Tuesday, September 27, 2005

September 27, 2005: Serres (the Ancient Monastery of St. John the Baptist):

Yesterday, I made an afternoon trip to visit an old friend and novice at the convent of St. John the Baptist in the town of Serres. It's an ancient Byzantine monastery founded in the 13th century nestled in the peaks above the city (see photo), being restored by the sisterhood slowly and protected by the state as a historical site. The monastery was originally populated by men until the monks were all martyred by Turks and Bulgarians in the early 20th century. I was impressed by the care that has been taken by the sisters to clean and place the bones to rest in the monastery ossuary (which is where the bones are kept after they are dug up to make room for new burials in the monastery cemetery—see photo). Archaeologists feel that it is the best representation of Athonite architecture, layout/design, and art outside of Mount Athos (because the monastery's founder was originally an Athonite hermit before he had to return to care for his orphaned nephew). The two original icons of Christ and the Virgin from the church's iconostasis have become widely circulated as prints and are amazing examples of traditional Byzantine iconography (I'll try to scan these in as well in the future), and their icon of John the Baptist is miracle working. I've included a photo of 16th century icon on front porch, using original natural pigments made from precious & semi-precious stone…e.g. the blue comes from topaz). I highly encourage anyone who comes to Thessaloniki to take the short side trip to stop by this convent, which is under the guidance of Elder Ephraim, because it is well ordered and has a very fruitful spiritual life! My visit and catching up with my sister in Christ was very nice and as always seemed too short when you haven't seen someone in years….

Today I'm off to Romania by bus for 26 hours…Thank you to those who have kept in touch via e-mail or telephone, that is much appreciated because I miss you all! Those in/from the Houston area let me know how you are holding up! Please keep me in your prayers and may an abundance of blessings and grace be showered upon you!



September 27, 2005: Corfu (Kerkyra)

Before heading up to Romania, I made a quick trip to the island of Corfu to pick up some holy things to be delivered to the priest I'm meeting in Romania. Greece has a pretty good and reliable bus, train & plane transportation infrastructure. After a 6:30 hour bus ride and 1:15 hour ferry boat ride, I made it to the northern most island on Greece's west coast. From Corfu one can see its northern neighbor, Albania, and Italy is only a few hours further by ferry boat. Corfu is a very scenic island with contrasting peaks and dramatic cliffs to beautiful beaches with very clear water. The island has a rather dramatic recent history, rivaling that of the rest of Greece, with foreign occupiers ranging from the Venetians (1436-1797), to the French (1797-1805), ending with the English (1805-1864) when the island returned to Greek governance. Because of this, most of the ancient architecture was left intact (because the Venetians respected their rich culture/history & respected St. Spyridon), but you can see primarily the Venetian influence in more recent architecture and definitely in the church art and furnishings. This is something entirely different than the later romantic & western influences in Byzantine iconography (see photo).

This island is proud of its unique character, traditions and history, boasting of two ancient fortresses reasonably intact, and two major Orthodox treasures (incorrupt relics of St. Spyridon and Empress Theodora). St. Spyridon is consider the protector of Corfu and his incorrupt relic (see photo of reliquary…although I have a nice high res print I need to scan in to send, actually showing his relics) is housed in a church bearing his name. My time in Corfu was spent with a priest who had served at this church for two years. He told me much that he learned from his time serving at St. Spyridon's, such as the story about his shoes wearing out every year by his feast day due to him going & doing good works was a pious myth (he explained that they had to change them out annually due to them wearing out from the volume of visitors and veneration), the fact that his relic stayed at normal body temperature year round and retains its elasticity and pliability, and that the flesh was normal skin color except for the parts exposed to centuries of candle smoke (he reposed in the 4 th century and was translated to Corfu from Constantinople in 1456). I also was surprised to discover that the relic of Empress Theodora (the Empress who reinstated the veneration of icons in 843, which we celebrate on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in Great Lent) is also incorrupt from the 9 th century (see photo…and you'll have to wait for photos from the relics to be scanned in for her relics too). They also process (a reverent parade) with her relics at least once a year, while they process through the city with St. Spyridon's three days during the year. I venerated at several of the small local church, but unfortunately most didn't allow photos. The last church of note was dedicated to St. Eleftherios, which kept many of its relics out for pilgrims to venerate: George the Great Martyr, Panteleimon, Eleftherios, Paraskevi, Haralampos, Prokopios, John Kalyvides, Merkurios, James the Persian, Nilos the Myrrh-streamer, Barbara the Great, and Ermolaos.

