Rituals of Exclusion

A spindly peninsula juts off the northern coast of Greece like a bony nger exed in the Aegean. In pictures, it looks otherworldly: lush, lonely, and alpine, azure tides battering against ragged precipices. An edice that resembles a decaying fortress languishes at the edge of a cliff in sad decadence as if threatening to slump into the ocean. It looks like the sort of place you would expect to find the last living dinosaur, huge and decrepit.

As secluded and ancient as the Greek gods themselves, the peninsula is called Mount Athos, named for the Giant upon whom Poseidon spitefully launched a mountain. Today, it is a solitary bastion of Orthodox Christianity. Twenty turreted monasteries litter the coast of Athos like anachronistic watchmen. Within, hundreds of robed, Rasputin-esque men murmur unintelligible prayers, rapt in their piety. They pray for the world, they pray for salvation, they pray for mercy. Their lips tremble unceasingly under the weight of holy words.

The monks have tasked themselves with the deliverance of the human race, waging an invisible war against Satan that keeps them anchored on Athos for at least a lifetime. Leading a mean, spartan existence, their aesthetic is ascetic. When they die, their humped and tired bodies unceremoniously rot beneath the mountain before their filthy skulls are exhumed and pitched into an overowing catacomb. Here their lifeless mandibles will surely continue God’s industry amongst thousands of departed brethren for centuries to come.

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Mount Athos exists exclusively, and quite literally, in the past. Thirteen days to be 
precise. It is the current time discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, the latter of which the monks have declined to adopt. However, for all the fanatical infatuation with tradition, a gap of thirteen days may as well be thirteen hundred years on the mountain.

Eastern Orthodoxy prides itself on ironclad adherence to archaic praxis. Unlike other branches of Christianity, virtually no aspect of the Orthodox liturgy has changed since Judas the Apostle turned Judas the Apostate. The arcane murmurings of the Athonite monks are the same ones that dribbled from Jesus’s own holy tongue in the first century. They boast their antiquated practices with an ecumenical smugness, reveling in the moral purity of their beliefs.

The monks’ rigidity does not subside for the mission of inclusivity. Despite their professed dedication to the supernal, loving ways of Christ, the monks of Mount Athos have unapologetically shuttered their doors to women. According to an Athonite edict termed Avaton, females are forbidden from encroaching on the mountain and must keep a distance of at least five hundred meters from its shores. The prohibition goes so far as to extend to most female animals; neither hen nor heifer is permitted to roam the mountain. The monks revile transgressors with solemn delectation, dispatching the women to prison, where they are welcomed more warmly.

To the monks’ displeasure, a woman will successfully breach the perimeter of Mount Athos once every few centuries, an onerous task given that the peninsula is only accessible with written permission from the Patriarch of Constantinople. Many suspect that the first time was during the 14th century when the Serbian Emperor sought to shelter his wife, Helena of Bulgaria, from the plague by sequestering her upon the mountain. While the undertaking was a success, Helena’s feet never once touched the ground – the monks forbade it. Instead, servants toted her body throughout the peninsula in a hand-carriage like large, unwieldy cargo.

More often than not, female visitors are intrepid woman who steal onto Mount Athos in male guise. In the 1920s, French writer Maryse Choisy, in a demonstration of journalistic devotion, donned a false mustache and underwent a radical mastectomy in order to breach the walls of Mount Athos. In her book, Un Mois Chez Les Hommes, Choisy chronicles her successful month-long sojourn posing as a male servant. Upon inquiring about the apparent lack of female animals on the peninsula, a Vatopedi monk explained to her, “The day we possessed a hen, some brothers would argue that we should also accept a she-cat, a ewe... or even a she-ass. And there is but a step from a she-ass to a woman.” To account for the dramatic exercise of principle, the monks have maintained a biblical defense of the mandate.

As Athonite tradition would have it, the Virgin Mary was sailing to visit Lazarus of Bethany (newly resurrected, feeling like a spring chicken) when violent winds beat her ship off course and dumped its holy cargo upon the shores of Mount Athos. In a par- oxysm of divine inspiration, the pagan peoples of the region suddenly abandoned their godless ways and converted to Christianity. Enamored by its strapping, Mediterranean splendor and the spontaneous religiosity of its residents, Mary prayed to her son, the recently Ascended Jesus, that the land be gifted to her. Evidently, being the mother of the Christian messiah is not without its advantages, as God obliged, proclaiming, “Let this place be your lot, your garden, and your paradise, as well as a salvation, a haven for those who seek salvation.” From that moment on, Mount Athos was consecrated as the garden of the Virgin Mary and thus, the patriarchs of Orthodox Christianity determined that nary another female foot was to tread on the sacred land.

Surely, such measures seem like an overreaction to the words of the blessed Virgin Mother. Perhaps, Mary just wanted a building to bear her name. At the very least, it is more probable that she would have liked to create a sanctuary for the veneration of women, not an exclusionary pulpit from which haughty, near-senile monks pray for the salvation of a world from which they are utterly detached. Alas, generations of pious men have discerned otherwise.

