Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Letter Home

It has been too long since we were “home,” so we wanted to write an update and encourage everyone to write back. Pelagia and I pray for all of you, who have supported us in so many ways – with prayers and finances – at all the holy places Christ blesses us to visit here in Greece.

It was a long year of learning Greek for us – both the language and the culture. (Yes, it’s been one full year already!) But all the hard work is finally bearing fruit. Pelagia’s parents, Fr Joseph and Kh Sophia, visited us this month, and we were able to translate almost everything for them. With more hard work and God’s help, our Greek will continue to improve.

This summer, I have begun doing some translation work for Fr Peter Heers and his Uncut Mountain Press, which publishes Orthodox works such as “The Truth of Our Faith.” Now we are working on a collection of essays on ecumenism. A book of Fr John Romanides’ dogmatic lectures from the University here is also due out any time. There are so many important, spiritually enriching texts to translate into English! I hope I can contribute something. I am also doing some reading for my dissertation topic, which will begin officially in October. I hope to translate a Patristic commentary on the Gospel of St Luke or Acts as part of my program.

Meanwhile, Pelagia has found her niche as a handywoman. Primarily, she paints, but she also lays floors, fixes plumbing, does gardening, and whatever else she can find. She is gaining quite a reputation and the job offers are starting to pour in.

Unfortunately, as you may or may not know, things here are quite expensive – more so than the U.S. Due to various bureaucratic problems, I have yet to receive a scholarship, but I pray that one will come through in the next few months.

Work here is scarce for everyone, but especially for foreigners, so we are blessed that we have been able to find what we have. Pelagia has more job opportunities, but she needs a car to take advantage of them. Our goal, then, is to buy an inexpensive used car. I know we are all bombarded with requests for money, but if you can find it in your heart (and your pocket!) to make even a small donation, it would be an enormous help. We face a hurdle right now in trying to move into more self-sufficiency, as our savings become depleted. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

Tax-deductible gifts can be made by writing a check to: "Holy Cross Orthodox Church" (please write "Seminary Fund" in the note field). It can be mailed to: Holy Cross Orthodox Church, Attn: Maria Meals, 706 Stewart Street, Yakima, WA 98902-4473.

Or you can donate through Paypal online by simply clicking the button on the right-hand side of the screen. It's safe and quick.

Thank you for reading the blog and being involved in our lives! And please keep the comments on the blog coming – it’s nice to get feedback!

Yours in Christ,

Gregory and Pelagia

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Last Stop: The Monastery in Serres

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On Fr Joseph and Kh Sophia’s last full day in Greece, we went to the monastery here in Panorama for Sunday morning liturgy and then, still armed with the rental car, took a drive up to the Monastery of St John the Forerunner in Serres, about 1.5 north-northeast of Thessaloniki. We’ve been there several times, since Gerontissa Efpraxia of Goldendale, WA first took us there last August, but Fr Joseph and Kh Sophia hadn’t.

On the windy mountain road from the city of Serres up to the monastery, we ran into a shepherd and his flock coming down the road (see the top photo). But we still managed to get there just before the gates closed for mid-day at 2 PM.

They fed us a nice lunch, and then we visited with our friend Sister Katherine, an American nun who has been there about 3 years.

She gave us a full tour of the monastery, including the cemetery and gardens in the back that we had never seen before. While back there, we ran into a bull which a neighbor lets wander all over. He was hanging out by a stream, and we weren’t about to tell him to leave. ( ;

You can see him in the third photo, as well as the back of the monastery (one of the many parts that is still badly in need of renovation).

The second photo is of Fr Joseph standing in the exo-narthex of the main church, and the fourth photo is of the Copelands in the courtyard of the monastery.

For all my photos from the day, click here.

We headed back to Thessaloniki in the evening. Fr Joseph and Kh Sophia packed and then the Lillies invited us for dessert.

Early Monday morning, it was off to the airport – thus ending the first installment, at least, of their Greece adventure! ( :

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Holy Monastery of St Stephen's

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Finally, we stopped at the second women’s monastery on Meteora, St Stephen’s. It has been a women’s monastery since 1961, and is the largest of the current monasteries with about 35 nuns.

