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.



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Fri Sep 16, 04:12:00 PM CDT  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice blog, Justin! Though, your picture on the front page looks nothing like Austin :)

Interesting to see Robert on Mount Athos. He is probably hardly heard among the strong Greek vocals.


Fri Sep 16, 11:15:00 PM CDT  
Blogger Arizona seeker said...

Thank you for the wonderful website. I just now returned from Romania and got to meet Fr. Justin and receive his blessings.
Your site is a great reminder of the wonders of this country.
Warmly, Arizona seeker

Sun Mar 22, 05:29:00 PM CDT  

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