Monday, July 30, 2007

Pantokrator Monastery at the Top of Corfu

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In Kassiopi, we asked several natives about monasteries to visit nearby. As usual, everyone had completely different, and contradictory, answers, which, nevertheless, they themselves were quite confident about. (This is a Greek cultural thing: You can never admit that you don’t know, so you just make it up.)

So anyway, we set off for the highest point on Corfu, Mt Pantokrator, which also was supposed to be the site of a monastery.

The top photo is the view from the top – you can see the coast of Albania. Unfortunately, it has been SO incredibly hot in Greece lately that the haze obscured what would normally have been a breathtaking view. (Temperatures have been up to 118 degrees.) It was still pretty amazing, however.

The peak of the mountain does, indeed, house a monastery, but it’s a very curious thing. Somehow, an enormous communications tower has been placed right in the courtyard of the monastery! (See the second and third photos.)

The monastery is now basically just a tourist destination, and there is only one monk in residence, who hides somewhere during the day.

As we sat just outside the monastery’s gates having a coffee and enjoying the view, we actually saw one tourist enter the monastery in nothing but his Speedo! Fortunately, he was sent back out a few moments later to change into shorts and a shirt.

The bottom photo is of Fr Joseph playing with the monastery dog in the courtyard.

On the way back down the windy mountain roads, we passed through a little village and stopped and had a nice, traditional Greek lunch. The restaurant owner also had a key to the local church of St Paraskeve, and he very kindly gave us a tour after we ate.

Kassiopi and Its Icon of the Theotokos

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After a long day of traveling on Wednesday, we were very glad to get to the little apartment we had reserved in Kassiopi. The top photo shows the view from the house on Thursday morning.

Our first stop was at the local church, which is dedicated to the Life-Receiving (or Giving) Spring, celebrated on Bright Friday. When Corfu was under Roman occupation, it had been the site of a temple to Cassius Jupiter. After the Christianization of the island, a church to the Mother of God was built over the ruins of the pagan temple.

It is now most famous for its wonderworking icon of the Mother of God, known as the Kassiopi Icon. Its most famous miracle occurred in 1530. At that time, a young boy of 14, who was unjustly convicted of robbery and consequently had his eyes gouged out, was taken by his mother to this church to seek a place to stay. The monk allowed them to sleep in the church, and during the night, the Panagia appeared to the boy and healed his eyes. Where his eyes had formerly been brown, his new ones were blue! The monk at the church went to the \ governor who had imposed the unjust sentence and confronted him with the miracle. After investigating, the governor concluded that God must have righted the wrong he had committed, and begged the boy’s forgiveness. He also paid for some renovations to the church.

Unfortunately, the church was destroyed soon after, during an unsuccessfully siege of the island by the Turks. In 1590, the church was rebuilt by an admiral of the Venetian fleet, and the icon (and church, as with most of the island) passed into Catholic hands for two centuries. The icon was returned to the Orthodox in 1797, when the French took possession of the island. (Corfu has passed through many, many hands over the centuries. For more information, click here.)

The second photo is of the church’s courtyard, as you come down off the main street of the village. The third photo is of the church’s bell tower, and the fourth photo is taken from the church looking back toward the main street.

Panagia Soumela and the Boat Ride to Corfu

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Well, Fr Joseph and Kh Sophia are in the middle of the journey back to the US and I can now begin to post some photos of all the things we saw in the last week.

Last Wednesday, we headed west across the span of northern Greece for the town of Igoumenitsa on the western Ionian coast of Greece. From there, we took a ferry over to Corfu (known formally as Kerkyra), which is just off the coast of northwestern Greece. The drive from here in Thessaloniki to Igoumenitsa was about 8 hours through some very windy mountain roads.

We took a small detour near Veria (where St Paul was) to the little village of Kastania to see the Wonderworking Icon of Panagia Soumela, which was painted by St Luke the Evangelist.

After the death of St Luke in Achaia (northern Peloponnesus), his disciple Ananias became the caretaker of the icon, which was eventually placed in a church dedicated to the Mother of God in Athens. It remained there until Emperor Theodosios the Great (379-395), when the priest of the church was visited by the Panagia, who told him that he and his nephew should become monks and that they should follow the icon to the east, to Mt Mela. The icon then disappeared. The two became monks and began journeying in search of the icon. Eventually they found it in a cave on Mt Mela in Cappadocia, modern-day Turkey. They founded a monastery there that survived for 1600 years until the Turkish-Greek population exchange of 1922.

