was delighted to see that NBC's "60 Minutes" was running an expanded, two-part feature on the monks of Mount Athos, a monastic peninsula in northern Greece that many of us call Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain.

I admit that, at first, I was a little anxious about how my beloved fathers on the Holy Mountain might be portrayed by folks who, far as I knew, had little interest in the life of prayer that men have pursued there since, at least, the 10th century.

My anxiety -- not much of a Christian disposition to begin with -- was quickly allayed as I realized that Bob Simon has been diligently seeking these interviews for many years. He had done his homework, and appeared well-equipped to observe even some of the more subtle beauties of life on the Holy Mountain.

I was all the more delighted when I saw that, among the several monks interviewed by Mr. Simon, most were acquaintances of mine, and one in particular, Father Iakovos of Simonopetra, is my spiritual father, a man whose loving guidance has lifted me up and assisted my journey for many years.

One of the most revealing moments in the interview occurs when Bob Simon, observing to Father Iakovos that "the purpose of your being here, as I understand it, is prayer without distraction." He paused, awaiting a response from the monk, who nodded thoughtfully, then said, "I'm not being distracted now." And he chuckled a bit.

Bob Simon said, "You're laughing! First, tell me why you're laughing."

Father Iakovos lit up, saying "Why am I laughing? because ... Saint Paul says that we are to pray unceasingly."

"What's funny about that?" Simon asked.

"That's not what's funny. What's funny is ... how you think I can stop praying."

And indeed, in this brief and quiet exchange, the rest of us are introduced to the purpose of life, on Mount Athos, and -- one dares suppose -- anywhere else.

Unceasing prayer -- communion with God -- a developing awareness of our being always in His presence.

I myself have visited the Holy Mountain 12 times in the past eight years. And this is the very thing I went there to discover: how to pray.

I've written about my first three of those dozen pilgrimages in my memoir, Short Trip to the Edge. In fact, in that book, I recorded my own personal encounter with Father Iakovos.

One evening, following vespers, Father Iákovos called me to his side and suggested that I meet him later for a visit. I was eager to agree, and he told me how to find his dental office. Besides a range of other duties, Father Iákovos, it turns out, also serves the monastery as its tailor and its dentist. I'm not kidding.

I gave Father Iákovos time to change out of his "church clothes," and into the simpler, working garb, then wandered down the cobbled path to his office. He was waiting for me, seated on the balcony overlooking the sea. He had made tea for us; it was what the monks called mountain tea, a delicious mixture of mint, floral herbs, and a stalky item reminiscent of chamomile.

I figured it was time to cut to the chase. I told him why I'd come. After years of saying the prayer, I still hungered for unceasing prayer; I wanted to know always that sweet sense of God's presence, which I tasted only fleetingly, intermittently.

He seemed, initially, stunned. Then he smiled. And then he seemed to relax -- which probably seems like a funny thing to say about a man whose abiding, genuine calm I had already noted, had already been deeply impressed by. Still, he seemed even more calm now, as he settled back in his chair with a pleasing sense of gravity and with ... well ... stillness.

He said, "this is very good." His eyes were shining, his face bright with what I took to be joy. "I'll tell you what I can tell you," he said.

He placed a hand on his chest, just above his abdomen. "You have to hold onto Him," he said, "with all your strength."

He brought his other hand there too, and then made a sort of cupping gesture with both hands -- one above the other -- saying, "You have to plead with Him to meet you here," his hands parting now, and opening so that he was making an oval with his forearms -- the right arm low across his lower abdomen, the left arm reaching across his chest. He leaned forward and held his arms there, indicating effort, and said, "and when He arrives, you must hold onto him, and not let go."

"Like Jacob," he said, "you must hold onto him."

And then he sat up straight, still holding his arms before him. "And like Jacob," he met my eyes with new intensity, "you will be wounded.

"Like Jacob, 'I will not let You go unless You bless me,' and then the wound, the tender hip thereafter, the blessing."

I couldn't talk. I only nodded.

"He is everything," Father Iákovos continued, "and ever-present. He is never not here," he said, touching his upper abdomen, "but when you plead to know He's here, and when He answers you, and helps you to meet Him here, you will be wounded by that meeting. The wound will help you know, and that is the blessing."

Since that evening in 2004, much has happened, not the least of which is that Father Iakovos --while still serving his brotherhood as tailor and dentist -- has also become a priest and a pnevmatikos, a confessor.

This year -- God willing -- I will make another two pilgrimages to the Holy Mountain. I will visit again with the several monks there who have become my friends, and I will visit again with Father Iakovos, my beloved spiritual father. I will make my confession with him before the icon of Jesus Christ; I will receive his loving counsel, and his blessing.

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