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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. Dood

    Good grief, these monks devoted their lives to good works through prayer and charity and you're criticizing them?

    You sound like a bunch of miserable, sniveling, spoiled brats.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  2. Jing Hu

    How are they suppose to last if they don't have woman there? How do they carry on their teachings if they don't have way to reproduce the next generation of monks?

    These monks SERIOUSLY need to consider moving out of their ancient realm and into the 21 centruay

    April 23, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Mike

      Thousands of Men visit every year and some of them decide to sell all their belongings distribute all their wealth on the poor and "leave the world" and enter the monastic life. Others maintain a friendly relationship some of the monks and receive advice from them on a regular basis by writing to them.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  3. Shimarris

    I bet women aren't interested in visiting that place......so if a woman goes there by chance what could they possibly do to her? Oh I don't know make her sing a song.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Concerned Mother

    Do they "allow" male youth and boys to visit the "sacred mountain"?

    April 23, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Mike

      "Permits are issued to adult male pilgrims over the age of 18. Young males under 18 are permitted if they are accompanied by their father. Young men who are accompanied by an adult group leader visiting Mount Athos for educational reasons need the written consent of their parents, verified by an official authority of their country." From Mouth Athos Info Site

      April 23, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  5. Duh

    It's the "She didn't dump me: I dumped her first" mentality. Look at the dude: how many women would want to be trapped in a place with men looking like that? So they figured they'd reject women first.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  6. Religion Sux

    "It is a place [where] a life of prayer is more effective than anywhere else. "

    It's this kind of arrogance that turns me off from religion. So if I pray in my house, it's just not the same as this so-called holy place? Give me a break. They can have it.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Pete

      Yeah, I know, but those monks are usually people that were contacted by higher beings, either angels or as some people in modern society call aliens, and were instructed to spend the rest of their lives there, or else. That place is weird. I was there, and when you are over there, you just feel peace. There is no other place anywhere else. Budhist monasteries have the same sort of feeling. Take my word for it. That aint your average church, that takes money from your paycheck every week. Besides, to be Eastern Orthodox, you have to be born into it, nobody can convert you.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Pete, just because something appears supernatural and "peaceful" , it isn't necessary from God. Those groups are steeped in mysticism. And mysticism is NOT according to the Word of God. His Word condemns it.

      (I wrote more about that matter on previous page, responding to your post)

      April 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  7. VegasRage

    Something asinine last a thousand yeasr? Image in that.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • checi

      Even the Shakers dare dying out because they don't reproduce. So they have to be getting their converts from somewhere.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  8. ladykaka

    Holy blue balls!

    April 23, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • checi

      I'm sure they "take care" of each other.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Religion Sux

      ROFLMAO!

      April 23, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • alex

      Yay! gay for god! .. wait..

      April 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  9. Mary

    Agreed with Dan, not Dannie that is...

    April 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  10. debunker

    The monasteries are called "The Garden of the MOTHER of God" and they're proud of excluding women? I wonder... how would the MOTHER of God react to that?

    April 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • checi

      That's easy. They made the whole thing up from the very beginning and it doesn't have to make sense because they condemn you for lack of believing (faith).

      April 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • aleppo1091

      The monks believe 'Mother Mary' appeared to their predecessors & gave them their mountain as her sacred grove In return, they dedicated it to only her, no other females. I've read that the only female animals are cats (rodent control) & hens (eggs.) No idea if the hens part is correct – but I've seen a fun video of 'the cat monk' being swarmed by cats when he brings out their supper,

      April 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  11. Mike

    I visited Mount Athos once, I spent 3 days there. All the arguments against the concept of the mountain here seem logically correct and I myself consider often. Yet despite all the arguments, there is something mysterious about the mountain, something that touches the heart, that I left with, a sense of peace perhaps born out of the centuries of prayers said there, this feeling I will never forget, its a feeling beyond this world.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  12. Pete

    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 1:17 pm |
  13. joshua

    What a wonderful life they live...God Bless them!

