I just returned from a pilgrimage to Mount Athos and as much as I would like to share what one feels in such a spiritual journey, it is difficult to put into words. Everything is so impressive and so divine that you can’t choose what to say. One may tell stories about the historical buildings, the vistas, the old icons, the relics, the music, but at the end of the day the one thing that boldly comes out and makes all the other things possible is the monk’s commitment to a life in Christ, their desire to go beyond the image of Christ and achieve also His likeness.
Living for a week in a monastic republic, in a place where everyone you meet is trying to become a saint is an extraordinary experience because it reveals, in opposition your shortcomings and you start questioning the depth of your own faith and the real state of your own commitment.
Living a life that has it’s sole purpose to achieve union with God, seems a no brainer on Mount Athos because everyone there is trying the same thing, is something as common as breathing, it is natural and the pilgrim is attracted in this movement, either realizing it or not. By conforming himself to the monastic life he also starts pursuing the same goal of self edification and the grace of God changes something in him. He’s not impatient anymore and the 5-6 hours night services seem short, even though a week before an hour-long service may have seemed interminable. He get’s used with silence more than noise, he get’s to think more about spiritual food than the gastronomical rewards of the city. Without realizing it the pilgrim is aligned in this grace-attracting environment. All starts to seem natural to him, despite the fact that his usual habitat, the noisy and secular city, has disappeared. This new rhythm of life fits him like a glove because it is what he really wants, it is what he was supposed to follow all along, but did not even knew it existed.
But here comes the moment of leaving the mountain. One is initially happy to go home to the family and share the experiences, the beautiful places, the chanting, the relics, the conversations. But as the boat takes the pilgrim away from the mountain and the mountain fades in the haze of the horizon there is an unexplainable longing that starts settling in his soul. As he gets closer to the world there is something that calls him back and that call, he does not realize it now, will be with him forever. This is the gift of the mountain.
The greatest shock however is when he is back into the world and meets the first “man from the city” (Luke 8:27) as Jesus met the demoniac in Gadara. The colors of the city hurt the pilgrim’s eyes now, the loud and rhythmic music inflicts pain in his years, everything disturbs the inner peace he was able to briefly experience on the mountain. This is the moment when he realizes, in this contrasting encounter, that there is something wrong with the world he was living in. He can see clearly now that the world is corrupted and does not follow God anymore, that the world is indeed possessed by a legion of demons (Luke 8:30) that drive all the people in a spiritual desert, far from the richness and the abundance of the spirit, in a barren place where the mere existence of God is forgotten.
But he did not realize it until his eyes were open. So he desperately tries to share this with someone from the world, tries to tell them that what they do is wrong, that this is not what God wants from us to be selfish and greedy, and pursue only the needs of the flesh, that one has to take care more of the soul and what he gets in return is laughter, irony and indifference. The same happened with the Gadarenes, they saw Christ miracle, the saw the possessed coming back to normality and instead of asking Christ to stay with them and cure them also, they sent Him away as something strange and unknown that might change their self sufficient way of life (Luke 8:37).
So at this moment the pilgrim realizes that he is the cured demoniac of Gadara, and, released from his demons, he is sent now in the world to be a witness of the healing power of Jesus Christ “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (Luke 8:39).
He is however not alone because God has His people spread around the world; they are the salt of the earth. They are not perfect, as the monks are not perfect, but they share a deeper understanding of the purpose of life, their eyes have been open to paradise and that vision will stay with them and will motivate them despite the world around.
So the pilgrim continues his way into the world and as he fades into the horizon, swallowed by the crowd, one can distinctly hear him saying loud and clear: Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner. Amin.