For pilgrims of Orthodox Christianity, Ouranoupoli is the most-frequented harbor where a passage into the Holy Mountain can be made.
As one of the three peninsulas of the Halkidiki reaching elegantly into the northern Aegean, Mount Athos was the holy land of faith and spirituality, preserving the millennia-old monastic lifestyle till today. Reading about it from Paddy Fermor and Haruki Murakami, I felt the land as exotically appealing—in such a materialistic, globalized world as the one we are all in, how could the land of Mount Athos keep what it used to be today? More fundamentally, as a man born and bred with no religious faith, I often would wonder: what does spirituality look like in that world? It was in such meddlesome and curious spirit (what the Greeks called polypragmosyne and what the Romans referred to as curiositas)—a traditional, Greco-Roman pretext for encountering new worlds—that I determined to set out for Mount Athos.
But the bus took almost three hours to travel from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupoli, long enough for my excitement to wane. Heavy early morning traffic of Thessaloniki soon lulled me to sleep. At the bus stop before departure, I suspected that a couple of serious-looking male co-riders were also pilgrims to Mount Athos—I wanted to think of this bus as a “pilgrims’ shuttle” and my own pilgrimage as one of those cultural and spiritual “grand tours” where things have to go right. I was utterly wrong. After being awakened by a boisterous herd of beach-goers stepping on board with their full equipment, I found out that all those suspects got off long before I woke up. Disillusioned, I blamed those hedonists for ruining the scene, who must have been so ready for exposing themselves to the sun (rather than exposing their souls to God). Well, I don’t know. Maybe if I were not going to Mount Athos, I would have gone to a beach in the Halkidiki instead.
Ouranoupoli (Ουρανούπολη) means “the heavenly city”. How the city used to be heavenly I have no clue, but as for now, it is filled with means for one to enjoy earthly pleasures. Restaurants and taverns have their fancy menus written in seven languages so as to attract all tourists. Street vendors sell beach equipment. Beaches are packed with couples and families. Cruise companies offer ferry rides to the “Dream Island” beach resort nearby, and their tours around the Athonite peninsula allow tourists to check out the Holy Mountain from a distance. Only in this way can women legitimately interact with the Holy Mountain, for legend has it that no women have stepped onto Mount Athos after the visit of Virgin Mary herself. The main street of “the Heavenly City” is not unlike any other beach town in the entire Greece. Forming a juxtaposition with the city’s hustle-bustle, Mount Athos Pilgrims’ Bureau is tucked away at a quiet street corner, occupying one modest room and enjoying its loneliness. I was deeply confused. Again, reality failed my expectation—I found it difficult to settle my romanticized city-scape of Ouranoupoli as purely a pilgrim’s hub with what turned out to be its exact opposite.
After obtaining my diamoneteria—a visitor’s Visa that allows me to stay in the Holy Mountain for four days—at the Bureau, I walked back down the main street toward the harbor, going past things that only belong to this materialistic world one more time. Ouranoupoli is the last town of our secular world. No more Wi-Fi onward, no more beach resorts; only faith, and God. It withers all wind-flowers; it terminates all pleasures.
At the port where three or four cruises were waiting to depart for near-by islands, I stood at the other side where the ferry carries pilgrims to Dafni (Δάφνη), the entry point of Mount Athos. But there is no sign to indicate its use; just a dock, and nothing else. There I met a Greek man, shorter and stouter than I, and immediately distinguished him as a pilgrim by the calmness shown on his face. We started to talk, and he asked me about my name, my background, and my religious belief. I told him that I was a student of ancient history, interested in Athonite monasticism. As for the last question, a question that I would be asked quite a lot in the Holy Mountain, I admitted that I was an atheist, only here to experience spirituality, an element of life quite absent from the modern world. Then he said to me, with a concerned, sincere look, “You must listen, and ask whenever you do not understand.” His name was Stamatis.
He was a school bus driver in the Halkidiki. Now that the school was off, he was able to come to the Holy Mountain for a spiritual journey. “For how long do you plan to stay here?” “Well … maybe two weeks, maybe a month, I don’t know.” He answered.
Before long, the ferry came, with a flag of the Byzantine imperial double-headed eagle attached to the mast. I boarded the ferry after Stamatis, showed my diamoneteria, and entered this modest-looking speedboat, the tiny cabin of which could hardly hold more than twenty people. Apart from Stamatis and me, there were three Fathers, a porter, and some two or three other pilgrims.
“Stephane, do you want to sit by the window to see the view?” Stamatis waved his hand at me. Stephanos was my Greek name and I told him that because it would be easier for him to remember and relate to.
“Oh, it’s all right. You can take it if you want.” I answered.
“It’s all the same for me. I’ve seen this many times.”
“So how many times have you been here?” I asked.
“I first came here in 1999; I was twenty-eight by then.”
“So you mean that you have been coming every year since 1999?”
