Saint Peter of Athos, a Greek by birth, served as a soldier in the imperial armies and he lived at Constantinople. In the year 667, during a war with the Syrians, St Peter was taken captive and locked up in a fortress in the city of Samara on the Euphrates River.
For a long time he languished in prison and he pondered over which of his sins had brought God’s chastisement upon him. St Peter remembered that once he had intended to leave the world and go to a monastery, but he had not done so. He began to observe a strict fast in the prison and to pray fervently, and he besought St Nicholas the Wonderworker to intercede before God for him.
St Nicholas appeared in a dream to Peter and advised him to call upon St Simeon the God-Receiver (Feb. 3) for help. St Nicholas appeared to him once more in a dream, encouraging the prisoner in patience and hope. The third time that he appeared it was not in a dream, but with St Simeon the God-Receiver. St Simeon touched his staff to the chains binding St Peter, and the chains melted away like wax. The doors of the prison opened, and St Peter was free.
St Simeon the God-Receiver became invisible, but St Nicholas conveyed St Peter to the borders of the Greek territory. Reminding him of his vow, St Nicholas became invisible. St Peter then journeyed to Rome to receive monastic tonsure at the tomb of the Apostle Peter. Even here St Nicholas did not leave him without his help. He appeared in a dream to the Pope of Rome and informed him of the circumstances of St Peter’s liberation from captivity, and he commanded the Pope to tonsure the former prisoner into monasticism.
On the following day, in the midst of a throng of the people who had gathered for divine services, the Pope loudly exclaimed, “Peter, you who are from the Greek lands, and whom St Nicholas has freed from prison in Samara, come here to me.” St Peter stood in front of the Pope, who tonsured him into monasticism at the tomb of the Apostle Peter. The Pope taught St Peter the rules of monastic life and kept the monk by him. Then with a blessing, he sent St Peter to where God had appointed him to journey.
St Peter boarded a ship sailing to the East. The shipowners, after going ashore, besought St Peter to come and pray at a certain house, where the owner and all the household lay sick. St Peter healed them through his prayer.
The Most Holy Theotokos appeared in a dream to St Peter and indicated the place where he should live til the very end of his days: Mount Athos. When the ship arrived at Athos, it then halted of its own accord. St Peter realized that this was the place he was meant to go, and so he went ashore. This was in the year 681. Peter then dwelt in the desolate places of the Holy Mountain, not seeing another person for fifty-three years. His clothing had become tattered, but his hair and beard had grown out and covered his body in place of clothes.
At first St Peter was repeatedly subjected to demonic assaults. Trying to force the saint to abandon his cave, the demons sometimes took on the form of armed soldiers, and at other times of fierce beasts and vipers that seemed ready to tear the hermit apart. St Peter overcame the demonic attacks through fervent prayer to God and His Holy Mother. Then the enemy resorted to trickery. Appearing under the guise of a lad sent to him from his native home, he besought the monk with tears to leave the wilderness and return to his own home. The saint wept, but without hesitation he answered, “Here have the Lord and the Most Holy Theotokos led me. I will not leave here without Her permission.” Hearing the Name of the Mother of God, the demon vanished.
After seven years the devil came to St Peter in the guise of a radiant angel and said that God was commanding him to go into the world for the enlightenment and salvation of people in need of his guidance. The experienced ascetic again replied that without the permission of the Mother of God he would not forsake the wilderness. The devil disappeared and did not bother to come near the saint anymore. The Mother of God appeared to St Peter in a dream with St Nicholas and told the brave hermit that after he had fasted for forty days, an angel would bring him heavenly manna. St Peter fasted, and on the fortieth day he fortified himself with the heavenly manna, receiving the strength for another forty-day fast.
Once, a hunter chasing after a stag saw the naked man, covered with hair and girded about the loins with leaves. He was afraid and was about to flee, but St Peter stopped him and told him of his life. The hunter asked to remain with him, but the saint sent him home. St Peter gave the hunter a year for self-examination and forbade him to tell anyone about meeting him.
A year later the hunter returned with his brother, who was afflicted with a demon, and several other companions. When they entered the St Peter’s cave, they saw that he had already reposed. The hunter, with bitter tears, told his companions of the life of St Peter. His brother, after merely touching the saint’s body, received healing. St Peter died in the year 734. His holy relics were on Athos at the monastery of St Clement. During the Iconoclast period the relics were hidden away, and in the year 969 they were transferred to the Thracian village of Photokami.
St Peter once saw the Mother of God in a vision, and she spoke of Her earthly domain, Mount Athos: “I have chosen this mountain... and have received it from My Son and God as an inheritance, for those who wish to forsake worldly cares and strife.... Exceedingly do I love this place. I will aid those who come to dwell here and who labor for God... and keep His commandments.... I will lighten their afflictions and labors, and shall be an invincible ally for the monks, invisibly guiding and guarding them....”
Generations of Orthodox monks can attest to the truth of these words. The Mother of God is regarded as the Abbess of the Holy Mountain, not just in name, but in actual fact. For this reason, Mt. Athos is known as the “Garden of the Theotokos.”