Today I introduced Fierce Light at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, here in Greece. I recounted my last visit to this lovely sea side city, back in 1999, when I was shooting Scared Sacred, the film about my journey to the ground zero’s of the world, searching for stories of transformation in the face of crisis. At the time I was facing my own crisis. First my girlfriend at the time decided to leave the project, and return home. Then my video camera was stolen from my car in France. Then the car itself was taken from me. I was left on the street in Italy, with nothing but the shirt on my back – even my coat was gone. I decided to do what any destitute pilgrim in that part of the world would do: I headed for the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos.
I traveled here, to Thessaloniki, where I was blessed enough to be granted a pilgrims pass on short notice – normally it takes six months, but there had been a cancellation, so I was admitted immediately. Then I went to an internet café, sent an email to a millionare I knew, explaining my situation and asking if she would consider supporting Scared Sacred, and then took the bus and boat to Mount Athos, where I went on one of the most powerful 10 day personal retreats of my life, walking from monastery to monastery along the craggy cliffs, following the directives of my inner voice, meditating constantly, and meeting some truly remarkable mystics, as well as confronting the staunch dogma and structures of Orthodoxy, and the patriarchs. Talk about patriarchy, and power over – this was the birthplace of it! But the journey was truly profound and moving.
When I returned, I received an email from the millionare – yes, she would fund the film. And so the journey continued – with an added passenger. A little black kitten named Hara, who I rescued from being abandoned on the street, rejected from Mount Athos because – she was a girl. I ended up traveling through Greece, Turkey, Israel and India with Hara, finally finding her a home with friends in Bhopal.
In honour of my return to this land, over the next few weeks I am going to share excerpts from my journal from both that journey to mount Athos, and the journey I will undertaking in the coming week, to Meteora and Delphi – home of the ancient oracles, where the entranceway reads, “Know Thyself.”
When we see each other, when we trust each other,
there is no need for ego, no reason for ego,
no possibility for ego.
-Father Archdimandrite Dionysius
Mount Athos, Greece, 1999
The bus winds down a final hillside, arriving at the port town of Ouranopolous. At the far end of a concrete dock an iron freighter awaits. I join the bustling crowd of pilgrims and monks boarding the ship. The monks come in a variety of flavours. Most wear baggy black pants covered in long black cotton dresses, topped out with a decent black coat, or perhaps a well-worn black vest. Headgear is a black hat, tall and rounded, velvet for those well up in the hierarchy, simpler cotton for those in between and sometimes just a black toque for the more independent of the monks. The occasional shaggy character in rough-hewn clothes is most likely one of the hermits, forced from his lair, perhaps for medical reasons.
A sign posted on the dock warns that:
1. Only Those Authorized May Visit Mount Athos.
2. No Women Are Allowed.
3. No Video Cameras Are Allowed.
4. No Religious Items Are To Be Taken Off The Peninsula.
If any of the above laws are not respected, severe penal action will be taken by the legal body of the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos.
Don’t mess with the monks. Legend claims that Mother Mary declared Athos her land, off limits to all other females. There is even an edict barring female animals from the Republic, but that has proven difficult to enforce, wild animals being notoriously disrespectful of laws. There are whispers of ancient scandals in the land, stories of women sneaking in, some disguised as monks, living secretly inside the republic for years.
The captain stands on the wide metal gang plank and inspects our pilgrims’ certificates, full-page parchment, suitable for framing, necessary for travel. Glorious shafts of light cut through the clouds in the direction of Holy Mountain. We pull into Daphne, the one place of free enterprise on the peninsula, a small port town that serves as the nexus point for boats and paths to the monasteries, Sketes and hermitages.
The living arrangements in Athos vary from the large monasteries, in which everyone lives, eats and worships communally, to Sketes, small communities in which each house has their own church. In the houses there are generally several monks and one elder, or sometimes a larger group of monks. Scattered about the peninsula, but particularly at the very tip, are isolated hermits, who live in caves or simple rock huts. The most ascetic of these subsist on a tiny amount of bread and water, sleeping on rough mats on the cold ground, dedicating their lives to prayer, chanting for hours every day.
The gangplank crashes onto the dock and we step into the Byzantine era. It is a crowded soup of monks, all with long beards, hermits with their grizzled faces and walking sticks, dozens of dirty cats meowing sadly, searching for tidbits of food. A group of young monks stand at end of the dock throwing bits of bread to a school of fish. A monk sits on a wall in front of the one restaurant selling hand crocheted black prayer bracelets. The tiny shops are crowded with icons, images of Jesus and Mary, laundry soap, rosaries, and cakes of black incense.
I lean against an ancient stone wall that lines the ocean, watching the bustle on the one dirt main street of town. A portly older man sits down near me. He seems a little lost.
