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Athos’s Retirees

Peter Minnium Jr.  |  November 28, 2019

TUCKED AWAY on Greece’s rugged north Aegean coast lies a place seemingly frozen in time, where men lead simple lives, much the same as they have for the past 1,000 years. It’s a rocky, narrow peninsula covered in wooded valleys and terraced farms that comes to an abrupt end at a dramatic 6,000-foot peak—Mount Athos.

Here, the men live in strict, self-enforced isolation. No women have set foot on the peninsula for more than 1,000 years and even female animals are removed upon their discovery. Nonresident males must apply for a permit before boarding a ferry to the peninsula. Mount Athos—or Agion Oros in Greek, which translates as “holy mountain”—is the exclusive domain of 20 Orthodox monasteries and their resident monks, as well as a smattering of hermits and wandering ascetics, all of whom have retired from the world.

In a sense, Mount Athos is the world’s most ancient retirement community. The oldest monastery there, Megistri Lavra, was founded more than 1,000 years ago, in 963, though archeological remains suggest there were monastic communities on the peninsula even earlier.

Those who choose to retire to Mount Athos may do so at any age. They settle in a monastery or perhaps one of the smaller monastic communities known as skiti or kellí. There, they live out the remainder of their days free of charge, with three square meals a day (except during fasts), a bed and a roof over their head. The accommodation is stunning. Perched high on rocky cliffs or forested hills, Athos’s monasteries offer unparalleled views over the north Aegean, the sort beachgoers pay hundreds of euros for elsewhere along the coast.

Despite the scenery and free accommodation, a monk’s life is not one of leisure. To become a monk, you must first find a monk within one of the monasteries to take responsibility for your spiritual health. Once a spiritual father has accepted this responsibility, the “novitiate” must pass through a rigorous catechism, or Orthodox education, to ensure his beliefs and practices are proper and well informed. Then the novitiate will begin a trial period during which he’s generally stuck with the worst jobs, such as cleaning the bathrooms. When the novitiate has proven himself and been accepted by the monastery authorities, he can be tonsured as a monk. Even then, all monks must work to earn their keep. Some work in the gardens, others cook and clean, while still others work in an entirely spiritual capacity, spending their days in prayer.

Some monks take up special vocations, involving a skilled craft. Father Dorian, an English-born monk, is a bookbinder at one of the monasteries. He works in a well-equipped and surprisingly modern studio, which has a spectacular view over the monastery’s terraced gardens to the sea. He spends his days repairing old books sent to him from around the peninsula, as well as assembling new books written by the monastery’s holy fathers. Before becoming an Athonite monk, Father Dorian knew nothing about bookbinding. He learned from his own mentor and is now in the process of passing his knowledge on to a novitiate, a Spanish convert from Buddhism.

In another monastery, an English convert-turned-monk named Father Makarios is an iconographer. He paints highly stylized portraits of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and the saints. Though he may have painted before becoming a monk, Father Makarios had to learn the intricacies of depicting his subject matter within the particular framework of Orthodox religious art.

It may seem at first glance that the “retirees” of Mount Athos don’t have much in common with those of us who retire without renouncing the world. But I’d argue they offer some valuable lessons to the rest of us:

  1. Live modestly. Athonite monks give up all their worldly possessions and live communally. While we don’t have to follow such a strict example, it’s wise to downsize, live comfortably within our means and appreciate the simple things.
  2. Find a hobby or pick up a new skill. No, it doesn’t have to be bookbinding or orthodox iconography. But refining a skill or engaging in a new hobby is a great way to spend time and enrich yourself in retirement.
  3. Come to terms with mortality. Yes, this one’s a bit morbid, but the monks of Athos spend a great deal of their time preparing spiritually for their own departure from this world and, as such, set a good example for those of us left behind. Retirement is as good a time as any to reflect on life and nurture a full appreciation for it, with all its chaos and harmony, peace and pandemonium, as we gradually move from a state of being toward one without.

Peter Minnium Jr. graduated from Pitzer College in 2015 with a degree in history and has been completing his education ever since. After a stint as an English language professor at Universidad de la Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca, Mexico, he has been pursuing his passion for underexplored cultures and languages on a $15-a-day budget—so far in Mexico, Central America, Greece, Indonesia, Nepal and lately India. His parents hope he runs out of money soon and pursues a less itinerant lifestyle. A version of this article first appeared on Concierge Financial Planning’s website.

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