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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. Carol

    Where is there a Mountain for only women to escape from men? Just think you could sit and pray all day and night and never have to interact with anyone but God! It might be peaceful, but terribly boring. On the other hand if there were cats there and birds, etc. I could be very happy most of the time.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  2. Mr Mark

    Typical – a hatred/fear of women based on idiotic religious beliefs.

    If there's a prejudice in this world you can rest assured it is grounded in religious belief.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  3. Marilyn Sweet

    Aww- we don't want to go to that stupid place anyway. Looks boring to me....

    Why do we have men in charge of anything when they obviously have such little control over themselves ...

    April 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  4. Ron

    I guarantee these guys are dropping the soap in the shower and enjoying it. Anyplace that doesn't welcome women needs to be avoided and mocked.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Dave

      Nah. I like mocking closed-minded and egotistic posts like yours instead.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  5. Dustin

    We all get one shot at life and these guys are completely wasting theirs for the sake of a fairy tale. How sad.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  6. mjr

    Personally, I tend to lean toward 'obsthetimes' remarks. I'm educated, spiritual, intelligent and have traveled globally. I believe it's healthy in all respects to have periods of fasting from enjoyable distractions, but I just don't believe we were created to spend our entire life in a state of deprivation from ANYTHING. I can't imagine that abstinence from a major part of life's enjoyment is doing anyone any good.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  7. Did I read it right

    If No Women, how did they continue till 1000 years.. they should be eradicated in 100 years itself

    April 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Stephen

      People join monasteries from the outside. There is a selection process whereby they select people who want to join them.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Dave

      Men become monks, they are not born that way. You read it right, but understanding it is another story.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      They stayed one place because nobody would ask for directions.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  8. petemg

    As long as they are doing no wrong they should be left alone. Romans 14 more or less says that if a person believes a certain way do not put temptation in their path so that they will sin. Why should some people feel they have to interrupt another person's way of life. Must be nice because they do not have an American president dictating on what they should and should not do. Lucky them.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  9. Big Moose

    Looks like them guys won't be laying pipe anytime soon

    April 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  10. Khaled Anntar

    God has given us life and created us on earth to grow it; live, work, marry and have kids. God has made it possible for us to grow and grow with the means that God created for us. We can worship God and in the same time live, work, marry women and have kids and enjoy life. Everything we do in life can be considered a worship of God as long as we believe in God.

    God has created humans not only to worship him but also to populate earth and grow it and this requires that we work, , marry women and have children. God already has armies of angels whose job is to only worship Him; that's their sole job; that's their work and that's how and why they were created. We, humans, have been created differently and therefore we CAN NOT be angels even if we want to.....

    We, humans, are not angels and if we try to be like angels it is against what God has ordained to the His first messenger, Adam. When priests isolate themselves from the outside world , it is against the true teachings of Moses and Jesus.

    I would invite these priests to become Muslims and they will have both worlds, enjoy life and worship God, the only God, the one God..who has no Sons, no daughters and he has everything in the Universe we know and in the universes we do not know.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Daiv

      there is no "God" there is no heaven and there is no hell. it is all just stories to keep the rabble in line.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • nOT Trash

      And if they refuse your "invite", a world of pain and death awaits.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Maya

      It is rather disturbing to think that the ruler of the universe is so insecure and egotistical that he created legions whose sole purpose was to worship him. People should have higher standards for their deities.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • F Din

      These priests don't believe in violence, fraud and deceit. ( War is deceit- Al-Hadith)

      April 23, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  11. Robert

    Hmm...nobody told these guys they will not be saved based on their works alone. Their costumes and customs have little worth.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • JesusFish

      As do your comments.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  12. ASSASSINews

    This is why I've always said that the vast majority of religious people don't actually believe their own nonsense. If you honestly believed that the actions in your microscopic blip of a life (let's say 80 years) would result in an *eternity* (a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years comes nowhere close to defining) of either blissful paradise or merciless torture, wouldn't you be spending every waking hour of those 80 years on your knees in prayer? These guys are the closest to actual believers as you will find. It's all complete nonsense anyway, but at least they're committed.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  13. Lenore Anderson

    The Garden of the Mother of God, and they don't allow women to set foot there. Another religious abomination.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  14. George Costanza

    Those Monks have it right. I look at a beautiful woman & I can't even remember my own name.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  15. BeatDownBro

    Where do I sign up? My wife is a pain in the ass.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • BeatDownBro's Neighbor

      She makes me smile! 😀

      April 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • BeatDownBro's Other Neighbor

      I am pretty sure I am a pain in her ass, but she likes it.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • John Toradze

      Just present yourself at the ferry. Tell them you want to do it. They can decide to take you on as an acolyte.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • C ANDERSON

      ANSWER: ICHOR~(GREEK MYTHOLOSY)

      April 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  16. vsk

    The below comments look so childish, people with half knowledge making fun of themselves in forums.... The tradition of monks is always to keep away from external world, but currently its only followed by very few as in this case... the main purpose is to keep themselves focused and away from six passions of mind – desire, lust, anger, greed, delusion and pride...

    April 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  17. obsthetimes

    Why are women demonized by organized western religion (Islam, judaism, christianity. Perhaps because the joy, lust or love created by their company takes us and the monks away from God?
    Then Cheese, Ribs, wine, roller coaster rides should be banned too. Sometimes I lust for Ribs and deep dish pizza. My lust for fatty food drives me to distraction. Please ban pizza today so that my friggin' soul can be saved.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Stephen

      Women are demonized by men in many western religions because men prone to these kinds of fundamentalist delusions cannot control themselves. So, rather than try to understand the complex psychological and physiological issues going on they make their god blame women for causing lust. Bad craziness.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Daiv

      It's all about controlling reproduction and who sires the first born son. The concept of private property and the oppression of women developed at the same time. With the rise of Patriarchal societies and agriculture men wanted to know who's children they were passing the cultivated land on to. Most agricultural societies do the same thing more or less.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • JackoB

      So why do you go and demonize people right back? Seems a bit inconsistent and intolerant, if you ask me.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • misogynist

      @obsthetimes, because they are demons. Women can stab you in the back and smile at you at the same time. They're probably alot happier w/o women.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  18. hoorayforlogic

    Stupidity comes in many forms. I'm glad these monks are not reproducing. ...and the human race moves forward.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Roman

      They're likely more intelligent than average.

      Priestly celibacy has removed the lines of many intelligent men from the gene pool. It's dysgenic, not eugenic.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • RStar

      reading your post I am not so sure about that.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • jeremy

      RStar, how many grammatic errors can one have in a single sentence.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • intelligent1

      This just in: with one women allowed for a 1000 years, there has never been a car accident on this island.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  19. JOE

    Let them be. It's their choice to isolate themselves. If they don't want to be around women, then who are we to judge? I imagine I could get a lot of reading and studying done if I isolated myself like that.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Sam

      I agree, just that I hope the reason they are so is something other than inability to control self. When Christ never bothered about isolating himself – I can't imagine how people who say they serve him tend to isolate themselves

      April 24, 2011 at 12:38 am |
  20. mr m

    Some of these guys are nutcases, others are very aware fo the rest of the world and have developed very interesting business deals with the greek gov. and some of them are honest men who really want to cut off themselves from the world and its temptations ( including women who can be very... tempting to a man).
    I understand that the article focuses on the ban of women from the place , but such approach misses a lot about what this place is about and how faithful it has stayed to medieval traditions. Whether this is good or bad is another story.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Caracoles

      Or they went ahead of time and founded a gay community and have lived without prejudice for over a thousand year.

      April 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
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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.