    April 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  14. charbroil

    See its plain to see. To say a woman does not want to have a child. To that that isn't the one thing in her life. Is just counter to everything that is born and is as human. Virliant lesbianism says no. That is not the way things are. We don't disdain male roles. We actually embrace them. We will take on the male role in the sheparding of what our dysfunctional goal is. To foster and promote and see that lesbianism is a way of life for women. They actually believe that. It's dysfunctional of course. If you ask how someone can be like that.

    It's jealousy on both the daughters and fathers part. That will not let them go on to lead a normal life. If your going to be kind as a culture. Why not bring that up as the topic. Maybe helping hundereds of thousands of dysfunctional women to go on to what they should really have that would make them truly happy. As I see it. They are miserable trying to obtain a goal that just isn't realistic. It a very hard and cruel thing in their lives. Their fathers need to let go.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Lilith

      Hey...I resemble that remark!

      April 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • checi

      You make no sense at all. Are you just talking in your sleep or something?

      April 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  15. Lilith

    Just imagine the discipline monks have. Now if they could only channel that focus into medicine, economics or physics.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Beg to Differ

      @charbroil,
      Hey sweetie, you must have hit yourself in the head with a softball.
      That was THE worst example of English spelling and grammar I have ever seen on CNN.
      OMG.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  16. Dan

    so...
    they are basically gay.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Buckhuntr

      No celebate, BIG difference!!

      April 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Dan

      So 'celebacy' is different than being 'gay.'
      What does that mean? If GOD made human beings, then doesn't it go against GOD's wishes to not procreate?
      Who came up with this stupid idea to be celebate, Hitler?

      April 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Sako Monzetti

      Supposedly everybody else has to procreate, but priests can't

      it's so the priesthood isn't inherited

      April 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Know What

      They are probably a mix - some gay, some masochistically denying themselves, some woman-haters and some ase.xual. Yes, there is a segment of the population (both male and female) who have NO s.ex drive (lack of hormones, or brain connections?) and some who have no attraction to either s.ex and would rather take care of themselves.

      I'm sure that some are sincere in thinking that they are in tune with some spirit world. I think it is nuts, but if they are not causing harm to anyone else, they are certainly free to do it.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  17. bill constantine

    No female animals except cats..I am for starting a Mt Athos here in Nevada...If we let women into it the population will overcome the area..Do not look at the TV...you might see one of your DNA fathers..You have to be a goat to climb up to the area....God made man and he rested..He made women and no one rested......God Bless our women....I was made from a womens body...let us not forget that...she carried us for nine months..

    April 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Duh

      They should allow female snakes as well. They love rats.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  18. Arup Ghosh

    For Sr. & Jr. TATUN................

    April 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  19. Dan

    Why it took years to get an interview and the only thing you could focus on is that women aren't there? How pathetic! What is their mission? How do they get new monks? What drives a person to live that kind of life? Lots of good stuff to review, but no... let's focus on sensationalism. You know, it's actually OK for men to want to live apart. It's ok for women to live apart. Heaven forbid people do something THEY want to do, they should do what someone ELSE wants them to do. People get a life. Learn, but criticize something you know nothing about. Different than you doesn't mean bad.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Mary

      Agreed.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Myrtle

      Well Dan, since you could do a better story, travel over there, see if you can get in and then put something up on iReport. Quit b!tching.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • checi

      If a group of women did the same thing, the mountain would be stormed on a regular basis and there would all sorts of vicious speculation about their reproductive practices and ultimate aims. I wish there WAS a female community like that because I would love to be able to recruit a few of their women with construction skills to help me build my house.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • burgher's twin

      Comment(s) confirm the call to be a religious comes from God–no man.
      Failure to understand bears its own–witnesses–as the comments prove?
      What one longs for the most can be impossible– for those whose trust was destroyed.
      What is impossible, God can make impossible, but it requires a change of heart.

      April 23, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Ted Ward

      Let's hope the actual 60 minutes special is better than this superficial article. What a waste of screen pixels!

      April 23, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • bill

      Simple, with women around who can concentrate in prayer or God. Goes back to Adam and Eve days. If Eve did not show up,
      Adam and only Adam would be in heaven. Ok, just kidding, but some folks of all faiths lose something when they immerse themselves in faith, it is like a brain lock, staff gets in and stays in.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  20. jorge washinsen

    it is one place that won't be on my to see list.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:05 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.