You may have seen the recent “60 Minutes” piece on the Greek peninsula, Mt. Athos, since the last 1,200 years a holy refuge for monks and prayer, where there are only twenty monasteries.  It’s almost impossible to visit there, as the monks are in total seclusion, having left their families and the world behind, only to seek God in prayer.

The central ancient prayer used for almost 2,000 years is the Jesus Prayer, thought by some to have originated with the Apostles.  It goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (or if in a group, ‘on us’).”  This week, I’d like to share some of my new book “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer” and my visit to Holy Mt. Athos with you:

+ + + + +

“Mount Athos is a rugged, heavily forested peninsula in northeastern Greece. Thirty-seven miles long, 7.5 miles wide, and covering an area of about 130 square miles. The mountain itself soars to a height of 6,670 feet. Scattered across the peninsula, hidden away in the forests, are twenty monasteries and about as many sketes, or small communities of hermits.

There have been monks on Mount Athos since the 5th century, but the story of the Holy Mountain as we see it today begins in the mid-10th century with the friendship of the monk St. Athanasios and the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus Phocas. In 963, supplied with funds from the emperor, Athanasios began building the first of Athos’ major monasteries, the Great Lavra. Among his other gifts to the Lavra, Nicephoros donated a large Bible, its cover studded with jewels, and a golden reliquary containing a portion of the True Cross—both of these treasures are still in the possession of the monks of the Great Lavra. Many of the hermits who lived on the mountain rejected the idea of leaving their dank caves and tiny huts to move into the monastery, and so to this day the monks of Mount Athos have their choice of living in community within a monastery or living in solitude in the forest.

The harmony that exists today between the monks and the hermits took years to achieve. The unseemly squabbling over which was the holier way of life raged on Mount Athos for a decade, even outliving the Great Lavra’s patron, Nicephorus (who, by the way, at the end of his life abdicated and spent his final years as a monk at the Great Lavra). In 972 the new emperor, John Tzimiskes, sent Abbot Euthymios of the Studion Monastery in Constantinople to Athos to serve as mediator. The outcome of Euthymios’ arbitration was the charter of 972 known as the Tragos, Greek for goat, because the parchment was made from a goat’s skin. The Tragos, among other things, guaranteed the independence of the hermits from the authority of the monks and established an assembly comprising of monks and hermits to govern the peninsula. Both Emperor John Tzimiskes and Athanasios signed the charter, and it is preserved in the archives of the town of Karyes, the administrative center of the Holy Mountain. In later centuries Mount Athos was recognized in the Byzantine Empire as an independent monastic republic. Today Mount Athos is a self-governing part of Greece.


from Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer the new feature documentary film and book by Dr. Norris J. Chumley, with V.Rev. Dr. John McGuckin.  Visit our website for details,  The book is available everywhere books are sold.

More from Beliefnet and our partners