Eventually, the Greek refugees founded the village of Kastania in modern Greece and collected the funds to build a new church for the icon, where it has remained since then.

You can see us walking to the church in the top photo. A small chapel next to the main church also held some relics, including several new martyrs (those Greeks who were martyred for the faith by the Turks between 1453-1922) and St Gregory the Wonderworker, Bishop of Neocaesarea (213-270 AD).

Eventually, we wound our way through the mountains to Igoumenitsa and caught a ferry to Corfu (about 1.5 hours). The second photo is of Igoumenitsa from the boat. The third and fourth photos are from Kh Sophia on the boat during the trip.

We arrived on Corfu about 9 pm and then drove up to the place we reserved in the little town of Kassiopi in the north. Kassiopi is just opposite Albania, separated only by a very narrow straight.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Holy Mountain: To Dafni

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The monastery opens their gates briefly in the morning to let out departing visitors, so we and the other pilgrims exited the interior of the monastery around 9 am. Most of the others waited until the bus came by around 10:45 to take everyone down to the port of Dafni, but Fr Joseph and I decided to have an adventure.

First, we explored the grounds of the monastery a little, and found what looked to be the most recent burial place for departed monks, including a little building which stores their remains.

The first photo is of the exterior of the monastery, with some of their gardens to the left.

The second photo is of the sea and the port of Dafni from a shaded patio area just outside the monastery walls.

The third photo is of Fr Joseph in the cemetery, which also overlooks the sea and Dafni.

The fourth photo is of Fr Joseph exploring the building which houses the monks’ remains.

After that, we set off toward Dafni, which was about a 40-minute hike along what appeared to be an old narrow donkey path.

Once in Dafni, we waited for our boat back to the world. All my photos from the trip can be viewed here.

I should add that, while we were on the Holy Mountain, Pelagia and Kh. Sophia took a trip to Elder Paisios’ men’s monastery of St Arsenios the Cappadocian in Halkidiki, as well as the women’s monastery in Ormylia, which is famous for its chanting.

When we returned to Panorama on Wednesday evening, Fr Joseph had only about an hour before the three of them left for Serbia. I’m happy to report that they arrived safely, after a 19-hour train ride (which was supposed to be 12).

As a side note, on Wednesday evening we also had a very small earthquake here around 8 or 9 pm. Apparently it measured 4.3 and was centered somewhere near Thessaloniki. Fortunately, it was only one shudder which lasted less than a second.

Thessaloniki is an earthquake area, the last major one being 1978.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to do some translation work while they are away. On Wednesday, we all will go to Corfu to venerate St Spyridon.

The Holy Mountain: Xiropotamou

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We arrived at the Monastery of Xiropotamou around 2 pm. Their guest house has recently been renovated and is very nice. We looked around for a bit and then rested until Vespers at 5. At Konstamonitou, we had celebrated St Andrew of Crete, and here we celebrated St Athanasios the Athonite, the founder of monasticism on the Holy Mountain.

After Vespers, we had dinner and then we had about an hour break before Small Compline. So we had a Greek coffee with some of the other pilgrims and chatted until 7:45. Then we went back to the church for the service and the veneration of the relics, which included the largest known piece of the True Cross, including one of the holes left by a nail which fastened the Lord to the Cross, a blood-stained piece of St Demetrios’ clothing, and relics from St Polycarp, St Gregory the Theologian, St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, and the Holy 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, to whom the monastery is dedicated.

Tradition says that the piece of the Cross was donated by the Empress Pulcheria (450-457), who also funded the construction of the first monastery on the site.

The first photo is of the central church (katholikon), from the ground floor of the guest house. The typical design for an Athonite monastery is a square (for defensive purposes – pirates were a frequent threat), with the central church in the middle of the square.

The second photo is of the entrance to the church, with an icon to the Holy 40 Martyrs above. The beautiful iconography in the church dates to 1764.

The third and fourth photos are of the inner courtyard around the katholikon. In the last photo, you can see Fr Joseph sitting.

In the morning, the service began at 4 am and continued until 8:30. Afterwards, we had an informal breakfast and then headed out.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Holy Mountain: Traveling and St Panteleimon's

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After breakfast on Monday, the monks took us back down to their dock to catch the boat a little further south to our second destination, the Monastery of Xiropotamou.

