The Greek Orthodox Christian monastics of Mount Athos rightly attribute all the blessings of life, health, peace and joy to God, their sole pursuit and reason for being. Scientists and nutritionists, on the other hand, place the role of their dietary and routine-oriented existence at the helm of their amazingly lengthy lives which are practically free of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, obesity and cancer. The simplicity of living, free of worldly cares and completely oriented toward seeking to experience Christ Jesus in this life through practice of His words and deeds, paired intense daily prayer and church service regimens, as well as varying degrees of manual labor have nurtured the monks’ bodies and souls for centuries upon centuries. Practically nothing has changed on the Holy Mountain for well over 1,000 years, and the healthy lives of approximately 1,500 monastics on the peninsula give testament that something is obviously working quite well. By our common standards their lives are quite austere, but direct comparisons concerning overall health are even more dramatic.
The monks live a relatively and generally stress-free existence, and their diet, which alternates between pescatarian and strict vegan, is somewhat startlingly, but deliciously, simple. The do not eat meat except for fish which is only occasionally consumed, this being on feast days of the Orthodox Church, such as Christmas and Pascha, in celebration of God’s love and in memory of His saints. They diligently grow and produce most of the seasonal food and wine which they eat. Animal proteins, via the intermittent portions of egg, cheese and fish, as well as oil and alcohol are rationed. The monks follow a daily fasting schedule which is patterned in alternating days in which fish, eggs and dairy products are eaten, olive oil is kept to a minimum and no wine is drunk. On strict fasting days, consistently on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, only vegetation and bread, commonly including beans, lentils, greens, olives, pasta, rice and fruit, are eaten, and only once for the entire day. The following illustrates an average weekly dietary routine:
Breakfast: Hard bread with tea
Lunch: Pasta or rice, vegetables, and olive oil
Supper: Lentils, fruit and salad with olive oil and red wine
Monday, Wednesday and Friday: Strict fasting days: One meal for the day – No fish, dairy, wine or olive oil
Salad days: Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
Holidays and feast days: Fish, dairy, olive oil and wine
It’s this consistent alternating program, along with the consumption of large amounts of plant proteins, which has scientists convinced that the monks’ small ten minute meals at regular intervals are helping to keep them healthier than the rest of the world. A limited intake of calories is proven to lengthen lives, while fruits and vegetables aid in warding off cancers. Meat consumption, however, has been consistently connected with various forms of cancer. In fact, beginning in 1994, many of the monks have regularly tested with only eleven men having shown to develop cancer. This is far less than one quarter of the global average. But the monks are not just eating the Mediterranean diet; they’re eating simply, joyfully and prayerfully. As meals are eaten, the monastics sit silently while readings from the Holy Bible and other sacred texts, such as the Philokalia or the Sayings of the Holy Desert Fathers known as the Gerontikon, are read in Greek from a pulpit. And as soon as the abbot of the monastery taps his knife three times against the top of his table the readings, as well as the meal itself, are finished. Reverent communal prayers are also said before and after meals.
There are some monastics who live alone or in small groups called synodia in reclusive hillside hovels or as cave-dwellers on steep cliff-sides overlooking the sea. These are generally satellites of one of the twenty large monasteries of Mount Athos. They live the precise definition of the ancient Christian anchorite, or hermitic, life. While many also grow their own food from small, humble gardens, these monks also depend on charitable alms from kind-hearted pilgrims and their parental monastery.
The monastics are far from lazy, and you won’t find them lounging on a couch channel surfing as the Holy Mountain does not have any televisions, radios or newspapers. Most of their day is filled with obediences and chores, primarily cleaning, looking after pilgrims and crops, cooking and other tasks assigned to them by the abbot, as well as lengthy church services and personal prayer rules. It’s also worth noting the lack of pollution in the air on Mount Athos, as well as the fact that there are no women or young children allowed on the Holy Mountain. This is one of the many aspects that has not changed in centuries and may certainly have a direct and unique effect on the monks’ beautiful spiritual peace and ease. Concerning domestic animals, cats are exclusively excused from the ban on females, and this is not only due to their fond companionship but their mouse catching abilities.
Now, before you hop on the Athonite diet plan and set off to buy a Mount Athos recipe book (two of which, written by monks, are available on Amazon – The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos and Greek Monastery Cookery), you should first remember that their lives are centered completely on God within the Holy Orthodox Christian Faith. Neglecting to acknowledge their zealous and loving spiritual lives while focusing only on their physical ones will not bring true health – that of the soul. As Christ Jesus says in Matthew 4:4: “But He answered and said, ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.’”
An engaging look into the Athonite way of life can be seen in this short 60 Minutes documentary from 2011.
Ezra Melino is an all-around-geek turned serious blogger out of North Carolina who not-so-secretly relishes an in-print love affair with everything from technology and multimedia entertainment to film and adventures in California. Specifically, his blog, DX3.net, is a tech blog that is devoted to exploring new technological developments all around the world.