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A Visit to Mount Athos: rare glimpse into life on the Holy Mountain

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My grandparents and I were watching television on the evening of Easter Sunday last year when this extraordinary segment “A Visit to Mount Athos” about life on the Holy Mountain aired on CBS 60 Minutes. I could barely contain my joy, that, having spent Easter Sunday (April 24) going to their Catholic parish (St Elizabeth Ann Seton) in Woodbridge, Virginia, I would be able to have some experience of Orthodoxy on Easter!

That morning at Easter mass, the deafening blare of the church’s fire alarm system interrupted the priest’s winding homily. Until those excruciating minutes in which the alarm blared and ran its course, I do not think I could have imagined the sound of anything so antithetical to the feeling of joy and sacredness which we were all supposed to have on Easter Sunday! After experiencing the somber and profoundly other-worldly services of Orthodox Holy Week, the contrast was almost unbelievable!

St Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church, Woodbridge, Virginia

I was not yet an official catechumen at this time, but had been going to Liturgy and vigils at St. Nicholas Cathedral as often as I could with what I call “a pilgrim’s heart” full of love and anticipation for the ever-deepening mysteries of the Liturgy and the holy faith which revealed themselves to me as I came more and more into the life of the Church.

Holy Week at the Cathedral was the most illuminating and transcendent experience I had ever had up to that point in my immersion in the life of the Church. My friend Rebecca Dixon was visiting from her home university, Mount Allison in New Brunswick, Canada, and it was especially fitting that we were able to attend the liturgy on Holy Wednesday at the cathedral to which she introduced me the previous Fall semester when she was at my University on exchange.

I remember that we had to run through pouring spring rain to get to the Cathedral, and I was wearing a suit jacket and had no umbrella! Upon entering the Cathedral Rebecca walked right over to where the choir and Metropolitan Jonah stood singing to the left of the iconostasis and began singing with them!

St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The next day, Holy Thursday, at St Nicholas was so somber and beautiful with the chants recalling Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s arrest in Gethsemane, and the nailing of the image of Christ to the cross. This date marked the one year anniversary of my first experience of the Divine Liturgy at Saint Sophia Cathedral just down the road, and the next day, Good Friday, I went there with Gillian Davis, who had introduced me to St Sophia in the first place, for my first Orthodox experience of the Good Friday liturgy with its heart-wrenching lamentations.

St Sophia (Holy Wisdom) Greek Orthodox Cathedral, spring 2011.

The next day my grandfather picked me up and we drove to my grandparents’ home in Virginia for a very different approach to Easter. Fittingly, the previous year in 2010 as I left St Sophia Cathedral after the three hour Liturgy of St Basil the Great, my grandfather had called me to finalize our plans for Easter Sunday. I was so overcome with wonderment, joy and awe that I told him about  what I had experienced.