Getting there necessitated a sleepless and mosquito infested night in the small town of Ouranoupolis, the last staging post for normal life before you enter the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain of Athos.
I say ‘normal life’ since this State, accessible only by sea, is entirely and exclusively populated by 20 monasteries and their Orthodox ‘sketes’ or offshoots. Much favoured by both Prince Charles and Vladimir Putin, Mount Athos still maintains the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar used by the rest of the planet. It insists that each day begins at dusk and not midnight, and rounds this off by a complete and thousand year old prohibition of women, (formalised by an imperial decree of 1046) since they are regarded as potentially disruptive distractions from the monks' focus on God.
It would be fascinating to discover how far this very strict regimen leads to the spread of Christ's message, the fulfilment of His grace and to an increase in the total sum of human happiness.
After our first night at the Dionysiou monastery, on the south west side of the peninsular, sadly the signs did not look promising. Founded in the 10th century, the thirty two permanent inhabitants seemed to have sought the path to heavenly kingdom only by firmly rejecting the earthly one. Average age appeared to be north of seventy and, with the exception of a startlingly new underground museum hewn into the cliffs, standards of basic sanitation seemed to be marooned at what they were when most of the monks first entered their cells. At Dionysiou, cleanliness seemed a very poor and distant cousin to Godliness.
This wouldn't matter if any monastic attempt whatsoever was made to engage with their visitors, and to pass on the joy and peace of God portrayed by the myriad of icons upon which they so relentlessly gaze and fervently kiss.
With one exception that really didn't happen.
That exception was Father Paul, a monk in his mid-fifties who had spent 37 years of his life at Dynasiou, who held an informal seminar in the coffee room one evening. Unfortunately this was slightly spoiled by his homily being centred on the perils of marital infidelity in a secular world, upon which he had absolutely no experience, having so resolutely abandoned it in his early youth.
The services were of similar ilk. The ‘congregation’ appeared entirely incidental to a clergy seemingly preoccupied by almost monotonic chanting and catatonic ritual, rather the joyful spreading of Christ's Good News. The ‘audience’ unsurprisingly responded in kind, interspersing occasional forays to kiss the icons, with prayers which veered towards daydreaming and even occasionally fell into sleep.
Perhaps worship and life generally at the Vatopediou monastery,to which we journeyed next, would provide the kind of inspirational monastic example of the rewards of devotion to God which our increasingly atheist, but spiritually yearning world so badly needs.
And so it came to pass that a little miracle occurred. Nestled on the north east, and stormier edge of the province, Vatopediou monastery is home to over 130 monks and was founded in about 970. It is dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary and boasts her Holy Girdle or belt amongst its relics. It also has a vibrancy, youth and sense of purpose lacking at Dionysiou.
We visited on the feast of Pantanassa which celebrates the mystical and healing powers of the icon of the Virgin Mary. This involved a service which began at 6pm and ended at 1 in the morning. This was meticulously planned, and beautifully executed, both in prayer and chanting. It exuded a spirituality and sense of the presence of God which was very moving.
Our pastor was Father Iraneos, still in his twenties and originally hailing from Charleston, South Carolina. After four years on Mount Athos he saw his mission as deepening his relationship with God and thereby the ability to effectively pray for the rest of the world. As a result he appeared suffused with a remarkable moral certainty and authority which was either impressive or out of touch depending upon your point of view.
What Vatopediou reminded us -and what is largely absent today, particularly in the Protestant world- is the mystical and irresistible power of Almighty God, expressed through miracles. Throughout the 20 monastic communities, including those at Stavronikita and Koutloumoussiou where we met the very anglophile Fathers Gregoriou and Philemon, there is the powerful sense that the spirit of Christ is exhibited not just in our internal and personal lives, but in everyday manifestations. This is shown in the physical forms of worship, whether it be the kissing of icons, the genuflections, the kneeling and the incense of the Orthodox liturgy.
In my own Anglican Church in Chelsea, all this might be met with some scepticism. There, the search for ‘relevance’ in an irreligious world leads us to rigorous but literal interruptions of the Bible, to social action programmes and to inclusive but very informal forms of worship. At prayer, kneeling is discouraged. A sort of awkward crouch is the preferred way to address Almighty God!
Perhaps this lack of mysticism reflects the Anglican tradition's break in its links to the early origins of the Christian Church. After all, the Church of England came about purely as a result of the marital, and then political and financial imperatives driving Henry VIII - rather than from any profound doctrinal conviction.
Whatever the reason, the truth is that many of our established churches in the West lack the sense of mysticism and spirituality, the certainty and the priestly authority so evident on the Mount of Athos. While of course churches in Britain must be relevant and rooted in people's everyday lives, they must be careful not to confine their ministry to precisely the rationalist ground of our overwhelmingly secular society. Churches are, after all, places of reverent worship and awe and not community action centres. Our perception of our priests should reflect this.
By contrast, surprising and even miraculous though it was, the monastic communities of Mount Athos demonstrated that the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, is ultimately a spiritual and, above all, emotional experience. As Hebrews 10:22 injuncts us – ‘Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him’. At a time of precipitate decline in our established churches, we would be wise to remember that it is the divine and mystical power of God's grace which transforms lives and attracts new disciples and not just our own efforts - however well intentioned.
Anthony Coombes is a FTSE chairman and former MP.