“Is this where one finds the boats that go to the south?” he asks, in a thick English accent.
“I don’t really know-I’m trying to figure out that myself.”
His name is Martin, and he’s searching for a boat to Dionysius Monastery.
“I’ve come to have a look in on my nephew. He just up and became a monk two years ago. Strangest thing! Didn’t speak a word of Greek either. His mother can’t come to look in on him, of course, and there’s no father, so I’m elected. To tell you the truth, our Claude was always one of life’s misfits. Ended up bumming around Europe, playing music on the streets to get by. Just barely getting by. One by one all the strings on his guitar broke, until there he was, playing with only one string. His earnings got too thin, so he wound up at some kind of a center where they would give him food and he would help around their farm. All he had to do was go to church services. And there he found God. Ended up in England, living with a Nun, and then met this Greek Orthodox chap. I think they recruited him. Numbers are down here in the monasteries and they need fresh blood. Hard to keep the place up and funded if there’s no one staying. And of course, the developers are just waiting to hop right in the second the place is vacated-this would be a prime tourist attraction.”
A boat pulls up to the dock and we are able to determine that it goes to Dionysius. I decide to follow Martin – I can begin my walk South from there. Although I don’t have a reservation, I’m hoping that showing up with a monk’s relative will help. We line up, pay our three hundred drachmas on board, and take a seat inside.
“There’s one of the head boys, I’d say.”
Martin points to an older monk with a neatly trimmed gray beard. Trailing along like ducklings is a retinue of ardent young monks, carrying his bags. They sit down at a bench near us, immediately launching into a basket of bread, apples and cheese, chewing with gusto.
“Are you Catholic?”
“Oh no, I’m just a good old prottey. Protestant. Bit of a heretic really. Still, I respect it all well enough. I like to go to churches and cathedrals when I’m traveling. Like in Spain, at the church of Santiago. Although, I have to say, I had my wallet swiped while we were in there.”
“In the church? Is nothing sacred?’
“Yeah, right in the bloody church. The nerve of that bloke. Makes you wonder about human nature really, that someone would stoop so low. So what brings you here?”
“I’m making a documentary called ScaredSacred. I’m traveling to the Scared and Sacred places of the world.”
“What do you mean by Scared?”
“Places like Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Bhopal, Afghanistan and so on.”
“You know, it’s strange, but I’ve been thinking of going to Auschwitz. Not sure why really.”
“It certainly brings it all home. It makes it real. I went before dawn. As the sun came up an old man appeared, with a single rose, which he placed on the gas oven. The whole concentration camp is maintained as a museum. They encourage people to come, because humans are too good at forgetting. And we need to remember.”
“I think I will go. God, what a project. Tell me, what are you searching for in these places?”
“I want to try to understand how it is that some people are able to go through the darkest days of human history, and find a way through to the other side; perhaps even transform the crisis into a breakthrough. I don’t know if you are feeling this, but I have a sense that there are dark days ahead. Maybe all this millennium anxiety is part of it, but I think even without it, there’s pretty good evidence that this little planet is in for a shake up. Going to these places in a way is like time traveling into a possible future we might all be facing. I want to bring back stories of hope, and strategies for creating hope, for transforming the scared into the sacred.”
“And the Sacred places?”
“I want to experience the faiths of the world first hand and try to understand their core, their essence. Perhaps at their holiest places, this will come through with greater clarity. I believe there is a current which runs through them all, and I want to touch that. I want to know, really know, what the sacred is, and see if I can find it, in both the places of light, and the places of darkness.”
“I’ll say it again, God, what a project. Hey, look at that!”
Looming over us is the spectacular monastery of Simone Petra, a stone fortress clinging to the top of a craggy cliff, a thousand feet above. Construction cranes tower even higher above the monastery. The entire peninsula has received a large influx of cash, and many of the monasteries are undergoing re-constructive surgery. We pull in briefly, just long enough for a handful of monks and pilgrims to scurry off. Further along we pass the low-lying monastery of Gregorious, spread out near the coast. It too is surrounded in scaffolding, workers moving here and there with wheelbarrows. Ten minutes later we arrive at Dionysius. The boat bashes into the concrete dock, the gangplank is lowered, and we disembark behind the important looking monk and his retinue.
“Looks like we’re being blessed with a visit from the top dog,” Martin whispers.
The endless sweep of stone steps proves tiring for Martin, who has a bad foot. I convince him to let me take one handle of his extremely heavy bag.
“I don’t know why it’s so heavy, it’s really only clothes.”
The Elder sings a mournful hymn as he leads the procession. Behind him a monk chants a sonorous prayer in Greek, echoed by the group. Another runs ahead to videotape. It’s a major visit, to be sure. We pass under a high stone archway into the monastery complex. Above the entranceway, a painting of Mother Mary welcomes us in, gold leaf halo glittering.