As the truck pulled into the dock, we spotted two dolphins leaping along just off the shore. We waited there by the sea for about an hour and half for the boat, and then rode about 30-45 minutes down. (The top photo was taken from the dock, looking south along the Holy Mountain.)

Instead of going all the way to port of Dafni and catching the bus to Xiropotamou, we decided to have an adventure and get off at the nearby monastery of St. Panteleimon’s, the breathtaking Russian monastery. From the maps and what people told us, it seemed to be only about a 45 minute walk from there to Xiropotamou, and this way we’d be able to see the famous Russian monastery also. (Again, get your bearings with a map here.)

The second photo is as we approached to dock at St Panteleimon’s. Unfortunately, photos were strictly forbidden (which, unlike in Greece, seems to actually mean they are forbidden), so I don’t have any photos from inside. Suffice it to say that the place is enormous (it once housed 3000 monks!), although now it’s home to about 65 very busy monks. The grounds are beautiful and there’s a lot more restoration work going on.

Inside, a monk gave us a tour of main church and another enormous chapel, which housed the monastery’s enormous relic collection. They have so many relics, in fact, that they have them organized by month. So, for this month, we had St Andrew of Crete, St Marina, St Makrina, St Panteleimon and many more. They also had relics of St Joseph the Betrothed (Fr Joseph’s patron saint), St John the Baptist, St Gregory Palamas and too many others to remember (there are SO many at all these monasteries that they all start to blend together). They also were proud to have the skull of St Silouan the Athonite, who lived at the monastery.

In good Russian style, both churches were entirely covered in a thin layer of gold leaf. They also have the largest bell on the Holy Mountain, weighing in at 14 tons! They reported that it can be heard all over the Holy Mountain and even back in Ouranapoli.

After being completely overwhelmed, we headed off in the 1 pm heat for Xiropotamou. (I should mentioned that it was about 100 degrees, and the path was so uphill, so it was particularly good for our ascetical efforts!)

The path was pretty rustic, but it was an honor to walk the paths trod by so many saints. We took it pretty slowly, resting once or twice, and made it to Xiropotamou in about 50-60 minutes.

The third photo is of Fr Joseph as we took a break along the path.

The bottom photo is as we emerged from the forest path, saw Xiropotamou, and started up their driveway.

The Holy Mountain: Konstamonitou

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Well, Fr Joseph and I headed to the Holy Mountain early Monday morning. Our first stop, through the arrangement of a friend here in Greece, was the Monastery of Konstamonitou. It is fairly close to the traditional departure port of Ouranapoli, so we had only about an hour ride on the boat. (See a map of the Holy Mountain here.)

A monk met us at the monastery’s arsena (dock) with a big old truck. Fr Joseph got to ride in the front, while the rest of the pilgrims had the Athonite experience of bouncing around in the bed of the truck.

We arrived at the monastery around noon, and had the traditional ouzo, water, and Turkish delight. We were then shown to our rooms and given something to eat by a very friendly monk in the trapeza (refectory). (He later gave us some of the monastery’s own wine and some herbs he had picked for tea.)

After that, we had the rest of the afternoon free. We had Vespers at 6, followed by a meal, and then Small Compline, with veneration of the monastery’s impressive collection of relics, including St Andrew the Apostle, St Stephen the First Martyr, and St Constantine the Great. They also have the original wonderworking icons of Panagia Odigitria (She Who Directs) and Panagia Antiphonitria (She Who Responds).

In the morning, the service began at 4:30 and ended around 8:30, followed by a breakfast of fish.

In the top photo, Fr Joseph is looking out on the inner courtyard of the monastery from the steps leading up the guest rooms.

The second photo is taken from our guest rooms, looking down into the inner courtyard (mainly of the western entrance to the main church, which occupies the center of the courtyard).

The third photo is of the entrance to the monastery, from the outside. The icons above the gates were sponsored by Serbian rulers who helped rebuild the monastery in the 1800s.

The last photo is taken from the top floor of a building, looking down into the inner courtyard from another angle. Fr Joseph is in the center, exploring the courtyard.

For all the photos from our trip, click here.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Elder Paisios and Souroti

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On Wednesday morning, we picked up Stavroula (a friend from Vancouver who lives nearby for about a month a year) and drove over to the Monastery of St Arsenios the Cappadocian in Souroti, only about 15-20 minutes away. It is a women's monastery founded by Elder Paisios in 1967, and named after his sainted spiritual father. They currently have 67 nuns.

