In 1978 M. Basil Pennington spent four months on Mount Athos, becoming the first Western monk allowed to stay in the monastery known as the cradle of Orthodox Christianity for longer than an overnight visit. In this fascinating account of his stay, the author notes: "While it was not intended, my visit on the Holy Mountain seems to have been a healing thing, a step, however small, in the coming together of the separated sister churches." This Jubilee edition of the classic previously titled O Holy Mountain! is as welcome now as when it was first published.
Pennington finds it challenging to navigate the steep mountain trails, to sit through the lengthy Orthodox services, and to deal with the language barriers. Nonetheless, he is very observant and has many interesting things to say about Orthodoxy and Catholicism, faith, icons, and prayer. While some monks want to debate theological issues with him, Pennington is more inclined to simply be present in love and to share with them an experience of God's presence. That, of course, has proven to be the most salutary approach in all multifaith encounters.
Pennington does admit that the Orthodox seem to have a greater sense of God's transcendence and more of an appreciation for reverence than Catholics do. Neither side has accepted the saints of the other since the division within the early Church. The author is touched by some of the selfless monks who seem to derive great joy in bringing him little gifts of food. But others are less tolerant of having a "heretic" spending so much time on their holy mountain. Pennington's open heart shows through when he writes:
"If I feel pain at times being put in a corner or excluded as a 'heretic,' I can readily accept it in a spirit of reparation for all the past sins against unity of my own Church. Even so few years ago as when I was studying theology, our theologians and even papal documents did not hesitate to exclude these holy monks and all their brothers in Orthodoxy from membership in the Body of Christ. How the Lord puts up with us! We can be consoled and take courage in seeing his patience with the First Bishops, the holy Apostles, who has their share of false zeal."
Pennington, now in his eighties, lives at Saint Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. He is the author of many books including one of the best on centering prayer, Finding Grace at the Center. He concludes that his stay on Mount Athos brought him to a greater understanding and delight in Catholicism as well as an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of Orthodoxy.