VATOPEDI was a grand old monastery the size of a small village. Classical and Byzantine cellblocks framed the central courtyard, along with wooden staircases, metal walkways, and galleries of flaking stone. The cobbles in the yard were subsiding, and the ground sagged like the floorboards in an ageing farmhouse.
Fr Constantine’s office was in a dilapidated quad in the western corner. The room was dominated by a pair of cabinets, their drawers filled with sheets of marbled paper and lengths of cream and ivory mountboard, while the shelves behind contained rolls of buckram, leather, and silk, as well as goatskin parchment and calfskin vellum. Every other surface was covered in books: textblocks with hand-sewn bindings, manuscripts bundled in ribbon, and the shrivelled covers of ancient codices.
FR CONSTANTINE was Vatopedi’s bookbinder. He was a large, loafing figure, his white beard woven with grey, like Father Christmas gone to seed. A French convert, before coming to Mount Athos he had worked as a journalist in Paris, an archaeologist in Israel, and the head chef of an Islington restaurant.
“The best French restaurant in London,” he told me, testing a peacock-pattern lining against a page of maroon bookcloth. “That is what The Guardian said.”
“What was it called?”
“It is a play by Noël Coward. I used the name.”
“A decadent one.”
“No, I will not say.”
“Easy Virtue?” I was running out. “The Vortex?”
“Non. All gone. Gone since I came to Vatopedi.”
Fr Constantine put down the bookcloth and rootled around on his desk, searching through bundles of needles, spools of thread, a pile of red pressing boards, and a plastic case of paper drills. Eventually, he found a tin of tea behind a box of scalpels and shears. It was Fortnum & Mason Earl Grey Classic.
“The one thing I keep.”
AS THE monk filled a teapot, I opened my notebook. There were questions I was planning to ask — about Hesychasm, about the Jesus Prayer — but my host had no interest in answering them. When I mentioned The Way of a Pilgrim, he snuffled and snorted. When I outlined my pilgrimage route, he turned back to his work. But when I stopped talking, his face filled with pleasure and he began to tell stories. And what stories they were!
As we drank the tea, a decade of anecdotes came bubbling out. We toured round Soho in the early eighties, sharing liquid lunches with the painters at the French, and evenings at the Coach with Jeffrey Bernard. We went to the first nights of West End shows, being rude to Alan Bennett — “You are an odd man, but you make me laugh” — and charming to Maggie Smith — “I have some letters that Mr Coward wrote your husband, but, oh dear, they are naughty.”
One rambling tale took place in his restaurant on the evening that Diane Abbott became the first black woman elected to Parliament. It involved the new MP, two members of the Shadow Cabinet, a crate of champagne, and an argument with a famous actor: “Too famous, I cannot say . . .”.
Every time I recognised one of the names, Fr Constantine would scrunch up his eyes with delight. But when I asked why he gave it all up, he would pour more tea and begin another story. Most of these stories — wine tastings and whisky tastings and road trips in the company of restaurant critics — ended with a mishap in a pub or bar, until I started to guess the answer.
A DOOR on the far side of the office opened on to a balcony. The Aegean lay in the distance, its surface dark as liquorice. I thought of Christos, the sailor who longed for the sea; and Michael, the communist who wanted never to return home; and Fr Constantine, the gourmand retiring into austerity. Perhaps it was chance, my crossing paths with these three, or perhaps some half-conscious instinct drew me towards them.
I wasn’t sure what linked the men, or whether their experiences shared anything with my own — beyond a vague desire to leave ourselves behind. Yet the deliberate rhythm of life here made this coincidence feel fated, as if there was a lesson for me to learn. And Johnny’s voice played over in my thoughts: Nobody comes to Mount Athos by mistake.
DID Fr Constantine mourn the life he left behind? Or did the disappointment and regret make it easier to cut ties? Or perhaps he came to Mount Athos with a sense of liberation rather than loss; for, despite everything that was missing on the Holy Mountain — most of the brothers managed without computers and phones, televisions and radios — there was freedom in their poverty.
During my own stay, the simplest things had become pleasures. Metal bowls of boiled vegetables and twice-baked bread, with jugs of spring water so chilled they left me gasping. An afternoon nap in a dormitory of pilgrims — from Bulgaria and Cyprus, Romania and Greece — on a mattress no thicker than my wrist. High ceilings, wide walls, and wooden shutters sifting in the breeze.
How little we need to be happy. How little we need to survive.
THE tea was finished, Fr Constantine swilling the last sip round his mouth. “It’s true,” he concluded, “I was not a good little boy. So maybe you see why I had to become a monk.”
“But it sounds like you miss it.”
“France I do not miss. Journalism, restaurants — non.”
He was searching his desk again, hiding the Fortnum’s tin behind boxes of tools and spools of thread.
“But London I miss. It’s true. And the theatre, too. And those little sandwiches from Marks & Spencer.”
This is an extract from The Crossway by Guy Stagg, published by Picador at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30). (Books, 3 August).
Listen to Guy Stagg talk about the book on the Church Times Podcast.