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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. stevo

    If there are no women there then where do they get their little monks to get their religion going?

    April 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Cesar

      The monks at Mt. Athos were not necessarily born there. People willingly give up their life in the outside world to come in to the Mountain.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  2. JustDone

    No women for 1000 years. I bet that place is one big but orji after dark! (spelling to avoid censors)

    April 23, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  3. Ryan

    There is a definite charm to monasteries, but as a journalism student I can't imagine intentionally ignoring the world.

    Had they been informed, they would have seen Hitler coming – even though things appear to have worked out well for them anyway.

    April 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  4. nattattat

    Where are these monks born and how do they keep the population going in this little mountaintop if there are no women?

    April 23, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  5. Ben Jarvis

    Sounds like the closest we have to a Millenarian Math on Earth. (See Stephenson's "Anathem" for more details.)

    April 23, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
  6. ramonon

    They don't need women, they have each other 🙂

    April 23, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  7. JPX

    "the monks spend most of their time in prayer and are purposefully isolated from the outside world." Can you imagine wasting your entire life on magic and make-believe? Life goes by so quickly. It's depressing to think that some people squander it on absolute nonsense.

    April 23, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Sasha

      Which is why we need monks dedicated to praying for the world.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Webster

      You are so close-minded and ignorant. If you have have proof that God does not exist, present it. Otherwise, stop being so disrespectful.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • JPX

      Webster, give me proof that God does exist. You are the ignorant one. It must be wonderful to be so simple. Rather than understand science you choose to believe that a magical man in the sky is in control of everything. Dope.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • JustDone

      If you tell me a unicorn exists because you found a book that says it does but no one has ever seen one, it is up to YOU to prove that one exists, not up to me to prove it doesn't. The burden of proof should fall on the religious; if it did we'd be rid of their nonsense by now.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  8. John Maithcraic

    I am amazed at the stupidity and intolerance displayed on this board. These monks dedicate their life to pray for the world. The people commenting on this board seem to all be materialistic imbeciles. No wonder the monks need to pray.

    April 23, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • JPX

      "These monks dedicate their life to pray for the world." You think that's admirable? What if I dedicated my life to Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny, would you be similarly impressed? These people dedicate their lives to stupidness that means absolutely nothing.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      JPX
      "These monks dedicate their life to pray for the world." You think that's admirable? What if I dedicated my life to Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny, would you be similarly impressed? These people dedicate their lives to stupidness that means absolutely nothing.
      -----
      Very admirable! if you want to pray to Santa Claus and/or the Easter Bunny AND bother nobody in the process, I would recognize your right to do so. And the fact that you bother no one else in the process, I 'd even consider that admirable!

      April 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
  9. jimmynog

    Wow, that's a long time to go without a woman! I guess they call it "Greek" for good reason 😉

    April 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Drew

      Yeah, because its in Greece.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  10. Jason D'Haviland Firestone

    Wasn't Gregor Mendel a monk. Didn't he begin the study of genetics. I remember reading about him out in his garden crossing all those p-ea plants. Then there's Champagne. Didn't those nutty Cistercians in France develop the wine industry. What about harmony, chant, music, polyphony, and counterpoint. Who copied all those cl-a-ss-ical texts after they burned Alexandria. Who developed a model for community farming, with crop rotation, and fertilization ? I suggest we let them be, who knows what they will cook up next ?

    April 23, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Mattmchugh

      Interesting list of contributions that originated from monasteries.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  11. George

    It's an easy way to have a life without paying rent, insurance, license fees, taxes, etc. etc. etc. I say send in the drones and let them know what life is all about here in 2011.

    April 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Sasha

      Most monasteries engage in some form of commerce, which brings in money to pay for things they can't produce on their own. For example, icons or cd's of liturgical chant.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • marcusosland

      hahahahaha touche' my friend

      April 23, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  12. labandme

    If I was a woman I'd parachute right into the damn place and say, "how do you like me now".

    April 23, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  13. JC

    Is this where the term Jesus Freak came from?

    April 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Josh

      Jesus Freaks are people that have sacrificed it all for him (martyrdom). Sometimes they live.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  14. Javimanteg

    Must be all gays

    April 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Michae l J.

