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. BugsMalone

    So women are the problem not them ? What a bunch of idiots. Think we are lucky that at lease a few nuts are out of the gene pool.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Caracoles

      You meant least or "lease"

      April 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  2. William

    Thousand years of peace, no wars, prayer. Imagine that. Some nasty comments on here about them. A story like this about Islam would have had everyone gushing over with praise.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • kdawg

      I have no idea what your point is. But if it's what I think it is then it's pretty easy to have no conflicts if you never meet anyone. Besides, I am sure that they would have had their fair share of spats and arguments between themselves over the years if they ever cared to talk about it.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  3. Marcnj

    What did you people think monks did?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  4. GAW

    As usual the dogmatic, fundamentalist atheists come out of the woodwork whenever an article appears like this appears on CNN or any other site. Free speech means we have to put up with the likes of Terry Jones and their atheist counterparts. Both sides think so much alike.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • kdawg

      Never criticize the messenger, just because you don't like the message.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • person

      I do find it odd how they do group around every article like this, despite them probably making up a smaller percentage in real life than on articles like this. I'm an atheist and don't post "you idiot, why you think god exists, you idiot? idiot."

      April 23, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • GAW

      @kdawg... Individuals are the interpreters of the message. My gripe is not with atheism itself as it is with the way certain atheists express their ideology. Not all atheists express their atheism in the same way fundamentalist Christians express their beliefs. When one is strongly convinced that their beliefs are right and perhaps the only right one then all other views are demonized and vilified. IMHO its not only 'what' you believe that's important but also 'how' you believe it.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  5. TheMirror

    Funny comments! You people do realize that these poor sheltered monks are actually savvy businessmen with enormous landholdings all across Greece, right?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  6. kdawg

    vsk said: "They are avoiding women and connection with external world is to keep themselves away from six passions of mind desire, lust, anger, greed, delusion and pride" – I would suggest that they seen to be caught up in just one "delusion"

    April 23, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  7. 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 23, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  8. Kiersten

    "Guy Montag"? "god" ? Oh man XD the trolls on these articles are the best!

    April 23, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  9. a4mrtheist

    Two hands helping others do more good than a thousand clasped in prayer.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  10. Some people still don't get...

    ... A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the appearance of being right. ~Thomas Paine

    April 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  11. GetReal

    Are they misogynists or gay? Because it's one or the other.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Stephen

      Well, I would suggest they don't want women around for two reasons. One, they will be tempted and God will get angry and rain down hell and fire all over the place. The other reason is purely misogynist, women do not belong there because they are not their spiritual equals. Neither view is sane.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  12. Stephen

    Isolation can be very dangerous, as it is in this instance – these people are clearly delusional and perhaps any number of neurotic disorders. A shame what religion can infect the mind with.

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

      Maybe you're delusional for voting democrat... or republican... or independent...
      Who are you to judge how they choose to practice their religion?

      April 23, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • person

      You have no grounds to say that on, as you must be delusional after sitting at your computer all day posting ignorant comments on cnn.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • kdawg

      When common sense is clearly at issue with their nature and actions, then it's easy to 'judge'.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Stephen

      Yeah, perfectly okay to sequester yourself on a mountain because your imaginary sky king thinks it is holy and demands you grow out a beard to rival that of Karl Marx and won't allow women to set foot on the said mountain because they might distract you. Right. Well, when I see lunacy like that I consider it the duty of a healthy mind to call it such: lunacy.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Beg to Differ

      No ! It's about those cats. The female cats.
      They are so frickin evil.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  13. Dana

    What is their reason for treating women as less than equal?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • IceT

      Most religions subjugate the women because men are not considered to be able to control their own actions against them, so women are blamed for the men's religious transgressions. It's standard logic, men sin because they desire women therefore women are the problem.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • vsk

      It has nothing to do either with men/women.. its all about controlling six passions of mind – desire, lust, anger, greed, delusion and pride. Traditionally all Monks used to follow them and keep away from external world. Now only few follow those traditions as one in this case..

      April 23, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  14. Dennis White

    For those critics of religion, who are in truth the weakest and poorest inspirit. You condemn your neighbour when you see his religion and yet you do not see your own ignorance. This is because ignorance is your master and you are the servant of its kingdom. YOUR HOPE IS GOD’S MERCY! “Now I can hear your baby cry”. Easy to talk and hard to listen isn’t it?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Dan

      Dennis, you are the weak one for believing those fairy tales to make yourself feel better. The rest of us are strong enough and don't need that garbage. Wake up.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • IceT

      Apt ending to your own post.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Kay

      I can see how strong you are.... insulting religion... how original...

      April 23, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Jay

      Mr. White, I am not sure that your damnation of non-believers and extreme confidence in your beliefs is doing any good to convert anyone.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • kdawg

      The critics of religion are by definition the very strongest of any community. They alone have the courage to tread where many want to, but so few seldom do.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  15. Dan

    They don't know what they are missing.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  16. Liberty Queen

    What these so-called monks fail to realize is that they came from between the legs of a strong women and that without women, they do not exist!

    April 23, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • poopoo

      Wow....... I think it's time to go shave your pits...............

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

      They are avoiding women and connection with external world is to keep themselves away from six passions of mind desire, lust, anger, greed, delusion and pride. In olden days monks (Rihis) used to go to Himalayan Hills to keep themselves aways from these 6 passions of mind known as Arishadvarga.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  17. Just a guy

    From the genetic perspective – the Christians always took the best for priesthood and other god work and prevented them from woman. Meaning, they took the best gene pool and did not let it continue.

    On the other hand, with the Jews, the smartest and brightest would marry the daughter of the Rabbi.

    with Muslims, well, they are still marrying with their cousins

    It may explain a thing or two - FASCINATING

    April 23, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • BlossomPure Organics

      why is your undie always brown? Human species consider tissue insufficient. need to wash!

      April 23, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Anastasios

      Greek Orthodox priests are allowed to marry and have kids.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  18. Jay

    How did they reproduce and breed the next generation for 1000s of years without women? Cloning?

    April 23, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Kevin

      The same way Rosie O’Donnell did. At first I thought the story was about her.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Salman

      No they go down the mountain for that.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • vsk

      After ataining a certain age, people choose their profession, even it applies for Monks..

      April 23, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  19. god

    Wow. These guys are wasting their lives here and I don't even exist.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Guy Montag

      You tell em God!

      April 23, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • kdawg

      If you don't exist, then how did you reply? Or is some sort of skynet paradox?

      April 23, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • T Dog

      lol God

      April 23, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  20. Laurie

    Your comments are (mostly) absurd. With small-minded, ignorant people such as yourselves running rampant across the globe, it's no wonder the monks choose to have no contact with the outside world. They're hurting no one. Leave them in peace.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Kay

      To bring in women would be to tempt them. If women had a place like this, would you call them bigots too?

      April 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Pilfer

      The premise that "women need to be prevented from entering because they cause temptation" is a bigoted and incredibly evil premise. It extends directly from the premise (also MYTH) that women committed the original sin and therefore are ultimately responsible for evil in the world.

      To defend this action and accuse others of being "small minded" for questioning them demonstrates how insidiously these evil religions penetrate the minds of ignorant people under the guise of "divinely inspired morality."

      April 23, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Pilfer

      Though I do encourage deeply religious people to go up into the mountains and leave the rest of the world alone. That would be nice.

      April 23, 2011 at 11:48 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.