At any given moment, life is completely senseless. But viewed over a period, it seems to reveal itself as an organism existing in time, having a purpose, trending in a certain direction.
- - Aldous Huxley
Peter Serko Photographer
At any given moment, life is completely senseless. But viewed over a period, it seems to reveal itself as an organism existing in time, having a purpose, trending in a certain direction.
St. Gregory The Theologian Gregory, one of my companions on the trip, is a veritable font of knowledge when it comes to church and secular history. It was common for him to add valuable commentary and detail to questions that came up during our travels. There seemed to be nothing that he couldn’t make an intelligent comment on; it was quite impressive really. A memorable event occurred during our stay at Vatopodi Monastery that was the one time he was left speechless.
Fr. Peter had left us to return home the day we went to Vatopedi so we had no translator. We were fortunate to meet a monk at Vatopedi who was an American, Fr Mathew. It turns out the Fr Mathew was from outside of Bellevue. Fr. Mathew, about 45ish and a monk there for 12 years, was a soft, yet well spoken man who spent about an hour with us telling us the history of the monastery and other facts.
The Incorrupt Hand of
St John Chrysostom After Vespers and the evening meal it is the practice at each monastery to bring out relics of various saints in the main church for visitors like us to venerate. For the non-orthodox reader this may seem like a very odd practice. A thorough explanation is beyond the scope of this site but you can read about it here. Elsewhere we had already venerated a number of important relics including pieces of the "True Cross" ( including one piece that had a spike hole), John the Baptist, St Basil the Great, Lazarus, the Belt or Sash of the Mother of God ( Virgin Mary), the incorrupt hand of St John Chrysostom, the skull of the same saint with an incorrupt left ear, among many others. At Vatopedi the priest brought each relic out one at a time. After bringing out several relics, he comes out holding a reliquary (usually an ornate silver box) with a skull fragment of St Gregory the Theologian. Gregory is named after the saint and was so shaken by the relic that was before him that I had to steady him a bit and actually push him forward. He was in total shock and remained so for quite some time.
A Piece of The True Cross of Christ Mt Athos is full of unexpected surprises like this. In our travels we have seen many church treasures including ancient hand written liturgical texts, liturgical clothing embroidered with gold, hand carved crosses with detail so small and refined that it is hard to see with the naked eye, and of course ancient icons to name but a few. At a number of monasteries these treasures have in recent years been professionally organized and are now displayed in small museums under controlled conditions in order to insure they remain for future generations to learn from and enjoy.
The images you see in this post are not taken by me but are from cards we were given at the monasteries. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos inside the churches ( quite understandably) and were very limited in what we could take within the grounds of the monasteries . Our general rule was to take a few photos inside the grounds until we were told not to (is that cheating?). We never used flash. The only monastery that allowed us to liberally take photos was Gregoriou. I do have a number of photos of church interiors from our visits to churches in Thessalonki , there we were allowed to do so. In fact, at one church a man came up to me when I was shooting and spoke to me in Greek. I assumed that he waschastizing me for taking pictures, it turns out he was asking me if I wanted the lights turned on for better lighting.
Monastery of Varlaam After spending Wednesday night at The Monastery of St Dionysisus of Olympus in the foothills around Mt Olympus we headed south to visit an area called Meteora, home to six monasteries set on the tops of huge rock formations overlooking a river valley. The weather was mixed with some clear skies but also occasional clouds. As we approached the Meteora area low clouds and light rain moved in. Unfortunately it made visibility quite limited. However, we were definitely not disappointed. After driving up a winding narrow road the Monastery of the Great Meteora emerged from the clouds just above us. Established at the end of the 14th century this monastery was only accessible by rope ladder or a basket and pulley system until the early 1900s when steps were carved into
View Looking Norththe rocks.
