I am no Orthodox Christian, and I am not particularly Catholic either. But I am however curious, so in November of this year I took a friend up on his unusual offer of helping at the olive harvest on Mount Athos.
My friend warned me: "This will be no holiday, just so you know. Getting up before daybreak for Morning Prayer is compulsory, one and a half hours on Sunday and a little shorter on weekdays. And Evensong is at sunset every day!"
Athos, that legendary Mount of monks near Chalkidike (further information on Agios Oros and the telephone number of the cloisters can be found at here), where for more that 1000 years Byzantine and later Orthodox fellow Christians searched in isolation for the way to the lord; where in its peak moments in the 14th century 300 cloisters housed 40,000 monks; where to this day women are forbidden from entering and men require a personal visa – My friend needn't have asked twice.
On this half-island in the Aegean sea, the monk Panteleimon lives, even for such circumstances as are found in Athos, in particular isolation, in a kellion, a sort of outpost of the famous Serbian Cloister of Chelander that was badly damaged in a fire two years ago. Father Panteleimon grows his own vegetables, makes his own wine, crafts beeswax candles in winter and lives from the olives that are yielded from the groves, which have grown around his Kellion for centuries.
Twelve monks used to manage this area and it is enormous: the 58-year-old padre has wrested 2000 olive trees from the densely wooded wilderness time and time again, and for five weeks in late autumn each year he struggles with 30 to 40 tonnes of fruit, which in the traditional way must be beaten from the trees with wooden sticks, caught in nets, collected, separated from the leaves and brought by ship to the secular frontier town of Ouranopolis, where an almost celestial, natural oil is pressed out of them.
Not even with the help of God could one man manage this alone. But the Father has some good friends in Austria, in Germany, where ha was born, and in Serbia and Croatia, whose refugees he took in during the Balkan war. There is no remunerative pay for these helpers, but in exchange they are included in the daily evening prayer, they receive a bed, three simple meals a day as well as being guaranteed a good nights sleep after nine hours of hard graft.
In particular, pencil pushers such as me sleep like rocks, because no fitness centre in the world could prepare a city-dweller for something like this: the long stick has to be carried above your head, requiring both strength and direction, and whilst the last dark shiny olives patter like heavy rain on the ground, it is already time to start gathering them with nets, cleaning them out and boxing them up. And then it's on to the next tree. The first blisters on your hand appear quickly, and you ask yourself, what on earth you are doing here, as a guest in this very different life led by Father Panteleimon, who just laughs whimsically from underneath his beard and stands on his olive ladder like – forgive me, padre – Father Christmas on his way up the chimney.
Sunday Morning Prayer before sunrise: shortly before half past five, the clear ring of a bell can be heard above the rush of the surf. The padre summons us to prayer in the chapel. Half-asleep and frozen with cold, we pad into the small room lit only by oil lamps. A good hundred icons look austerely down on upon us from their pictures on the walls and see to it that nobody falls asleep standing up. Father Panteleimon prays loudly in German, ancient Slavonic and ancient Greek. They are lyrics that I have never heard before, extraordinary speech melodies that fascinate me, as does the sight of the agelessly sable Father facing away from me, who only yesterday was able to tell very worldly jokes at dinner, but who now in the glow of the small reading candles seems like an unearthly visitor from the middle ages.
After a never-ending half hour, thoughts begin to wander: to the blisters on our hands, to family, to the life back home that is so far away. It becomes much quieter in my head, as if all of the many, often hectic experiences from the last months that have been buzzing around have finally found their place. And then I have to smile: it is astonishing! Whereas day-to-day at home I scamper after every lost minute, here I suddenly find lots of time for me in a place that I would never have found by myself. Thank you Father! And thank you my friend!
Just a small, but important final disgression: the Serbian Athos-Cloister of Chelander went up in flames a few years ago due to a defect in one of the chimneys. The fire devoured the old ruins, unsound joists burned like tinder and the monks were able to save from the pricelessly valuable chapel only the most important items and whatever they could grab in the thick smoke. The fire destroyed a large part of the fantastic building that one can imagine to have been just as spectacular as the wizard school Hogwarts.
As part of the conservation of the old structure of the ruins, the monks are at present attempting to reconstruct the cloister, an enormously laborious and expensive task. Immigrant workers from Serbia labour all summer, sometimes gratuitously, to save the only Serbian Orthodox Cloister on the island. In brief: Chelandar continuously needs help. Donations can be made to Father Panteleimons account that is set up in Germany (Kreissparkasse Freudenstadt, Branch no. 64251060, Acc.no.: 238281; BIC: SOLADES1FDS, IBAN: DE87642510600000238281).
Oh, one more thing: It is repeatedly said that not only women but also any female being is forbidden on Agios Oros, Holy Mount Athos. Only icon painting monks are officially permitted to hold chickens, because they require the yolk for their special colours. In practice, this rule is not so strictly controlled. To quote Padre Panteleimon: "Ultimately, I cannot keep the birds from landing on the trees on Athos and building their nests there, can I..?"
And so Panteleimon also took this stray mother cat and her young into his heart. "I had a simple earthly choice: Either mice and snakes, or these cats...."