Thank you for your interesting email.
If I remember rightly, I visited Greece a day or two after the terrorist attacks in New York (11.9.2001) and the airports and aeroplane were virtually empty! The trip had been booked sometime before and being much younger (and reckless) I decided to go ahead! I stayed at Halkidiki (in Northern Greece) and was surprised to find shrines dotted along the roadside that looked like self-contained telephone booths – but darkened on the outside for privacy. Inside was a large portrait of Jesus Christ depicted as a Middle Eastern man with olive-brown skin and long hair and a beard (both black and slightly curly). Candles and incense sticks could be lit and prayers said. All the interiors were spotlessly clean and everyone respected the privacy of those who used these sacred spaces situated in the heart of the bustling town and city. Indeed, these objects seem to represent a mini-monastery that everyone could enter and leave as they saw fit. A reminder of inner stillness located deep within. On Sunday mornings, the radio stations switched to playing Gregorian Chant for two to three hours that was really soothing and relaxing!
I cannot remember exactly where I stayed in Halkidiki – but I joined hundreds of people on a local pier waiting for a fairly large boat to take use to Mount Athos proper (situated to the East of Halkidiki). The land was hot and the sea had a freezing wind! Still, after arriving (and purchasing a coat in a local shop), I headed into the hills. The younger monks are trained to deal with all the functional tasks of the monastic lives as well as meditating, contemplating and studying the scriptures. As the monks get older, they isolate more and interact less. This is the way it has been for over a thousand years. Some go into complete isolation in special meditation cells. This part of the island is difficult to get to, and closed off to all visitors. A type of military monk patrols the periphery rumoured to train in a form of advanced Christian martial art premised upon removing all falsehood and replacing it with Christ consciousness and Christ’s love. Obviously, this not fighting in the conventional sense, but it does over-lap with the highest expressions of martial understanding all across the world. This type of martial art is ‘anti-violent’.
I was told yet again that God comes when the mind ‘stops’ and is ‘stilled’. This seems to be a universal requirement for spiritual development the world over. I was even told this by a Sufi Muslim – which surprised me. Here is the caveat, God might or might not enter the individual concerned even if the mind is thoroughly ‘stilled’ and the body completely ‘prepared’. Grace may or may not be experienced. This is where eternal patience comes into focus. Many perfectly ‘still’ monks have faith that God will grace them with his presence when they finally shuffle-off the mortal coil! Therefore, a certain contentedness pervades the monasteries (at least 20 of them). The Bible (and Monastic Rule) guides the everyday life of the monks just as God (the ‘Shepherd’) guided the Israelites – and Jesus (the ‘Shepherd’) guides humanity with the light of God which he conveys (as his Son). This ‘light’ performs its function of guidance regardless as to whether God personally ‘blesses’ or not.
I met one of the older monks who explained to me that Western Christianity was ‘Unorthodox’ just as their Greek Christianity is ‘Orthodox’. He also complained about the behaviour of the Crusader Knights who caused some trouble in the area on the way to the Holy Lands in the 12th century. I was told that God manifests in sincere artwork and that is why the monks on the island participate in all kinds of painting, etching and drawing, etc. The point is to meditate until the material world is perceived as being ‘transparent’ and ‘see-through’ even when in the midst of it. The aspirant can then see ‘beyond’ the usually obscuring barrier which prevents the perception of the spiritual realm. When these monks ‘look’ at you – they see very different things to what you might think. They say that they see straight into your soul and can discern your past life and future destiny!