Monks and Rituals of Daily Life
Life on the Holy Mountain is quite unlike that in the outside world. The sacred is infused into each part of an Athonite monk’s daily routine. Activity and movement are centered around the monks’ striving toward inner stillness, rhythmic incantation of the “Jesus Prayer,” and a perfect intertwining of solitary contemplation in the quiet of the monastic cell and communal worship in church and outdoor processions. The movement of natural light through the various monastery spaces accompanies the monks in their daily quest for uncreated light.
Byzantine time is experienced differently, the ecclesiastical day beginning at sunset with a 6:00 p.m. Vespers. Ringing church bells and the beating of a wooden board, the talanton or semantron, keep time. Monks rise at 3:00 a.m. to these sounds, just before chanting the Hours and celebrating the Divine Liturgy for the next five hours of their day. Three knocks on the semantron beckon all to a dining hall, the refectory (trapeza), for communal meals twice per day. Elaborate frescoes decorate the walls inside, and the table of the abbot mirrors that of the altar. During meals everyone is silent while holy texts are read. Bread and wine are the main forms of sustenance. Thus, even the most basic elements of a monk’s day assume sacred meaning: the refectory frescoes evoke the sacred space of the Catholicon, the bread and wine of the meal resemble the Eucharistic elements.
Daily work is also performed with prayer upon the lips, sanctifying even the mundane labors of gardening, bread making, fishing, and beekeeping. The liturgical instruction book, or Typikon, of St. Athanasios is a persistent reminder of daily life’s purpose for Athonite monks, “who by purity of mind and soul and body have conditioned themselves for the brilliant enlightenment which comes from the Holy Spirit, [and] end up by suffusing not only themselves with light, […] but also everyone in the world with whom they converse.”