It was Monday, May 10, 2004, when the luxury yacht of a known shipping family approached Mount Athos – the famous monastic complex in northern Greece – carrying an important guest.
On the jetty, the priests of Vatopedi Monastery stood waiting; they had been instructed not to reveal the identity of the visitor, and not to hold an official ceremony during the reception, as this was meant to be a highly private visit. It was the third time in a year that the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, had arrived at the Garden of Virgin Mary.
In May 2004 – a fervent time for Greece, as it was few months before the Olympic Games were hosted in Athens – the eyes of the world were on the country, and a question loomed: would it be ready for this great moment in sporting history? But at Mount Athos, things were different. Tucked away from the world, with prayers, devotion, spiritual exaltation and serenity, time suspended itself. It is said that the history of the place and its natural, mountainous beauty were the elements kept drawing Prince Charles to it.
According to people close to Prince Charles, the Prince’s relation with Orthodoxy is deep and meaningful. It is no coincidence that a corner of his house at Highgrove Estate outside London is full of Byzantine icons – many of which were apparently given to Prince Charles as gifts from monks at Mount Athos. And monks who have met him emphasize that the prince is very close to the Orthodox faith and tradition – something which cannot perhaps be expressed publicly because of his position. As the successor to the British throne, he might soon also head the Anglican Church. But this in no way prevents him from remaining a staunch supporter of the religious freedoms of thousands of British citizens, supporting interfaith dialogue and harmony among people of different religions.
“For Prince Charles, Mount Athos represents a love for history, ritual tradition, spirituality, harmony with nature, respect for the environment and belief in multiculturalism.”
Many different Orthodox Churches meet at Mount Athos, a fact the prince reportedly finds fascinating, as the coexistence of monks from Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece for so many hundreds of years is an indication of harmony
For Prince Charles, Mount Athos represents a love for history, ritual tradition, spirituality, harmony with nature, respect for the environment and belief in multiculturalism. Many different Orthodox Churches meet at Mount Athos, a fact the prince reportedly finds fascinating, as the coexistence of monks from Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece for so many hundreds of years is an indication of harmony and cultural plurality.
Prince Charles is also an avid painter, and he has included Greece’s natural elements as seen from Mount Athos in several of his paintings. Despite constant denials by people around him about his relationship with Orthodoxy, it seems that the prince has largely embraced the Orthodox Church’s spiritual values.
Prince Charles’ father, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was born in Greece (his family was later exiled from the country). He converted to Anglicanism in order to marry Queen Elizabeth, the currently reigning monarch of the United Kingdom.
Prince Charles’ grandmother, Princess Alice, was religiously involved in humanitarian work and, after World War II, founded an Orthodox order of nuns known as the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary, in Tinos and in the Athenian neighborhood of Neo Iraklio. She was a deeply religious person with unshakable faith in Orthodoxy.
In the last years of her life, Princess Alice lived at Buckingham Palace, where, it is said, she had her own Orthodox chapel. She died on December 5, 1969, when her grandson, Prince Charles, was 21 years old. She was buried, according to her last wishes, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Two months before Prince Charles’ visit to Mount Athos in 2004, one of the monasteries – the Monastery of Chelandari – was damaged extensively by a fire. On his visits to Mount Athos during this time, it became clear that he was interested in helping to organize fundraising events, since the Greek and the Serbian government were unable to assist in the restoration of the monastery. Thus began the idea of creating an organization called “Friends of Mount Athos” in Britain, with the aim of raising funds for the restoration of the monastery and the preservation of the monuments on Mount Athos.
At a reception organized by Prince Charles, attended by over 100 people from both the UK and the Serbian diaspora, the effort began to raise funds in order to preserve the icons of the monastery.
It is likely that in the future Prince Charles will once more under the veil of secrecy pay a visit to Mount Athos, where royal titles are left at the door, and partake in the way of life of the monks, surrounded by the vast, rugged natural beauty and the serenity of spiritual living.
Originally published in Kathimerini’s K magazine
Thus began the idea of creating an organization called “Friends of Mount Athos” in Britain, with the aim of raising funds for the restoration of the monastery