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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. abby

    Holy men in a holy place. nice story. Blessed Easter to all.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  2. Robert

    I think that the only thing the these comments show is the intolerant nature of modern civilization. You people judge, criticize and belittle the views and beliefs of those you do not agree with. These monks make a choice on how they believe they should live life, just as you choose to live yours. There is no proof of what life is, or how it came about. Yet we continue to believe that we have it all figured out and everyone who disagrees with our way of thinking is wrong.

    I believe this shows how perplexed we really are about life. Because we all come up with the way "we" think we should live life and we are all willing to fight for that belief, whether that be with guns or with words.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  3. Monastic

    I am a female monastic. I live in the U.S. I know some of the men there as my friends. I can assure you:
    They are not gay.
    They are my beloved friends who are amazing people.
    I must ask, "Don't they have a right to their privacy based on their religious convictions?"

    April 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Mary

      Interesting! Where/which denomination?

      April 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  4. PallasAthene

    I wonder if they realize plants also come in male and female form. How DO they get around that when growing their own food?

    April 23, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  5. Sonne

    Funny how you go to Faux news website, and their blog is full of Conservative hate and then you come here and it's full of Liveral hate.

    Hey Mom, told you there is no difference.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  6. Tyler

    And what have they accomplished in 1000 years? Absolutely nothing! That's what happens when you have no women. The guys become lazy slobs!

    April 23, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  7. Mary

    I am incredibly excited to watch this report. They did an excellent job in their treatment of the Patriarch and his plight in Turkey. We Orthodox are kind of unknown to the rest of the Western World. =p

    April 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  8. William Marlowe

    This is how society will become if we allow religioins to dictate Political and Societies policy...

    April 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  9. Richard

    More lives lost over primitive tribal religious beliefs

    April 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  10. Mary

    Take it from an Orthodox woman: these are the gentlest, holiest men on the planet, and I for one have no problem not being permitted to go there. I do not need to visit them. I am content just knowing they pray for me and for the world.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Colin

      So Mary, you don't mind being treated as a second class citizen, provided those who treat you that way as "nice" and believe that the creator of the Universe reads their minds (or "hears theor prayers") as they put it?

      Interesting perspective.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Mary

      Orthodoxy's treatment of women is far from "second class". But what both men and women must come to respect is the existence of boundaries, especially where the monastic life and priesthood are concerned.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Monastic

      Thank you!

      April 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • dfgdg

      They'd pop your sn@tch anyway in a heartbeat

      April 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  11. Yeah

    I hope I live to see a further rapid declining of religion throughout the world. We need to evolve past these idiotic philosophies of pagan sun worship and other crap that has caused and continues to cause so much division in our world. It's just so darn silly. I'm always let down when I meet someone who is otherwise intelligent to later realize that they are devout Christian/Muslim/etc.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Jarrod

      Ok so if they are educated then what is your problem?

      April 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  12. Sno Buny

    Women are too smart to want to live/visit this mountain village. I am sure the men who live there have vices just like the rest of us.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  13. Jibaro

    Can't think of a more wasteful existence.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  14. Maria Ashot

    Because I am a woman, I will never be able to visit Mt, Athos. I am therefore indebted to anyone who films there and brings this amazing place to within reach, via the Godsend of the Internet. Thank you, Bob Simon - been a huge fan of yours for years - and CBS, and also for the splendid report on Patriarch Bartholomew! If you are celebrating Passover, may it be a blessed time for you - if not - or also - HAPPY EASTER!

    April 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  15. fsmgroupie

    no women allowed but send us your little boys

    April 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  16. 4theGood

    Another pocket of hidden human existance. Good for them. When 2012 comes they might be the only ones left, and then the cats can repopulate the planet;)

    April 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • YourMissingThePoint

      How do they repopulate with no women? Your missing something major

      April 23, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Bill Mosby

      There will be cat women, though.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  17. user

    :3

    April 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Seaburger

      (. )( .)

      April 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • William Marlowe

      Y

      April 23, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • William Marlowe

      (. )( .)
      .
      Y

      April 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  18. lucianne

    Muslim, Christian, Jewish – all three of the middle eastern religions despise women. This isn't news.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Joe

      You are an idiot.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Jarrod

      Wow, the uneducated have spoken.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Dulcimer

      They don't despise women. They're afraid of us.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Tina

      this is true. All they want is for women to hide themselves, stay in the shadows and have kids.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  19. Yahweh

    It's my way or the highway!!

    April 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Jarrod

      What a stupid marketing slogan.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  20. edvhou812

    No women allowed for over 1,000 years. The purpose? They're gay!

    April 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • William Marlowe

      I think you are right

      April 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Katherine

      I don't think they have to worry about "allowing" women into the monasteries on Mount Athos as most women probably would not want to go if all of the men look like Father Matthew.

      April 23, 2011 at 2:58 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.