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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. IceT

    Being without Women for the last 1000 yrs I think it's best Women stay away for their own safety!!

    April 23, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  2. From the line of Magdala

    MP-no more meshugana than any of the other religion. If one is part of a religion that puts such constraints/taboos on men and women and their interactions, then a state of longing will be created–which cannot be dealt with unless you completely remove 50% of the population–or hide them under veils. Still–we see women embrace their religion because that is what they have been raised with–or what they come to believe will 'save' them.What ever 'belief' helps to set your life on a path where you cultivate deep respect for each individual (another)–seeing them as the divine beloved, then you can live in a state of religious wellness–if you wait for virgins, Jesus or anyone else to save you or bring you the ultimate eternal pleasure, without cultivating your own deep respect for another by the simply act of being kind to them without religions strings or expectation,then we have to ask ourselves,'what good is religion?' I'm not interested in hearing someone's doctrine as a response. What do you say before the vast and profound universe–what? (that other guy is not a believer–or–I blame it on her ? If all you can do is recite your doctrine– then–yes we are all meshugana, no matter the religion.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  3. Dan

    The last woman there was my ex-wife.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  4. KWONNYBRITT

    Women cannot make the cheese, they'll end up ruining it. Just like everything they touch

    April 23, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  5. john

    Religious zealots are afraid of women because they know that without women they would never exist, they are marginalized in spades. That goes for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, they're all afraid, and they should be since God would be a women since I have never heard of a man giving birth to anything of consequence.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  6. Buckminster Fullerene

    Fascinating.
    Do these gr-izz-ly old fa-rt guys actually think any young woman of breeding age would actually ..... amazing male arrogance.
    Why do so many, (including ancient) religious traditions, including many "pagan" ones, (the Vestal Vi-rg-ins), have such a con-tem-ptuous, or certainly "other than positive", view of s-e-x and women ? The bible is full of references to their "un-cle-an-ness". No won-der women were only allowed to vote in the history of humans, in the last 100 years.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • diana

      The Vestal Virgins were not held in contempt, but were a powerful force in Rome. Most pagan religions hold women in High regard being that most pagan belief revolve around the Goddess/Mother Earth as the center and driving force.

      In all "pagan" ancient mythology, there were Goddesses who were strong, powerful, feared and revered! Think Hera, Artemis, Diana, Freyja, Frigga, Venus etc.

      It is only in patriarchal religion that women are/were viewed as subservient and lesser beings.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Buckminster Fullerene

      @ diana,
      What ? I totally, completely, absolutely, agree with you.
      That is not my point. My point is the the fact that the state of female virginity is held up as ultimately more valuable than say, motherhood, or whatever, implies a view of the natural function of women being of less value than the state of a "se-xless" woman.
      BTW, you forgot the most famous mother-goddess of all time. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Virgin. "Immaculately" conceived. Yup. It all fits.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  7. Religious Sects

    Do Women have any hand in the making of the cheese?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Jesus

      No these guys use their own hands....probably a lot of hand usage in the monastery.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  8. alemap

    I can see this story has brought out all the crazies..hohum

    April 23, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  9. Mark Christofferson

    I'm sure women aren't knocking down the door.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  10. dldc17

    It is just amazing to me the amount of ignorance, intolerance, and rudeness that individuals are willing to reveal about themselves when posting to online message boards.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  11. adam

    thanks god at least they don't have to go through what I have been going through with women. the best way to deal with women is Isolate yourself from them. thank you monk for the advice. I'm moving in.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  12. Vito

    "the leader of the global community of 300 million Greek Orthodox Christians". Correction, the leader of the 300 million Orthodox Christians. There are only about 16 million Greek Orthodox. The 300 million make up followers of the various Orthodox Christian Churches (e.g. Russian, Serbian)

    April 23, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • LouAz

      Thanks for the correction, Vito. Interesting that the great CBS and the trying to be "Christian News Network" , currently known as CNN, clearly had only a novelty interest in some 300 million religious humans as they did not even know what you have stated. All the good little white christians in America think everyone is just like them. They really don't want to know that anyone could possibly think or believe differently about their "one true god". You betcha.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • steve

      Yopu are correct Vito; I'm Greek Orthodox and there are 300 Easter Orthodox. The 60 minute special reference Turkey as the place of Mount Arhos which is also wrong. 60 minutes needs to do a better job with their facts.

