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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. Reality

    And in less than 15 words, said monasteries come crumbling to the ground:

    There was and never will be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!

    More details upon request.------------–

    April 24, 2011 at 12:02 am |
  2. robert

    They've been praying for a thousand years? Has god answered any of those prayers? My guess is if he hasn't, another thousand years of praying probably isn't going to help. But if he has been answering the prayers could they start praying for a cure for cancer and the genetic code of algae that make gasoline and how to grow food in salty soil and lots of other stuff that is more important than mankind's salvation? What is god supposed to be saving us from anyway? I mean, he did make us so any design flaws are his own doing so he can go save himself while we focus on what matters.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  3. HA!

    No women for 1000 years? You mean Anderson Cooper didn't jump on this gig?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  4. Phoebe

    If females aren't allowed in The Garden of the Mother of God, how does God's mother tend her garden?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
  5. t

    Some of these people that are making these comments about the lord are just plain idiots. Just because you don't belive in god doesn't mean you can critisize the people who do. All these people are doing are showing their beliefs and they are not harming anybody so whats the reason to talk about them in a hurtful way. THESE ARE GOOD PEOPLE stop being jerks.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
  6. treder

    not a religious guy, but that's one beautiful area, been there 2 years ago, incredible.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
  7. markjuliansmith

    Who said Man God was created to keep women under control excluded and subdued.

    Man is before God for a reason.

    Who gains from such a condition – women?

    It is only by changing religious and secular text which informs such notions for new citizens will this change and finally women will own God on equal terms.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  8. Granite Sentry

    A thousand years without women. Good Lord it must be a mess in there. But so quiet. http://www.granitesentry.com

    April 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
  9. Rollo Tomasi

    Yea, I can't stand these people.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  10. Rollo Tomasi

    I loved them...up until they made a deal with the devil. I have no use for these people, because when push comes to shove.....they are only concerned about themselves.....

    I would bet (and I'm not kidding about this part) on lindsay lohan coming to my aid before these guys.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  11. Henry

    thats was up screw commercialism their better off.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  12. dd

    These men wouldn't be here if it weren't for women so at some point they came across a woman- their mothers! To ban what you came from is to deny your existence.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • erikrahm

      They are abandoning woman because of themselves; not because of woman. Some Woman orthodox monastyeris are abandoning man for same reasons. How can you not understand?

      April 23, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • dtboco3

      They are abandoning everything but faith. Women would be a temptation, as they are still men. They aren't denying that they have mothers, or saying that women are bad. Ever hear of nuns? No men allowed.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
  13. brett

    why does nobody respect tradition now a days?

    April 23, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
  14. Greg

    Can't be too isolated. They know about speed bumps.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • JR

      LOL. I bet the journalist never thought of that

      April 23, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  15. Bryan

    Man, Anderson Cooper is really aging fast, considering that picture.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • anonimous

      Look again! He might be Anderson's brother

      April 23, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  16. samuel summers

    Although the blindingly evidential etiology of the man's statements lay far outside these cloistered monastery walls, who, while being graphically illustrated by the utterly impotent insanity of this monkish maelstrom, I'd still bet this whole monk-world thing owes its very inception and existence to one woman and one woman only,,the woman who first broke the heart of some long-ago-loser, some cowardly imbecilic pre-monk who mistakenly sought refuge on a rock-strewn and fallow hillside long long ago.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Been There

      It is always easy to spot the guy with the new dictionary.

      April 23, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  17. Been There

    Kris-

    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 ofa 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 9:14 pm |
    • Jozua

      Simplicity? With the accent on SIMPLE. Who gave birth to them? Some male? Monuments to selfishness an example to Life? Get real!

      April 24, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  18. Ed

    What I find interesting is that no woman has been there for over 1000 years and still none are allowed but the second name isT he Garden of the Mother of God..... helloooo.... are we unclear on the concept or what?

    April 23, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • Noah J

      Yea, this is actually not accurate. The Athonites made an exception during WWII, housing Jewish women on the island away from their would be Nazi captors. The tradition is that the Mary appeared to some monks 1000 years ago and consecrated the island to herself barring any other female from the island.

      April 23, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @Noah
      Yeah, their traditions and those visions get them every time... They put much faith in them, because thy don't have true spiritual discernment. But God's word says that satan can, AND DOES transform himself into the angel of light, if he knows he can deceive..... Mary, the Mother of Jesus would NEVER demand that... Mysticism can be alluring thing, but always leads into shadowy, dark, murky paths where danger lies in wait for the unsuspecting souls....Satan is very clever, he knows human nature!

      April 24, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  19. Been There

    Kris-
    These monks are praying for the dalvation of the world. Theyare a part of a religious community that is centuries old. Being apart from the world does not mean they are not informed about it. I ahve been there twice and it is truely inspiring and magical. These are very dedicated and deeply committed men who have followed the Orthodox faith to a level most people cannot understand. Orthodoxy was the ony Cristian faith for over 100 years- when Rome broke off to establish a papacy. This is the "faith of the fathers", this is Christianity lived to its most purest form.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • Lee

      I'm don't want to start a religious fued, but Rome didn't break away to start a papacy, it was always there. Even the Eastern Church considered the Bishop of Rome first among equals. The break was more about politics and a little about the phrase, "the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son". As a Catholic I would never leave my church, but I love the beauty and sacredness of the Orthodox Church. Peace be with you, and a Happy Easter

      April 23, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
    • Been There

      Lee-
      And the endless debate continues over who left whom? Our eternal dialog- an one I value highly. It is good to talk of these things – even if we view the historical from simiar intersts and divergent views. Even at the highest levels of both our churches – we send emissaries to discuss these very points. There is a beauty in our discussions and I think it brings us closer to God in each word. In four hours I will be in Holy Liturgy in worship at my Orthodox Church. I assume you will be in church (Ctholic) somewhere late this evening or tomorrow. It is good to do so. I wish you the finest of Easters – from one to another.

      April 23, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • MK

      Kris/Lee,

      Actually the schism as it's called between the orthodox church and catholic church happened in 1054AD. Before then we were one apostolic church with 5 see's in which there was a bishop for each see, one of these see's was Rome and all the see's were considered equal.

      Christos Anesti!

      April 24, 2011 at 2:51 am |
  20. Been There

    Hey Rags..... You should hve finished the 8th grade. Go back to your Nintendo!

    April 23, 2011 at 9:01 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.