Christopher Merrill has published five collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and books of translations; and five works of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars and Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. His latest prose book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, chronicles his travels in Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Middle East, in the wake of the war on terror.
Christopher Merrill’s writings have been translated into twenty-five languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government. A member of the National Council on the Humanities and the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, he directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Please visit Christopher Merrill’s website: www.christophermerrillbooks.com
Excerpt below from Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain (2005)
“Athos has a mysterious pull on people,” a pilgrim told me. And something was drawing me back. All spring I had tried to sort out my feelings about my Lenten pilgrimage–regret for my estrangement from the monks, surprise at my longing for this place apart, fear of the obligations entailed in the Orthodox life of the spirit. I bought an English translation of the Divine Liturgy, hung a small icon of the Virgin in my study, and recited the Jesus Prayer. I dreamed of Athos–the mountain and the sea, the footpaths and cliffs, the chanting, the bells. Intrigued by what I had not seen of the peninsula, I wondered if I would ever visit it again. Then, at Pentecost, when plans to write about a journey with the Café Europa fell through, I decided to pay a penalty to reroute my nonrefundable plane ticket and planned my return to the Holy Mountain for the Dormition of the Mother of God, the last major feast of the liturgical calendar.
My first night on Athos I spent at Iveron, where the guestmaster who had sketched out my itinerary at Great Lent now advised me to journey to the desert. I did not have the heart to tell him I had forgotten the map he had given me, and after my long flight I was too weary to walk to Great Lavra in one day. So on the morning of Transfiguration in the West I headed south along the ridge above Iveron, in a chestnut forest, looking for the red-and-white hand-lettered signs to the inland monastery of Philotheou. Neat piles of wood were stacked beside the dirt road, which turned into a rock path littered with dead leaves. In a clearing, some monks were drinking ouzo on the porch of a kellí, and their merry voices followed me back into the woods, where just days before a fire had been extinguished before it burned out of control. One spark from the chain saw a laborer was using higher up on the ridge could easily set off another fire.
Two hours of hiking brought me to a long rock wall, which descended by a tumbledown kellí to a wooden footbridge. Halfway across was a stone shrine propped on a massive slab of ivy-covered cement; from a deep recess of shade a waterfall spilled into a pool. And from the top of the next steep rise I could see, tucked into the eastern slope of Athos, ringed with gardens and orchards, Philotheou, a tenth-century monastery dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin.
The history of Philotheou, twelfth in the hierarchy, is part Slavic, part Greek–that is, complicated. Inhabited for centuries by Serbs and Bulgarians (who once chased a Greek abbot off the Holy Mountain), the monastery did not flourish until it came under Greek patronage. Even so a devastating fire in 1871, which spared only the katholikón, refectory, and library, inspired an unsuccessful Russian attempt to take over the monastery. The colors of the rebuilt entrance, a tall four-sided archway, seemed to reflect the clash of ecclesiastical cultures: green columns, a stark white façade, red borders for the windows and cross. And red was central to the color scheme inside the monastery–the bricks, the walls and domes of the katholikón, the arches above the guesthouse, where the guestmaster served me water and ouzo. From there I went to the refectory for a substantial meal of fish soup, fava beans, tomatoes, cilantro-and-onion salad, and red wine. The frescoes, perhaps by masters of the Cretan School, needed restoration. And I needed a nap. So I retired with some pilgrims to a stifling guest room and fell into a leaden, sweat-soaked sleep, from which I did not stir until the sémantron sounded hours later for vespers.
The frescoes of the Apocalypse above the church entrance–one miserable soul was being devoured by a sea monster–were balanced, just inside the door, by two frescoes of Christ: in the first He is seated in a gold chair, with an open book in His hands, surrounded by twenty saints playing harps; in the second He delivers the Revelation to St. John, a sword-like light pouring out of His mouth. Every wall of the church was covered with soot-stained murals, and when I had tired of looking at them I went out to the courtyard, where a hot wind gusted over the grass. Potted plants–hydrangeas, geraniums, peonies–lined the steps and walls; in the flower beds were roses, hosta lilies, and marigolds. A middle-aged man clutched a gold cross, tears streaming down his cheeks. A younger man left the church to check his cell phone for messages. A Peloponnesian in a wheelchair, a cerebral palsy victim who summered at this monastery, was trying to say something to a monk. At the conclusion of the service, when everyone filed into the refectory, the monk told me to stay behind with the Peloponnesian.
“It is because the Orthodox are not allowed to pray with unorthodox,” explained Nicodemos, the affable baker. “It is only because of the prayer.”
When the reading and clanging of silverware commenced, Nicodemos spoke of his many friends in America, where Philotheou’s former abbot had founded ten monasteries. He himself had come to Philotheou at the age of sixteen. He had always worked in the kitchen.
“The life is very beautiful here,” he said, “and poor. Silent.”
The bell rang. The monks and pilgrims returned to church for compline. Nicodemos ushered us into the refectory to eat with the Greek and Albanian laborers, promising to meet me after the service. But it was a short, nasty monk who took me into the nave to see the relics–a piece of the true cross, the right hand of St. John Chrysostom, martyrs’ skulls. The monk was telling me why the Reformation was even worse than the schism. Yes, the Protestants had properly dispensed with the papacy, but they had also removed the mystery from the Church.
“There is only one true faith,” the monk repeated several times, but since he could not pronounce his r’s I heard him say “two faiths.”
“What’s the other faith?” I said.
He gave me a puzzled look. “Only one two faith!” he cried.
“Yes,” I said. “I see.”
“Do you have any questions about the Church?” he said, sneering at the old men who offered crosses and rosaries to be blessed by the priest displaying the relics. An exercise in futility, he seemed to say. “Is there something you want to know?”
I thought for a moment. “What’s your name?”
“Do you need to know?” He grimaced. “What is yours?”
“Christopher,” I said, extending my hand.
“Nice name,” he said, then slapped my hand and walked away.
Text in this post: © Christopher Merrill
Published with the permission of Christopher Merrill