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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. Kris

    I respect their decision to be there, but I don't understand the purpose. What exactly are they praying for and how do they know there is anything worth praying for when they don't have a clue what is going on in the world. Even if they di know, I really don't see them as living a life of any kind. They are not a part of the world, so leave them alone.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
    • Been There

      There is a simplicy to life on the Holy Mountain that is not posible in the cultural world. It is consistent and focused. These men's purpose is to be closer to God. Period. There is no other reason. The have left the cultural world to focus and devote their lives to God in the simple and daily practices of prayer, ritual, and service. To become a monk is not easy, and the life of a monastic is not easy- but filled with joys few in the cultural world will every know. It is truely a world to its own. Theyare supported by benefactors in the world and also produce products for sale. They have few material needs, living communal and simply. In my view, it is a gift to be allowed or selected to be a monastic. To me, it is a very high calling.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Andacar

      You are literally looking into about as authentic a remainder as still exists of the medieval world. The modern mindset has changed so fundamentally from this that it's hardly surprising that you find it all so incomprehensible. They see their lives as meaningful, purposeful and extremely important. They have deliberately left the rest of the world behind and have no interest in it. That has always been the purpose of becoming a monk. They aren't sequestering themselves to pray to get something or ask God to do something in the world. They have done all this to get closer to God as they see Him and remove themselves from the ever growing chaos of our modern life.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • David

      They are praying for Playboy Magazines.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • Mavent

      Their main import is vaseline.

      April 23, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  2. george w.

    They must have a tree-top load of laundry and dishes!!

    April 23, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  3. Ron

    Wow, religion excluding some one? I'm shocked!!!

    April 23, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  4. Elias

    Hey Greek orthodox christians, know how we know your gay?...

    April 23, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • Dorianmode

      Why do YOU have THAT on the brain ?

      April 23, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • thedarkside

      Although they have had their fair number of scandals Greek Orthodox priests are not, for the most part, known to be pedophiles (and usually their affairs are with women!). I am not arguing that they are more noble people, what I am saying is that the majority of orthodox priests are married (with a lot of children) and not gay. That's the one thing I believe the orthodox church got right: let the priests marry, and have normal family lives!

      April 23, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  5. Randoms

    Go ahead, someone will call me a heaten or what ever ungodly word is the big smackdown. Stories like this just amaze me in how far a story book can drive people to do weird stuff. This group seems to be out of the hypocrisy of religion but still in the dark ages. What ever blows you hair back. And don't bother trying to save me eh.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  6. Norvy

    Say, Mike! D'ya have problems with women? Why? History shows all major wars began due to the decision-making of men. How about the majority of abuse against women...serial killers...failure in domestic economy...abuse of children under religious pretenses, etc. D'ya notice at football games, you see the traditional "Hi, Mom!" signs...not "Hi, Dad!" I'm sorry...you're probably going through divorce; did your wife find another (better) man?

    April 23, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  7. Elias

    Religious and their female issues. Grow up!

    April 23, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  8. Scott

    This is nothing to be proud of.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  9. Jam

    That would be a great place for a secret applied physics laboratory.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  10. jefffbo

    Bet there is a little pocket pool going on there....

    April 23, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  11. Nan

    I wish I could talk them into allowing me inside their world. I would LOVE to get away from my kids. I'm so jealous.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  12. OhthatChar

    I feel they are blessed not to have to deal with all this crap going on in our world.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  13. frootyme

    Nonsense. Christianity. Judaism, Islam and Hinduism no matter what it is – all are male dominated religions.
    Religions have done no good for the humanity and will not do any good in future.
    Dump and move on.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  14. Sue

    Interesting that they do not want any contact with females – yet seem to honour one woman – Mother of God. oddity. Also although I respect anyone who devotes their life to prayer – a selfish prayer -where they are not concerned with the world around them – would seem at odds with the God that they pray to. For God so loved the Whole World....

