“The whole Mountain’s my home.”
~ Br. Klement, a monk of Athos
Do you have a short list of retreat books? I don’t mean books that you’d take on retreat for edification and spiritual insight. No, I mean books that are themselves retreats – books that you can escape into and can do so repeatedly with confidence: Every time you re-read one, without fail, you find yourself interiorly slipping away to some foreign realm of refreshment.
My list of retreat books includes A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Confederacy of Dunces, as well as Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth saga and virtually any Jeeves and Wooster story by P.G. Wodehouse. Better tolerated than pharmaceuticals and booze, and cheaper than weekend tropical jaunts, retreat books are allow us to calm the spirit and shed a day’s stress by ushering us into parallel worlds – however briefly – that become ever more familiar and comfortable with each successive immersion.
Many books do those things, but retreats books do so repeatedly and predictably, and there’s no way to know ahead of time which ones will make the cut – which ones, that is, that will stand up to a second reading after an hiatus, and then a third reading, and more.
On the other hand, we can sometimes have a hunch about new reads, and it can take two different forms. The first is palpable disappointment that a book we’re finishing for the first time has an ending at all – as in, “Phooey! I only have two chapters to go!” The second form of the hunch crops up once we’ve actually reached the end, the last page is turned, and our minds are flooded with enthusiastic anticipation – “Maybe if I set it aside for a year (or six months, or a month?), I can jump back into it afresh!”
Then there’s that rare volume that elicits both responses in abundance. Such was the case recently as I finished reading Sydney Loch’s Athos: The Holy Mountain. It’s a remarkable book about a remarkable place. Mt. Athos is the Greek peninsula that has been populated exclusively by Orthodox monks for over a thousand years. Its claim to fame in the popular imagination is its total exclusion of females – entirely and completely. Nothing politically correct about Athos, that’s for sure, but the intention isn’t at all misogynist but rather penitential: The celibate monks of Athos are deadpan serious about their laser focus on holiness, and so they’ve created an entire society where, in the words of Peter Maurin, “it is easier for men to be good.”
I inherited Loch’s book from Tom, my bibliophile father-in-law, along with numerous other books associated with Mt. Athos – like Pennington’s O Holy Mountain! and several copies of the multi-volume Philokalia. “Here,” he’d say, shoving another volume at me, virtually every time I saw him, “have you read this yet?” Assembled on Mt. Athos by St. Nicodemus in the eighteenth-century, the Philokalia is an anthology of Orthodox spiritual writings that has exerted a tremendous influence on Orthodox piety, and it’s a testimony to the far-reaching influence of Athos itself.
Catholics don’t really have anything that parallels Athos in terms of spiritual clout. We have the Benedictine tradition and the Franciscan tradition and the Carmelite tradition – a host of spiritual traditions, in other words, that appeal to individuals according to their particular tastes and inclinations. For the Orthodox, however, monasticism is the dominant spiritual heritage – the “very soul of the Eastern Churches,” according to St. John Paul II – and Athos is like Orthodox monasticism’s 800-pound gorilla. Its origins as a monkish settlement trace back almost to the very beginnings of Christianity, and tradition has it that the Blessed Mother herself designated the land as her own special garden.
Tom and his recommendations about Athos came to mind as I rummaged our stacks last month and happened upon Sydney Loch’s memoir of the Holy Mountain. I was in desperate need of a reliable retreat read – the polar vortex had swooped down on us with a ferocious bite, and the stress of nighttime hospital clinicals was weighing heavily – so I was tempted to go with the tried and true. In the end, however, I decided to skip my trustworthy Wodehouse and honor Tom’s memory by giving Loch a shot.
It was a fabulous and providential choice, and my only regret was that I didn’t put it off a few weeks so that it could be Lenten reading. Delving into Loch’s Athos book was like following a seasoned author’s travel blog in real time – evocative, punchy, occasionally reflective, always engaging. What’s more, it was a travelogue that doubled as a succinct and illuminating history, mapping out the contours of the unique promontory’s rich and ancient past. Plus, on account of its subject matter, Loch’s Athos turned out to be a retreat book that not only provided escape, but spiritual refreshment as well.
And it was a spiritual refreshment of an unusually ecumenical character. Loch himself was a Scottish Protestant, but he was clearly comfortable with Roman Catholicism, he worked for Quakers, and he eventually became intimately familiar with Orthodox doctrine and practice. This cosmopolitan religious sensibility, so evident in his plainspoken and respectful manner of taking the Athonite monks on their own terms, was rooted in a lifetime of travel, service, and experience, both in peacetime and in war.
As a naturalized Australian, Loch joined his adopted country’s army at age 17 and fought in the initial stages of the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign. A bout of dysentery took him away from the front and gave him the freedom to write up his observations about the horrors of battle.
Loch’s memoir of Gallipoli, The Straits Impregnable, was so graphic that it could only be published as a work of fiction (and under an assumed name, Sydney de Loghe) in order to avoid scaring off new recruits. Eventually, the truth surfaced that the book was in fact a realistic depiction of the conflict, and it was banned by the military censors.
Regardless of the book’s fate, Loch himself was intent on exorcising the demons of his wartime trauma – a phenomenon captured by the title of the latest edition of his Gallipoli book, To Hell and Back – and he devoted the rest of his life to selfless humanitarian work. He and his wife, Joice, a celebrated author and humanitarian in her own right, worked tirelessly on behalf of the victims of war and persecution in Poland, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Eventually, the couple settled in Ouranoupolis, a village at the very threshold of Athos and its effective gateway community.
That proximity to Mary’s garden and the peaceful world of the Athonite monks seems to have provided the healing that Loch yearned for, and he became a regular visitor on the Mountain, recording details about his wanderings and contacts that he began assembling into a book in the early 1950s. Sydney died unexpectantly after finishing his manuscript, but with only the first six chapters edited and typed. His beloved and devoted wife put together the final chapters of the book after Sydney’s death, remaining in their village home in order to, in her words, “edit and type the book in the atmosphere in which it was written.”
And Loch himself? Was the lingering anguish of his Gallipoli ordeal dispelled in the end? Neither he nor his wife refer to it directly, so you’ll have to read Loch and draw your own conclusions – that is, if you can locate a copy of Athos, because it is long out of print. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that this entire essay is a thinly veiled attempt to conjure up popular support for getting Loch’s book back in print and into the hands of readers.)
As for me, I have no doubt. Throughout his book, and despite sectarian differences, Loch assumes a unanimity with his tranquil brothers of the Mountain. He exudes equanimity and peacefulness, and his accounts of events, places, and, especially, people, are replete with affection and even playfulness.
And then there’s this – a confessio of sorts that appears without warning or fanfare in one of the earlier sections of the book, and worth quoting at length:
Wakening to the transcendence of God. God in the stones, in the sky, in the trees. In the gnat. And the trumpeting elephant. On with the sandals. Down from the shelf with the script. Along the highway to reality.
Wakening to the Immanence of God. Realizing the presence of two extended arms, tirelessly held out. The inviting, untrembling arms of God. Closer, closer. And at last a kiss! To the desert! To the cave!
Loch had been to hell and back, and he was now living on the doorstep of paradise and Mary’s own spiritual greenhouse – a foretaste of heaven, where God’s infinite transcendence and condescending immanence are right there for the taking, right there in reach!
It’s Lent and time for a parched desert of deprivation and sacrifice. Even so, make room for some refreshment along the way, and track down a copy of Loch’s Athos. It’ll be like a visit to a garden – a very special Garden indeed.