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A starets called Rasputin, a Yankee classicist, The Holy Mountain above the restless cerulean sea … God. Joy. Wonder. Travel Series

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by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.

Mount_AthosA starets called Rasputin, a Yankee classicist, The Holy Mountain
above the restless cerulean sea … God. Joy. Wonder.

Author’s program note. I went to Greece, to Mount Athos through a slick of my own blood, because of a single line in a book I read over
and over again, only when “finished” to continue by listening to the film
score all over again.

In 1971 it was all “Nicholas and Alexandra”  all the time, and you must hie
thee at once to any search engine for the stupendous music that evokes
the greatest of empires, as it hurtled through its last days to Hell, taking us
all along on an epic journey of death and a tragic destiny that enthrals us still.

Homage to Robert Massie, author “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1967)

Robert Massie (born 1929) is not merely an historian, though he is surely that;
nor is he simply a poet though his magic turns every line, even the most prosaic,
into something no god, not Zeus himself, would disdain to call his own.

You might have thought such a rara avis would warble only in the most fastidious
circumstances… but you would be wrong for Mr. Massie once lived not far from me,
along the hallowed route the citizen-solders of April ’75 traversed and from where they made such a ruckus when they used musket against King and Crown, the shot heard round the world.

So positioned, with stirring history on his door step, he might have written of the Great American Coming Together which is a way of seeing the thirteen factious Colonies forge a great Nation. However he had a dearly beloved son who was hemophiliac and like every parent of such a child, he lived in a state of helplessness, a tragic condition where every new idea, every new specialist, every new therapy and treatment did no good… merely breaking his heart… again.

And thus the hopeless search for a miracle goes on… as it did for Nicholas and
Alexandra, at the pinnacle of human position, for whom science offered no solution;
their power and riches counting for nothing.


Grigori Rasputin, peasant from Siberia would have said, “Do not look for miracles
where there are no miracles and can never be. Science begets science, not miracles.
Look instead for God… for in God there are miracles.” And so because he wanted to
know this God of miracles, he set off in 1900 on foot, without shoes, without a kopeck, with no map but with the profound faith that moves mountains.

Mount Athos, over 3,100 miles from his first step, was his destination, but God was
always his purpose, then until the last day of his life when his still cunning fingers broke through his frozen tomb, the better to bless the great people of Russia, so needing a miracle of their own.

Thus he blessed them and expired… and so the common folk wondered and spoke of the reality of God, the mysterious ways of God and the living God who works His ways howsoever He would, to the confounding of the ungodly and the comfort of the rest. And across the landscape of Holy Russia, unravelling, there were dark mutterings and awe as swift-moving fingers made the sign of the cross with the deep fervor of unquestioned, uncritical belief and wondered what the dead starets had found at Mount Athos and knew it was God, then quickly crossed themselves again…

Professor Mason Hammond, Pope Professor of the Latin language and literature, 1903-2003.

Professor Hammond would never be hired today to teach at Harvard — or any renowned institution of higher education. Amongst other drawbacks, he lacked the “meal ticket”  of the Ph.D. and his literary output, though durable, was thin at best consisting principally of two well-regarded studies on “City State and World State” and “The Antonine Monarchy.” I found both, not a lyric word in either, heavy going.

Notwithstanding such lackluster work product, on the day of the 1994 Harvard
Commencement, when he was given the highest honor of the ancient university, Doctor of Letters honoris causa there was joyful pandemonium, and men, once shy and lost, now eminent and gray, wept with a glad heart and shouted themselves hoarse, for Hammond was the keeper of the flame, and every true Harvard man knew it and rushed to honor him. I was there that day… and I cheered heartily indeed for I had benefited more than most.

“You’ll need a ‘dago dazzler’ “.

Once each week, generally on Thursday, the Hammonds were “at home” in their gracious
residence on Brattle Street. There in a room graced with a Sargent portrait of Hammond’s
mother they received their wide acquaintance, always including present and past students.
I think I am right to say I never missed a single chance to visit, never taking such occasions
for granted. My thanks to my hostess, Mrs. (Florence) Hammond were never perfunctory but sincerely grateful.

During one such visit I mentioned I was going to Greece, my first visit. “Well, then,” he said “You must go to Mount Athos. ” A bell went off… Athos… the place of pilgrimage to which the starets Rasputin walked. “I’d like that,” I said. And he said, “Of course you’ll need a ‘dago dazzler’. I’ll make the necessary arrangements.”

And that is how just weeks later my two friends and I happened to be spending the most uncomfortable of nights in the far north of Greece, in the squalid port of Ierirros … a place where the mosquitos slurped so much of my blood and were then so contented that when I look a towel to kill them the walls were streaked with what had once been mine, now graphic evidence that I had been there, scourging myself like any devout pilgrim might. Still the morning came, the more welcome after the lurid night before. We were soon on our way to Mount Athos… and God.