    April 23, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • Cesar

      The lack of contact with females is not male chauvinism or anything of that sort. They dont believe that women are evil, they believe that their own souls (the monk's) are corrupt and need proper healing. Contact with women can lead to lust and thus more corruption for their souls.

      Also, they do pray for the world! They do so in their communal prayers, private prayers, and through the Liturgy. They are the unspoken warriors of the Christian faith.

      One more point, according to the epistle of James, the prayer of the righteous are effective, therefore as the monks heal their souls, their prayers for the world will also become more effective (less about them, more about the salvation of the world).

      Don't you agree that there is beauty to this?

      April 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  15. Ashley

    I don't care if they want privacy, what apparently women are a bad thing, whats wrong with religious men, honestly

    April 23, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      You sound the type that would want her daughter to join to boy scouts! These are THEIR rules. Claim down people!

      April 23, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Cesar

      Its the opposite. The Monks believe that they are not good enough to be in the presence of a woman.

      In orthodoxy, Mary is venerated above all Saints. Btw, she happens to be a woman.

      April 23, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • jimmy the freak

      It makes perfect sense to me. If they allowed a woman into the monastery, they would be killing each other in 10 minutes, trying to get in her pants.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  16. Charles W. Skinner

    It's so enlightening to see the comments of the hypocrites, Liberals and Atheist bigots here. I find that it is usually those who scream loudest about everyone having a right to live the way they want that always condemn loudest those few who live in a way THEY don't agree with. A life of religious servitude, worship and separation is a simple life, and most Liberals and exactly ZERO atheists could ever understand it.

    The hypocrites condemning these simple monks should be ashamed of themselves and should take a REALLY close look at the exact limits of the tolerance they claim to have against what they condemn when given the opportunity.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • Cesar

      Agreed. People are ignorant because they choose to.

      It is so funny to see how many experts of Christianity, religion, and Mt. Athos there are in this page, Would have never guessed. I am so glad they all speak such truths.

      April 23, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • Happy Atheist

      That's unfair. I'm an atheist but I can completely understand someone living this way, and i'm perfectly content to let them have their place. They aren't hurting anyone so why not?

      April 23, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • LEB

      Do you actually think before you type, or are you just in such a habit of knee-jerk blasting liberals and atheists that you are no longer capable of typing a rational comment?

      You also seem unaware that many liberals are religious. Whatever denomination of Christian YOU are, it's the result of a liberal church leader somewhere in your denomination's history who decided that the current status-quo interpretation of the Bible wasn't accurate, so he founded a new denomination, all because his view of interpreting the Bible was "outside the box."

      April 23, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • Cesar

      @ LEB: If you would read most of the comments you would realize what Charles is talking about. He didnt say that all liberals are ignorant or what not, he is referring to the people who have been posting pretty horrible things on here. His comment was not a general comment, it was about the nonsense that people are saying in their posts.

      Second, you couldnt be more wrong about your interpretation of Charles' denomination. I am assuming that Charles is an orthodox Chirstian. As opposed to most Christian sects today, Orthodox Christianity has been practiced for 2,000 years. You can almost say that Orthodox Christianity is "pre-denominational," when the Christian church was One. As far as the interpretation of the Bible goes, Orthodox interpret the Bible based on the Creeds (most before any major schisms, thus predenominational), and tradition (over 2,000 years old, including the writings of the Church fathers).
      It is will all due respect that i say this: explore the history of Christianity and you will find that your comment is turned on its head.

      April 23, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • awaysaway

      I'm an atheist and I understand why individuals might retreat like this. I also think that it will be a very interesting program to watch. That doesn't mean that I have to agree that this is a productive or honorable way to spend a life. Seems like a waste – but ho hum each to his own.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Charles.,,what if this was a ho-mo -s-exual commune. I would expect that there would be many some what negative comments from the religious folks I am sure.. bigots exist on all sides..and in most cases just happen to be the folks you disagree with anyway

      April 24, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  17. James G

    Can someone explain how they recruit for these monk positions if they have no contact with the outside world??? These people need to come off their mountain and enter the modern world.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      That is a good question and I would be stunned if anybody here could answer that!

