The Pilgrim's Journey, The Áxion Estín

The boat--whose name means It Is Worthy--is backing away from the chaos of crates and trucks and the crowd of very loud, very animated men burdening the concrete pier. With a shudder and a plume of diesel smoke, the ferry discovers a forward gear and angles out, pressing into the Aegean's dappled blue.

I was a little puzzled, at first, by the size of the crowd boarding the boat. And, a little earlier in the morning, I was a little panicked that my friend Nick and I had to wait to see if there would be room for us to join them. We had made the necessary arrangements to enter Mount Athos on this date, but hadn't known to reserve tickets for the boat itself. Let that be a lesson for somebody.

Given a well publicized daily limit of 134 pilgrims--120 Orthodox Christians and 14 "others" who are allowed to enter the Holy Mountain--I had no idea there would be so many pressing to catch the morning ferry, easily four hundred men, probably more.

I was puzzled, as well, by the early-morning demeanor of some of my fellow travelers. Though we were embarking around 9:30 AM, a good dozen or so were sipping cans of Amstel lager, and many of them were obviously nursing serious hangovers. Not just a few seemed still to be drunk, and one was passed out between two comrades who kept him from falling over--for the most part.

The official limit of 134 men, it turns out, applies only to the uninvited. There is apparently no limit for visiting monks, Orthodox clergy, or for those pilgrims who have made arrangements to visit their spiritual fathers by invitation.

Still, those particular exceptions didn't absolutely account for the drunks.

The official limit doesn't apply to laborers either. In recent years, reconstruction support has come to Mount Athos from the European Union and from various public and private sources in predominantly Orthodox countries. As a result, Mount Athos is occupied daily by an army of excavators, stonemasons, and carpenters; this morning, they weren't all hungover, but all bore the demeanors of men on their way to a day (or several weeks) of serious labor. I really couldn't blame them for their grim looks.

And I have to say that, progressively, during the boat ride, as the reality of Mount Athos began to weigh on my idealized, abstract expectations, I guessed that I too was on my way to work.

It wasn't until Nick and I had stowed our backpacks under our seats, and were stretched out, feeling the sun on our faces that any of this began to feel real. Nick, by the way, is Nick Kalaitzandonakes. And Nick--as you might have noticed from his substantial surname--is Greek. If you were Greek, you would also gather--also from his name--that his family originally hails from Crete. Nick is also an American, having been naturalized about twenty-five years ago. He is married to the indefatigable Julie, and they have two beautiful, busy kids, Maria and Yorgo--both brilliant, and each, in his or her own way, full of beans.

Nick and I have served together on the parish council of our Saint Luke the Evangelist Orthodox Church since before it was a parish council, since before we even had a parish. We were just a "mission steering committee" at first, working to establish the first-ever Orthodox church in mid-Missouri. It worked out pretty well.

Nick is also a colleague at University of Missouri, where I teach poetry writing and American literature in the English department, and where he is an agricultural economist. Nick was also, for the first five days of this first pilgrimage, my guide and translator.

So far, my Greek is very lame. As with about seven other languages, however, I maintain certain priorities. I can manage--politely even--to get myself fed in Greek. And I can order red wine--or single-malt scotch, when it's available. On this trip, I also learned how to reserve a room, pay a tab, count my change, and shove my way onto a bus. Nick, on the other hand, could help with the occasional theological discussion, and he's a pretty funny guy, to boot. Nick is also, as it happens, a pilgrim.

At that moment on the deck--with the breeze whipping up white caps on the Aegean, the ferry boat tooling along in what I swear was a confident, dactylic rhythm, and with the first monastic enclaves coming into view along the shore--I realized that I was really going to the Holy Mountain.

Mount Athos has always been a unique phenomenon, and, for most folks, it remains a downright puzzling phenomenon; its uniqueness and puzzlement are all the more pronounced in the twenty-first century, when ancient pursuits like monasticism, asceticism, and hesychasm (EH see kazm--that is, the pursuit of stillness) strike the modern psyche as anachronistic, extreme, and maybe a little perverse.

The monks also follow the Julian--which is to say, the "Old"--calendar, and this involves a tweaking of dates to a point thirteen days behind where you thought you were.

Think of it as a cosmic pressure to slow down--or, maybe better, as a metaphor for our failure to know, even, where we stand, or when. Then don't think about it again. The monks are, for the most part, gracious enough to suppose where and when you think you are, and will play along.

Oh, and one other thing: the clock. The hours of the day begin at sundown rather than at midnight. Not to worry; you'll catch on.

The easternmost of three peninsulas--easily the steepest and rockiest of three long fingers of steep and rocky land--reaching south into the Aegean from that region of northeastern Greece known as Halkidikí, the peninsula of Mount Athos is about thirty-four miles in length and varies between five and eight miles across, covering less than 250 square miles total; the sharply rising terrain moves precipitously from sea level to 6,700 feet, which is the summit of the Mount Athos peak itself, very near the southern tip of the peninsula.

In physical terms, then, the area of the Holy Mountain isn't much. In spiritual terms, it is immense, impossible to chart.

Archaeological evidence suggests that since as early as the second century ascetics have lived here in pursuit of prayer--in pursuit of, rather, lives of prayer. I'll get to what I mean by the italics soon enough. Or nearly soon enough. By and by.