Mount Athos, acrylic, 30" x 40," $1700
From the Journals, 1970, Greece
Monastery of St. Peter, Mount Athos
To obtain entrance for a week's visit to Mount Athos one needs official letters from the Governor of Northern Greece, the Patriarch of Northern Greece, the Chief of Police of Salonica, and the American Consulate, all of which are obtainable in half a day with no great difficulty. Once in possession of these documents, the traveler can then set sail from Salonica to Mount Athos. A cluster of ancient monasteries situated on a peninsular jutting out from Thessaly, Mount Athos for a thousand years has been recognized as the Center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. At their height the monasteries contained 40,000 monks whereas today the number has dwindled to some 1500 monks. ( It is the boast of Mount Athos that women have never been allowed on the premises. In fact, in the late 1940s a dispute swept the monasteries whether to allow female cats o0n the peninsular ) Both in terms of its architecture and its lifestyle Mount Athos is a fossilized museum. In each reception room of the monasteries the visitor upon arrival must sign a guest book beneath portraits of the last Czar of Russia, the last King of Bulgaria, the last Emperor of Constantinople. In Athos one enters a time machine for projection into the timeless. Athos is Europe's equivalent of what once flourished in Lhasa, Tibet before its destruction by the Chinese Communists: one of the last autonomous schools devoted to ancient spiritual practices. Though surrounded by monumental religious art and by architecture of breathtaking ingenuity, the pilgrim does not visit Athos for creature comforts. He eats what the monks eat-- stale bread, gruel, dried black olives, sour wine. If lucky there will be no bedbugs in his mattress. Athos does not draw aficionados of gracious living.
Monastery of Hagia Dionysiou, Mount Athos
On my fifth day on Athos I sat in the refectory of Hagia Dionysiou. The refectory walls were covered by frescoes. At one table a row of black-robed cowled monks dined while at a second table the few guests poked squeamishly at their food with their forks. At the head of the refectory on a dais the youngest monk read from the Lives of the Saints. The scene was unreal, but psychologically though I realized that I was in Never-never Land my mind was elsewhere. I had just had an experience. Both in Greek and in Sanskrit the word "mystic" means one who keeps silent. Had my epiphany an hour previous to the dinner in the refectory of Hagia Dionysiou occurred on Beacon Street in Boston I might exercise the prerogative of a mystic and remain silent. But that this event happened in Mount Athos where for a thousand years holy men had trumpeted their prayers to the On-high demands that I break my silence and speak.
Monastery of Hagia Paulus, Mount Athos
It was a glorious afternoon as I made my way through the wooded terrain of the peninsular en route from the monastery of Hagia Paulus to Hagia Dionysiou. I was a bit fatigued because the previous evening at Gran Lavra I had awakened at 4:00 A:M: to attend mass with the monks in its celebrated chapel. The monks who were mostly over sixty seemed to awaken from their slumbers only when the incense receptacle passed beneath their nostrils. As they chanted their dirges, They resembled automatons. I was disappointed by the absence of any visible spirituality. Ambivalent about being in Athos because I am a Jew, I began to have negative thoughts about the place. Since the monasteries resembled, at least in embryo, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, how easily could a Leftist government turn Mount Athos into a national university just by kicking out the monks. Such were my thoughts or at least one of them as I crossed the well-worn path to Hagia Dionysiou.
I was standing near a large black rock when an unexpected change in my chemistry occurred. I emphasize the word "chemistry" though I could as easily speak of a field of energy. Instantaneously I realized that something was amiss. The leaves were greener, the trees more sharply outlined against the azure sky, and the singing of the birds and crickets seemed to be orchestrated by some invisible conductor. I stopped half in dread that I might be suffering a heart attack when a rush of energy swept over me. I felt as if I had stepped into the living womb of nature, that I was part of it, united to it. The revelation of color and sound and sight was almost too much to bear and I staggered to a nearby rock and sat down. Until this moment my mind was empty of words. I had been able only to stare, to gawk, to FEEL. Suddenly I began to write. What poured out from my pen was the illusion that I actually was perceiving the atomic pattern of nature in its evolutionary process. One idea stands out: that the communist and democratic systems are two evolutionary paths nature has taken one of which will lead to a human anthill, the other to organized chaos. In retrospect what I wrote was of no consequence, only a pastiche of my readings and thoughts over the years. Needless to say, during my literary effusion and for a long period afterwards I deluded myself that I was the recipient of some special message from Above, perhaps not of the order of a St. Paul or a Mohammed but still of their company.
I have often speculated about the meaning of my Mount Athos epiphany and have concluded that my verbal revelation was little more than a defense mechanism. Somehow on Mount Athos I had entered into that state of no-mind which Zen people call sartori. Unable to cope with the novelty and ecstasy of this semi-mystical condition, my mental processes tried to blot it out by returning to my ordinary every-day level of verbal chitchat. The experience is curiously analogous to a disastrous dinner I shared with Krishnamurti at Harvard years before. At that time there was no doubt in my mind that Krishnamurti was one of the most impressive human beings I had ever met. After his talk I seated myself next to him at the dinner party. To make small talk I asked Krishnamurti, himself the author of thirty odd books, if he had read a certain volume. At that time I, a graduate student and librarian, found Krishnamurti's reply so devastating that I decided any further conversation with him was pointless and I turned to the person on my left. Just as I could not cope with a non-literary sage at Harvard I was unable to cope with a taste of sartori on Mount Athos. How often on this journey of life we meet someone or experience something at the wrong time. Today I would know better than to ignore Krishnamurti. Whether I could halt my internal mental chatter if another sartori occurred is questionable.
As I sat munching my black olives and gruel in the refectory of Hagia Dionysiou, surrounded by its Byzantine frescoes of death and resurrection, while the young monk droned on in Greek, my mind tried to come to grips with the epiphany of an hour before. That I had not had a vision of God, that the Risen Christ or members of His entourage had not singled me out for a visitation on Holy athos was, indeed, a disappointment. In the light of my past it was, however, understandable that my vision should have been what it was, essentially atomic. From the time of Democritus, Father of the Atomic Theory, the School of Epicurus was almost always regarded by Christendom as even more objectionable and odious than Jewry. Had not Karl Marx himself, I pondered, written his Ph.D. dissertation on Democritus? How fitting that I, a child of Harvard and Berkeley and the Black Arts, should have had a vision on Athos which from the vantage point of Athos itself was diabolical. Sipping my wine I chuckled to myself and decided to begin a painting appropriate to the occasion.
Little did the monks know that afternoon as they periodically peered over my shoulder in the courtyard of Hagia Dionysiou that the composition taking form under my hand had been for years one of my central masturbation fantasies, nor were they aware as they scrutinized with greater and greater perplexity the emerging fetishes before their eyes that out of illicit pleasure had arisen in visualization icons that for a hundred generations my ancestors had forbidden any Jew under pain of excommunication or death to represent. With me history had come full circle. Once I brought Mount Athos and some other work to a well-know Boston psychologist for his opinion, and his comment after peering through my portfolio was, "You are in touch with what Jung calls primal matter." Primal matter indeed! These icons of dread from Mount Athos, these vampires of the mind stare out at each other motionless and separated in a geometrically dead landscape. Like the bejeweled Byzantine icons kissed by the monks during their daily orisons, Mount Athos awaits its devotees, their bent knees acknowledging the supremacy of the horror before them. As the Count de Lautreamont's Maldoror consummated his sexual desires by coupling with a ferocious shark, the beasts of Mount Athos will fulfill their destiny when acquired by idolaters who recognize that Mammon, God of Capitalism, is subservient to Higher Powers. (c)