This is one in a series of blogs reflecting on a pilgrimage to Holy Mt. Athos in the summer of 2016 while on sabbatical.
My hiking buddy, Chris, and I were spent, down to the last ounce of energy, done. We had had a grueling day of hiking up and down a trail that had 1,000-1,500 feet of elevation changes again and again and again. And again.
We finally arrived at Dionysiou Monastery in desperation. We ate our dinner like angry lions, and then followed the other pilgrims out to a sitting area overlooking the sea. As the sun went down and the winds picked up, we were eager to dry off and rest tired feet. We made small talk with the other pilgrims who had arrived by boat or bus. Why we felt we had something to prove with the days’ hike, I still don’t know. That’s for a later blog.
A monk came up to the group of pilgrim men and said, “Who speaks English? Want to help?” He pointed at a few guys, a few nodded yes, a few couldn’t understand. The monk picked three men, and then my friend. “Come with me,” he gruffly mumbled.
I thought to myself, “Wait…I want whatever adventure they are going to have!” I deduced that since he led with the questions over linguistic abilities there must be some sort of translation project, phone calls to English operators to be made, an ancient transcript to review or some sort of work that entailed lingua anglo saxonica.
The group began to walk away and so quickly, I spoke up and said, “I can speak English! Can I help?” The monk stopped, turned towards me, looked me up and down, and said, “Sure. Fine,” and then headed out the monastery exit.
I wish I could say I jumped up, but I was so sore and exhausted from the hardest day of physical labor in my life, I can only say I creaked up, hobbled to catch up, and limped my way with the group. I asked my friend and the other pilgrims where we were going. They hadn’t a clue.
We departed the monastery entrance and began a long, slow decline down a Byzantine ramp. I could imagine hordes of marauding invaders at one time storming up this stone-paved ramp with battering rams and flaming torches. Yet, my aching legs and knees-of-jelly quickly caused me to think, “Wait, where is this translation project? I’m not about to go down this ramp which I’ll have to later climb!” Yet, the group was well ahead, and I had volunteered. “Quit your whining, Case. Get moving,” I said to myself.
We followed all the way down this steep ramp and began to cross the monastery grounds. The monk led us into a field of squash. Beautiful rows of squash had been planted and neatly maintained, and then there were four or so rows which had not. The weeds had grown up to choke the squash. The monk leans down and says, “This is squash! Don’t pull. This is (sic) weeds. Pull!” And then he left.
Suddenly it dawned on me why this project needed speakers of English.
The other pilgrims dutifully began to bend over in the dusk-lit night and pull weeds. I hesitated. Wouldn’t you? After all, I had climbed the equivalent of seven Empire State Buildings in 95 degree heat. I had miraculously been kept by the sweet Lord from blowing a knee or twisting an ankle. I had eaten my dinner as if it were my last meal, ever. Now I’m supposed to weed-eat their overgrown garden? Wasn’t my fault it was overgrown, right?
I caught eyes with Chris. “Seriously?” my expression read. He began to laugh. Wait, wait, “Seriously?!” I gave with the same expression, but with more angst. Chris leaned over and started pulling weeds.
I threw some jokes out to my fellow English speaking pilgrims about the irony of the moment, the misunderstanding on my part, the options before us. Some jokes were funny-ha-ha. Some went flat. The other pilgrims were mostly eager, glad to participate due to the hospitality we were being shown by the monasteries. I wasn’t a happy pilgrim at the moment. They were amazing pilgrims; making me look bad.
Don’t get me wrong. In theory, I agreed! In theory, I was grateful. In theory, I wanted to express my appreciation for being fed and housed for free. In theory, I wanted the full Mt Athos experience. In reality, I was hangry, nutrient deprived, not in a good mood, and really annoyed I hadn’t kept my big fat English-speaking mouth shut.
My traveling buddy, who was by this point separating squash vines from weeds, was remarkably convivial. He made me sick. He was as tired or more than I was, and yet he tackled the squash as if grandpa would be calling us to pick the harvest in a few weeks for Thanksgiving dinner. I bent over, fearful I’d never stand back up, and began to pull at some weeds.
Ten weeds later and I was done. I said, “Sorry fellas. I’m grateful, and all, but I’m spent. No more from these old bones.” They seemed to understand, or at least they were kind enough to let me hobble my way up the long, very long ramp to the monastery entrance with whatever dignity I had left.
This was not the last bit of manual labor the monks expected of me as a pilgrim at the monasteries we visited. Absent my exhaustion, I was a much better Christian in the sense that I served with gladness and a grateful heart. Yet, I became acutely aware of three things:
- Pastoring a knowledge-economy based congregation isn’t absent hard work, but it pales in comparison to the daily lives of these monks.
- There is something wholesome and good to the daily grind a monk executes, and it certainly requires a call.
- I never saw a fat monk. And for good reason.