Monday, October 24, 2005


Well over a thousand years ago, a few emaciated monks, their minds fixed only upon the glories of the promise of the kingdom of Heaven fled the depredations of the Hagarenes and came to Mount Athos, a largely thickly forested and uninhabited corner of the Chalcidicidian Peninsula. There, free from the temptations and cares of the corporeal world of decay and delusion, they sought, through prayer and practice, that they be granted even the slightest of glimpses of the ineffable, uncreated light that is the energy of God.
Throughout the centuries, Mount Athos and the various monastic communities that have flourished there have been a respite for a weary travel and a place of solace for the world-weary. The monks were traditionally bound to offer the pilgrim hospitality, succour and spiritual advice. The «περιβόλι της Παναγίας» as Athos came to be known, may not even approach in the slightest its grand prototype of Paradise but being dedicated to the Theotokos, it can offer the pilgrim, just a slight foretaste, a fleeting if somewhat paltry image, of what is to come.
The Great Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church is filled with the lives of saints who as monks, strove in their miniscule cells to cast off the fetters of the world, their 'garments of skin,' in order to be granted through God's grace, the privilege of perceiving things through their noetic eye. Indeed, many were the saints who sought their release from the fetters of their earthly desires by binding their bodies in shackles or walling themselves up in their cells. Of those who struggled thus, St Gregory Palamas in the thirteenth century, was able to perceive the divine light, the uncreated energy of God and his method of spiritual contest, hesychasm, or rendered dimply 'quietitude,' has captured the imagination and had profound influence upon Greek as well as wider Orthodox culture, so much so in fact that an unbroken chain of hesychast fathers has existed since then, including among the more well known, Paisius the miracle-worker and prophet and Elder Joseph the Hesychast.
All these things had been far from my mind recently, as I crossed Elizabeth Street and walked up Bourke Street in the City during the course of my galactically inane and thoroughly soul-destroying employment. I was rushing frantically to meet a client, briefcase in one hand, mobile phone in the other, attempting to listen as the same client categorically set out the manner in which fire and brimstone would be hurled upon me from the heights of his own social standing if his matter was not resolved in the manner of his choosing and if I did not get to my appointment on time. I hurried along, bumping and jostling passersby with the expressionless countenances of Circassian eunuchs, narrowly missing being run over by a tram and cursing the ship that brought my progenitors here when I could be sitting in the ancestral village, drinking frappe, smoking and waiting for my uncle to die, so that I could inherit his property, sell it and do some more sitting, drinking and smoking…
Suddenly, my peripheral vision became less marginal as my ocular nerves honed into a sign on the side of the road: 'Café Athos.' Like an automaton, I turned, thinking: "Wow, a Three Musketeers trilogy. Café Athos, Café Porthos and Café Aramis. And of course the midguided and hapless fool who considers such motifs is as much a Dumas as the author." I looked up and saw two deep brown eyes stare at me from behind the counter and the fringe of beard that delimited a face. "You look stressed. Have a drink," the eyes intoned sonourously.
I nodded mindlessly, and it was only after gulping down a most excellent cup of coffee that I came to and started to explore the world, and the eyes around me. My eyes traveled from the deep brown eyes and the bristly beard to the white skull cap on the head and surprisingly, a photograph of Elder Joseph the Hesychast and a komposchoini surreptitiously tucked away behind the counter. "I take it you are not D' Artagnan," I commented.
Enter Chris Kontos, the proprietor of Café Athos and Athonite enthusiast. Inspired by a brief sojourn in Mount Athos last year, he was struck by its serenity in contrast with the mindlessly frenetic modern world. "What I wanted to do is to re-create that feeling I felt while reading the lives of the Holy Fathers and staying in the monasteries of Mt Athos," he says. "To be in the world but not of the world, just for a minutes at least."
Café Athos is certainly austere and monastic. In fact, the closest thing one can parallel it to is to an extremely austere monastic cell. It literally is, a hole in the wall with an opening into the street from which Kontos plies his customers with very decent coffee, serenity and often, in the best of monastic traditions, a small titbit, gratis. I ask him whether it was a conscious choice of his to emulate the lives of the saints who walled themselves up in their cells, by choosing to immure himself in such a straitened environment. "Not really," he smiles, "but it is fortuitous. You get a totally different perspective from in here. Come inside and see."
I leave the busy street with its jostling automatons and groanings of modernity. Entering Kontos' cell from a backdoor, I blink and gaze in wonderment. The noise of the city immediately ceases. I walk the four paces up to the counter - this being the extent of Chris' cell, finger the stainless steel of the refrigerator and sit down with him at the counter. Behind the counter, the photograph of Elder Joseph the Hesychast gazes austerely at the viewer and opposite him, on a shelf, sits a heavily leafed through tome of the Lives of the Saints. "There is plenty of reading to be done between making coffees," Chris advises. Viewed from this perspective, the world, literally at one's counterstep, feels so distant and remote. We view passersby with dispassion, though revel when a customer arrives at the counter, eyes the whole set up, up and down and then gingerly, almost shyly, asks for a short black. It feels strangely anachronistic and anatopistic for their to be such a beverage in this most serene of places and yet there Chris is, working his magic with the coffee machine as I fulfil the role of monastic oikodespotes and chat with the seeker of succour.
Even though the coffee is sold to go as are the most excellent muffins and of course kourabiedes, most customers linger at the counter on the street. They want to chat, to share a few of their own thoughts or problems or even to bask in the other-worldy aura that emanates from Cafe Athos. Chris talks to them simply and gently and they leave Athos' environs feeling a great deal more refreshed and calm than they were before they arrived. Chris waves to them as they leave with smiles on their faces. He knows that this time tomorrow, they will be back for yet another fix of inner grace and poise.
As the world passers us by indifferently and we indifferent to it focus in the silence and the confined space on our own shortcomings, the grinding of freshly roasting coffee beans accompanying one's heart beat to the rhythm of the prayer of the heart, I suddenly realize that I am late. Taking leave of Chris Kontos, who has taken off his skull cap (he has a white one, which makes him look like a muslim findamanetalist and a black one, which makes him look a zealot Orthodox monk from Esphygmenou monastery), wiped the sweat off his brow and is lovingly cleaning his counter, I plunge back into the heaving current of the river of Mammon. I have four unanswered call on my mobile phone and three messages. I am also embarrassingly, extravagantly late for some one of my miniscule extremity, yet I walk slowly, savouring every moment of my experience at Café Athos with longing, so much so in fact that I barge slap bang into the voluminous expanse of my client's chest. I look up at his raw red face, tense in rage. "Where the hell where you? Do you not know that this is crucial? I am going to…"
"Relax," I riposte. "I know how to resolve this. Listen. This is what we will do…" As I expound my newly arrived inspiration dispassionately and my client beams with joy, the verses of the communion hymn somehow lodge themselves into my conscience and repeat themselves over and over again. «Είδωμεν το φως το αληθινόν.» Maybe we will never be graced to catch a glimpse of the Uncreated Light. Yet serenity belongs to everyone, and Café Athos is just around the corner….
Café Athos is situated at 405 Bourke Street, Melbourne
First published in NKEE on 24 October 2005