In a remote part of northeastern Greece, three peninsulas, each thirty or so miles long, reach into the Aegean Sea like the bony fingers of a hand. On the tip of one of these is Mount Athos, often referred to as the Holy Mountain. Living around Mount Athos are about 2300 monks, most of who live in one of twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries or in one of the thirty smaller monastic communities called “sketes.”
These men live just as one might imagine monks lived in centuries past. They take their vows for life. They have a largely ascetic lifestyle and many have almost no possessions. They spend their time in worship, work, and in long periods of solitude and prayer.
The monks on Mount Athos have practiced diversity since long before it became trendy in the modern world, with monks from Serbia, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and many more countries living in Christian brotherhood even while their secular countrymen faced each other on the battlefield.
Although I am not Orthodox, I have a great deal of respect for this faith and the continuity of its liturgy and traditions. Very little has changed in its religious practice in the last several centuries. The words that the monks have recited on Athos every day for hundreds of years have not changed at all throughout that time. If a monk from today were transported back to his monastery half a millennium ago, he would still be able to function and participate in the daily rituals and worship, for life on Athos changes imperceptibly slowly.
The stories of miraculous events on Athos are so numerous as to make the supernatural seem commonplace. And the fact that it exists in the modern age is itself a miracle of sorts. Visiting there may be the closest thing that people today can come to travelling back in time, to see life as it was in an entirely different era. Since I first heard about Mount Athos, I have wanted to go there, and after months of preparation, I finally did.
The story of my visit begins nearly 2000 years ago. According to tradition, sometime after the death of Christ, John the Evangelist and Mary, the mother of Jesus, were in a ship heading to Cyprus to visit Lazarus when a storm forced them to seek refuge in a port near Mount Athos. Mary was so struck by the beauty of the place that she blessed it. And when she did, God was audibly heard to say, “Let this place be your lot, your garden and your paradise, as well as a salvation, a haven for those who seek salvation.”
Monks began living on Athos around the sixth century. By the tenth century, Athos and two or three of its monasteries were being mentioned in the writings and laws of the Byzantine Empire, which served as the protectorate of Mount Athos. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1452, the Ottoman Empire ruled over Athos, and aside from oppressively high levels of taxation, left the Christian monks largely unmolested. In 1912, Greece recovered this area from the Ottomans. The present Greek constitution declares Athos to be “a self-governed part of the Greek State, whose sovereignty thereon shall remain intact.”
Arranging a visit to Athos is a bit complex. Luckily, a non-profit organization, based in England, called the Friends of Mount Athos (athosfriends.org) provides all the information a would-be pilgrim needs. The first step to planning a visit, I learned, is to request a special kind of visa called a diamonētērion. The diamonētērion is an unusual document in many respects, beginning with the Byzantine seal emblazoned at its top, right down to being dated using the Julian calendar (more on that later). When granted, it allows you to stay on Athos for a fixed amount of time, typically three nights. It can be requested by calling, writing or sending an email to an office in Thessaloniki, Greece, and must be picked up in person on the day of entry to Mount Athos.
Most people who visit Mount Athos stay at the monasteries, as guests of the monks. The monks accept no payment for this, but the number of non-Orthodox guests is limited to ten new arrivals a day, and stays generally are restricted to a single night at any one monastery. Although they regard hospitality as a sacred act as well as a central part of their mission, the monks came to Mount Athos to worship and pray not to run the equivalent of a religious bed and breakfast.
Staying at monasteries, however, requires advance preparation directly with the monasteries themselves. To facilitate this, they all have fax machines, and some even have email. You send requests to stay at the specific monasteries you are hoping to visit. If there is space available, the monks will fax back confirmation. I was sure to print out these faxed replies, as there isn’t a Holiday Inn Express to check into if there was an administrative snafu.
I also learned that the best map of Athos could be obtained by writing to a cartographer in Austria. I did this, for although there are several ways to get around the Holy Mountain, I intended to walk. While it is said that there haven’t been any packs of wolves on Mount Athos for three decades, I had no desire to get lost and test this out myself.