The monastery was getting ready, because the next day, July 12, is the day of the Elder's repose (+1994), and they were having an All-Night Vigil to celebrate him. They expected thousands of people. On the last feast day the Elder himself attended, they had 5000 people!

The top photo is from the exonarthex of the temple.

The second photo is of Kh. Sophia venerating the Elder's grave. As many pilgrims do, we took some of the earth from the grave as a blessing.

The third photo is of the bells, located near the grave, and the fourth photo is of the back of the katholikon, taken from the site of the grave.

On Wednesday night, we drove out to the little village of Kato Scholari to have dinner with Gerontissa Efpraxia's family.

On Thursday morning, Fr Joseph and Kh Sophia took the bus to Bulgaria to visit some friends. They will return on Saturday evening. Fr Joseph and I leave for Mt Athos on Monday. Stay tuned for more...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nea Karvala

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After the monastery, we headed up to a little town up in the mountains called Panagia, where we had a great lunch. In the top photo, you see Kh. Sophia checking out the meat being roasted. We tried all of them, including the offal, which is a kind of sausage made up of heart, kidney, liver, etc. It was all delicious – very traditional Greek food.

Afterwards, we headed back to the dock to catch the boat back to the mainland. Fr Alexi saved some of the bread from lunch and we used it to feed the seagulls which fly alongside the boat (see second photo).

When we got back on the mainland, we headed over to nearby Nea Karvala, which is a small town famous because it houses the relics of St Gregory the Theologian. The relics were originally housed in St Gregory’s hometown of Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey), but when the Christians were forced out of Turkey back in the early 1900s, the Greeks managed to carry the relics with them and re-establish their town, Karvala, in Greece as New Karvala.

Many theologians say that St Gregory (my patron saint) is the Church Father with the most perfect and comprehensive theology. Among many other things, he is primarily responsible for clearly setting forth and defending the true teaching about the Holy Trinity, and rescuing Christianity from the heresy of Arianism, which claimed that Christ was a created being not fully equal to the Father.

In the third photo, Fr Joseph is venerating the Saint’s relics. The fourth photo is of Fr Joseph looking back at St Gregory’s temple.

After this, we headed back to Panorama. For all the photos from the day, click here.


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Pelagia’s parents, Fr. Joseph and Kh. Sophia, arrived safely in Athens last Wednesday evening. After a short visit in Athens (with a trip to visit St Nektarios on Aegina), they arrived in Thessaloniki on Friday morning.

On Friday night, we went downtown to St Demetrios’. They hold Liturgy in the crypt where he was martyred every Friday night.

On Sunday, after Liturgy here at St George’s in Panorama, they went on a trip with Pelagia to Volos, a city about 3 hours south of Thessaloniki, halfway between here and Athens. There they visited two monasteries, and then returned Monday evening.

On Tuesday, our parish priest, Fr Alexi, took us on a trip with his family to visit the island of Thasos, which is about 3 hours east of here, just on the other side of the Holy Mountain.

We left Panorama at about 8 AM in the church’s little mini-van and arrived at the port to take us over to Thasos at about 11:15. There we caught a boat which would make the 40-minute jaunt over to the island of Thasos.

On board we were entertained by a three-person band which played traditional Greek folk music. Pretty soon we were all dancing ! (See top photo.)

We landed on the island (along with the van), and headed off down the coastline. The island is not very big, so we took the scenic route and followed the road which made a big circle around the island. After about 20 minutes, we stopped to take some pictures of the view – which featured the west coast of the Holy Mountain in the distance. (See the second photo – the Holy Mountain is just visible in the background, to the right.)

After another 20 minutes, we arrived on the other side of the island, where we stopped to visit the Monastery of the Archangel Michael, which features a piece of one of the nails used to crucify Christ. A dependency of Philotheou, the site was originally a small chapel built in 1090 to commemorate an appearance of the Archangel Michael to a local monk, St Luke. Elder Ephraim founded a women’s monastery on the spot about 30 years ago.

The monastery sits on a cliff and has a spectacular view of the ocean and the Holy Mountain. (See the bottom two photos.)

We had a nice visit with some of the sisters and then hit the road again, traveling up the other side of the island to a restaurant up in the mountains that Fr Alexei knew…(to be continued)