Has Prince Charles found his true spiritual home on a Greek rock?
Visits spark claims of royal's commitment to Orthodoxy
Helena Smith in Athens
Wednesday May 12, 2004
On Monday night a resplendent yacht docked at the watery entrance to the world's only monastic republic. A middle-aged man, followed by two bodyguards, stepped on to the jetty of the peninsula in northern Greece and into the "state" known variously as Mount Athos, Aghio Oros and the Holy Mount.
A few monks in black robes and pillar-box hats stood waiting, but, under orders to keep the identity of this particular pilgrim secret, it was a reception without fanfare. Their guest - clean-shaven in contrast to the bearded clerics - was Prince Charles, on his third clandestine retreat to Athos in the past 12 months.According to friends and associates of the prince, the future head of the Church of England has become enamoured of the Orthodox faith to the point that he has adorned a section of his home at Highgrove with prized Byzantine icons. Many are believed to originate from the Mount, the Orthodox world's holiest site.
"There is no question that the British royal is Orthodox in his heart," confided one Athonite monk, making a rare trip outside the remote republic. "Sadly, he is very constrained by his position."
Athos, they say, encapsulates Charles's profound admiration for tradition, ancient wisdom and a divine natural order - even if it has maintained a ban on women since AD1060.
Women are still forbidden from going within 500 metres of the monks' republic. Yellow signs along the shores of the 400-square-mile peninsula shoo away "female intruders", despite growing calls within the EU to have the ban lifted. For the nearly 2,000 monks who have devoted their lives to shunning sexual desire through prayer, the Virgin Mary is the only acceptable female presence.
The prince, like his friend, the composer Sir John Tavener, who converted to Greek Orthodoxy in 1977, is said to be especially drawn to the Orthodox church's rugged spirituality. Orthodox faithful are allowed to marry up to three times.
Not since the Stuarts has an heir to the throne taken such an intellectual interest in religion. For years Charles, who assumes the title of Defender of the Faith when he becomes king, has displayed an unprecedented interest in denominations as divergent as Islam and Buddhism.But his regular meetings with Ephraim, the abbot of Vatopedion - his adopted monastery on the Mount - have helped fuel speculation that the prince is being personally instructed in eastern Christianity, even if it is fiercely denied by courtiers.
The Cypriot-born abbot is said to be a frequent visitor to Highgrove.
Witnesses say that when the prince arrived in Athos days after the death of Princess Diana almost seven years ago, it was Ephraim who induced him to join the faith. Closeted in a chamber alone with the abbot, Charles is believed to have made a "spiritual commitment" to Christian Orthodoxy.
"What people forget is that Orthodoxy is in his family," Archbishop Grigorios of Thyateira, who heads the 500,000-strong Orthodox community in Britain, told the Guardian.
"One of Charles's aunts, the Grand Duchess Eugenia, was proclaimed an Orthodox saint after she was murdered in Moscow where she had established a monastery. His paternal grandmother, Aliki [Alice], was a nun for most of her life. She spoke very good Greek and in her later years, when she came to live in London, she kept an Orthodox chapel in Buckingham Palace," added the prelate. "Aliki was a very powerful woman whom I'm sure had a very strong influence on Charles in his early years."
As the religious centre of eastern Orthodoxy, Athos is a magnet for pilgrims dedicated to the faith. Many - as testified by the growing number of monks from the EU, Canada, Australia and the US - don't look back. And among Europe's wealthy blue bloods, the luxuriant territory is seen as the perfect "detox" getaway.
But the prince's affection for a place where visitors sleep on lumpy mattresses and rise at 4am has also raised the inevitable question of whether the heir to the throne harbours desires of eventually converting to the religion.
Prince Philip, his Corfu-born father who like Charles is an honorary member of the Friends of Mount Athos, had to switch to Anglicanism from Greek Orthodoxy to marry the Queen.
In their large, decaying monasteries the clerics cherish the sort of Spartan conditions that Charles hated at Gordonstoun, his stern Scottish boarding school. Most also make no secret of their loathing of other western religions.
In the wake of last year's allegations of rape and the sale of gifts which engulfed the house of Windsor and its staff, senior Greek Orthodox priests launched a spirited defence of the prince. Many denounced the claims as an "international conspiracy" unleashed by forces bent on destroying the reluctant royal's new-found affection for the religion.
"All these attacks against Charles are doubtless due to the fact that he has embraced Orthodoxy," said His Beatitude, Anthimos, the Bishop of Alexandroupolis. "If his Orthodox beliefs were ever to be made official, people would find it very troubling."
Officially, St James's Palace says the prince's trips to the car-free Mount are a purely "personal affair".
"He goes there as a private individual, not in his official capacity as the Prince of Wales," said Kirstine Clark, a spokeswoman at the palace. "Visits are very much in his private time, so we don't issue details. What I can say is that he is interested in the architecture and spirituality of Mount Athos."
But, perhaps because he stands to become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Charles is also unusually sensitive about his trips to the Mount. His visits have been shrouded in secrecy. Countless Greeks with access to the community told the Guardian they were under oath never to mention them.
Government officials and diplomats are politely told not to escort the prince to Vatopedion, which he helped restore with money from the auction of his watercolours.
Attending the opening of the newly refurbished monastery last year, the prince said he hoped each of the Mount's 23 monasteries would soon regain their former splendour. He would, he said, work hard to ensure that happened.
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