Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Monastery Near Drama

On Tuesday evening, we went down to St. George’s here in Panorama for Vespers. Afterwards, Fr. Alexi asked us if we wanted to go with him on a trip to the Monastery of Panagia Eikosifinissa, located between Serres and Drama, about an hour and half or two hours to the northeast.

Fr. Alexi loves to make pilgrimages and he has a reputation of always putting together nice ‘programs,’ as they say here. So, anyway, we of course said ‘yes.’

Fr. Alexi was taking a group of special-needs adults from the assisted living home next to the church on the trip as a Christmas treat, and he invited a few other people from the church to tag along.


Gregory arranged a day trip with the priest, Fr. Alexi, from St. George’s. We headed out of town in a northeast direction and we were soon in a big, beautiful valley with a lake and vineyards. After an hour and half, we hit an unpaved winding mountain road which led to a women’s monastery.

As we exited the vans to go into the church, I had my first opportunity to meet the special needs people who came on the trip. Their bravery and joy were a blessing to me. As we stood in the church, I was drawn to stand by one of them. It was as if I was seeing a true icon of Christ.

The monastery was founded around 450 when St. Germanos received the instruction to do so from the Theotokos. When he objected that he couldn’t make any of the icons for the church since he did not know how to paint, the Panagia told him to go find a certain type of tree in the woods (an Eikosifinissa tree) and cut a piece of wood for the icon. When he did this, there was a bright light, and when the piece came off the tree, the icon was fully made.

The icon has remained in the monastery’s main church since then, and we were able to venerate it on Wednesday. The nuns tell one story of an attempt to remove the icon from the church: In 1917, communists came down from Bulgaria and tried to sack the church (it had/has a lot of gold, including the most beautiful iconostasis I’ve ever seen, with hand-carved scenes from the Bible and plated with gold). When the first soldier grabbed the icon and attempted to leave the church, his boot was frozen in place. They were all so frightened that they left the icon and fled. You can see the mark of his boot in the marble floor today.

The monastery is also famous for its unusual trees. They have two small pine trees growing out of the roof of the church! They’ve been growing out of the stone roof for about 100 years, but they never get big. (See the second photo. The top photo was taken from the entrance to the church and the last photo was of the group inside the monastery. For all our photos, click here.)


After we saw the church, we went and had the story of the monastery told us by the nun while we were served coffee and sweets. After this, we went into the trapeza for a meal – very delicious! I was very impressed with the food. I got full.

We got into the van and not even an hour later we stopped – someone mentioned having dessert. After we got seated, I was asking Greg: ‘What are they ordering so much of?’ When the order arrived, it was several platters of vegetables and fatty meats. Sitting there and consuming food and wine for two hours led me to believe that our day was almost over. But not so fast.

There was one more stop – for coffee. We got back into the vans and drove again to another place for coffee, and some even had dessert (again).

The experience was a blessing to me because no one was in a hurry to go home and no one was eager to part company. This is the Greek way. This is community.

I also had a chance to get to know two very nice young men in their early 30s. Both are unmarried and still living at home. The one young man, Yianni, told me that his mother calls him four times a day to make sure he’s alright. He admitted to me that Greek mothers have a hard time letting their sons go. But listen, you young single American men, here in Thessaloniki, the ratio of single women to men is 8:1! (according to him)

I have one week left here and the Greek experience has started to soak in, which I think will produce a reverse culture shock when I return to the US, because already I’m thinking that we Americans isolate ourselves. Everything we have is big, even our personal space.

I think RM really enjoyed the trip. He got a real sense of the Greek ethos -- church, coffee, dinner #1, dinner #2, and then another coffee! ( :

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