Eighteen consecutive years of pilgrimage to Mount Athos! What must the Holy Mountain have meant to him? Suddenly, accounts of dedicated annual pilgrimage that I had read about came alive, and leapt from my memory. I felt very thankful that I met this man on my passage into the holy land, as if I had met a saint already.
“What was your first visit to Mount Athos like?”
“I came here first after my father died. Then I for the first time knew Greek Orthodoxy and learned many things. So I became a Christian.” His English was very simple, but profound in a way.
“I used to live a very ‘happy’ life,” he continued. “I had many women, and all that. Then I came here. I came here and found a way of life that is very, very simple.” His lifestyle before his first pilgrimage must have been the contrary of simplicity, even a bit epicurean. But he spoke of his past without any feeling of shame or timidity. He was able to face his life candidly. As he told me that he came to Mount Athos immediately after his father’s death, I could even imagine that the young Stamatis was deeply perplexed, if not feeling hopeless, about his life. It must be this fundamental confusion about life that led him to the Holy Mountain in 1999.
“Have you ever considered to remain here in Mount Athos, and be a monk?” I asked.
“I have, when I was still young. But it was difficult, because I was thinking of something else.”
“What was that?”
“Uh … I was thinking about … having a family and all that.”
I peeked at his bare ring finger.
Then he told me that he came this time to the Monastery of Agiou Dionysiou primarily for confession.
“Confession is among the seven mysterious blessings of Orthodox Christianity. We believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the Father is Jesus Christ, and we are the Son. When we do wrong, our Father punishes us, but in a loving way. Then our Father Jesus Christ waits for the moment when we say “sorry”—not a superficial ‘I’m sorry’ and going on committing the same sin again and again, but kneeling down before the grace of Christ, and confessing.”
“Every four years, I came here to confess to a father at Agiou Dionysiou—that’s where I am staying later. I fall down in front of the father, and tell him about all of my sins that I committed in the past year. It’s not that I intended to sin, but everyone commits sins, you and I, and there’s nothing else you can do but confess.” He reached out his hands in the gesture of prayer—may God have mercy on us.
I listened as we sailed through the sea of deep Athonite blue, glittered in gold by the mid-summer sunshine. Legend has it that the sea around Mount Athos could constantly incur some of the strangest tides, a trouble for seafarers for almost three thousand years. But I could see none of it from the calmness that stretched to the end of horizon. God would never invoke ill-fated disturbance onto the holy land, I thought, especially when faithful people like Stamatis supplicated themselves in front of Him for protection and forgiveness. Faith would cure everything.
“When you need to confess, you find a priest to do so, because he is able to exchange messages between you and Jesus Christ. When you express your problems and confess your sins, he gives you advice on behalf of God’s authority. It’s not like what they do in America, where people go and find a … what do you call them, Stephane? … a psychiatrist. You say what problems you have, and the psychiatrist tells you what to do and what medicine you take. No! Confession is not like that. A psychiatrist has no authority—no one gives his authority, and he does not care for you. God cares for every one of His sons. He forgives all sins, and sends Jesus Christ to save us. You will cry, cry Stephane, in front of the priest after confession, because you feel His love is too strong, too strong for you to hold it. God always gives you a chance to live it right.”
I was stunned by this spiritual power.
Dafni was already in sight. I planned to get off there, but Stamatis would sail forth. We had to bid farewell.
“Stephane!” he caught my full attention when he was busy searching for something deep inside his backpack. I wouldn’t by any means accept any gift from him, so “No gift Stamatis, no gift.” I said.
“No no gift! Just an ice-cream! I bought some ice-cream in Ouranoupoli and you can have one!” I smiled. Ice-cream, sure.
But when the boat anchored, poor Stamatis still didn’t find the ice-cream. “Go to Dionysiou in two or three days and find me there.” Stamatis said. “I’m going to Pavlou today and then Dionysiou. I give you my phone number so you can call me.”
Thus, I stepped onto the land of the Holy Mountain, with Stamatis’ number, his teaching, and his blessings.
Dafni is exactly the opposite of Ouranoupoli—compared to the feverish atmosphere and excessive existence of material pleasure, Dafni could not be quieter and simpler. In fact, it only gets busy once a day for two hours in the late morning when pilgrims hop on and off boats to and from here and there. A custom office, a post office, two docks, a snack bar, a parking lot, and nothing more.
If Ouranoupoli is the terminal for all earthly pleasures, Dafni is where monastic simplicity begins. Between the two worlds was a ferry ride, with Stamatis and his eighteen years of continuous spiritual journey back and forth, weaving the two worlds together.
July 4, 2017 drafted in the Monastery of Agiou Andreas, Mount Athos
July 12, 2017 revised in Parma
May 2, 2019 revised again in Northfield, MN
Cover image: Mount Athos seen from Iviron Monastery at dusk.