Living in one of the peninsula's 20 monasteries, dozen cloisters, or hundreds of cells, the monks are detached even from each other, reserving most of their time for prayer and solitude. In their heavy beards and black garb—worn to signify their death to the world—the monks seem to recede into a Byzantine fresco, an ageless brotherhood of ritual, acute simplicity, and constant worship, but also imperfection. There is an awareness, as one elder puts it, that "even on Mount Athos we are humans walking every day on the razor's edge."
They are men—exclusively. According to rigidly enforced custom, women have been forbidden to visit Mount Athos since its earliest days—a position born out of weakness rather than spite. As one monk says, "If women were to come here, two-thirds of us would go off with them and get married."
A monk cuts his ties from his mother but gains another: the Holy Virgin Mary (who, legend has it, was blown off course while sailing to Cyprus, stepped foot on Mount Athos, and blessed its pagan inhabitants, who then converted). He forms an intense bond with his monastery's abbot or his cell's elder, who becomes a spiritual father and, in the words of one monk, "helps me find my personal relationship with Christ." The retirement or death of these eminences can be difficult for the younger monks. Conversely, a young man's decision to return to the world may also be wrenching. "Last year one left," recalls an elder. "He didn't ask for my opinion," he adds, his voice betraying a fatherly hurt, "so it's just as well that he's gone."
Christian monks (derived from the Greek root monos, or "single") first began forming collective refuges, or monasteries, in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century. The practice spread across the Middle East and into Europe, and by the ninth century hermits had arrived on Mount Athos. Since that time, as civilization has grown more complex, the reasons for distancing oneself from society and turning to monasticism have multiplied. Indeed, after two world wars and communism reduced the monastic population to 1,145 in 1971, the past decades have seen a rebirth. A steady influx of young men—often with college degrees, a number from the former Soviet bloc—has dramatically increased Mount Athos's ranks to nearly 2,000 monks and novices, while Greece's entrance into the European Union in 1981 made the peninsula eligible for EU preservation funds.
"There are 2,000 stories here—everyone has their own spiritual walk," says Father Maximos, whose own walk began in Long Island as a teenage devotee of edgy musical artists like Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, and who later became a theology professor at Harvard before resigning to "live my life closer to God."