      You're an even bigger moron.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  15. Akabaka

    WOW !! Dangerous violation to the women's right. In Europe in 2011 !!!!
    Unbelievable

    April 23, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • Sasha

      Apparently Europe is without religious freedom. Have you suggested to anyone that Mosques should stop segregating the men from the women or that Muslim women shouldn't be treated as chattel or forced to wear burkas? Because those things are a greater affront to the dignity of women.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  16. Mattmchugh

    Personally, I'm not sure how a monastic life does anything to contribute to the greater good of the world... though, come to think of it, I'm not sure how most people's lives contribute either. In any case, these isolated monks certainly don't seem to doing any damage (unlike most of us), and they're preserving a pretty unique tradition. That's something in itself.

    April 23, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  17. wolf

    If so isolated from the rest of the world...then how do they buy cheese and how did they know about CBS? Should say mostly isolated.

    April 23, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Scott

      Well, they weren't born on the mountain. The whole, "no women" thing makes that certain. They will know what is going on in general terms, they just won't be up to date.

      The Patriarchate or other outside clergy probably made the arrangements for the permission and all of that. Mount Athos is pretty independent, but they do still recognize the Patriarch in Istanbul. Also, there is a civil governor, who presumably has a TV and a telephone.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  18. Jibaro

    People that become monks, nuns or the like are people that amount next to nothing in life. They use up resources without contributing an iota toward humankind. These people have given their physical and mental freedom to a movement, organization or ideals that is contributing zero to humankind. Whether political, religious or whatever this organizations should be banned!

    April 23, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Who are you to judge? It sounds like your post is autobiographic! Ban them just because yo don't agree? Ever heard of the first amendment?

      April 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Mattmchugh

      Just as a point, they're resource consumption is really, really low - particularly if compared to anyone with access to an Internet-connected computer. Per capita, we use quite a bit more than they do.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Peter F

      And keep in mind they are almost completely self-sustaing. It's not like they are burning up resources and energy all day long to spite everyone else

      April 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Sasha

      Some monks pray for the world, others make beer.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Garrett

      In the future it will be illegal for people like you to breathe and reproduce

      April 23, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • kapaco

      If you believe the physical realm is all there is I hope you are soon enlightened. If you could see what is prevented, changed or moved by people in prayer you would understand that the spiritual realm is actually more REAL than the physical.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • arydant

      Here is a good example of how believers are some of the nastiest folks you will ever meet.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      arydant
      Here is a good example of how believers are some of the nastiest folks you will ever meet.
      -------–
      Jibaro sounds like a believer to you?

      April 23, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • JoAnn

      How do you know they have not contributed anything to life on this Earth? I say they have, PRAYERS. Your not a smart person and should read the Bible. You have no soul, at least you sound like you have no soul.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Trina

      Yes, feeding the poor is such a waste!

      April 23, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Michae l J.

      @Jibaro You're a moron.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  19. zeke

    If one is isolated then how do they know what to pray about?

    April 23, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Mattmchugh

      Interesting point. I guess they figure the underlying sins of the world never change, even if the specifics do.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Jeff in Pgh

      Good point.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • kapaco

      Praying is a spiritual discipline done in spiritual realms. The God they are praying to can actually tell them what to pray for. Odd, but much more effective than our human brains trying to prioritize what to pray for.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • david55

      the bible hasnt exactly changed much in the past 1000 years.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • Bubba

      Obviously they weren't born there. They have an idea of how the world works from where they grew up.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Java

      Ah, prayer. What better way to do absolutely nothing yet think you're helping?

      April 23, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Java
      Ah, prayer. What better way to do absolutely nothing yet think you're helping?
      ---------
      Ah, criticism! doing nothing but complaining about people who do nothing but in reality are doing much more than the folks hiding behind a computer screen and complaining about them doing nothing!

      April 23, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  20. Jellyfishdude

    disagree. to become a monk, you have to go through a process...and the other monks will not let you pursue it for selfish reasons (avoiding the world).

    April 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Michae l J.

      You know nothing, sir. So be quiet.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Rev. Dave

      Whether there is intent or not, the end result is the same. I resisted the temptation to become a monk because it is very challenging to interact and live with laypeople. But the temptation remains, especially when you read that they grow their own crops. A life of hard work and prayer is a dream, but it doesn't help others. You cannot make the world a better place unless you do something to make it better.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
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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.