For all pilgrims, Ouranoupoli is the most-frequented harbor where a passage into the Holy Mountain can be made.
The bus took almost three hours to get from Thessaloniki to Ouranoupoli, a time long enough for anyone’s excitement to wane by much. Before departing Thessaloniki, I suspected that a couple of seriously-looking male co-riders were also going on their pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain, thus thinking of this bus as a “pilgrims’ shuttle;” I was utterly wrong. After being awakened by a herd of beach-goers with their full equipment, I found out that all those suspects got off before I woke up. Now I have to deal with those boisterous hedonists who must have oiled their entire body in preparation for exposing themselves to the sun (rather than exposing their souls to the truth). 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 means the “Heavenly City” (Ουρανούπολη in modern Greek, and Οὐρανούπολις in ancient Greek). How the city used to be heavenly I have no clue, but as for now, it is filled with means of all kinds and great variety for one to enjoy earthly pleasures. Restaurants and taverns have their fancy menus written in seven languages so as to attract all who surrender themselves to their appetites. Small shops sell beach equipment. Beaches are packed with girls in Bikini, whose lack of clothes makes one wonder the meaning of them keeping the rest insignificant pieces. Cruise companies offer ferry service to the “Dream Island” nearby and tours around the Athonite peninsula solely for tourists to check out the mountain from a distance – only in this way can ladies legitimately interact with the Holy Mountain, and I don’t think modern feminists would appreciate this idea of traveling. Indeed, those were what the main street of the “Heavenly City” comprised of. Forming a juxtaposition with the city’s hustle-bustle, Mount Athos Pilgrims’ Bureau is tucked away, occupying one modest room and enjoying its loneliness in a street corner. But among many beach towns in the Halkidiki, Ouranoupoli is lively and special all year long exactly because of those pilgrims of the Holy Mountain from all over the world. I was deeply confused.
After obtaining my Διαμονητήρια – my Visa to the Holy Mountain – I walked back down the main street toward the harbor, going through things that only belong to this world one more time. As farthest as one can possibly get, Ouranoupoli is the last town of our secular world. No more Wi-Fi onward, no more beaches, no more women; only faith and God rule. It withers all wind-flowers; it terminates all pleasures.
At the port where three or four boats were waiting to depart for bear-by islands, I stood at the other side where ferry carries pilgrims to Dafni (Δάφνη, the entry point of Mount Athos) but no signs indicate its use whatsoever. There I met a Greek man, shorter and stouter than I, and immediately distinguished himself 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. As for the last question, a question that I will be asked quite a lot in the Holy Mountain, I admitted that I am an atheist. He then said to me, with a very concerned yet sincere look, “you must listen, and ask whenever you do not understand.” His name was Stamatis (Σταμάτης).
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 did you plan to stay here?” “Well … maybe two weeks, maybe a month, I don’t know.” He answered.
“Stephane, do you want to sit by the window to see the view?” Stephanus (Στέφανος, meaning “crown” in ancient Greek) was a name that workmen in my last archaeology project gave me, and I told him that because it would be easier for him to remember and relate to.
“Oh it’s alright.” I answered.
“It’s all the same for me. I’ve seen this for many times.”
“How many times have you been here?” I asked in amazement.
“I first came here in 1999; I was born in 1972; I was twenty-eight by then.”
“So you mean that you have been coming every year since 1999?”
“Wow!” I cried out in my heart. Eighteen consecutive years of pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain! What must the Holy Mountain have meant to him! I was very thankful that I met this man on my passage into the holy land, as if I have 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.” His English was very simple, but mysteriously 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 life before his first visit must have exemplified the very contrary of simplicity, even a bit of a YOLO. But he spoke of his past wantonness and other pleasurable things without feeling either shame or timidity. He was able to face his life candidly. I can even imagine when he told that he came to Mount Athos immediately after his father’s death, the young Stamatis was deeply perplexed, if not feeling hopeless, about his life. It must be this fundamental confusion that led him to the Holy Mountain in 1999.
“Have you ever considered to stay here in Mount Athos, and be a monk?”
“I have, when I was still young. But it (the decision) 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 left ring finger, and understood that things did not work out in the way he wanted.
Then he told me that he came this time to Monastery of Agiou Dionysiou (Μόνη Ἁγίου Διονυσίου, a monastery on the southwest coast of the Athonite peninsula) 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 lovingly 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 to knee down before the grace of Christ, and confess.
“Every four years, I came here to confess to a father in 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 years. It’s not that I intended to sin, but everyone commits sins, you and I, and there’s nothing you can do but confess.” He reached out his hands in the gesture of prayer – may God bless and have mercy on us.
“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? … 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. 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 planed to get off here, 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 the poor man still has not found the ice-cream. “It’s fine.” I said. “Go to Dionysiou in two or three days and find me there. I’m going to Pavlou (Μόνη Ἁγίου Παύλου, another monastery on the southwest coast of the peninsula, even more to the south of Dionysiou) today. I give you my phone number in case you need to call me.”
Thus I stepped onto the land of the Holy Mountain, with Stamatis’ number, his teachings, and his blessings.
Dafni is exactly to the opposite of Ouranoupoli – compared to the feverish atmosphere and excessive existence of 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. There were a custom office, a post office, two docks, a snack bar, two or three souvenir stores, a public toilet, a parking lot, and nothing more.
If Ouranoupoli is the terminal for all pleasures, Dafni is where monastic simplicity begins. Between the two worlds was a ferry ride, with Stamatis and his eighteen years of continuous pilgrimage back and forth weaving the two world together.
4-7-17 drafted in the Monastery of Agiou Andreas, Mount Athos
12-7-17 revised in Rome
19-7-17 revised again in Parma
Cover image: Mount Athos seen from Iviron Monastery at dusk.