Once I had arranged for my diamonētērion, secured accommodations, and obtained my German-language map, I was ready to embark. My own path to Mount Athos went like this: Austin to Dallas, Dallas to London, London to Athens. In Athens, I met my driver and we trekked 400 miles to a small village called Ouranoupolis. As we sped towards Ouranoupolis, we shot past places soaked in both history and legend, such as Mount Olympus. It gave me a sense of heading back in time, of leaving the urban Athens of today and driving into the Greece of antiquity.
Once at Ouranoupolis, there still remained a distance to go to escape the modern world and embrace seclusion. Having spent the night there, the next morning I picked up my diamonētērion and then quickly headed to the port to board a boat to take me to Mount Athos, for although Athos is on a peninsula, it is forbidden to arrive via land vehicles, and so most people get there by sea. Down the coast the boat sailed, gliding past the huge castle-like monasteries, which seemed to me ancient and mysterious. In about two hours I arrived at the tiny port city of Daphne, which, in its entirety, contains about a dozen buildings.
The arrival in Daphne sealed my sense of being isolated from the modern world. I felt I was in another time — and in a literal sense, I was. Even the date is different on Mount Athos. Although the rest of the world has adopted the Gregorian calendar, the monks on Mount Athos, like the grantors of my diamonētērion, use the more ancient Julian (as in Julius Caesar) calendar. It is presently 13 days behind the Gregorian, and I was pretty stressed out that I had done the calendar math wrong and would end up arriving some place 13 days early or late.
From Daphne, my journey into monastic quietude wasn’t yet complete. I had to get to the first monastery I was to visit, Simonopetra. Although I later found out that the monks have a shuttle to run guests up to the monastery, I didn’t know this at the time and instead commenced on a long uphill hike. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are prohibited, and so off I hiked, the August Greek sun shining intensely upon me in my blue jeans and long-sleeved shirt. My water supply ran out almost instantly. Thoughts of packs of wolves left my mind and were replaced with thirst and fatigue.
After some amount of searching, I found the monastery. Upon catching sight of it, I was amazed by how wonderfully improbable its architecture it. Imagine a thousand-foot tall, incredibly steep hill with a jagged top. Then imagine building a monastic complex on the summit.
The monks greeted me, and offered me the traditional welcome of a shot of tsipouro (a high-octane distillation of grape), a piece of loukoumi (a candy something like divinity), and a large glass of cold water. The combined effect was substantially more than the sum of its parts.
Next, I was taken to my room, or, more precisely, the room I was to share with a half a dozen or so other guests. A brief glance around the room revealed not only that there was no room service call button on the telephone, but that there was no telephone at all.
However sparse the setting, though, thoughts of hardship did not occur to me, for I had arrived. I was in a different world, so happy to be there and so grateful to the pious monks who hosted me so generously.
I was told that the first worship service of the day (there would be three) was at 7:00 the next morning. While 7:00 AM comes early everywhere in the world, nowhere does it come as early as it comes on the Holy Mountain, where time is also different. It is reckoned according to the method of the ancient Byzantines, where the clocks are set to 12:00 AM when the sun sets. A quick calculation told me that 7:00 AM on Athos is more like four in the morning the way I mark time. (I didn’t even know there was a four o’clock in the morning.)
I probably could have exercised my prerogative as a guest and slept in. But being part of the non-Orthodox contingent, I felt a certain obligation to put in a good showing. So dutifully, in the dark hot morning, I made my way to the church for the service.
The Orthodox often do not sit during their services. This was the case at Simonopetra, where stalls are provided where you stand or can lean on your arms. For about three and a half hours, the monks went through their ancient liturgy, sung with purity and simplicity without the aid of instruments. It is indescribably beautiful to hear. My vocabulary lacks the words to convey to you its transcendent qualities. And the monks of Simonopetra are renowned around the world for their voices.
In the evening, when dinner was concluded, I returned to my room. I fired up my computer, and just out of curiosity, my phone. To my astonishment, my phone showed one bar of connectivity. And if I could get a cell signal, I could log onto the Internet.
This was an unexpected development. Here I was, in a place deliberately designed to be remote. I had come a long way to find seclusion, to separate myself from the world, for even a brief moment. The Internet? Here? How did it get in? How did I feel about it?
