Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | Reviews

Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain by Christopher Merrill

By Tina Owen

An old British spy told Christopher Merrill that the best way to approach the holy mountain was by foot — if not on his knees. With 20 monasteries to visit, Merrill opted for the on-foot approach. It still changed his life.

The poet, journalist, and director of the UI's International Writing Program undertook three pilgrimages to Mount Athos in northern Greece at a time of personal turmoil. Burned out from his coverage of the Balkan Wars, weighed down by marital problems, and spiritually exhausted, Merrill found solace and renewed faith in the austere monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here, he discovered "an unchanging order against which to measure the ceaseless changes of modernity, a thousand years of continuous religious practice to juxtapose with the ever shifting habits of contemporary belief."

One of only a few foreigners permitted to visit the legendary holy peninsula, Merrill trekked through snow and ice, choked down cold fish soup and sour wine, and endured the occasional hostile or deranged monk or traveler. He also marveled at hidden art treasures and the 1,500-year-old tradition of a liturgy still given glorious voice by monks who sing God's praises. 

Merrill won the 2005 Kostas Kyriazis Award — Greece's most prestigious journalism prize — for Things of the Hidden God. It's a fitting tribute. A combination travelogue, detailed meditation on religious history and thought, and personal essay, Things of the Hidden God shines with the light of grace — and the clear vision and language of a poet.