Inside an ancient monastery
CBS correspondent Bob Simon interviews Father Matthew, one of the monks on Mount Athos.
April 22nd, 2011
04:42 PM ET

Inside an ancient monastery

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) - It was two years in the making for a television crew to get access inside one of the holiest sites of the Greek Orthodox world, the monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece. The cluster of 20 monasteries has remained perched on the cliffs high above the Aegean Sea for centuries.

In the monasteries, also known collectively as the Holy Mountain or The Garden of the Mother of God, the monks spend most of their time in prayer and are purposefully isolated from the outside world.

"A woman hasn't been allowed on the mountain for over a thousand years," said Bob Simon, correspondent for CBS News' "60 Minutes."

That prohibition against women even extends to animals, with the exception of cats who pull double duty as rodent control. The only food the monks import is cheese - because it comes from cows. Otherwise they all grow their own food on the island.

"The whole purpose of [the monks] being there is to be away from the outside world to a remarkable extent. Monks have spent decades there without spending a day off the island," he said.

"Technically it's a peninsula, but they don't have newspapers or television or radio or women, and the whole idea is to just devote themselves entirely to prayer, so they're really not interested with what goes on in the outside world and they don't want to get involved in it."

Simon thinks the only reason he and his crew were granted access to the monks, many of whom had never done interviews, was a story they did on the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the global community of 300 million Greek Orthodox Christians.

Simon said the interview was received well, especially in the United States.

"I think [the Patriarch] sort of leaned on the monks to say, 'Hey, we're OK, let them in,' but he has no executive authority the way the pope does, he can just make recommendations," Simon said. But even with that recommendation from on high, it still took several years to work out the shoot.

Just getting to the monasteries is chore. First you have to get to Thessaloniki in Greece.

"From Thessaloniki you take a long drive, about three hours on roads that are not great. Then you wind up in this place that is, I think I called it scruffy in the script, then you take a ferry. The only trouble is the waters between this town and Mount Athos are really rough," Simon said.

He said his producers got stuck in the town for three days while they waited for a day where the waters were calm enough to travel to the peninsula.

"There may be a forest or mountain somewhere that hasn't changed in the last 1,500 years, but in terms of an inhabited place, I don't think there's any place that has changed so little as Mount Athos," he said.

During World War II, Mount Athos came under the personal protection of Hitler when the Nazis invaded Greece. At the advice of German officers, the monks wrote Hitler and asked for the protection, which he provided. The monks told Simon that Hitler was planning to pillage the monasteries for their art treasures, even going so far as to send officers to photograph more than 1,000 works of art. But they said Hitler got bogged down in Russia and never removed any of the art.

Simon said in the course of their centuries-old tradition on the mountain, the monks viewed it as just a speed bump.

"They have no connection with our world. Their only consideration is to survive to keep the mountain going, because it is the most sacred spot on the world as far as they are concerned. It is a place [where] a life of prayer is more effective than anywhere else. So sure the Nazis threatened them, but over the centuries they been threatened by everybody."

Simon's report is scheduled to air on Easter Sunday. You can see a preview of the report here.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Europe • Greek Orthodox Church • TV

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soundoff (803 Responses)
  1. There are no gods!

    no woman for a hundred years? That is so ghey! No wonder these religious people are so messed up! They never get laid!

    April 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Drew

      You know, not everyone is completely enslaved by their libido

      April 23, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  2. Bradley Scarbrough

    Sounds like a nice place if you're gay.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  3. Dennis

    no women? fine.. i'll take 2

    April 23, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  4. JWH

    Religion crucified Christ. What if the Mother of God showed up? Oooops.

    Plus the forgot the female bugs too. religion is man's stupidity, God is his salvation.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Vincent Romeo

      Religion has led to many problems with Chrisitianity. Christianity seems simple to me; follow the Word of God and live as Jesus Christ lived.

      April 23, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  5. Swamp Yankee

    No women allowed huh? Do these monks sit on "The Masters" golf tournament advisory board?

    April 23, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  6. Doug Chick

    Women are the life givers to every creature on the Earth. Those that deny, or oppress her, follow a jealous and ungodly path that delights the Devil.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  7. joe800

    ...completely ignorant of and irrelevant to the rest of the world...

    April 23, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  8. JWH

    BTW, after all these years they still can't figure out God has no mother? Anyway, go ye to all the world and preach the gospel, why do "religious" people lock themselves up when others are on their way to hell? Why not share the good news that Jesus died for all people. Strange. If you have eternal life you would tell someone.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Cesar

      JWH, read a history book. Your ignorant comments about orthodoxy have no foundation in history or reality. Your idea of religion started probably less than 100 years ago. Do not speak about Christianity if you are unaware of the history of the Christian church before Martin Luther.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Cesar

      If Jesus is God and Mary is His mother, then Mary is the Mother of God. Christian theology 101.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  9. Ewanna C Greene

    there is a whole lot of prayin' goin' on on earth [not only by these guys] and yet the abuses and horrors are not abating

    April 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Tom

      Every person was granted freewill by the grace of God, and not even God will take that away.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Drew

      No one ever said they would. Christian prayer is about internal peace

      April 23, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • JWH

      Christian prayer is talking to your spiritual Daddy (Father).

