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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. SLT-A65

    Helló mindenkinek! Nem tudom, hol kezdjem, de remélem, ezen az oldalon hasznos lehet számomra.

    November 17, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  2. wing-less-angel

    This is why I don't us the internet, no one e-mails back. I feel like i'm not "faithless" more so asking is heaven really what i always thought it was or is that something i was told soooooo many times i think its real; as the easter bunny, is it our loved ones, pets, we will all live in big homes no pain or sad feelings. I was always told have FAITH maybe God is testing me AGAIN.........

    July 1, 2011 at 1:41 am |
  3. wing-less-angel

    I have other means to talk about god, so why write my feeling to people I don't know? Wish i could have the answer. I saw the show about the Monks(in greece) & it really hit home for me, I write now because i'm missing my dad, he was called home when i was 18 now 34, is anyone out there?

    July 1, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  4. Ahmed

    If this was a muslim location, we would be called names and backward. LOL

    April 28, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  5. Dionisia28

    This was an excellent broadcast. Good job to CBS for doing such an great view of Orthodox monasticism.... Mount Athos is one of the holiest places on earth. I currently live in Greece, and I do not have a problem that I am not allowed to go because I am a woman. They live their life in prayer and focus their life only with God. God gives us two paths to take in life.... To get married and live a Christian life.... or to become a monastic. It is something that comes from God for what is meant for you to do.

    Orthodox Christianity is the oldest church of God...and the only truth in the world!

    Christ is risen! Truly, he is risen!!

    April 26, 2011 at 3:08 am |
  6. Jim

    So many people express such hatred for these people, based only on their faith, and in which way it is practiced. If you do not believe, fine, but why such hatred against those that do? Do you feel the same about blacks or whites, or Mexicans, or the Chinese? Does their practice of their faith cause you financial loss? Does it affect you in any way, except to stir up hatred? If you think religion is evil, is not hatred as well? If I am religious and hate you, are you not the same if you are not religious and hate me? The thing is, I don't hate you, whether you are religious or discard religion as a relic. Religion has certainly been the grinding point between cultures, but does is cause it? Race has been the grinding point between peoples, but does race cause it? Do the blacks that hate the whites or the whites that hate the blacks act for all of their race? Or is it just a convenient excuse for self-righteous hatred of those that have faith, that tries to appear correct and enlightened?

    April 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  7. Natalie

    There have certainly been times that I have desired such a life, quiet devotion, simplicity, responsible for nothing more than my own daily existence and the shared chores that sharing space with others required.

    I envy that to some degree.

    April 25, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • YeahRight

      It's called communal living and it does exist outside of the church. You have too look for them. Usually these people can be found supporting Coops.

      April 25, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  8. In_search_of_truth

    Above story confirms that Greek Zeusism and Roman Krishnaism existed even centries before the birth of Eisah(Jesus Christ). How Son of Marry was hanged alongwith his message and named after Zeus and Krishan(both sons of Katha and Athena) as Jesus Christ. It tells the truth of difference and conflict between Old testament and New Testament accounts. It also speaks of the truth why Idol of Jesus Christ hanged on Cross is found in homes and churches against the teachings of Moses' – ten commandments.

    April 25, 2011 at 3:17 am |
  9. Adelina

    Reality's behaviors are already prophesied in many places including the Letter of Jude.

    April 25, 2011 at 3:10 am |
  10. Adelina

    It's always best if women don't involve at all in religious leadership positions except for certain emergencies. Women need religious education in order to teach other women and children and give good advices to men.

    April 24, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • Natalie

      I am uncertain as to your reasons for such a statement? Women have been leading and teaching religion for centuries.

      What drives you to think they would be unfit to do so?

      April 25, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Adelina

      Natalie, the Bible prohibits women to teach men with a spriritual authority. Rightly so. Female "pastors/bishops" wrecked the Mainline Protestant Churches with liberal theology and reduced the general population of men extremely selfish, lazy and indifferent or unchurched. They are one of the main church killers. If people don't want to obey the plain teachings of the Bible, they should not claim to be Christian.

