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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. jorge washinsen

    Must be about as dull as watching the disqus trying to load.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  2. Chu Lee

    Too bad. Women hold up half the sky, as Mao said.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  3. pnut

    religion = mental delusion, gods are imaginary, what a waste of their lives.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  4. bill constantine

    You have to understand Greek Orthodoxy...Off course the first post was if they were Gay,,The people posting so far to me have never been educated..they are worst then hillbillys...These monks believe in God and they feel this is one way to serve him....Check out the history of the Monastary and make sure that you see the TV show..Remember the place has been there over 1,000 years..How old are you out there who dares to give an opinion...It is like the Catholic priests....They do not want a female p to keep them from praying..They have faith in something...what do we have? Republicans and Democrats....

    April 23, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Pete

      I agree, People that say bad things about Eastern Orthodox Monks better watch out for bad luck. Eastern Orthodox religion isn't your average run of the mill Baptist or Catholic faith. Try and go to one of their services and you will see, these people are for real. Their churches aren't built the way we have over here. Those churches are only built on land that have some sort of a miracle or strange thing happen. That region over there, Balkan is populated by strange people. I say that because, they can curse. There is something about that place, that is not normal. While you can joke around with Jews, Muslims, Catholics or Protestants, joking with Budhists or Orthodox Christians isn't something I would recommend. These two faiths might actually be for real.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      The land where I was born is in Balkans, and I grew up there. The things you say about Balkans have some truth, because that area of the world has been steeped in mysticism mixed with sorcery, and still is heavily influenced by it. They have incorporated it in their versions of Christianity, which is catholic in some areas and orthodox in others. And both of those significantly differ in practices there, then here in the West.
      People there don't welcome change, and are reluctant to receive anyone with message of change. The true, biblical Gospel of of Jesus Christ has not been received by people since they are so steeped in their catholic and orthodox sects, and they practically rule them.

      Pete, when you say that those people over there can curse, and that those two faiths are for real.... Yes, they can and do curse. They resort to powers of darkness to put curses. No child of God will resort to curses, nor will be affected by them if someone calls them upon them. No one says that satan has no power, yes indeed he has, or else masses would not do his will. And yes indeed there is a dark spiritual cloud over those lands, but it's not because their religion is for real, but because satan has grip over the land and it's people. Only true Gospel of Jesus Christ removes that dark cloud. It's not a mystery why satan fights it so hard to prevent it from comming in. Indeed, he's got a scheme for every type of f people, society and f nation, to make them remain in darkness, and if they were in the light, to make them turn their back on it, so they'll be destroyed. Our own country is the good example of the later, mentioned here.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  5. zhongxin

    There is no way for them to continue for centuries with out physical contact with women. So obviously men born of women from the outside are allowed to join the monastery. Excluding women is unnatural and irrational because the monks only exist because women bore them. They cannot deny the existence of women, let alone the existence of the outside world. How utterly selfish! They do not give a damn for anyone else but themselves. The world can do without them!

    April 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  6. phoenix

    no corruption like the roman caths the heathen brethren and the females will ruin their gift from God.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  7. MullahNasruddin

    1. If no women, how did the monastry kept themselves alive for 1000years? I assume people from outside keep joining them. Hence they were in a way connected to the changing world.

    2. They knew about hitler plans and managed to communicate with him, hence kept themselves informed.

    3. I am sure they know the current president of the world is a black man and he is 1/4 Muslim.

    4. Everything about Christianity and Monks is a scam...just my natural thought.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  8. Jim

    I bet there is a TON of masturbation going on in there.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Pete

      These are the people that understand that no matter what you do between when you are born and when you die, it always ends the same. So why waste your energy running around, working, chasing women, getting angry, happy, sick, in debt, out of debt, drunk, etc. You just wait for the end to come. And it comes for everybody. BTW, nobody under the age of 18 is allowed there. They don't need that temptation, and especially not women. They mostly just paint.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Beg to Differ

      @ Pete,
      I heard they have pills for that now.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  9. Kathy

    Where do these men think they came from? And their ancestors, and their future male population? LOL!!! Not surprising these men are located where they are regarding their ideals about women.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  10. Da Legal Eagle, and the Talking Beagle.

    Hey folks,
    What a crazy surprise. Loved that above discussion about women etc. Haven't been over here for a long time. Last time I was here they were all just saying everyone else was going to hell.

