A monk’s love of God, wine, food

Fa­ther Epiphan­ios from Mount Athos talks about his life’s work and his de­vo­tion

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY STAVROS TZIMAS

Fa­ther Epiphan­ios is one of the bet­ter­known monks of the monas­tic com­mu­nity of Mount Athos in north­ern Greece. A ded­i­cated wine­maker with ex­ports from his vine­yard at the Skete (monas­tic set­tle­ment) of Timios Pro­dro­mos Iv­i­ron – a part of My­lopota­mos, a de­pen­dency of the Holy Monastery of Megiste Lavra – trav­el­ing all over Greece and Europe, he is also an ex­cel­lent cook with in­ter­na­tional distinc­tions and the fore­most am­bas­sador of the monastery’s cuisine and di­etary habits over­seas.

Epiphan­ios has glad­dened hearts and stom­achs in France, Italy, Bri­tain, Spain, Ger­many and else­where. He has been in­vited to cook in the kitchens of emi­nent chefs, while his book “The Cuisine of the Holy Moun­tain Athos,” has been trans­lated into seven lan­guages. Dur­ing the an­nual com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Dor­mi­tion of the Vir­gin Mary on Au­gust 15, he cooks 2.5 tons of fish, feed­ing around 4,000 mouths.

“Epi,” as he’s known by his many friends, is open-minded, well-trav­eled and ded­i­cated to God. He’s an ex­pert at the win­ery and in the kitchen, and an ab­so­lutely de­light­ful con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist.

We met in a tav­erna in Thes­sa­loniki and had lunch while dis­cussing his life and work.

Epiphan­ios was born in the small vil­lage of Nik­isiani in Kavala, north­ern Greece. His fa­ther had a vine­yard of a half a hectare in an area that has been renowned for wine pro­duc­tion since ancient times.

“The peo­ple were real mer­ry­mak­ers. They en­joyed life and drank a lot of wine and tsipouro. The had a lot of fes­ti­vals ded­i­cated to wine. Their days off from work were spent eat­ing and drink­ing,” he says.

These were the early in­flu­ences that led to him be­ing re­garded as a top chef and wine­maker at Athos. “It’s all a mat­ter of hav­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in and love for what you do,” he says.

He pro­duced his first vin­tage from the vine­yard of My­lopota­mos in 1997, a mer­lot, with the help of an Ital­ian oe­nol­o­gist. To­day, the win­ery ex­ports seven dif­fer­ent la­bels.

“If you don’t love your vine­yard, it’s a com­plete has­sle. If you do, it’s ma­jes­tic.”

Be­com­ing a monk is not a sim­ple mat­ter. To be cap­ti­vated by the love of God you need to be up­lifted, to be sum­moned by God, if you may. And you need to have an in­cli­na­tion to God.

A monk’s pri­mary deed is prayer and study­ing the Scrip­tures. These two lift us and bring us closer to as­cen­sion. Union with God is the monk’s aim. Monks ded­i­cate about four-and-a-half hours to prayer ev­ery day at com­mu­nal monas­ter­ies, six hours on Sun­days and hol­i­days and 15 hours at Christ­mas. That’s ridicu­lous. Sure, they may come here of their own free will and then re­gret it and leave, but it’s not some­thing you can force on peo­ple.

No. I’m not con­cerned by a monk own­ing a car, a jeep or a cell phone. I am con­cerned about young peo­ple who be­come monks when they are car­ry­ing a lot of neg­a­tive bag­gage that they can’t get rid off.

Noth­ing at all. Lay peo­ple drink and buy such things. Don’t for­get that Mount Athos had three banks, two Greek and a French one, in the in­ter­war years. There also used to be butcher shops.

The lay peo­ple eat it. Athos has 2,000 monks and as many peo­ple com­ing in ev­ery day as la­bor­ers or pil­grims. Now, if 30 monks among the 2,000 do eat meat, that is not a stain on Chris­tian­ity.

I wouldn’t call it hos­pi­tal­ity any­more; it’s an in­va­sion. We get more than 200,000 vis­i­tors a year. A sin­gle monastery may have 40-50 monks and 100-150 vis­i­tors a day. This needs to stop. Sure, it’s tempt­ing be­cause ev­ery­thing on Mount Athos is free. Vis­i­tors pay 25 euros for an en­try pass and the fare for the ferry boat and then spend five days here with­out hav­ing to pay for food, drink or any­thing.

Charge 20 euros and you’ll see how fast we’ll sep­a­rate the wheat from the chaff.

We have peo­ple who come here out of in­ter­est or love for the com­mu­nity, out of spir­i­tual mo­ti­va­tion, and oth­ers who are just here for the ride.

Fa­ther Epiphan­ios’s book ‘The Cuisine of the Holy Moun­tain Athos,’ has been trans­lated into seven lan­guages.

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