We crossed a wooden bridge and entered via a narrow tunnel cut into the rock which connected to a well engineered stone stair case. After an 8 story climb we were at the gate. In the 1970s a massive restoration effort by the Greek government was undertaken to save the deteriorating monasteries. Many structures were restored and now are in excellent condition yet they preserve the look and feel of the original structures. The monastery church is made entirely of a unique looking porous stone that took twenty years to get all the blocks to the top ( hauled by rope and pulley) and complete the church. Our guide tells us that the porous nature of the material has helped preserve the church and its treasures over the centuries. We have seen many churches over the last two weeks and this was among the most beautiful, the frescoes were stunning. Cleaned twenty years ago they show vibrant color and detail. All of the ancient monastery churches we have seen in our travels have soot darkened interiors which makes it impossible to determine the original color and detail.
The view from the Great Meteora was spectacular. Again, it was too bad that the weather didn’t cooperate. Much of our time there was in cloud cover, although it did tend to make the place all the more surreal. I did snap a few nice shots as you can see. I’ll have more in the gallery when I return home.
Looking Into The Church We left the Great Meteora and drove a mile to the Monastery of St. Stephen, a women’s monastery. At St. Stephen’s you drive to the top and must walk down slightly to the monastery. It too has been restored and has several lovely gardens. The main church is smaller than the one at Great Meteora and was never frescoed when it was built. After 14 years of work one iconographer has it about two thirds complete. The iconography is amazing. Good iconography is not simply beautiful as art but is has a spiritual dimension that transcends the artwork. Orthodox iconography has a very proscribe form and structure that differs greatly from western art forms.
During our visit to the bookstore the nun, Mother Paraschive, who was working the checkout engaged us in friendly conversation. We have discovered during our visit that Greeks are really fascinated by American Orthodox. As Greeks seem to be inclined to do with many things; they think of Orthodoxy as “theirs” and are proud that we Americans would adopt their religion. Since we are traveling around with a highly visible
View From St Stephen’s Orthodox priest, Fr Peter, it is obvious we are Orthodox. Just the other day while dining in a small café and young Greek man came over to our table as he was leaving to talk with us and congratulate us. Mother Paraschive was fascinated in the same way. When we got ready to leave she insisted we stay and took us to the questhouse where we had Greek coffee ( it is growing on me!) and a light snack. There we met another nun who was also curious about us. It was very cute.
Before we left they took us to a small stone chapel where they hold most of the winter services. Although it was dark inside we immediately noticed how all of the main icons on the iconostasis were damaged with most of the faces destroyed. Mother Paraschive told us that during the Greek Civil, just after WWII, communist rebels seized the monastery and lived there for many months. While there they defiled the icons. The wall frescoes where all but destroyed. The ones that remained had bullet holes in the faces. We have seen evidence and read of many other similar tales in our travels. This kind of thing was common during the Turkish occupation when many churches were either destroyed or turned into mosques.
Our second day on Mt Athos began officially with a church service that started at midnight and lasted until 7 am. Since this day was the feast of Theophany ( Epiphany) the services all have extra or expanded elements. In reality it was five separate services that all moved from one to the next: Compline, The Lity, Orthos (Matins), The Great Blessing of Water and Divine Liturgy. A meal immediately followed in the Trapeza. We slept a few hours and caught a van at 11 to Karyes, a small village on the east side of Athos which servers as a major hub and supply center.
Karyes is a very odd place with shops, chapels, buildings in various stages of ruin, pilgrims of many nationalities and of course monks. It very much reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Gold Rush towns.
Karyes After spending about an hour there looking around we make a strategic decision to walk to our next destination Karakallou Monastery. Our decision to walk rather than catch a ride is based what we believe it will be a 2-3 hour walk. Distances on Athos are given as walking time not in actual distance. We have no idea of what terrain lay ahead between Karyes and Karakallou.
