Men And Their Holy Mountains

by lizard

While sitting in post-feast stupor on the couch, I caught most of the 60 minutes piece about incredibly devout, orthodox, byzantine-time-telling bearded Christians who inhabit Mount Athos and pray every minute of their lives to get closer to God.

It wasn’t until near the end of the piece that women’s presence (or lack-there-of) on this holy mountain was discussed.

The church’s relics are brought out everyday and pilgrims ask for the blessings of the saints. The most sacred relic on the entire peninsula is in this case fabric said to be part of a garment worn by the Virgin Mary.

The irony is – that while the mother of God is revered here – no other woman is permitted to even set foot on Mount Athos; it’s been like that for a thousand years.

The reason for the ban, according to Orthodox doctrine, is that Christ gave the peninsula to his mother and all other women are excluded so as to fully honor the Virgin Mary. It’s also said that in the days before the ban, when women did come here, the monks became distracted and couldn’t devote themselves entirely to prayer. They say it became a lot easier after the last lady left.

Simon: Keeping women out, certainly wasn’t much of a problem three– four hundred years ago. Do you feel that’s becoming problematic today?

Father Arsenios: I don’t believe so because the monastery itself and all the land around it is our property. And, if we don’t want women coming onto our property we have every right to do that.

Mount Athos may be the last all-male bastion in the world. And Father Arsenios says it has to stay that way.

Father Arsenios: Here we’re concerned solely with purity and our elevation to eternity. If women are permitted, they would bring their families and children. This place would become a tourist’s attraction and no longer a place of silence.

The guy makes a point. Women and kids are noisy. For example, my wife tonight got frustrated at how much time my ass spent depressing the couch cushions, and let me know it. This of course once the kids have been put to bed after being non-stop perpetual noise machines their every waking moment. Damn noise.

Forget she has a valid point and rarely ever gets the plush indulgences of gratuitous couch-sitting. If silence is an ingredient for getting closer to God, then banning women is understandable, right guys?

It’s of course all bullshit. Obviously “distracting” the men from their prayers is a nice way of saying carnal thoughts are harder (pun intended) to dismiss when in physical proximity to women (assuming the men are heterosexual, which probably isn’t always the case).

This ancient strain of Christian devotion on Mount Athos is like a time-capsule peek into the patriarchal structure of strict orthodoxy. It’s something I’ve found distasteful the more I learned about the ancient Christian/Judaic roots of the watered down version I received as a Presbyterian growing up.

That same 60 minutes also featured a “rare look” into the Vatican Library. What I found interesting was how they noted the strangeness of “love” letters from Henry VIII to that wife of his he later had beheaded.

You might find, as curator Adalbert Roth showed us, drawings of a German jousting tournament in 1481.

Or an old cookbook, telling us that Roman foodies in the fourth century dined on chicken, veal, seafood, pancakes in milk and whipped pear cake.

Janz: How to hack away at your enemy’s wall…

Or from an 11th century treatise on the art of war: a Byzantine soldier brandishing a flame-thrower, something the Greeks invented 1,500 years earlier.

Or Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn.

Collins: The letters are certainly among the most bizarre and unusual that you’d expect to find in the pope’s archives.

There are 17 of them. Handwritten by the king of England to the woman he would make the second of his six wives, and later have beheaded.

Adalbert Roth: There’s the little heart…”

Henry signs his name with a heart, like a smitten schoolboy. He tells of his “fervents of love”, his great loneliness without her. “Wishing myself,” he says, “in my sweetheart’s arms, whose pretty dukkys i trust shortly to kiss.” Dukkys being a term in Henry’s day for well, use your imagination.

Isn’t that fantastic?

Today is the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. While old men with long beards pray all day on their little mountain, I remember the two times I felt the closest to divinity; my wife giving birth to our two kids.

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