The Monk Who Got Married

 

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“A monk in a Romanian village got rid of his monastic ‘habit’ (ie. Orthodox monastic clothing), left his monastery and got married. He became a father, many years passed by, and eventually the time of his repose came. His family and relatives washed his body, clothed him, said prayers, made all necessary arrangements at the graveyard and the church, and made an appointment with the local priest to come at their home and read the service of the funeral. When the priest arrived at the appointed time, he found the house empty. Nobody was there. He went upstairs and found the dead person all alone. The priest was wondering what had happened. Suddenly he heard heavy footsteps at the stairway. He turned and saw a huge bear. The bear spoke to him and said: “Why did you come here? So that you will say prayers about him? This man was a monk who renounced his monastic schema. No matter how many prayers you will say about him, this one is mine.” At these words, the bear took the body of the dead man and disappeared! Then the priest’s eyes were opened and he saw all the people in the room, around the dead man, crying over him. The priest was in shock. When he recovered after some time, he asked the people around him to take him back home, and he did not stay to read the funeral service. Back at his home, he told everything to his matushka and asked her permission to go to Mount Athos and become a monk. He lived the rest of his life there with asceticism and profound repentance.”

*

* A true story told by another Romanian Hieromonk, + Papa Methodios Karyotis (Koutloumousianon Kellion Agion Theodoron, Mount Athos) (1905-1979). Papa Methodios met in person the Romanian priest who was called to do the funeral service for “the monk who got married” but could not after the vision he saw at his corpse, and became himself a hieromonk at Mount Athos;  he heard the story from his lips.

 

Source: From the Ascetic and Hesychastic Tradition of Mount Athos,

A collection of stories by the Monastery of St John the Forerunner, pp132-137.

The author(s) of this book chose out of humility to remain anonymous, but ‘rumour’ has it that  this collection of brief true stories is a joint authorship by St. Paisios of Mount Athos, Elder Euphemios, Karoulia, and Elder Gregorios, the spiritual father of the Monastery of St John the Forerunner, and St. Paisios’ spiritual child and tonsure.

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The Little Orphan

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The Little Orphan

an autobiographical poem

by St. John Jacob (the Romanian)

Blessed John (Jacob) of Neamts, the New Chozebite

“the child of zero” who “followed the One”*

 

Resurrection Day!

The bells are ringing!

Old men sit at their verandas,

Others are at their doorsteps.

 

The young and the children

Go out in their best clothes

To meet their friends at the church

Of the cemetery.

 

This mystical fragrance

Of the Holy Feast!

They take it in … like incense,

From herbs and flowers.

 

The Fields are robed

In a beautiful dress

And everything looks now

Renewed on the earth.

 

Near the Holy Altar

Of the wooden church

A little child offers

Candles and oil.

 

He kisses the Holy Cross

In front of the fresh tomb

And kneels crying

With sighs.

 

When the bells are ringing

In a jubilant tone

Near the Cross the little orphan

Sheds tears with pain.

 

Suddenly, while absorbed in his tears

And his deep sighs,

At the ringing of the bells

A sweet voice he hears :

 

“Cry Not, my child, today

Feel not sad, because, look!

By your side am I

Christ is Risen!”

 

Was this his mother’s voice

Coming from the tomb

His sadness to dispel

From his broken bosom?

 

Immediately the orphan

Rises and ecstatically looks up,

Searching to find

Who was speaking to him.

 

Then, from the Altar most Holy

By the smoked wall

He sees the Risen Christ

Sweetly smiling to him.

 

His little heart is lit

His face calms

His pain leaves him

And such is his mind:

 

“If I see here

The Risen Lord

Then my mother too

Is risen with Him.”

 

Speaking thus to his mind

Humbly he bows

And kissing the tomb

Returns to his ‘home’!

 

Alone, lonely, he lives

At his earthly lodgings,

His poor father

Died at the war.

 

Often at nights he sleeps

By the tomb with them.

Crying in the morning he returns

Back to the deserted house.

 

But the bells ring!

Again at the cemetery

His mother’s voice

Is heard to say:

 

“Cry not, my child, today

Do not be sad,

Because, lo, I am with you

Christ is Risen!”

 

Since then our little orphan

Stopped sighing.