      April 23, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Drew

      Well call it what you like, if it brings fulfillment or peace to people then it is a good thing

      April 23, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • JWH

      Drew, agree, talking to the Father and being right with him is a best peace.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  10. Vincent Romeo

    My belief of Christian life is one in which a person should live life similar to Jesus Christ. The idea of Christianity is to put God first above all, to love God and your neighbor, and to minister to others. Though I can't imagine the close relationship these monks share with God, I would also want to complete the last two parts of my Christian worldview which I feel cannot be accomplished as a monk.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Tom

      You said it, your Christian worldview.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • JWH

      Right, a monk is pious but ineffective for the Gospel.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  11. Tom

    Well, that's just selfish these men living off the land in abstinence, praying for the salvation of all of mankind. They could be doing something to help me physically. People kill me with some of their comments, just because they don't concern their selves with the outside world doesn't mean they don't know and hear about what's happening in it. This place has lasted for over a 1000 years for a reason, think about that. Also some people might try thinking before commenting.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  12. Stephen

    Ah, the ignorance in these posts is simply overwhelming. I don't get it, as an atheist I've never had a desire to ridicule the religious, their way of life or disregard their customs in their shrines like you do, but tried to understand their beliefs and learn history of their religions. I don't go to their places of worship because they were not meant for me except when I have to, like baptisms or weddings of my siblings, but then I respect them and their ways. My family being Orthodox, I can say that every Orthodox church I've been to is simply magnificent place with beautiful iconography and most of those churches are much more than 500 years old with amazing stories behind it's every piece. Those monks are some of the most selfless beings on this planet. They live in their monasteries praying, studying bible, growing plants and making everything they need and selling some of those to buy things they cannot make. How on earth could those people offend any one of you and deserve such posts is beyond me.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Satan

      well put ...

      April 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • JWH

      They are not sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. If they are going to heaven, then therefore others are going to hell. Hiding na mountain does not help the situation.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • Jellyfishdude

      JWH, monastic life is a different calling. Orthodox Christians the greatest show of love is prayer. It is the monasteries life to provide a place of fulfilling that. Parish churches have a different calling; they provide a place for the people of the cities where Christians confront worldly temptations on a regular basis.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Stephen

      Hiding? You can go there when ever you want if you want to and experience it for your self. That is if you weren't too occupied being a smartass on the internet :]

      April 23, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  13. capnmike

    It never fails to amaze me the ridiculous stupid things the enormous fraud and lie of religion makes people do.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Drew

      It never fails to amaze me how smug and arrogant some atheists are

      April 23, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Vincent Romeo

      Sounds like you need a hug. Try and love someone and see how much love you receive in return. Or try and help a complete stranger or volunteer and see if this tugs on your heart strings. You may just open up enough to try and understand and accept other. God bless and Happy Easter. Vince

      April 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  14. Valerie

    The big 3, hating women since they were founded...

    April 23, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Valerie, it's not hate. It's devotion. Hating is what you're doing.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  15. brandon

    what a horrible lifestyle. they dont get the life experience like we do. they waste away their lives in solitude. sucks they cant have women. thats no way to live!

    April 23, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Drew

      I can think of much worse ways to live

      April 23, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  16. Hmmph

    So the place is called the Garden of the Mother of God... but no mothers or any women at all are let in? Real nice.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Freedom

      Strange indeed!

      April 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  17. Jerry Vinter

    I am religious (though in a personal intensely non-public way).

    What wasted lives !

    April 23, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Drew

      That seems a little judgmental, what are you doing that's so special?

      April 23, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      If am not mistaken, Jesus' ministry was wholly public!

      April 23, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • I Don't Get It

      @Steve (the real one),
      "Jesus' ministry was wholly public!"

      All 3 years worth.

      30 years old was past middle age in those days. What was he up to all of his life? Why didn't he stay on earth longer... like maybe a couple of hundred years... to prove that he was really special and teach lots more stuff? He still could have gone out with a bang... for the sympathy vote and the wow factor.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      I Don't Get It
      @Steve (the real one),
      "Jesus' ministry was wholly public!"

      All 3 years worth.
      30 years old was past middle age in those days. What was he up to all of his life? Why didn't he stay on earth longer... like maybe a couple of hundred years... to prove that he was really special and teach lots more stuff? He still could have gone out with a bang... for the sympathy vote and the wow factor.
      Jesus' life, death, and resurrection certainly proved how special he was AND is. He has empowered His people to act on his behalf! I am not so sure about going out with a bang. That would seem more appropriate though for his return! He left His Word and His Spirit! You asked why His did not stay longer. Understand this, Jesus was also human and as such was limited to being at one place at a time. His spirit, on the other hand has no such limitation! That was the plan of God!

      April 23, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  18. Trent


    April 23, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  19. James

    I can see th influence of the devil in the comments here – do not let him put blinders onm your eyes and on your mind – he walks among us.

    April 23, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • brandon s

      o satan
      you barren field
      beehives i will provide

      April 23, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • pockets

      Woo woo, that's all it is.... woo woo.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Memories & Flashbacks

      Weren't these guys the back up singers for Clapton?

      April 23, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  20. Nick

    Im not religious, but I can respect what these guys are doing. At least they are 100% dedicated to what they believe in. Not like the Catholics who are constantly in the news for abuse.

    April 23, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • MaxQQQ

      How do you know what they do or dont do in there. Have you ever been?

      April 23, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • pockets

      Religion is a poison, its a way especially for these people to escape living life in the mainstream. Its unfortunate, that they have to be tied to some form of invisible diety that doesn't exist. But then again, who are we to question anyone that wants to waste their entire lives muttering mumbo jumbo, to nothing.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • What a lifestyle

      No wonder they're happy & satisfied...no women around running their yap-traps & spending them into the poor house. Men
      need to get away from women as much as possible. Now about them robes..ever try denim?

      April 23, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Geez

      pockets, seems to me there are a lot of people doing exactly what you describe.... Funny thing is those same people sound a lot like you.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • GG

      In response to Pockets: Unfortunately , you cannot prove what there is or is not but you can only speculate. Stop trying to lead the witness as though you have valid proof!

      April 23, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Pat

      What a waste. At least they could be helping people like clergy normally do. Better yet, they could be working to promote science and medicine.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.