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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. Henry

    Americans are not only freeloaders they are also the most gullible, dumbest, and the most dishonest, wickedest, immoral, and depraved members of the human race devoid of all principles. They sold their souls to the devil and now payday has arrived. They can’t longer depend on politicians, judges, lawyers, doctors, educators, businessmen, newscasters, journalists, entertainers, and they can’t even trust their policemen, priests, and ministers who at one time were considered one of the most trusted members of society, and like the wealthy pharos of Egypt they worship their god, spelled, Gold. Oil and Drugs entombed alive in glorious golden pyramids of grief, and permanent destruction.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • Dorianmode

      Well, aren't we just all cheerie today !
      There is a pill for that I heard.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  2. makaveli

    they have a far beter chance of going to heaven than any of you who commented on this post

    April 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  3. johnny

    So how do they perpetuate this isolated monastery? Where do the new, young guys come from with no mothers there?

    April 23, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  4. Roxanne Rosas

    It's really hard to respect people who waste their entire lives by shutting themselves away from the world on purpose.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Cesar

      You are absolutely right. Good thing that they are not wasting their life doing nothing though.

      These monks constantly pray for the world. If that is doing nothing then a) you need to redefine "nothing" or b) you do not believe in prayer.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  5. null13

    smart men, women are nothing but trouble, if women would learn to know their place, you wouldn't see so many problems, all drama and no common sense.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  6. gonelikethewind

    no woment allowed so they can be closer to god. but i bet they masterbate like hell.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • Cesar

      My guess is that many of them still struggle with lust, that is why they are in the monastery in the first place: to heal.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  7. kren

    cool guy, keeping it real. thats what true christianity is about and not sell out western man made "christian" cults

    April 23, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  8. rachbell

    If I remember well, it was a woman, who got us expelled from the Garden of Eden in the first place. It's obviously from alot of these responses that no one understands the value of monastic life. Men who give their whole lives to pray to God for the salvation of humankind, are in the ranks of of saints. They're just like the Tibetan monks who meditate and pray. The reason the world is the way it is, is because man shows no respect for his fellow man, not because monks are praying.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  9. John

    I was just wondering. I am a transman. Would they consider me a woman still?

    April 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  10. Larry

    We all know the real reason they keep cats around.......

    April 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  11. Bhaijan

    I think living like this is not natural. In every religion God says to the people that live in the normal community and preach. I mean if you live that isolated and keep praying then what benefit you are giving to others? Isn't it selfish ?
    I think true devotion is when you live in the sinful society and preach and tell people who is God what does he wants from us.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Cesar

      "I think living like this is not natural. In every religion God says to the people that live in the normal community and preach"

      First, most of these monks live in a "normal community" with the rest of the monks. Only a handful live in complete solitude (and even then, they end up returning to the monastery most of the time).

      Second, not everyone needs to be a "preacher" in the sense that you are thinking. I think the reason why so many people look down on religion is because too many people have been "preaching" the wrong message. St. Seraphim, a monk, has said that "if you aquire the spirit of peace, thousands around you will be saved." That is how they preach.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  12. fred

    Women should be doing cartwheels for not being allowed in there! You seen some of those relics?

    April 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  13. Greedo

    "A woman hasn't been allowed on the mountain for over a thousand years"

    And they haven't had a traffic accident in all that time! Go figure!

    April 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  14. bailoutsos

    For all their praying, there is still all the chit going on around them. Heads in the sand religion.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  15. Allison

    Isn't it kind of cheating at being spiritual if you remove yourself from everything in the world? I can see going there for awhile to pray and center yourself, but to remain there seems pointless. You can be all close to God and spiritual when God is the only person to talk to, but I think it speaks more to your faith to walk everyday in the real world with your spirituality intact.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Cesar

      According to Orthodox theology, salvation does not happen over night. It is a constant movement towards unity with God. In that sense, they are exactly where they need to be at.

      The last thing that the monks will tell you is that everyone has to become a monk to find unity with God. Put simply, if Church is a hospital for the sick, monasteries is the emergency room.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • 4th wright

      Allison, you raise a very valid point. We all find that for which we seek. These men have chosen this particular path, to focus solely of God. You and I might find that another way to Him is to be part of His world, not a-part from it. But this does not make their choices any less valid for them.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  16. cykill

    stupid

    April 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Frank

      ok and?

      April 23, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Mighty7

      Ok, Now go back to watch Jersey Shore.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  17. Jicama

    It's ironic that their name is "The Garden of the Mother of God", but if she suddenly appeared in their midst, she'd be cast out.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Odds

      We have another name for the type of prayer he's probably engaging in...

      April 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Cesar

      The ironic thing about you statement is that they truly believe that Mary is in their midst.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  18. bailoutsos

    My kid doesn't do a freaking thing to deal with the outside world. He hides in his room. Is he a holy monk?

    April 23, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Only if he or she observes a code of silence and being a father myself, that is highly unlikely. So I guess the answer would be no. Sorry!

      April 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  19. Marge

    Just think...if it wasn't for a woman THEY wouldn't be able to be there. In fact they wouldn't be able to be any where.

    April 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Cesar

      You are absolutely right; they believe that human salvation came through the womb of a woman. Therefore, Mary is venerated above all saints.

      It is not that they dont respect woman; as a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. The reason why women are not allowed in the monasteries is because they do not want to let their own souls lust and therefore hurting themselves and the women they lust after. If that is not respect, then what is?

      April 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  20. Lynn

    A club of dirty old men, they don't trust themselves around females. And what female would want them to begin with, they wouldn't have a clue on what makes the world go round.

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

      I think that many men that "trust themselves around females" end up hurting women in the end; i am sure that many of the women in this page can attest to that. And have you talked to these people, read their books? They have imense wisdom as to how this world works.

      Not everyone is meant to be married. Perhaps that is a new idea for many of you.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Victoria

      How can you be so judgemental when you don't even know what exactly they do?

      April 23, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Frank

      What makes the world go round wise one?

      April 23, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Mighty7

      What a pedantic turd you are.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Lou

      Hey Lynn,

      You sound like you are a bitter old hag who is unable to find a man. Go back to your hole and learn about the world yourself and when you discover something interesting to say, come and report back. Thanks.

      p.s. if you have a man, god rest his soul.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • stubbycat

      such a silly little nellie!!! Try devoting yourself to the Mind of the Universe. YOu might even discover something new and exciting about your own reflected infinite being.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Sharp

      Women have just as sacred & isolated communities. Are they dirty old women? Of course they aren't. You are just another dirty minded overliberated hypocrite with no respect.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • 4th wright

      These men have chosen this course for their lives. They ask nothing from us, except to be left alone, yet many here condemn or abuse them. They seek something most of us only give a passing thought to, if any. They devote themselves to God. To them, women are distractions, but not inferiors. They venerate Mary, Queen of Heaven. You are free to think of them what you wish, it will not matter to them or to me. But you might see farther if you open your eyes.

      April 23, 2011 at 7:43 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.