And whenever the bells ring

His heart is consoled!

 

* A Hermit from the Holy Land with complete Incorruptible Relics at the monastery of St. George Choziba! He was a great ascetic and a poet. He called himself “the child of zero” who “followed the One”. After his all night- vigils, he would briefly rest in the verandah of the monastery and write his so moving poetry, sadly not translated yet in English.
* The painting is by the Serbian artist Uroš Predić, Siroče (Orphan), oil on canvas, 1888. National Museum

Monastery of St. George of Choziba

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When you first catch a glimpse of the magical St. George’s Monastery in the Judean desert, the Desert Fathers’ Wisdom is brought to life in its uncompromising, breathtaking asceticism. This amazing cliff-hanging monastery, one of the world’s oldest and definitely one of the most inspiring churches in the Holy Land, is a must-see for the desert / archeological fans  / devout Pilgrims.

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St. George Orthodox Monastery, or Monastery of St. George of Choziba is a monastery located in Wadi Qelt, in the eastern West Bank, in the occupied territories. The sixth-century cliff-hanging complex, with its ancient chapel and gardens, is active and inhabited by Eastern Orthodox monks. It is reached by a pedestrian bridge across Wadi Qelt, which many believe to be Psalm 23’s Valley of the Shadow. The valley parallels the old Roman road to Jericho, the backdrop for the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). 

Here’s some beautiful aerial video footage to give you a taste of the area around St. George’s Monastery…

 

St George’s Monastery can be reached via the main Jerusalem – Dead Sea highway (Road 1). Take a left at Mitzpeh Jericho (or a right if you’re coming from Jericho) and follow the brown signs for Wadi Kelt. You can hike the Wadi all the way to the monastery but it will take lots of hours of arduous trekking in the desert under the blazing sun!  Up and down, for hours, a windy path! Not so easy for seniors or people with disabilities, but there are usually plenty of locals offering their donkeys for the ride (at a cost of course).

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Check out the clip below for a real taste of the walk to St George’s Monastery … When I look at these photographs or watch the videos, I cannot believe I did all this walking!

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St. George’s Monastery was originally started in the fourth century by a few monks who were looking to immerse themselves in the lifestyles and desert stories of  John the Baptist and Jesus. The monks, and perhaps most notably the hermit John of Thebes, eventually settled on the spot around a cave where it is believed the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:5-6). The traditions attached to the monastery include a visit by Elijah en route to the Sinai Peninsula, and St. Joachim, whose wife Anne was infertile, weeping here when an angel announced to him the news of Mary’s conception.

 

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The monastery became an important spiritual centre in the sixth century under Saint George of Choziba. Hermits living in caves in nearby cliffs would meet in the monastery for a weekly mass and communal meal.John of Thebes became a hermit and moved from Egypt to Syria Palaestina. The monastery was named St. George after the most famous monk who lived at the site. Destroyed in 614 A.D. by the Persians, the monastery was more or less abandoned after the Persians swept through the valley and massacred the fourteen monks who dwelt there. The bones and skulls of the martyred monks killed by the Persians in 614 A.D. can still be seen today in the monastery chapel. These 3000 and more martyrs’ relics are so alive that during their Supplication canon every week an exquisite fragrance and raw smell of fresh slaughtered blood are alternately exuded from them!

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Monastery of Saint George

The Crusaders made some attempts at restoration in 1179. However, it fell into disuse after their expulsion. In 1878, a Greek monk, Kallinikos, settled here and restored the monastery, finishing it in 1901. Father Germanos, born Georgios Tsibouktzakis, who came from Thessaloniki, Greece, to St George’s in 1993 and lived there until he was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 2001, was for many years the sole occupant of the monastery, he was named Abbot in 2000. Emulating the Wadi Qelt monks of late antiquity, Father Germanos offered hospitality to visitors, improved the stone path used by pilgrims to climb up to the monastery, repaired the aqueducts, and improved the gardens of shade and olive trees.

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This is probably the most stunning discovery in the monastery: St. John Jacob (the Romanian) – a Hermit from the Holy Land with complete Incorruptible Relics! He was a great ascetic and a poet. He called himself “the child of zero” who “followed the One”. After his all night- vigils, he would briefly rest in the verandah of the monastery and write his so moving poetry, sadly not translated yet in English. In the next days I plan to translate and post here some of his most moving autobiographical poems. This Saint is famous for his miracles, from the discovery of his relics to nowadays.