Truth be told, I found myself delighted by that one little bar of connection to the outside world. Somewhere, off in the distance of the night, there was a cell tower dutifully putting out its signal with all of its might. I dubbed it, “the little cell tower that could” and I was so grateful for its signal. I connected my laptop to my phone and within moments I was on the iTunes store, downloading an album of the music of the monks at the very monastery I was staying at that night.
As I perused my email, I realized that my impression of being remote and separated from the world was largely an illusion. Here I was connected to the Internet, connected to a billion people. And while I may not have been able to stream any high-def movies with my little lone bar of connectivity, in no way was I isolated.
A few days later, I left Mount Athos. And as I retraced my steps and returned to modernity, I turned the last few days over again in my head to see what conclusions I might draw from my time there.
Religious traditions of all kinds teach the need for periods of time for solitude and reflection. And yet, solitary confinement in prison is considered punishment. So it follows that there must be a limit to how much solitude we want.
As the 21st century progresses, it increasingly seems that uninterrupted solitude will become a thing of the past, ever harder to obtain. Our smart phones are always with us and, according to a recent study, are demonstrably habit-forming, with the average user checking his or her phone more than thirty times a day.
So what do we make of all of all of this? Is this lack of peace in solitude a new neurosis for the digital age, or a profound insight into our human nature? I believe the latter is the case. For my part, I am unquestionably part of the group of digital addicts. I confess I felt relieved to connect to the Internet on Mount Athos. What Linus’s blanket is to him, the Internet is to me: a form of security, a constant companion, and a trusted friend.
I resent having to turn my phone off on airplanes, secretly suspecting this is an arbitrary and meaningless airline rule. I get up halfway through a movie at a theater and step into the hallway to check my email, just so I know some disaster has not struck my world. I can’t even ride more than four floors in an elevator without needing to whip my phone out to fill that sensory void.
Before Mount Athos, I always felt a bit guilty about all of this. Constant connectivity is so new that society still feels a little uncomfortable around it, like one might feel towards a kindly aunt with Tourette’s. But after Mount Athos, I resolved to no longer be ashamed at wanting to be connected, rather to fully embrace it as a fundamentally good thing. I proudly state my own declaration of digital dependence. I love being part of the most amazing societal transformation of all time.
The days of unplugging and having complete solitude are going away, I believe. In the business world, they are gone: It is considered unacceptable, or at least unprofessional, to put yourself in a place where you cannot be reached in case of a crisis.
But I suspect such unplugged times are going away for everyone. We are becoming ever more connected to each other and adamant about being so. To me, this reveals a latent desire for extreme interconnectedness we could not satisfy before wireless communication became ubiquitous. For what we see all over the world is this: That when you offer people new technology, from transportation to entertainment to comfort, the thing they most want is the cell phone. They want the ability to connect to others. And once they have that, they don’t want to turn it off, not even for a moment. So while in the decades to come, it will be technically possible to unplug or power down or disconnect, I don’t think the thought will ever occur to us, any more than it occurs to us today to go a week without bathing or wearing clothes.
Today we still feel a certain longing to unplug because we have known both worlds, a world without the Internet and ubiquitous communication, and a world with them. But the young people of today, who have only known one of those, do not have this same desire to disconnect. It is doubtful their children and grandchildren will even be able to comprehend why anyone would have ever wanted to in the first place. They will not look back at us and our age with any kind of romanticism, like a pre-digital version of Rousseau’s noble savage, and pine away for a time when life was simpler, any more than you and I long for 19th century dentistry over the modern incarnation.
When I finally returned home from my pilgrimage and sat down before the warm glow of my computer monitors, I realized this was my cloister, the place I am best able to reflect and learn.
About Byron Reese
Futurist, Author, speaker, and entrepreneur, Byron examines the intersection of history, technology and the future, and enjoys sharing his perspectives for solving many of our global problems.
Publisher of Gigaom and author of “Infinite Progress: How Technology and the Internet Will End Ignorance, Disease, Hunger, Poverty, and War,” Byron is currently working on his upcoming book “Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity,” set to be published in 2017 by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Whether it be articles, interviews or keynotes, Byron brings his experience as a technologist, passion for history, and proven business acumen to illuminate how today’s technology can solve many of our biggest global challenges.
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