      April 23, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • Charles W. Skinner

      It's simple. They have a basic contact with the Greek Orthodox Church. It is limited, but when a suitable candidate presents himself to the Greek Orthdox leadership, their information is likely submitted to the heads of the monasteries and if and when a position opens up, they are offered the opportunity to join the monastery.

      It's not really that difficult.

      Steve (the real one), you may now proceed to be stunned.

      April 23, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • Cesar

      "Can someone explain how they recruit for these monk positions if they have no contact with the outside world??? These people need to come off their mountain and enter the modern world."

      The outside world does have contact with these monks. Many people go to Mt. Athos as a form of pilgrimage. Furthermore, Mt. Athos is full of history, every Orthodox Christian is aware that such a place exists.

      Also, these monks often create icons, write books, etc.

      So to answer your question, people choose willingly to go to Mt. Athos to give up their corrupt life in the "modern world."

      Mt. Athos is not a secret, read some books and you'll be enlightened with its history and purpose.

      April 23, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Charles W. Skinner
      It's simple. They have a basic contact with the Greek Orthodox Church. It is limited, but when a suitable candidate presents himself to the Greek Orthdox leadership, their information is likely submitted to the heads of the monasteries and if and when a position opens up, they are offered the opportunity to join the monastery.
      It's not really that difficult.
      Steve (the real one), you may now proceed to be stunned.
      ----------
      Stunning sequence commencing! Stunned at am! Thank you, good info! Thanks again! !

      April 23, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      make that ... stunned I am!

      April 23, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • rs1201

      what happens when and if they need a hospital...or a doctor...or medicines that have been discovered...what a bunch of morons...it hurts to think that there are such imbeciles in the world....

      April 23, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Cesar

      @rs1201:
      "what happens when and if they need a hospital...or a doctor...or medicines that have been discovered...what a bunch of morons...it hurts to think that there are such imbeciles in the world...."

      These people are not idiots. Most of these people had a different background before comming into the monastery. Many of these monks are scholars. Perhaps the "imbecile" comment shows your ignorance of the subject?
      If it came down to it, these monks will outsmart you and your pot head friends put together.

      April 23, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Dorianmode

      @rs1201,
      Who says they don't have doctors, dentists, and any other support they need. There are all sorts of generous people who think it's important to have these people do what they do. The Greek Orthodox Church is very popular both in the US and Greece.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • thedarkside

      You have missed the point completely. They do not recruit, the point is not to make more like you like all American "religions" work, just for money. Greek Orthodox church is not into proselytism, the point is not to recruit more and more. Mount Athos is supposed to be a quiet place and any man, of any religion, can visit, even for a few days, to relax. Like in all Orthodox monasteries, is you go as a visitor they welcome you and you are welcome to stay for as long as you want, without asking for money, as a guest, you don't have to become a monk. The reason monks keep joining mount Athos is because they choose that lifestyle. Most mount Athos monks are highly educated college graduates that at some point, looking for the point of life, decide that a simple life is what they want.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  18. Marie

    This is the life they have chosen and should be respected for that. However, the reporter should edit the text; the last sentence is gramatically incorrect. It should read, "have been threatened."

    April 23, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  19. biorsel

    Who would know if they're gay or not??? Women not allow, what about lesbian?

    April 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • rs1201

      Probably a whole bunch of gay guys...I heard that these monks don't bathe either...there's some sort of prohibition against soap and water...I'm not kidding...I can imagine the stench there....

      April 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  20. billthebeast

    Toss in 100 female paratroopers and end this non-sense.

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

      the whole point is to avoid the hysteria, unthining emotionalism, and minless mob mentality of females.. Sure, some nut job or colection of nut jobs, would destroy these monestaries, god only knows they have wrecked tis country, but it would be a profound loss.

      April 23, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • tony

      your a dick head..

      April 23, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • anevay

      LOLOL

      April 23, 2011 at 8:57 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.