Magazine article The Spectator

Rock and Soul

Magazine article The Spectator

Rock and Soul

Article excerpt

Rock and soul JOURNEY TO THE HOLY MOUNTAIN by Christopher Merrill HarperCollins, £17.99, pp. 346, ISBN 0007119011

If you were a poet returning from warravaged Yugoslavia with a marriage on the rocks and credit-card companies after you, where would you go to get away from it all? Christopher Merrill's choice, several times between 1998 and the millennium's eve, was Mount Athos. The only women to have entered this thousand-year-old monastic republic in northern Greece - a watchtower for Byzantium, he calls it - have been halted by guards as they stepped from the boat or warned off by the voice of the Virgin Mary.

Some of Merrill's experiences on Athos are equally forbidding. He arrives at the Serbian monastery, to be asked 'You like racquet ball?' and, nodding politely, is told the world championship results: 'Yugoslavia just won . . . Russia second, USA third.' He decides to move on.

The author of this impressive account of a place hard to tie down is not often daunted, even in the face of violence. When treated to a one-sided lecture on Serbian sufferings, he speaks of what he knows, with powerful and peaceable self-restraint. Although - perhaps because - he once spent an afternoon pinned down by sniper fire, he knows when to walk away from a conversation that is not going anywhere.

Athos, then, spoke to him in the depths of war. Arriving on its shores to navigate his crises through an ancient faith, he keeps an eye open for humour. In church between a wide-eyed Alyosha Karamazov figure and a sleeping bishop, he hears a monk remark, 'Better to sleep inside the ark of the church than outside.' Whether people are sneering at him, taking food away from him because he is not Orthodox, or sharing a moment of spiritual connection, Merrill writes everything down. So persistent is he that in a Montenegrin monastery, before he ever went to Athos, a monk grabbed his pen, and told him to take his racist slurs to heart, not just down on paper.

Many scenes here spice up the spiritual landscape, and much of what makes the Holy Mountain surprisingly approachable - if you are the right sex - comes alive. Like most Athonite writers Merrill quotes Gregory of Nyssa on the Constantinopolitans arguing about the Trinity rather than the price of bread. …

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