The Life of Prayer on Mount Athos

by Douglas Dales (Volume editor) Graham Speake (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection X, 160 Pages


According to St Basil, the monk’s whole life should be a season of prayer, both public prayer and private prayer. That is what the monks of Mount Athos are there to do. That is the basis of their entire way of life. Athos is sometimes called ‘the mountain of silence’, but as one living Athonite has written, ‘here you can hear the hum of unceasing prayer.’ The book explores all dimensions of this mystery, beginning with the deceptively simple question ‘what is prayer?’ Subsequent papers consider various aspects of prayer as practised on Athos both in public and in private: the prayer of the church and the prayer of the cell, prayer when working, prayer when painting icons, the musical tradition of prayer and the poetic tradition, culminating in the Jesus Prayer or prayer of the heart which is the foundation of the current renewal of monasticism on Athos. Most of the papers in this book were delivered at a conference held by the Friends of Mount Athos in Cambridge in March 2019.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (Douglas Dales and Graham Speake)
  • 1 What Is Prayer? (Fr Stephen Platt)
  • 2 Worship and Prayer at an Athonite Monastery (Archimandrite Elisaios)
  • 3 St John Chrysostom and the Jesus Prayer (Fr Maximos Constas)
  • 4 Poetry as Prayer (Elizabeth Jeffreys)
  • 5 Painting Icons as Prayer (Aidan Hart)
  • 6 Music as Prayer (Dimitri Conomos)
  • 7 Monastic Work as Prayer (Archimandrite Ephraim)
  • 8 The Invocation of the Holy Name: A Prayer for All Seasons (Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index


Most of the papers collected in this volume were originally delivered at a conference entitled ‘The Life of Prayer on Mount Athos’ organized by the Friends of Mount Athos and held at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, in March 2019. The society wishes to acknowledge with gratitude the generous sponsorship provided by the Prince’s Trust and the Gerald Palmer Eling Trust. The editors of the volume in their turn wish to thank the Friends of Mount Athos for contributing generously towards the production costs of the volume. Once again it is a pleasure to record our debt to our courteous and efficient publishers at Peter Lang in Oxford.



The first Madingley conference of the Friends of Mount Athos was held in 2003 and was devoted to the theme of ‘The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain’. There were no fewer than four Athonites among the speakers, two of them abbots of monasteries, and two others who received their tonsure on Athos. One of the abbots was Archimandrite Ephraim of the great and holy monastery of Vatopedi. He spoke in Greek, about Elder Joseph the Hesychast, one of the principal architects of the monastic renewal that took place on the Mountain in the second half of the twentieth century, who has recently been canonized. Abbot Ephraim was to have been present at the 2019 conference, the proceedings of which are contained in this volume, when he was scheduled to speak about ‘Work as Prayer’; but he was struck down by a serious heart attack when visiting Kiev and his doctors forbade him to travel to the UK. He sent instead the text of the paper that he would have given and it is included in this collection, whose theme is ‘The Life of Prayer on Mount Athos’.

Prayer is central to the life of the Holy Mountain and it sustains a strong and deeply rooted spiritual tradition with a long history that is also intensely practical. We who live in the outside world, however, often struggle to concentrate on the daily routine of private prayer and the prescribed schedules of liturgical worship; and our life as a result becomes seriously unstructured, undisciplined, and pretty disorderly. There are so many distractions, so many conflicting priorities, and we seem to progress from one mini-crisis to the next. We feel that we live in unsettled and unsettling times. The first monks discovered Athos as a haven from a similarly unsettled and often violent world.

This is why Athos is so important and so valuable: because life there is supremely well structured and highly disciplined; and that structure, that discipline, is provided by prayer. For the monks it is prayer in the cell ←1 | 2→at night; prayer in church both morning and evening; prayer before and after meals; prayer while working; probably even prayer while sleeping. A pilgrim can stand back in awe and admire the structure; but actually it is there on offer to us too, if only we are willing to engage with it seriously and not be simply a bystander. The Greek word for pilgrim (proskynitis) means someone who bends the knee, who worships and does not simply watch.