I’m carrying a 30 pound bag that converts to a backpack. Patrick is carrying a lighter pack similar to mine; however he is wearing an outfit straight off the shelf of Brooks Brothers; long wool overcoat, cuffed pants, and dress shoes. He looks good in church but not out on the muddy rutted roads of Athos. Fr Peter and Gregory are carrying well loaded daypacks. The first hour or so takes us down hill past a number of small houses and buildings, some abandon others in serious disrepair. We are in good spirits walking at a casual pace still unaware of the hard work that lay ahead. Gradually the road begins to climb and walking becomes a chore, particularly for me with the heavy pack. Now I find myself wishing I had only brought along a change of underwear, shirt, toothbrush, and deodorant in a day pack instead of my NW backpacking style supply of gear.
One of the things I immediately notice is the native plants lining the road. This is the first time I’ve ever seen heaths, euphorbia, photinia, and other plants common to our gardens back home growing in the wild. While not in bloom they are interesting to see in such great numbers. Olive groves are everywhere but most we see in this area are overgrown. Scrubby oak trees predominate the forests along the route.
As a point of history, Mt Athos has gone through many periods of decline and destruction in its more than 1000 years of existence. It has been invaded by the likes of the Crusaders, the Turks and even pirates. Monasteries have been burned to the ground, churches destroyed, treasures stolen, monks murdered and so on. In the last 20 years there has been a resurgence of interest in monasticism and many monasteries are being restored and revitalized. We saw many monks in there twenties and thirties in the monasteries we visited. So while there is a great deal of decay and terrible conditions in many areas, Athos is once again on the upswing.
Arriving at Iveron Monastery After several hours of walking we come to Iveron Monastery located on the shores of the Aegean. We want to stop here briefly to venerate the miraculous icon of the Mother of God (the Virgin Mary). Printed and mounted copies of this icon are ubiquitous in the Orthodox world and one famous painted version that was done at Iveron had for many years streamed myrrh (sometimes referred as tears). It was stolen a number of years ago and the owner murdered and has not been seen since. At home I have a cotton ball with the myrrh from this icon on it in a small bottle. It has the most other worldly smell to it. We immediately go to the church, venerate the icon and leave. By this time it is close to 3 pm and we are told by a monk that Karakallou is an hour walk. Tired from a difficult walk already and little sleep after a night in church we press on.
Our first trouble comes within a few hundred yards of Iveron, the road is not clearly marked and there are several unmarked roads branching off as we cross a stream. Fr Peter reminds us that we must be at the monastery by sundown (5:30 pm). All monasteries lock their gates at that time and do not open them for anyone. Keep in mind that these are the same gates built to thwart pirates and Crusaders… not a simple garden gate or door. We soon discover that from Iveron the road is mostly uphill. We all bear down and push on. With the heaviest load I’ve been a good tenth of a mile behind the others most of the time. I finally catch up with Gregory and he is looking very bad. I’m in modestly good shape but I know he is not and he is the oldest of all of us. I’m very concerned. I make him stop for a while and give him some water. When we start walking again we walk slow enough to maintain a conversation. We finally meet up with Patrick and Fr Peter who are waiting for us. We share some water and I pull out my stash of chocolate covered espresso beans and a few pieces of fruitcake I’ve brought along (a well appointed backpack does come in handy!). We’ve already walked for more than an hour and have no idea how much further the monastery is. It is about 4:15 by now. Fr Peter offers to exchange packs, I reluctantly agree. Without the additional 30 pounds I feel like I’m floating over the road in the first half mile.
We Made It… Barely!Patrick, in dress shoes, has developed a blister on the bottom of his foot that is affecting his ability to walk. He now takes over in the rear and I’m up with Fr Peter at the front. At around 5 we round a bend and see in the distance on a higher hill a large building. Our hearts sink since we think that perhaps this is Karakallou. If so, it seems like at least another hour away. We have no choice but to keep walking. We walk another half mile and round another corner and there before us is our destination. It is now about 5. We hurry down to the monastery over a rough cobblestone road and meet several monks standing outside the gate. One gregarious young monk starts an animated conversation with Fr Peter in Greek. I can’t tell if he is mad that we are here without calling first or that perhaps we are too late. Sometimes it is difficult with the Greeks to know just what is going on in an interaction because they are so loud and animated. I soon discover that he is glad to see us and although the meal is long over he has made arrangements to feed us. We have a simple meal of a cabbage and onion stew, large pieces of fresh feta, olives, and homemade bread. It is amazing how satisfying such a simple meal can be after a 12 mile walk.
