Nicodemus is his confirmation name. He chose it because there is a Nicodemus in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. There is something very monk-like about the man, though for most of his adult life he has dealt with the very secular world of public schools and musical groups.
He can spend hours on end doing repetitive tasks, carving, sanding, scraping, painting, sawing, varnishing, not to mention daily practice on his instrument and on what he calls his "stuff", which involves sitting quietly. He is also very good at just sitting in a chair, especially if the chair is in a sunny place. You would not know he was the same person as the little boy who fired stink bombs at the neighbors and almost blew himself up, trying to make a diamond.
I thought he would love the monastery at the thousand-year-old community in northern Greece. It took many documents and late-night telephone calls to set up the visit. Then it was a ten-hour flight to London, another four hours to Athens, four hours on the train to Thessaloniki, an hour and a half by bus to Ouranopolis, a 20-minute boat ride on the rapide to the Chalkidhiki peninsula, and finally about an hour in an old van over dirt roads to Vatopedi monastery. I only accompanied him on the first half of the trip. Women, beardless boys and even female animals--except for hens--are not allowed on Mount Athos.
Food and lodging are free at the open monasteries, once you have done all the paperwork and received what amounts to a passport, since the mountain, like the Vatican, is autonomous. Nicodemus found the welcome warm, the bed soft, the food good, the monks friendly. The whole place had a wonderful sweet smell, he said.
His roommate, who had been there before, urged Nicodemus to have a nap as soon as he arrived and to turn in soon after dinner. The monks, employees and guests sat at long tables and were served fish, rice, bread, and a glass of wine. Scripture was read throughout the meal, and everyone had to finish in exactly 12 minutes.
At three in the morning, a monk woke everyone for church, beating on a big block of wood. Church lasted six hours, during which everyone but the feeblest and most ancient monks stood and knelt. There was a brief break before the next service was to begin. Nicodemus went back to his room, gathered up his things, and headed for town. It was more church than he had reckoned on.
"A successful prayer lasts about as long as a song. Four minutes," he said. "What do you do for the rest of the time?" Still, he thinks it was a life-changing experience, going to Mount Athos. He has done paintings of the monastery. He might go again.