Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain (2005)

An Excerpt

The ladder descends along the face of the cliff to a hermitage set on a rock high above the sea--a stone hut accessible to only the most daring spiritual athletes. Here in the desert of Mount Athos, a peninsula in northern Greece, Christian monks have climbed down these rickety steps for more than a millennium to devote their lives to prayer. They renounce everything, withdrawing from the world to praise God. For food they depend upon the generosity of passing fishermen to whom they lower baskets on pulleys, which is why this area of the monastic republic of Athos is called Karoúlia, the Place of Pulleys. And this image of asceticism guided my pilgrimages to the Holy Mountain, the first of which I made in March 1998.


I had reached a crossroads in my life--in my marriage, my work, and my health--which I attempted to navigate through the discipline of an ancient faith. Things of the Hidden God, the record of my journeys into the world of Orthodox monasticism, is thus an account of a place little known in the West and a spiritual reckoning. I walked the length and width of the peninsula, visiting all twenty monasteries and dozens of settlements, little expecting that my encounters with a tradition at once foreign and familiar would shake me to the core. But the liturgy and icons; the monks and pilgrims; the landscape and legends--these impressed upon me the need to forge a closer relationship to God. Mine became an excursion into what the theologian Paul Tillich called “the dynamics of faith,” which reverberate now in every part of my being.


“Why have you come to Mount Athos?” was the question repeatedly asked of me. And the answers I gave--spiritual yearning; despair born of my reporting on the war in the Balkans; marital difficulties; the birth of my daughter; interest in Byzantium--took on new meaning in a land untouched by modernity, where my curiosity about monasticism led me to reexamine my own faith as a Protestant. Here is an unchanging order against which to measure the ceaseless changes of modernity, a thousand years of continuous religious practice to juxtapose with the ever shifting habits of contemporary belief. The vitality of the spiritual tradition carried on by Athonite monks is everywhere on display: in the mysterious beauty of the liturgy sanctified by fifteen centuries of daily performance; in the rigorous theology informing the monks’ prayers; in the artistic heritage of architecture, iconography, statuary, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, chanting, vestments, and ceremony. Yet even as I walked along the cliffs and paths, marveling at the strangeness of a place which creates its own time, its own singular history, I carried the burden of my life in the world. My spirits were low, and I was filled with existential dread: “is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me,” Tolstoy asks--a question I could not answer until I traveled to the Holy Mountain.


This change in my bearing was by no means easy to explain either to myself or to my secular friends. I had traded the physical dangers of covering the breakup of Yugoslavia for the psychic risks of opening my heart to the possibility of grace, war stories for Christ’s parables. The stakes seemed higher on Mount Athos, where I was conscious of last things in a manner altogether distinct from the mortal threat I had faced on the streets of Sarajevo during the siege. Thomas Merton praised the purity of heart achieved by the desert fathers, the fourth-century anchorites who made a clean break from society in order to purge their false selves and permit “the emergence of the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were ‘one Spirit,’” inaugurating the Christian monastic tradition. This was the secret self that to my surprise began to emerge from my pilgrimages. From the depths of mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion I discovered in the remotest circumstances new energy and meaning: direction.


Something started to vibrate in my soul when I first heard a monk calling his brethren to prayer. My pulse quickened, my heart soared, and I grew avid for the knowledge of spiritual things available in Scripture and patristic literature. The writings of the church fathers were a revelation to me like unto the pleasure and instruction I had always found in poetry. That for some time I had been unable to write my own poems reinforced the power of these divine words, which govern my thinking now and may one day inspire me to write a different kind of poem.


My first pilgrimage was undertaken in the shadow of the war in Bosnia, my last in the sunlit promise of the new millennium, before the war on terror darkened every sky. But what I learned on Mount Athos holds through the ages--through feast and famine, war and disease, love and loss. And if my course of travel on the peninsula and through the literature of faith resembled the meandering of a river that eventually empties into the sea, I understand it now in a new light. “The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within your soul,” wrote St. Isaac of Syria. “Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.” This was the ladder I did not know I was seeking until I had already begun to climb it.

Reviews

"My marriage was in tatters, war reporting had taken the place of poetry, and I was of an age to realize that the resolution of my latest health crisis was just a temporary reprieve," writes Christopher Merrill, explaining his first pilgrimage in 1989 to Mount Athos, a males-only monastic community in northern Greece, considered by many to be the spiritual home of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

"I had traded," he writes, "the physical dangers of covering the breakup of Yugoslavia for the psychic risks of opening my heart to the possibility of grace." And it is risky, what Merrill refers to as "unlearning everything," "untelling" the story of his life "to write a new one based on Scripture and patristic literature." Merrill comes to Athos with all the symptoms of spiritual indifference, "the noonday demon."

His soul is sick: sick of war, sick of arguing with his wife. He has lost his faith in literature, the guide that, from the surrealists to our finest poets of nature, had always sharpened his "sense of how to live." Merrill makes three trips to Mount Athos, wandering from monastery to monastery. As he walks, he thinks aloud about the roots of Christianity and the appeal of asceticism.

He is frustrated by the monks' refusal to grant him access to rituals and texts but understands, quoting Pseudo-Dionysius: "Let your respect for the things of the hidden God be shown in knowledge that comes from the intellect and is unseen. Keep these things of God unshared and undefiled by the uninitiated."

Merrill's great strengths as a writer have always been his ability to braid the past, present and future; his lightheartedness; and his willingness to digest those books the rest of us may never read and give the reader the gift of their essential wisdom. In his new book, Merrill, ever God's fool, also gives us something of himself, of his own wisdom and transformation.

--Susan Salter Reynolds
L.A. Times, January 23, 2005


A gem that shows off Merrill-the-poet's gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter's sharp eye—and introduces a new Merrill, the pilgrim.

Mount Athos is a remote Greek peninsula, inhabited by Orthodox monks. Merrill (International Writing Program/​Univ. of Iowa; The Grass of Another Country, 2004, etc.) was drawn there in 1998 when he was depressed, in credit-card debt, and drained from his reporting in the war-wracked Balkans. His marriage was crumbling, he was working too many hours a day and too hard—and so he went on a pilgrimage. On Athos, he hiked, prayed and saw monastic life up close. He discussed Robert Frost with one wise and genial monk, ate "almost inedible" food in monastic refectories, and tried sleepily to keep a prayer vigil. An on-again-off-again Episcopalian, Merrill found himself reading patristics and Scripture with an ardor he once reserved for poetry. (Things of . . . is embroidered not only with snippets from the Bible and Church fathers, but with insights from Updike, Larkin, Edward Lear, Simone Weil—treats alone that are worth the price of admission.) Indeed, the author experiences what he thinks might be a conversion, a deepening of faith, some sort of turning toward God, whatever one wants to call it. He comes to appreciate all—or, at least, most—things Orthodox, from icons to repentance. And his time on this peninsula where no women are allowed promises to transform his marriage. He begins to think of marriage as a holy discipline and learns something about both forgiveness and love. This is travel-reporting and memoir, as Merrill takes readers both to Athos and to the inside of his soul. That he shares his interior life with vulnerability and honest self-criticism saves the book from the tedium that can attend travel-writing, while his rendering of the Athos landscape wards off the narcissism that can attend spiritual memoir.

"What Orthodoxy offers," Merrill writes, "is light." As does he.
--Kirkus Reviews (starred), December 15, 2004