      April 26, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • Mit

      The reason you say: “It's always best if women don't involve at all in religious leadership positions..” is because that’s what it’s written in the New Testament. And who wrote the New Testament? The same kind of monks that lived 1700 years ago, who considered women, unclean and unworthy, as they do today. Do you think a loving God agrees with them?

      April 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • FearlessFemale67

      Adelina, you are an idiot! You ignorant person, don't you know the bible and other religious works are written by men from a long time ago who hated women except to procreate with them and have them serve them as their slaves? The bible is a book of men's opinions, not God's words. Stop believing in men's fairytales. You people make me laugh.

      May 2, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  11. JasonAle

    Although I am an atheist, I admire this lifestyle without earthy/material attachments and distractions a life of quiet contemplation.

    April 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  12. sam p

    Just another boys club. On judgement day god will ask and why don't you think women are worthy and at that moment they will know they have failed the test. Then god will say you cannot devote yourself to me with out a distraction and then he will show the path to hell. Who are they without the woman who gave them birth?

    April 24, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Varangian

      Well you sure are an idiot. They don't ban woman because they find women unworthy. they ban women so that they themselves don't become unworthy. It's about protecting themselves from temptation and focusing on spiritual, as opposed to wordly, gratification.
      Mount Athos is supposed to be the pinnacle of Orthodox monastic discipline. While women aren't allowed here, women are allowed in the hundreds of other Orthodox Monasteries throughout the world and there are even monasteries devoted entirely to women.
      Women are banned from going to Mount Athos not through of any fault of their own but to protect the monks from any temptations that may arise.

      April 30, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  13. jordan

    My Cuz works there repairing there old books, they have more gold up there than fort knox, and a cellar filled with 100 years supplie of cheese.

    April 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  14. jose

    for us, who live in the real world, it's obvious there's no god or such things. but I admire these monks, they believe in silent and private, keeping their faith and their beliefs for themselves (and for who want to join) and not trying to impose them to everybody like christians fundamentalists and reps want to do in usa. These are real christians living their beliefs in peace and letting us live our lives in peace without force us to believe in fantasies and fairy tales.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  15. JAKE671

    IF THE ONLY WAY TO GET TO HEAVEN IS TO PUT LIFE ON HOLD AND CHANT EVERY MOMENT OF THE DAY AND NIGHT, WHAT HOPE IS THERE FOR MERE MORTALS. HELL MUST BE TEEMING WITH PEOPE WHO THOUGHT THEY HAD IT MADE.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • jaebe

      They are praying for all of us..

      April 25, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • Jim

      It is certainly not the only way to heaven. But they way they choose. Is the only way to heaven martyrdom? No, but some choose that way. This isn't about to get to heaven, nor do any of those say that because they are a monk they will go to heaven. It is not about position or works, but about how they chose to get closer to God.

      April 25, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  16. mbox.NZ

    It is any wonder this world is in such a state of disarray when you have people saying things like the above.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Adam

      Exactly.....a place as holy as this and the first thing that comes to someones mind is to make fun of it....sad times in which we live....

      April 25, 2011 at 1:23 am |
  17. EM

    At least they all get to leave the toilet seat up and not have to hear 'what-for' about it ...

    April 24, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Mel

      LOLOLOL Darn! Where do I click 'like'?

      April 25, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  18. Kathleen

    Egads. Imagine what that place smells like....

    April 24, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  19. EM

    "...prohibition against women even extends to animals..." -- I can hear all the sheep in Greece breathe a big sigh of relief ...

    April 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  20. Professor

    As the centuries pass...ignorance is still running wild...

    April 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • wing-less-angel

      Are you awake Professof?

      July 1, 2011 at 1:13 am |
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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.