Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain
Random House, 2005
304 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by Elissa Elliott
Looking for God on the Holy Mountain
Men have been traveling to Mount Athos, the Virgin's Holy Mountain, for centuries. (Women are not allowed.) The Peninsula of Mount Athos, the most eastern and beautiful peninsula of Chalkidiki, is the cornerstone of Orthodox Christianity and the only place in Greece devoted entirely to prayer and to worship of God. Twenty monasteries (with vast and disparate histories) and their companion hermitages, cloisters, and cottages cluster around the evergreen–studded mountain that soars 2,033 meters into the sky.
The story goes like this: The Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist were on their way to Cyprus, to visit Lazarus. An unexpected storm arose, a great tempest lashed at their sails, and they were forced to pull into a shallow bay on the eastern side of the peninsula. The Virgin Mary was struck with the beauty of the place and asked God to give it to her as a gift. The Lord agreed and said that it was to be a "haven for those who seek salvation." It has been called the Garden of Mary ever since.
Christopher Merrill, like many pilgrims who travel to the Holy Mountain, was at a crossroad. His marriage was faltering; he had come from reporting on the war in the Balkans; his daughter Hannah had just been born; and his poetry was becoming laborious to write. He felt his life mirrored the title of one of Paul Gauguin's paintings: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Yearning for the answers, he left his wife and newborn child behind to search for God on the Holy Mountain.
Merrill's adventures, if I may call them that, are not all glorious. He struggles with lack of attention (he turns on the television and channel surfs when his mind wanders), his neck aches from a recent biopsy (which turns out to be benign), and he runs into traveling companions who think all Protestants have missed the boat. In addition, he is confused when he encounters God–fearing monks who are blatantly anti–Semitic and who support, with great relish, the Kosovar genocide in which Serbs plunder, rape, and kill Albanians.
On the other hand, Merrill worships, prays, and eats with these people. He finds beauty and meaning in the charred frescoes and the numerous icons. The incense and liturgy infuse him. On his hikes, the scruffy trees and vines, the sudden birdsong, and the hidden gardens here and there point to Someone. These are the things of the hidden God he has come to see.
I found his discussion of icons particularly interesting. Orthodox Christians express their love by kissing the feet of the Virgin Mary or of Jesus as represented on an icon, but they insist that it is the prototype (not the painted, wooden object) that they honor: they never worship or pray to icons. Merrill seems to agree. He purchases his own icons as he travels.
Merrill is no stranger to the literary world. He has authored four books of poetry and three books of nonfiction. When I read that he was the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, my interest was piqued. The University of Iowa is considered the mecca of creative writing. Like any inquisitive underling writer, I eagerly awaited Merrill's innermost thoughts. I was disappointed.
Perhaps the problem lies more in the expectations created by the book than in the writing itself. Many recent travel narratives with a literary bent lean toward memoir. The way Merrill's book is framed led me to expect that here as well. But while he delves deeply into history and theology (very dry reading because it's disjointed and not chronological), he offers very few glimpses into his personal life. He discloses little about his foibles, even though he keeps insisting he has them. In the end, it sounds as though he feels his wife may have needed the Holy Mountain more than he did:
At the same time my marriage seemed to be on the mend. … It was as if a dam had broken inside her, and in the flood of her emotions some of her bitterness washed away. … Nor did she pick another fight for weeks. … I thanked God for her change of heart, which I did not pretend to understand, and for the peace reigning in my household—which, for my part at least, seemed connected to my journey into faith.
Merrill is a quote collector, as I am. He uses one of my favorites, from St. Basil: "I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that wherever you go, the least plant may bring a clear remembrance of the Creator. One blade of grass or one speck of dust is enough to occupy your entire mind in beholding the art with which it has been made." That's why, in the liturgy, the priest says, "Wisdom. Attend." I like that very much. The grass in my backyard can be sacred; dandelion fluff and clicking beetles can be my Holy Mountain. These simplicities reflect the face and handiwork of my Savior. And I must "attend."
Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota.
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