My hosts were wonderful and I was overwhelmed by traditional Greek and Romanian hospitality…which was good to get me prepared for my trip to Romania (and I thought I'd lose weight on this trip!). The priest took me sight seeing around the country side, to his local parish (which could be considered a museum in its own right), and see some of the beautiful churches and monasteries (see photo of countryside). My visit was short, too short, but I hope to make it back later when I try to pilgrimage through Greece more thoroughly…and maybe actually attend one of the processions of St. Spyridon!


September 27, 2005: Thessaloniki

I've had enough time in Thessaloniki now to get over jet lag, get acquainted with the town and settle into life on the road. There is so much to see in just this "small" town (of over 2 million) and surrounding areas that I've kept myself busy as I've prepared to head to Romania. I don't have as many pics as I'd like to include now because it's been rainy on and off over the last week and a half, but I've staked out the sites and know how I will shoot most of them when I come back through to the Holy Land in a month. I did include a pic at night from the balcony where I've been staying at Moses'.

First and foremost the town is the same one that St. Paul the Apostle writes to in Thessalonians in the New Testament, so it is one of the last surviving Biblical cities, steeped in both ancient and Christian history. On an average day, walking to meet friends for a coffee (which is what you do socially in Greece), picking up provisions, or visiting an office to handle something which requires overly complex/inefficient bureaucratic systems (also something apart of daily life here), you will walk by the ancient ruins of the city's Roman markets, hippodrome (arena for horse races), or old city wall, interspersed with shops and apartment buildings. There are many ancient sites the city can boast of that I'll leave historians or travel books to cover better than I could. What I spent more time seeing where the churches. The city's primary religious treasure is the relic of St. Demetrios housed in a beautiful church bearing his name. He's considered the protector and patron of the city and its people, having been seen appearing above the city (e.g. during barbarian sieges and invasions) and in the city (e.g. saving people from imminent death during earthquakes). He was martyred in one of the city's Roman prisons (early 4 th century), upon which the altar of his church now sits (see photo), and his relics are known to literally stream myrrh at different times. The most recent occurrence was on his feast day in the late 90s when so much myrrh streamed from his tomb that they had to mop it up. (I have a cotton ball soaked in this myrrh from my first trip in 2001 that is still fragrant and moist…this breaks the laws of science & nature!) I've included a photo from his reliquary as well with iconography depicting his martyrdom.

The cities next important treasure is the relic of St. Gregory Palamas, who ended his illustrious life of monastic asceticism, writing, and defending the faith as the Archbishop of the city. His relics are also housed in a church bearing his name and kept in a beautiful reliquary (similar to St. Demetrios') available for veneration. I didn't have my camera with me that day, but I hope to send one when I get back. The last major treasure of the city that I spent time at (there are more, just haven't gotten to them this trip yet…) was Hagia Sophia, an 8th century church which boasts much of its original mosaics. This church also houses the relics of a recent 20th century Archbishop of the city that has been canonized, St. Basil. I don't know much about him though.


Friday, September 16, 2005

September 16, 2005: Karakallou



Thursday, September 15, 2005

Texas to Athos to Thessaloniki

I arrived in Thessaloniki last Thursday after about 18 hours of travel. I was greeted at the airport by my close friend Deacon Joseph (or the Texan formerly known as Dunstan), with the good news & invitation to go to Mt. Athos the following morning. We made our early morning departure, arriving atthe port of Daphne on the Athonite peninsula, heading first to themonastery of Philotheou (the home of Elder Ephraim, founder of numerous monasteries in the US & Canada, and Elder Dositheos of Holy Archangels in Texas). After we had boarded the monastery's troup transport style truck to leave the port, we were stopped by security &military personnel because Vladimir Putin was to land shortly for a visit to Mt. Athos as well. This was quite a sight to behold, the meeting of two worlds right at the port of Daphne: the modern age withits pomp & circumstance (secret svc & military security personnel, decoy yachts landing, helicopters circling, entourage of Generals/Admirals, topped off by plenty of media) colliding with Athos' timeless air of living history & deep spirituality. I couldn't believe how close I was able to get to the security perimeter with my camera of all things (about 15 yards)! This would have been impossible now in the US with a cameo made by Bush. We were told that Putin had come to visit the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon.

We visited Karakallou monastery that evening (only a 30-45 min. walk from Philotheou), were able to catch up with an American monk there I had met 4 years ago, and were able to venerate several of their relics: fragment of the Holy Cross, fragment of the hand of John the Baptist, skull of the Apostle Bartholemew, skull of St. Christopher, assorted fragments from Apostles Peter & Paul, Mecurios, child martyr Kyrikos, Orestes, Haralambos, Efstratios & Karakallou's Gideon. We stayed the night at Philotheou and spoke with several of the fathers there that we knew.