    Anyway, did any of you guys notice the Federal case in the last few days where the appellate court refused to throw out a case against the Vatican, where they were trying to link the Vatican directly with it's franchizees in the US ? Is it only a matter of time until this ends up in the ICC, (at the Hague ?. Any links to the story or thread would be appreciated.
    Hope you're all having a great weekend.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  11. Sarah

    Where do these men think they came from? And their ancestors, and their future male population? LOL!!! Not surprising these men are located where they are regarding their ideals about women.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Jing Hu

      How are these monks expect to last if they don't allow women there so they could mate with them and carry on?
      I'm assuming they believe they are immortal? LOL

      April 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  12. Lilith

    I hate men anyway.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  13. MarciaMarcia

    Kind of ironic to think that without women this monastery could not have existed for as long as it has.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  14. Navigate

    Faith and trust in god requires that you face the temptations god has put before you. When you isolate yourself and run from the tests, then what have you truly gained? Women were put here as our equal companions and together we face the challenges before us as married partners. If it requires that much committment to behave oneself then by all means, stay where you are.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Tim

      You miss the purpose.. they truly devote their physical like praying and preparing for life after death. What a wonderful like to live by the simplest means, and to just focus on prayer and faith. Its not for everyone, thats why they are called Monks. I know people that have gone there to stay for some periods of time, to focus on prayer and help clense their hearts and then return to the world.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  15. Khaled Anntar

    To "nOT Trash"-– If the priests refuse the invite to become Muslims, then be it;;;; God has created us, humans, free;we can choose to believe in God or do not believe in God. We can choose to be Judists, Christians, or Muslims or even a Seikh or a Pudist. We bear the consequences of our choices not in front of another human but in front of the Ultimate Judge, God the only one. God will be the ultimate judge ......

    April 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Dave

      There is no god. We are judged by no one but ourselves and society.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • I am the Grammar God.

      .....and YOU are going to hell.

      April 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      (Dave)

      LOL! Here goes another parrot! "There- is- no – God- there -is -no – God..."
      Then you must be on the wrong blog.....Did you get lost, flying into wrong place, hm?.....

      April 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  16. youngartone

    If they have no connection to the outside world and don't want to be involved, how did they collect the art they were trying to protect from Hitler? How did they know the value of it, and why hold on to such "material" wealth? And if they made it themselves, why not let it go and make some more. It's not like they have anything else to do.....just sayin'

    April 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Chris

      Maybe because it was their art to start with?

      April 23, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • youngartone

      @Chris, that's why I said it they made it themselves, why not let it go and make some more...Didja read that part?

      April 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Bob

      The article doesn't say that the monks were too worried about the art. True, it says 1) they sought protection and 2) Hitler planned to take the art. But the article never says that the monks sought protection for the art specifically. They could have sought protection from forced relocation, destruction of their monastery, or any other events that would impact their way of life more than the removal of some paintings.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Tevesa

      They probably created their own arts and concidering they have been up there for 1500 years, you can bet alot of it is old and probably valuable based on that alone. Let alone the religious signifance to themselves and the Catholic world.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Rachael

      Probably religious artwork they did themselves.

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

      Hitler actually desecrated a lot of Christian places of worship so they did have reason to be concerned

      April 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  17. Beyond2012

    I really like the idea of men of faith finding seclusionfrom the problems and temtations in all form from the world. I love women, We all do but the truth be made known they are at times really distracting as they parade themselfs before our eyes
    more often than not on purpose to gain our attention or money and our desires burn hot within us. The monks are right in a way to seclude them self's for prayer and reflection. But wrong as to seclude themself's off from cares and the problems of the world and not trying to bring much needed help to the people who needed the most. This is selfish and should be corrected by the elder's, "Whether you like it or not the truth is the truth" here and Beyond2012.

    April 23, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Well said, Beyond 2012!

      April 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  18. Mac

    Yes it does look verry boring. who would want to live that life anewy

    April 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  19. Sam

    Wonder if they realize that they all were birthed from a woman and probably depended on a woman for survival the first few months of their life?

    April 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Bob

      They do.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • jake

      iI don't think its about hating women or thinking any less of them. Its about total devotion to God and not having any distractions or temptations. Women can be both. lol

      April 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  20. Jim

    I am sure some of them must have turned gay by now. Just saying...:)

    April 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • chris

      I thought them being Greek already gave that away...

      April 23, 2011 at 12:48 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.