Moral of the story: beware of Greeks giving directions!
Photos: Patrick Barnes
MtAthos and St Paul’s Monastery I’m at the university of Thessaloniki in a computer room. It is Monday Jan 24th, noon my time. Had a great ride back yesterday from Mt Athos. We were able to catch a ferry that took us down the peninsula before returning back to Daphne ( the main port of Athos) and our trip "Out" ( they call leaving Athos going out) to Ouranopoli. It was a crystal clear day and we had our first view of the actual mountain of Athos . It is huge snow covered peak which looks much like Mt Rainier in terms of its perspective to everything else. We were able to see several other monasteries and theSkete of St Anne along the way. The Skete of St Anne is a collection of small cabins, huts, and small churches precariously perched on steep rock faces, some only accessible by ladder or narrow trail. Supplies are packed in or carried by donkey. I have some great photos of it. If I ever get back toAthos it definitely is a place I want to go. It was a great way to end the trip since much of the rest of trip was rainy or over cast.
We were able to stay at five monasteries, each very different. Travel on Athos is a logistical challenge since there are only very primitive roads. With only one day at each monastery allowed with out permission from the Abbot we were on the move constantly. There are several small four wheel drive vans that go between Karyes ( a small town on the east side ) and Daphne, the main port and arrival point, and the monasteries.
Athos is is like stepping back in time literally and figuratively. The monasteries are over a 1000 years old and although some have modernconvieniences (like centeral heating, toilets and electricity) they are very primitive.
We would spend about 8-10 hours per day in church services. The first service of the day would vary at each monastery according to theirtypikon. At the first two , Xeropotamou and Karakalou , we would rise at 12:30 am and be in church at 1, ending at about 5 am. A meal would immediately follow. We would sleep for a few hours and then have to catch a ride toKaryes and then to our next destination. Rest a few hours, back in church at 3 pm until about 5, have a meal, get shown around the place and sleep at about 7 or 8 pm and do it all over again. The last fewmonasteries: Philotheou, Vatopedi, and Gregoriou started their morning services at 4 am so we were able to have a more normal daytime schedule. The longest service we attended ran from 12 midnight to7am.
Although it may seem crazy to be in church that much, it is an indescribable experience. The churches are lit only by oil lamps and candles, there are no electric lights. Thus most of the time it is very dark which one gets use to but there is still somestumbling around. Generally speaking there would always be a monk or two to tell you where to go or help you out. The services were all in Greek but much of the time I knew what was happening. They do every possible facet of the services, but fortunately very quickly. On many occasions I almost fell over after nodding off to sleep. Dosing during services is actually a commonoccurrence even among the monks, it is inevitable given the nature of the schedule. One usually stands in a stall-like chair with arms about elbow height. The chair has a seat the that doubles as a seat and folds up to a half seat so that one can easily stand, half-sit/stand, or completely sit down. These line every wall of the churches; some have hundreds.
The church interiors are frescoed on every surface with of course ancient icons everywhere. While many of the churches are 1000 years or more old they often have been rebuilt or repainted during that time. Most all of monasteries were burned in the19th century by arson after a dispute with the Turks. Others have burned for various other reasons. We were in one church that was repainted right around the time of the American Revolution; it gave me a real sense of time perspective.
We are spending the day in the city seeing the sights. Tonight we are going to plan the rest of the trip. We are going to Metorea to see the monasteries there and will probably go to Mt Olympus. There are of course many churches here in Thessolaniki to visit as well.
Look for more details later.Read Less...