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Book Review

Christopher Merrill

Journey to the Holy Mountain- Meditations on Mount Athos

ISBN 0 00711901 1

HarperCollins, London, 2004, 17.99

(price at publication of review)

Reviewed January 2005; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

'"What do you do on Mount Athos?" a friend asked.  "Walk and pray," I said.'  This is an account of the author's walking and praying during several trips to the Holy Mountain in Northern Greece.  Athos has been the home of Orthodox monks since at least 800 CE - though the Athonites themselves trace their history back further, to a visit by the shipwrecked Theotokos - Mary the Mother of God.  This 'Garden of the Virgin', blessed by her to be a haven from the world and battlefield of spiritual warfare, has long been the subject of both curiosity and reverence.  At times it has seemed to be facing disintegration - most recently in the 1970s with many monasteries reduced to a few elderly men.  Now it is experiencing a resurgence, with many young people coming here to take the monastic habit.

Merrill describes the monasteries and hermitages that he visits with an eye that is open to both the splendour and the fallibility of Athos.  All the gradations of sanctity are here: from the cantankerous misogynists to the sparkling eyed hermits, hearts poured out in compassionate concern for the world.  He writes as a journalist who has reported the Balkan wars, and as a poet teaching creative writing in a North American college.  It is this background of the desperate inhumanity of war, the search for beauty in expression, and his own struggling marriage that informs his warm appreciation of the monastic life he discovers on Athos.  At times he gets a little lost in digressions on contemporary Russian fiction or American poets, but you can see his mind working to bring together these searchings of the soul with his own spiritual journey into Orthodoxy.  He also writes as an Anglican Christian, and that brings its own flavour of solitude - often being seated outside the main body of churches, not being seen as 'of the faith.'

This is a gentle and sympathetic view of Athos, and a traveller's guide to the Holy Mountain of God.

Nicholas Alan SSF



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