After Liturgy the next morning, we headed off to Vatopedi, via Karyes(capitol of Mt. Athos--self governing province of Greece). After being dropped by the monastery truck there, and waiting to catch an Athonite "taxi" (really a shuttle style bus), we heard that the newly installed Patriarch of Alexandria would be arriving shortly to the mountain & making his first stop at the capitol. What an opportunity...we thought we were going to have to find a way to tag along with others to meet him. We waited to get his blessing, stayed through the reception, and small service held in his honor at the Protaton church& capitol building. Unfortunately this beautiful church (which holds the original Axion Estin icon) is sinking & suffering structural problems, so is spliced through with huge supporting steel girders & beams.

We eventually made it to Vatopedi monastery, one of the largest and richest on Mt. Athos, where Deacon Joseph is also very close to the brotherhood. I was able to catch up with another American monk I had met there as well on my previous trip and get to venerate some of the very beautiful miracle working icons of the Virgin Mary I came to love so much in my early years in the faith: Abbess of Mt. Athos, Panagia Paramythea (large fresco whose image actually moved and spoke, whichfroze in place after warning the monk of an impending pirate attack) and the Pantanissa (known for healing cancers primarily and other illnesses). That evening, they also brought out several relics after dinner for veneration (which tends to be the Athonite custom at large monasteries): the Belt of the Virgin Mary (known to work miracles in aiding couples with conceiving), fragment of the Holy Cross, fragment of the Reed and Sponge Christ was offered on the Cross, skull of John Chrysostom (with the incorrupt ear that the Apostle Paul used to whisper into "mystically" while he was writing sermons and expositions on Paul's Epistles), skull of Gregory the Theologian (they used to have the skull of Basil the Great as well, but gave that to the Great Lavra monastery on Athos), Evdokimos "the newly revealed" of Vatopaidi, and Joachim Papoulakis of Vatopedi. They are currently working on translating/publishing the life of this St. Joachim.

Now Sunday was the commemoration of the beheading of John the Baptist (on the old calendar which all of Mt. Athos uses), and they brought out their relic of his incorrupt finger! It was very fragrant of heavenly myrrh. They have so many treasures at Vatopedi, several hundred relics and 8 miracle working icons of the Virgin Mary alone!I discovered that they were holding one of their largest feasts Monday, that for the commemoration of the Belt of the Virgin Mary. Iwas able to stay for this feast...and wow, I can now say I've experienced an 18 hour vigil! I can't believe I stayed up through the whole thing, starting at 5:30pm-11:30am the following day. Being one of their major feasts, it was attended by Bishop Irenaous, several abbotts and monks from around Athos, the renowned Danielei came to chant, and there were 30 priests serving! It made me think of what Prince Vladimir's (of Russia) emissaries must have experienced and asked when they first stepped into Hagia Sophia in Constantinople back in the 10th century...not knowing whether they were on earth or in heaven, experiencing the glory of the truly heavenly worship and glory of Byzantium! The vigil was woderful and beautiful, the chanting, the adornments, the piety of the people and concelebrants, and the spiritual fruit born of such a labor. Our friend Robert (formerly at Holy Archangels monastery) showed up the day before for the vigil, who has truly been given a gift for chanting. As providence would have it, he'd been fortunate enough to meet Elder Daniel himself (of theDanielei brotherhood) the day before at the vigil of the beheading of John the Baptist and invited to join them at the klyros (chanter's stand) during the vigil at Vatopedi. Robert in his boldness, dragged me up too, so I shared in the blessing of chanting with the best chanters on the Holy Mountain for the Doxasticon of Vespers. I will never forget this amazing experience, nor the depth, power and "feeling"of their voices, which stir the soul and awaken the heart! I took some photos during the vigil will try to get them posted onto the upcoming website. I unfortunately left immediately after the vigil Tuesday morning, because I wasn't prepared to stay longer and had other destinations to head towards...A short (yes, yes, a not so short e-mail) can't begin to go into the depths and detail of the experiences of just the last week! Now I'm back in Thessaloniki, finalizing plans for the next leg of my trip to Romania. It looks like I might have enough time to stop in and see either Serbia or Bulgaria "on the way". So...I'll send another update when there's some more "happenings"...but for now I'm just hanging out in Thessaloniki finding my way around town and meeting friends of friends. Feel free to write back and reply when I plug back into the internet (my goal being weekly at least). Oh, I've decided not to get a cell phone over here just because of the hassle of having to buy a new SIM card for every country I want to use it in, in addition to buying pre-paid calling cards...I figure I'll just buy the calling cards and save myself on some cancer exposure. I miss you all & keep you in my prayers ... please remember me in yours.