      April 23, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  13. Alexishere

    I like how it says "It is a place where a life of prayer is more effective than anywhere else." LOL that's because all they do is pray, which is their right and totally fine, but they have no access to information which would tell them "uh...all your prayers for world peace and whatnot aren't working." I don't care if a bunch of men want to live in religious solitude sans women but their life is quite selfish in that all they do is pray but nothing else for the good of mankind. And of course, we don't know for what they pray. That's not our business, but it's nothing we'd care much about anyway.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  14. KWONNYBRITT

    Women shouldnt be allowed to vote,drive,play sports, basically anything that takes a bit of intelligence to do because they strongly lack that.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Beth

      Your feeble attempts at trolling have failed. Please try again later.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Jesus

      Let me guess....your mother really really dislikes you.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Joe

      Let me guess. You're fourteen years old and your girlfriend just broke up with you.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  15. Quite Odd

    "The Garden of the Mother of God"....so the garden belongs to a woman, yet a woman is not allowed on it???

    April 23, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Buckminster Fullerene

      Yup. She was amazing. She remained a "virgin" even though she had at least two kids. But then any lady who gets pregnant by a bird that flys in the window, announced by a "wingy thingy" should have a nice quiet garden all just for herself.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  16. lostmind

    And here comes the women's rights movement, what do you mean no women allowed.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Feminist

      Uh, men often aren't allowed in convents, so we're pretty square with the situation. Well, in as so much as one can be happy with a religion that is designed to oppress women.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • reACTIONary

      @Feminist: If you were to look into the administration of convents, you would probably find that they are all under the direction of a man. And, by the way, while their religion does reflect male domination it certainly was not "designed" simply to implement it.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Sasha

      Feminist, you're entirely wrong; Christianity elevates women. It's misguided to think that men and women can or should do all the same things; they're clearly designed otherwise. Did our creator discriminate in being born a Man? Did he discriminate by his failure to allow men to bear children?

      April 23, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  17. they'll never enjoy sandwiches

    How did they survive without women doing all their work?

    April 23, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • thnkb4uspk

      ...and who finds the stuff they lose?...and who asks for directions? 🙂

      April 23, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  18. John Sharp

    No women have been allowed on the mountain for 1,000 years. The inference is that somehow they would diminish the good works the monastery is doing. I am sure they will articulate their reasoning in a way that somehow makes it seem spiritually based. How pathetic.
    Silly people living out a life based on archaic mythology.
    More lives wasted due to religion. The biggest con game ever invented.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Truth

      Hmmm. tell God himsef that He is a con job when you stand in front of Him on jundgement day....'twill be an interesting response.....

      April 23, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • kim

      I wonder how these "men" got there without women? LOL
      Religion is an excuse for people to be "freaks"!

      April 23, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Jesus

      I wonder who does their plumbing (pipe cleaning) or do they let their pipes just dissipate from not being taken care of.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Ted Linguini

      @ Truth......you are a fruit basket. I would do as you suggest, except that there is NO god to speak to. Enjoy your god delusion.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Dan

      John, I couldn't have said it better.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • john

      Women will not only diminish their good work, women will destroy their good work. Is it coincidence those guys are so peaceful and stress-free without women around for a thousand years?

      April 23, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Dan

      Jesus, they clean each others pipes. They take turns in the box with the hole in it.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Spijder

      The fact that no women have been there in so long is, because of their isolation from the outside world, the only solid proof of the single-minded focus to their devotions without distraction. Though it 'could' imply that faith and devotion to purely spiritual pursuits would degenerate into instantaneous debauchery with the introduction of women and outside temptations, (which speaks much more about what they believe about the nature of man than their opinion of women) but their order obviously is not about practicing self control or discipline over temptations and distraction, but about isolation from all things worldly, not just from women. It's just the report that stresses that particular aspect of their isolation.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  19. thnkb4uspk

    I have grown to despise religious holidays. The freaks and philosophers roll out like snakes on the first warm day in spring. Everybody "knows" what is right and tries to beat up his neighbor to get him to believe it, too. I do love fantastic stories, however; and both Christmas and Easter really ring the bell in the fiction department

    April 23, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • grandee

      I was almost going to post, but I think I will be like the monks- and NOT get involved 🙂

      April 23, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Jesus

      I agree. It's very depressing to see what appears to be rational human beings following the dogma of a bronze age primitive people. It's even more of a downer to see folks being ripped off financially by those religion hucksters on the tube

      April 23, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Violent Munks

      Yes, it sounds like these monks are really violent. I am sure they are beating up a lot of their neighbors. Sounds like a really harmless group to me who doesn't want to bother anyone. It took two years to even grant an interview.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Monastic

      They just want privacy.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Sasha

      You can't handle the truth.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  20. Big~Smelly~Tuna

    Just what exactly do these guys do with the female cats? If it is truly this isolated the rat problem could have been handled
    and over 1400 yrars ago.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Buckminster Fullerene

      Ewwwe.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • tsmith

      And what about the female rats?

      April 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Monastic

      They keep the mouse populations down.

      April 23, 2011 at 3:00 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.