This discovery was even more stunning for me personally because my spiritual father had introduced him to me the last day before flying from Lancaster to Greece and then to Tel Aviv. He also gave me a tiny piece of a secondary relic of him. What a ‘coincidence’! I knew nothing about him, other than his name, and then a brief google search, and here I found him most alive and incorruptible! 

Greek Orthodox St. George of Koziba Monastery in Wadi QeltMonastery_of_St._George_of_Choziba_27Monastery_of_St._George_of_Choziba_31

 

Let me close with Archimandrite Konstandinos, a holy Elder, very special in his hospitality and famous for his clairvoyance gifts.

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For more photographs, go here

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Monastery-of-St-George

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Land Pilgrimage: Bethlehem

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Bethlehem! The birthplace of our Lord and Savior and the cradle of biblical history. Bethlehem (Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶםBet Lehem, [bet ˈleχem], “House of Bread”) is located five and half miles from Jerusalem. No town in the world has such a glorious history as Bethlehem. Our Elders together with a number of Holy Land Hieromonks offer a Holy Liturgy at the Church of the Nativity. 

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A Greek Orthodox Church, which has been built over the birthplace of Our Lord by the Emperor Justinian and is over 1,500 years old. It is the second oldest Orthodox Church in existence. It was not destroyed by the Persians, as they saw a mosaic of the Magi dressed in Persian wear over the front door. Words cannot communicate what we experienced in venerating and touching the actual ground where Jesus was born. A few feet away is the Holy Manger. 

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Where is Bethlehem?
 
Micah 5:
 
    2 “ But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 
      Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, 
      Yet out of you shall come forth to Me 
      The One to be Ruler in Israel, 
      Whose goings forth are from of old, 
      From everlasting.”
“I am the Life” Our Saviour said
 
Where is the house of Living bread?
 
Where does this birth of new life start?
 
The chamber of a loving heart
 
Is Bethlehem.
 St.Athanasius of Alexandria (On the Incarnation, 54): “For He was made man that we might be made God (divine)”
Sunday of the Righteous Forefathers 2009 JAH (Fr. Jonathan Hemmings)

The Same to Us | Kai Sta Dika Mas

memory eternal

At St. John the Forerunner Women’s Monastery at Metamorfosi, Chalkidiki — at a nun’s funeral

“Και στα δικά μας” [“kai sta dika mas”] (*)

(*) (cf. Gerondas Gregorios’ word in the end)

Sister Episteme, +22 Friday September 2017, the day of our visit, reposed in the Lord on the eve of the Conception of St. John the Baptist, the patron Saint of her monastery, and her spiritual father, Gerondas Gregorios prayed together with her as she was leaving her last breath. Sister Episteme, 60 years old, 34 years a nun, felt her end approaching in the morning and asked her relatives who were visiting the monastery to take her on a last walk on her wheel chair giving them detailed instructions and blessing every corner of the monastery yard, churches and buildings. + Memory Eternal

*

Gerondissa Emmeleia, Sister Episteme’s mother in flesh, became also a nun in the same monastery immediately after she became a widow, after her husband’s 40 day Memorial Service.  She had 5 children, 2 of which became nuns, Sister Episteme and Sister Christonymfi,  and one a married priest, Father Nikolaos. The last decade of her life she led a most holy, hidden ascetic life in silence and obedience and reposed in the Lord last Easter Sunday. + Memory Eternal

 

Gladdening Sorrow-Χαρμολύπη

 

Eleni, Sister Episteme’s lay sister, a kind, meek mother and grandmother, always caring first for others and never for herself, smiling radiantly, with courage, even when her sister was laid in the tomb: ” I feel such bright sorrow in my heart today!”

Surrendering Unconditionally

 

Tatiani: a pilgrim who tried for some time to become a nun in the monastery but gave up in the end.

– “What was the most difficult thing in monastic life? What made you ‘give up’?” 

