Mount Athos - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The preservation of the relics of saints and martyrs, the presence of miracle-working icons in the ruling monasteries, the presence of holy men viewed by pious laypeople as saints, the tradition of the Virgin's protection of the Holy Mountain and all her monks and pilgrims (the monks call it the "Garden of Our Lady"), and recognition and patronage by the Byzantine emperors and the royalty of other Orthodox nations have combined to make this a holy land and place of pilgrimage venerated throughout Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Easter, the commemoration of the resurrection of Christ, is the major pilgrimage event of the year. Each individual monastery also commemorates its dedication day with a festival of all-night psalmody culminating in the liturgy, a litany, and a feast (another major pilgrimage event in the monastery's year). The service expresses through ritual symbols the renewal of blessing on the monastery at the beginning of the monastery's "new year." Pilgrims, at whatever season they come, are brought into the monastery church ( catholicon ) to venerate the relics and receive blessing from them. Some pilgrims whose spiritual fathers are at an Athonite monastery come for confession, blessing, and spiritual guidance from the spiritual father. Yet another purpose of pilgrimage may be prayer for healing or other aid before a miracle-working icon. These activities, along with participation in the liturgy, represent the spiritual climax of the pilgrimage. For the monks, the pilgrimage festivals are high points in a life whose rhythm is based on the medieval liturgical calendar with its festal and fast periods, its vigils and commemorations of the traditional saints and martyrs. Daily life is structured around observance of the liturgy and services of the canonical hours conducted in the monastic churches, on the medieval almanac of changing hours of light and dark each month, and on the traditional personal regimen of Eastern Orthodox monks, including physical labor ("service") performed for the brotherhood, dietary rules (monks abstain from meat, eating mostly fruits and vegetables, bread, olives, olive oil, and wine), meditation, and continuous prayer. Through meditation, ascetic practices, and suppression of pride and willfulness, monks hope to behold the mystical divine light represented in the biblical account of the transfiguration of Christ, which is understood to be a prefiguration of the apotheosis that is the objective of human life. Since monks must struggle against the sin of pride of accomplishment, they constantly acknowledge Personal imperfection and sin, in particular through continuous utterance of the "Jesus Prayer": "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner." Monks live a life of symbolic death to the world, symbolized in their black robes, which will eventually serve as their burial shrouds. The funeral is a public rite of major importance, for the deceased monk's body, never stiff with rigor mortis, indicates the fulfillment of the monk's hopes. As persons who have died to life and now live "the angelic life," they look forward with hope to immediate resurrection.

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