An inscription near the outer entrance identifies the first inhabitant as an ascetic named Jeremiah in 1191, but as with most of the monasteries in Meteora, it came into its own as a coenobitic monastery in the 16th century.

Since 1798, it has been the proud bearer of the skull of St Haralampos, a priest of Magnesia who was martyred for Christ around 200 AD. He is extremely popular among monastics, and I was told on Mt Athos that he’s the only saint which all of the Holy Mountain celebrates with an all-night vigil. We were very blessed to venerate this relic, which was set out in front of the iconostasis in the main church. This church was new – in fact, so new that an iconographer was working on some of the frescoes while we were there. It was very interesting to see him at work on the faces of the saints.

In the photos, we have at the top a photo of Pelagia with the monasteries in the background.

The second photo was taken while walking into the monastery. (There were no steps to climb on this one!)

The third and fourth were taken in the courtyard of St Stephen’s.

Well, that does it for the trip to Corfu and Meteora! You can see all my photos from the trip here.

The Holy Monastery of Grand Meteora

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After St Varlaam’s, we headed over to nearby Grand Meteora (also known as Transfiguration), which is traditionally the ruling monastery of the area. It was founded in 1340 by St Athanasios. His successor, St Ioasaph, is also credited as co-founder of the monastery. St Ioasaph was of the Byzantine and Serbian imperial families and heir to the throne of Thessaly and Epirus. At 22, though, he abdicated the throne to become a monk in St Athanasios’ brotherhood, eventually becoming his successor.

St Ioasaph enlarged the monastery and the central church, which was later incorporated as the sanctuary of the church that stands today.

The monastery really flourished, though, in the 16th century, along with the other monasteries of Meteora. The present church was built and frescoed during this period, again by the Cretan school of iconography.

The monastery, like all the monasteries of the region, suffered under the Turks and eventually was abandoned. After World War II, local villagers turned it into a tourist hotel. It was reestablished and flourished again as a monastery under Elder Amilianos, now of Simonopetra on the Holy Mountain.

Like all the men’s monasteries now in Meteora, there are very few monks -- currently three.

The grounds are quite extensive, with several museums, so they employ pious locals to help them manage the tourists. It is quite impressive.

One of the monks, who spoke English, sat and talked with us for quite awhile, and insisted on giving us copies of all the monastery’s books, which catalog its history and various collections.

The top photo is of the monastery as we walked toward it from the parking area.

The second photo is of the winch and net which is still used to carry up goods.

The third is of the interior of the monastery and the fourth is a view of St Varlaam’s from Grand Meteora.

The Holy Monastery of Varlaam

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After St Barbara’s, we headed down the road to The Monastery of St Varlaam. The current structure also dates to the 16th century, but monastics had lived on the site long before.

The first photo is taken from where we parked the car.

The second photo was taken as we began the ascent up to the monastery.

The third photo shows the winch that is still used to carry up goods. This used to be the only way people could get up to the monastery. There are photos of monks riding up in a big net! The story goes that when curious visitors would ask how often the monks replaced the ropes, the monks would reply “When the Lord lets them break.”

The bottom photo is of the first monastery we visited, St Barbara’s, from the top of St Varlaam’s.

When we got to the monastery, we went first to the chapel, which again featured beautiful 16th century iconography of the Cretan school – possibly even by the famous Theophanes the Cretan himself.

At the back of the church, just above the entrance, is a somewhat famous and unusual icon of St Sisoes standing over the grave of Alexander the Great, who is nothing but bones. For all his fame, he was a humble skeleton. The inscription over the icon reads: “All those things that a man is endowed with, things which do not exist after death, are futile. Wealth is not eternal, glory does not go with man to eternity. When death comes, all of this disappears.”