– “The fact that I could not surrender entirely to God’s Will and to do obedience in everything. I wanted to control my life, to have my opinions, to be in charge. A visa problem emerged, future was uncertain. If I “gambled” all my life and stayed in the monastery as a novice, I might jeopardised both citizenships, Greek and …, and ended up a refugee at God’s Mercy, God knows where. I did not have such ‘craziness’. The fasts, the long prayers, the vigils were difficult of course. One would get bored, tired, hungry, sleepy, but gradually, if one persists, one gets used to them, and grows spiritually. That was not really difficult. But cutting your will and having the guts to give up everything for Christ, and surrendering unconditionally, this has made all the difference. I could not do this.”

*

Presbytera (ie. a priest’s wife) Theodora with 9 children, suffering from lupus:

“Unless one surrenders unconditionally, reaches even the point of becoming a fool for Christ, one way or another, living only for Him, and loving Him more than his family and himself, God’s Grace is never revealed in all His Power in his life. Most people around him of course will not understand him, and think that he is really crazy, but they do not care about what the world thinks of them. They only want to follow Him. Sister Episteme surrendered unconditionally to Him all her life, and especially in her illness. And in just 9 months God granted her his Kingdom.

*

 

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(*) Gerondas Gregorios wishing to me after the funeral: “May the Lord help you. “Και στα δικά μας” [“kai sta dika mas”] (Approximate translation of this wish is “the same to us” In Greece this is a  reply to a well wisher in a very specific context, a traditional return gesture of good wishes, but more than that it is specific to the occasion. It most likely refers to an engagement or a wedding. The reply means: may good wishes accompany you when you also find yourself engaged or married or something similar ‘τα δικά σου’ – your (day of celebration).  Actually it is an encouragement to follow the same route, wished to an unmarried guest in a joyous occassion, namely a wedding or engagement.  There is a lugubrious exception, when this wish is said after the death of a monk in Mountain Athos or monasteries in general in Greece.

 

+ Memory Eternal!

 

 

A Spiritual Father’s Blessing

 

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Back to Greece  

Holy Monastery of the Honorable Forerunner,

Metamorfosis Village, Chalkidiki

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Before the little city hermit’s  Pilgrimage to Holy Land

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To receive the blessing (ευλογία) of 

St. John the Forerunner

St. Paisios the Athonite

Gerondas Gregorios’, St. Paisios’ tonsure

Gerondissa Eythymia

and + Sister Episteme

Memory Eternal!
22/09/2017

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In a Grave For Three Years

The monasteries of Mt. Athos are hundreds of years old, and hundreds and thousands of monks have ended their earthly lives in them. But where are all of the graves of the reposed? Can it really be that the monks just don’t consider it necessary to take care to preserve the memory of their deceased brothers?

Purity of soul

Anyone that visits Mt. Athos’ monasteries will notice two peculiar things: first, even large monasteries have small cemeteries with only a few wooden crosses mounted in the ground; second, the oldest burials in these cemeteries are, at best, twenty or so years old. But how could that be?

First of all, let’s take note of the fact that Athonite monks are usually always buried on Mt. Athos itself. However, it does sometimes happen though that an Athonite monk due to various circumstances may end up living in another monastery outside of Mt. Athos and thus will be buried there instead. For example, at the Danilov cemetery in Moscow can be found the revered grave of the Athonite monk Aristoklis (Amvrosiev), who for many years had presided over the Athonite metochion in Moscow and thus was buried in Moscow after he reposed. However, any monk that reposes on Mount Athos, even if he had come to the Holy Mountain from another country for the first time, is not taken to his homeland to be buried, but is buried at the same Athos monastery in which he had reposed.

To repose on the Holy Mountain, in fact, is actually considered a kind of recognition of the deceased’s righteousness and almost a guarantee of the salvation of his soul. An Athonite monk of our time, hieromonk Gabriel, would always say, “What a joy it is to die on Athos! Here, the Mother of God herself meets the monk after his death, guiding his soul on its way from Earth to Heaven…”

On Mt. Athos, according to tradition, the burial of the deceased is preceded by a special rite. Also, the deceased monk’s clothes will not be changed and neither will his body be washed before burial. On the one hand, proper hygiene is, of course, always maintained; on the other, too much care for the body and health in general is considered an unnecessary occupation, not worthy of a monk’s time. And in fact, this manner of burial is not exactly something unique to Athonite monasticism. For example, in the “Monastic Rite of Burial” we read the following: “When a monk reposes in the Lord, it is not appropriate for his body to be washed or be seen unclad.”

