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Many such journeys begin uneasily. An Athens boy sneaks away from his household, and when his brother comes to Mount Athos to fetch him, the boy warns, "I'll just escape again." A Pittsburgh grocer's son stuns his parents with his decision—which, two years later, he acknowledges may be temporary, saying, "I mean, who knows what God has planned?" If the aspirants appear unready, their spiritual father will urge them to go back. Otherwise, the candidate will be tonsured under candlelight: The abbot cuts a tiny cross out of the hair on his scalp, bestows him with the name of a saint, and a monk is born.

Their stories hardly end when they enter Mount Athos. A wayward hippie from Australia named Peter is now Father Ierotheos, an accomplished baritone chanter at the Iviron monastery. Father Anastasios learned to paint here and now exhibits his work in places as far-flung as Helsinki and Granada, Spain. Father Epiphanios took it upon himself to restore the ancient vineyards of Mylopotamos, and today he exports excellent wine to four countries, in addition to publishing a cookbook of monks' recipes in three languages.

For better or for worse, the monastic brotherhood consists of men who finally cannot help but be who they are, fleshed out beneath their robes. Some are independent by nature and opt to live on their own in countryside cells. Some are small-minded—and indeed, as one monk says, "monastery life can be absolutely consumed with pettiness." However, the very best of them do not merely radiate goodwill but seek out where it's most needed. Father Makarios of the Marouda cell near Karyes is such a man, freely bestowing on strangers his spare coat, his spare room, all of the money in his pocket. "With real faith," the 58-year-old monk with animated green eyes says, "you have freedom. You have love."

The monasteries are anything but monolithic. The seaside Vatopediou monastery is rich with Byzantine treasures and ambition—among its monks is a full-time music director—while the decidedly agrarian Konstamonitou monastery embraces a rustic lifestyle free of electricity or donations from the European Union. ("You cannot be ascetic with all these easy things," observes one of its elders.) The monks of Mount Athos did not leave behind their human audacity, attested to by the glorious positioning of Simonos Petras, a monastery suspended high over an infinite seascape as if clinging to heaven's ladder. Some monks, however, commit to the hermitic barrenness of raggedy huts along the cliffs of Karoulia.

Still others opt for zealotry. Such is the case for the residents of Esfigmenou, a thousand-year-old monastery long tormented by pirates and fires and repressive Ottomans, but now a victim of its own radicalism. Having renounced the Ecumenical Patriarchs' policy of dialogue with other Christian denominations and hung out a banner proclaiming "Orthodoxy or Death," the Esfigmenou brotherhood has been cast out by Mount Athos's ruling body, known as the Holy Community. It now subsists on outlaw defiance and donations from sympathetic corners of the outside world. "We'll continue our struggle," declares its renegade abbot. "We place our hope in Christ and the Holy Mother—and no one else."

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