Athos has often been called the mountain of prayer. In the words of Fr Nikon of Karoulia, the famous Russian elder who died in 1963, ‘Here every stone breathes prayers.’ Prayer is everywhere on Athos. You cannot escape it. The rhythmical striking of the talanto, the monks’ call to prayer, is surely the most evocative sound of any on the Mountain. It gets you out of bed in the morning. It brings you back to church in the afternoon. You can be walking on a remote path apparently miles from anywhere when in the distance you hear that unmistakable sound and you know immediately that the next monastery is not so far after all and, if you hurry, you might make it in time for vespers. If on the other hand you have the good fortune to be driven by Land Rover or some such vehicle over those unbelievably bone-shaking roads, your monastic driver will almost certainly not talk to you: he will be saying the Jesus Prayer, probably under his breath, and if you value your life, you will join him. Prayer provides the framework for every day and every action on Athos. Thus Athonites do indeed try to ‘pray without ceasing’, as we are all enjoined to do by St Paul. As one living Athonite has written, ‘here you can hear the hum of unceasing prayer.’

‘What the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world … they dwell in the world but are not of the world: … they in fact hold the world together such is the important position to which God has appointed them.’1 These words, from an early Christian text called the Epistle to Diognetus, sum up the role of Athonite Christians in particular as they have embodied this vocation for over 1,000 years on the Holy Mountain. Their prayer and witness are of universal significance, stretching far beyond the confines of Orthodoxy. The renewal of monastic life on the Holy Mountain is one of the great signs of Christian hope in our time. It is also a challenge to ←2 | 3→the secularism, ignorance, and spiritual complacency of modern western society in particular.

It is of course impossible to do justice to the rich variety of expression within such a deep spiritual tradition. But this volume seeks to impart something of the manifold beauty and abiding character of Athonite prayer. However fascinating and beautiful Athos is in terms of architecture, art, and landscape, its raison d’être remains prayer, both private and liturgical. This is what draws most of the numerous pilgrims that flock to the Holy Mountain each year. What is striking is the wide social range of these pilgrims, and the capacity that so many of them have to participate fully in the rigorous demands of the services, which begin very early in the morning and often last for hours. What is also notable is the generous pastoral ministry of the monks to so many individuals and families, many of whom come from countries hard hit by economic deprivation and frustration, for example from Greece and other parts of Eastern Europe as well as from Russia and Ukraine. Indeed it is providential that the monasteries of Athos were revived in time to handle this relentless pastoral and spiritual need, including the outstanding women’s monastery nearby at Ormylia with its ministry of healing. All this is a demanding and sacrificial ministry of faith, hope, and love, which the Friends of Mount Athos seek to support, encourage, and cherish.


X, 160
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
Prayer on Mount Athos Orthodox monasticism The Jesus Prayer
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. X, 160 pp., 6 fig. col., 1 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Douglas Dales (Volume editor) Graham Speake (Volume editor)

The Revd Douglas Dales is an Anglican parish priest and a regular pilgrim to the Holy Mountain. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and author of several studies of Anglo-Saxon church history and Anglican theology. His publications include Glory: The Spiritual Theology of Michael Ramsey (2003), Dunstan, Saint and Statesman (2nd edn 2013), Alcuin: His Life and Legacy (2012), Alcuin: Theology and Thought (2013). He is currently completing a trilogy of studies of the spiritual theology of St Bonaventure. Graham Speake is Chairman of the Friends of Mount Athos and a regular visitor to the Mountain. His publications include Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (2nd edn 2014), winner of the 2002 Criticos Prize, and A History of the Athonite Commonwealth: The Spiritual and Cultural Diaspora of Mount Athos (2018). He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and holds a doctorate in classics from the University of Oxford. He was received into Orthodoxy on Mount Athos in 2000.


Title: The Life of Prayer on Mount Athos
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
172 pages