The deceased instead will first be clothed in a “schema” and his head will be covered with a “koukoulion” (attire worn by schemamonks). Afterwards, a cassock is sewn over the body, serving as a coffin for the deceased, and an icon of the Holy Virgin Mary is placed on his chest. It’s worth noting that usually during burial procedure the icon of the Virgin Mary is only given to women, while men are given the icon of the Savior. But, since Mt. Athos is considered to be a place where the Mother of God is especially present, and according to belief, is the first to meet the souls of the deceased, the funeral traditions that have formed here are unique.

Generally burial takes place on Mount Athos on the day of death and without a coffin, so that the body may return unto the ground as soon as possible. Such a burial practice is actually common in many religions and cultures. In particular, Abrahamic religions adhere to this rule in accordance with the words that God addressed to Adam before his exile from Paradise: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:19).

After the customary prayer rule is read, the deceased monk is carried by his fellow brethren to his place of rest and is buried. Afterwards, on top of the grave the brethren mount a low four-pointed wooden cross on which, using simple paint, is made the most concise inscription: the name of the monk and the date of his death.

Stone after stone

It should be noted that the Athonite grave, that is, the very ground that the body is buried under, is much different than it is elsewhere. For example, the ground in Russia, which is mostly flatland, does not share in common any of the burial-related problems that inhabitants of the Mediterranean and other mountainous areas face. In Russia, the usual environment where the body of the deceased is placed is usually a homogeneous, soft, crumbly mass: at best, it is soil or sand; at worst—clay. On Mount Athos however there is nothing of the sort. Mt. Athos is all stone. Sometimes the ground is just a single stone mass, but more often it consists of cobblestones and large gravel. Soil on Mount Athos is in deficit even more than wood is. Therefore, agriculture on the peninsula is practically absent—there are no appropriate conditions for it. By the way, some time ago in the past, the Russian Panteleimon monastery on Mt. Athos had soil delivered to it by sea so that the monks, despite harsh conditions, would nonetheless be able to plant a few gardens. During our trip we happened to see some monasteries that had a bit of farmland, which at best had a few dozen rows of cabbages and some kind of gourds. The largest garden we saw was at the Great Lavra monastery, which had about 40 yards of land. And, no doubt, the soil for this garden was also brought from elsewhere, for the ground around the monastery is mostly all stone. As for the ground of the surrounding roads, it is either siliceous or consists of dense red soil resembling something like grated brick.

Now let’s take a look at the following scenario: a monk in one of the Athonite monasteries reposes in the Lord. In order to bury him, the brethren of the monastery have to urgently fulfill an extremely laborious obedience—prepare the place of burial for their deceased brother. Let us not forget that the deceased, according to monastic customs, are buried as soon as possible, usually on the very day of their death. Little by little, or rather, stone by the stone, the hardworking monks, with their shovels ringing, dig through the rough terrain of Mt. Athos. Finally, the grave is complete and the body of the deceased brother is gently placed within. But now what? Will they really fill the grave back up with all those stones and boulders they just dug up?! Of course not—for a cause such as this they can’t find enough soil. Now let us again keep in mind the deficit of soil on Mt. Athos, as this circumstance will soon help us understand the reason behind other important burial customs on the Holy Mountain.

With the grave now covered and topped off with a small mound of earth, and the wooden cross with its inscription mounted in place, the burial is complete. Now, here is the incomprehensible part of the procedure to one who is not familiar with Athonite burial customs: In just three years’ time the grave will be dug up, and the deceased brother’s bones will never again return to their former place of rest!

On Mt. Athos, a monastery brotherhood prays for newly-reposed monks with especial assiduousness. For the first 40 days, the entire brotherhood of the monastery reads the customary prayer rule for the reposed, repeating it according to the amount of knots on their prayer ropes. Also, in memory of the reposed monk, the monastery prepares “kolivo” (also called “kutia” in Russia), a ritual memorial dish which consists of some grain such as wheat, rye, oat, or rice, as well as honey, raisins and nuts. Furthermore, for the following three years the deceased is commemorated at every Liturgy during the proskomedia. Now bearing in mind that the Divine Liturgy in the monasteries is served daily, this means that the deceased monk receives commemoration every day and for quite a long time. Finally, the name of the deceased is also recorded in a special memorial monastery book, the so-called “Kuvaras”, which bears record of the names of all the deceased monks that have lived in the monastery from the time of its very foundation. For example, the “Kuvaras” of the Great Lavra monastery, read during special memorial days, has been recording the names of its brethren to this very day since the 10th century!