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On its face, Mount Athos appears to be an aberration in its staunch, and arguably 
contrived, exclusivity. In reality, its extremity is indicative of a larger, resilient pattern of gender segregation across religions. Almost counterintuitively, a plethora of holy places have become reserved for people of a particular gender, as opposed to people of a particular faith. Sacred sites like Mecca and Medina, which only permit entrance to Muslims, are exceptions in their brand of exclusivity, not the rule. The evidence for this is both profound and plentiful. Until 1983, the sanctuary of the Catholic church was a space reserved solely for males, with women forbidden from approaching the altar. In traditional Jewish synagogues, it is an enduring practice that a mechitza separate the sexes during prayer. Similarly, women in Islamic mosques are often obligated to pray in separate rooms from men, or divided by partitions, all in the pursuit of a nebulous benchmark of modesty.

The unifying theme is religious tradition with a deeply rooted distress regarding the company of women. On Athos, the monks have deemed female-kind an insurmountable impediment to spiritual enlightenment. The last time an Athonite monk was ques- tioned on the subject—less than ve years ago in a feature for 60 Minutes—he protested, “Here we’re concerned solely with purity and our elevation to eternity. If women are permitted they would bring their families and children—this place would become a tourist attraction and no longer a place of silence.”

The monk’s tone, steeped in polished condescension, would seem to imply that tourists, too, are barred from Mount Athos. This is certainly not the case. As a matter of fact, one does not even have to be Orthodox Christian to gain visitation privileges; simply an adult male or boychild in the company of his father. If you fall into the fifty percent of the population who happen to satisfy these genetic requirements, you are at least eligible to apply for a visa granting access to approach the sacred mountain.

In truth, the grievance seems to lie with the acute sexual anxiety induced in spiritual men by the presence of women. Rites of separation, in most religions, exist for the purpose of sparing males from the temptation unwittingly offered by the female physique. On Mount Athos, the Avaton is a bulwark protecting the monks’ celibacy. Their mortal bodies are, after all, imperfect: mercurial and plagued by weakness, naturally in the business of sin thanks to our forbears, Adam and Eve. Gender segregation ensures that the monks will never, “defile their eyes with the sight of anything female,” as stated in the charter of The Grand Lavra, Athos’ first monastery. Women are vilified as impure, corrupted ribs of men, so that the Athonites may more easily conserve their delicate purity, until death allows them to shed their nefarious human suits and clear the sill of this universe for a more divine setting.

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In 2003, the European Parliament formally requested that the monastic leadership of 
Mount Athos renounce its ban on women, citing the United Nations’ core principle of equality between the sexes. Needless to say, the Athonites declined. Technically, it was within their rights to do so, given that Athos retains a “special status” as an autonomous polity of Greece. In recent years, the monks have argued that the monasteries and land that surrounds them are all their property, giving them the right to exclude whomever they please.

An Austrian politician named Walter Schwimmer defended the reasoning of the monks in 2012, writing, “One of the most essential aspects of human dignity is the mutual respect of human beings. Someone who demands the end of the ban of women on Mount Athos simply lacks respect for the way of life the monks of Mount Athos have chosen as well as for their religious beliefs and convictions.”

The errors with this logic are both glaring and manifold. Unless Mr. Schwimmer considers females to be a lower caliber of human being than the Athonite monks, it remains to be seen why this all-important sense of “mutual respect” should not extend to the devout women who wish to visit Mount Athos. Furthermore, Schwimmer’s “right to discriminate” rhetoric is morally bankrupt, reinscribing traditional hierarchies of power and creating areas of entitlement for already privileged parties. The problem with drawing arbitrary, heavy-handed lines in the sand arises when one’s liberty to exercise religious rights greedily envelops another’s freedom from oppression.

This is not to say religious tradition ought to be ung haphazardly from the monastic window. No one has asked that the monks surrender their opulent collection of invaluable artworks, deteriorating tomes, or ancient manuscripts. Ultimately, the Athonite monks are at liberty to practice their religion as they please. Nonetheless, it is imperative that we question the value of antiquated practices which exist solely for the sake of orthodoxy, especially when those practices are exclusionary and have the tendency of reducing women to mere sex objects. It appears that there is virtually no benefit in barring women from holy sites at the expense of their right to experience spiritual fullment and unity with their favored deity. If the monks who rule Mount Athos with such an unforgiving iron fist are so salacious that their unswerving commitment to God should falter if they so much as glimpse the sleek, wild flesh of woman, that seems to be indicative of a larger, deep-seated problem with their faith. Eve may have offered Adam the forbidden fruit, but he could have easily denied her.

For all its earthly pulchritude and divine treasures, the outdated exclusivity in which Mount Athos languishes is undeniably ugly. Perhaps more alarming, is the notion that Athos is far from an unhappy idiosyncrasy. On Mount Athos and beyond, reclusive men of piety, drenched in an articially divine light, cast the shadows of giants in whose cool silhouettes women wither.