You must understand that Greece, a laughing stock as a nation, is yet amongst the
most beautiful of places… and so it was as Mount Athos approached each view was
breathtaking, picture postcard perfect, until at last we were there and told to strip in the town square, so that we might be properly cleaned as pilgrims should be.

All obeyed…. but me. Whilst my fellow countrymen, hippies, and erstwhile seekers after God stripped to their underwear, knelt for a quick lather and a bucket of cold water, thence to have their hair chopped off I declined. My two companions looked at me for instructions. But I was a Harvard man, semper paratus, already wearing my ultra serviceable blue blazer…. and had the “dago dazzler” at the ready. I made myself clear that I wished to see the highest ranking gendarme.

And it was he who first saw the product of Professor Hammond’s kindness and
forethought. It was magnificent indeed, and I confess I did not like the officer’s dirty
fingers upon it…. but my dignity was at stake and that was the priority, along with
saving my friends, who never before looked at me with greater admiration and
hope. The gendarme, of course, had to show the document; in Greek and
beautifully illustrated in the medieval fashion to his superior… and that superior, too,
needed to pass it to his. No one wished to be responsible for improperly greeting
such a worthy as me.

And so for an hour, for an order we waited, until a young priest came to escort me to an abbot, the first one who understood that I, as specifically named in the document, and my two companions (not specifically mentioned and therefore needing to heed my every whim) was a personage of consequence under the special protection of the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of New England, thereby outranking any mere abbot or two.

And so it began, “Would your excellency’s party care to walk in? The abbot is expecting you.” I bet he was…. Thus did I enter the first of Mount Athos’ 20 monasteries in ceremony, so very different from Rasputin…

Whilst waiting for the Abbot, young priests delivered, first, a glass of the purest water,
then a plate of Turkish delight, the very sweetest variety of jelly beloved of my Grannie.
The Abbot, with acolyte then arrived. I shook his hand as I should do with any
man; he gave me the kiss of peace and brotherhood, right, left, right…. his patriarchal
beard tickled. I did not smile; he was doing his duty, I was doing mine

And so we complimented politely whilst he asked the expected questions.
We were all men of the world and our manners were comme il faut. Of course
he invited us to dinner, at his end of the long trestle tables, the pilgrims far
at the bottom, we privileged well above the salt. But how did you converse,
you say? In French. For each abbot spoke it fluently as did my best friend William
Powers Ingoldsby, who joined perfect pronunciation to insinuating manners.

I handled my French the way Sir Winston Churchill did, with blunt authority and
audacity. It worked anywhere, even on the Champs Elysees.

And so it went for a week or so. Up early to walk in the sweet sunshine of dawn
to the next great monastery of Oxthodoxy where they was another glass of cool
water, another plate of Turkisih delight, and the three expected kisses, right, left,

On the last day I decided to go to mass. My mother had always urged me to
understand even if I did not believe a particular rite. And so I immersed myself
in the glories of the Eastern Mass… until it was time to kiss the icon. Then just a
minute before my time to submit arrived, the pilgrim before me spit up and covered
the icon with the most nauseating mixture on earth.

I shied away… the priest pushed my head down in case I had any idea to escape as
I most assuredly did. And then I remembered the genteel young man is never without
a clean linen pocket handkerchief, and he was not remiss here. With it, I covered the
outrage — just — without missing a beat or turning green.

I had learned much, seen much and used my time well…but God had not favored me
with either audience or sign. Thus I waited at Ouranoupolis for the tiny craft designated to take up back to the  mainland, to Greece. And here fate intervened. Six priests arrived, going to the mainland to do their shopping. Since they rarely if ever bathed their pungency was high and notable. I asked the captain to lash me to the mainmast so I could breath.

Then after a half hour or so a sudden storm arose…. and I felt a pure exhilaration
such as I had never felt before… the waves breaking on the deck, the wind racing through my uncut hair, my skin pummeled by rain, the benediction of heaven. And I was happy, traveling the route of the Virgin Mary, the last woman to be allowed at the Holy Mountain….
and all those who had followed her, for good or ill. Somehow amidst these elements
summoning me to life, there was the whisper of God which simply said “You and I shall meet again, my son.”  At  that I felt, in the roiling sea, His awe and infinite wonder, and knew the reality of bliss.

About the Author
2016 is fast approaching and with it Dr. Jeffrey Lant’s 69th birthday. He is, he likes to
say, in the prime of his prime. Thus does the “scribbling” life he commenced at age
5 continue. Twenty books. Thousands of articles. Untold radio and television programs; worldwide recognition and enthusiasm, all of which culminated in the publication of his autobiography, “A Connoisseur’s Journey, being the artful memoirs of a man of wit, discernment, pluck and joy”. It was a book that screamed “classic!”, and he has delighted in the several awards that followed.

To get your copy go to You will also want to join his writing
course and learn from this master communicator just how you can improve everything you ever write.

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