The ossuary

After three years have passed, the grave of the newly-reposed monk is carefully dug up and the brethren now examine the remains of the deceased to see what state they are in. If the soft tissues of the body are not completely decomposed yet, the grave will be covered up in likewise manner and the following procedure will be repeated again until it is clear that only the bones remain. By the way, according to Athonite tradition, a body that is not “accepted by the earth”, i.e., doesn’t decompose, is regarded as a sign that the monk did not make the effort to lead a proper monastic way of life and that his soul has not found rest in Heaven. In such case, the entire brotherhood begins to pray even more diligently, beseeching the Lord for the forgiveness of sins and purification of their fellow brother’s soul.

If the bones of the deceased are completely free from flesh (and this, under the Athos climate, while also taking into account the terrain, occurs most often in just about three years), they are taken out of the grave, and after being thoroughly washed with water and wine are transferred to the ossuary, which is a building that resembles a chapel and is usually located somewhere nearby, outside the walls of the monastery. As for the empty grave, it’s now ready to grant rest for another three years to someone else after his repose.

So now we know how Mt. Athos manages to solve the problem of soil deficit and why there are so few graves in the cemeteries of these ancient monasteries. As it turns out, there can’t possibly be too many graves, as there is a constant “rotation” going on that many at first aren’t aware of.

Now an ossuary is, in essence, a crypt. But the peculiarity of this crypt lies in the fact that the deceased, or rather, their remains, are not hidden there, but are in plain sight: the skulls are lined up in rows along the shelves, while the other bones are neatly laid right on the floor along the walls. The names of the monks and the date of their death are usually found written on each skull. Here is how the well-known Russian writer Boris Zaitsev, who visited Mount Athos at the beginning of the 20th century, described the ossuary of the Skete of Saint Andrew: “The ossuary of St. Andrew’s Skete is a rather large, secluded and well-lit room on an underground floor. Inside the ossuary is found a cupboard with five human skulls. On each is inscribed a name and a date. These were the abbots of the skete. Then on the shelves lay the skulls (about seven hundred) of ordinary monks, which also have inscriptions. And, finally, what to me seemed most incredible—small bones (the hands and feet) were neatly put together in stacks near the wall, reaching up almost to the ceiling. All this was done with the most profound care that is inherent to this kind of burial tradition. It seemed to me that the only thing missing from this whole picture was a monk that would spend time here keeping record of things and compiling biographies of the reposed brethren. There is some literature present here as well. On the wall here, by the way, hangs a saying that the brethren themselves composed: “Remember, O brethren, that we were once like you, and you will once become like us.”

Thus, in such a manner do the Athonite monks lay at rest after reposing in the Lord, with the ossuary basically serving them as a common mass grave. It’s also worth noting that on Athos it is thought that the color of the skull of a reposed monk is a sure sign of whether or not the monk’s life was well-pleasing to God. Thus, according to this belief, the skulls of the righteous have a beautiful yellowish shade—they look as though they are emitting light, and, sometimes even produce a sweet-smelling scent; the monks that have honestly carried out their monastic vows have white-colored skulls; and a dark colored skull, on the other hand, signifies that the judgment of the departed monk’s soul due to his sins did not have a positive outcome. The last case, however, is quite rare on Mt. Athos.

Mt. Athos’ ossuaries are never locked. Any inhabitant of the monastery can at any time can enter the ossuary and in solitude reflect on the transience of life. Looking at the bones of monks whom one once knew, or of those who had reposed centuries ago, it is unlikely that one would not come to the thought that they themselves will one day also find rest here along with their fellow brethren. Now that is truly something to ponder for the monk… However, monks do not at all fear ending up here in this gloomy house of bones, knowing for certain that there is no need to fear death, for it has already been defeated by the Risen Christ!

Yuri Ryabinin

7/7/2017