Pelagia and I explored the monastery and its museum for awhile, and then headed back down to the car, with Fr Joseph and Kh Sophia just behind us. As they were leaving a few minutes later, however, an old monk caught sight of them and insisted they come have coffee and a sweet. They then got a tour of the inside of the monastery, which is normally off-limits to the tourists. They even got to venerate the monastery’s relics, which included the left hand of St John Chrysostom. Unfortunately, Pelagia and I missed most of this. It pays to stick with the visiting priest!

The Holy Monastery of St Barbara Roussanou

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Our first stop on Saturday morning was the Monastery of St Barbara – Roussanou, a women’s monastery with 14 nuns. Of the six active monasteries currently at Meteora (there were, at its height, 24 men’s monasteries), two are now women’s.

The current structure dates from the early 1500s. The main church features some gorgeous iconography from the famous Cretan school (click for info and photos).

After venerating inside the church, one of the nuns asked us to – of course – have coffee and a sweet. We had a nice visit with her, and she told us some of the long history of the monastery. I asked her also the thousands of tourists who flood the monastery, and she offered some interesting insight into national differences.

She said Americans were generally very respectful, Germans were cold, and Italians were the worst – talkative and loud. Interestingly, she said the Chinese and Japanese were extremely quiet and reverent, and often asked how to make the sign of the cross, etc.

Anyway, as for the photos:

The top is from where we parked the car, looking up at the monastery.

The second is of Fr Joseph and Kh Sophia as we stopped for a break on the stairs on the way up. You can see the Monastery of St Varlaam in the background and behind it and to the left, you can just barely make out the Monastery of Great Meteora.

The third is taken from the top, looking down at a garden inside the monastery. You can see Fr Joseph and Pelagia on the bridge admiring the garden.

The fourth is of Fr Joseph at the top, just outside the church, taking in the view.

Metsovo and Meteora

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We got back to the mainland of Greece about 6 pm on Friday and headed toward Meteora. About halfway there (about 2 hours) we took a break in the traditional mountain village of Metsovo. Metsovo is known for great skiing – it’s the ‘Greek Alps’ – and is a popular stop for Greeks and tourists alike, who want to get a feel for a traditional village. It was originally settled by Vlach shepherds, a people from the mountain regions near modern-day Romania. We heard a pronounced accent in the Greek of one elderly man we talked to.

The top two photos are from Metsovo. We stretched our legs for a bit and explored the town’s church, and then had one of the best meals we’ve had in Greece at a restaurant overlooking the town’s huge square (second photo). It was a simple meal of stuffed peppers, giant beans, etc. but it was SO good!

After that, we continued the journey to our hotel in Kastraki, a small town at the base of the mountains of Meteora. We got in close to midnight, completely exhausted.

The next morning we woke up to a great view of the mountains (and the monasteries which seem to just grow out of the top of the mountains) from our bedroom balconies. (See the bottom two photos.) The natural little caves in these unique rock formations (see the bottom photo in particular) were the first cells of the area’s monastics. It was only later, due to the threat of invaders, that the ascetics came together to form the fortified monasteries, out of invaders’ reach.

For a brief overview of Meteora, click here.

Corfu Town

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After St Spyridon’s, we headed to the Metropolis, which houses the relics of St Empress Theodora, who freed the Church from iconoclasm in 842. For more information on the iconoclast heresy, click here.

Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the church was closed for mesimeri, the midday break. (The top photo is of the entrance to the Metropolis.) It was, by this time, extremely hot, so we sought refuge at a café which had shade and misters.

The second photo was taken at this spot, when the cheap sunglasses Kh Sophia had bought collapsed. ( :

We had quite an adventure finding where we had parked the car, but eventually we all made it to the boat in time for the 4:15 departure back to the mainland.

The third photo is of the island’s Old Fortress, which overlooks the capital of Corfu Town.

The last photo is of Corfu Town as we pulled out on the boat. You can see the Venetian architectural influence. It’s also interesting how stairs lead down from the main road to a little beach. You can see the doorway right about in the middle of the photo.

St Spyridon's

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On Friday morning, we packed up and headed back to Corfu Town, where we would catch the ferry back to the mainland at 4 pm. We had all day, then, to wander around the capital.

Our first order of business was, of course, to find St Spyridon. We stopped at a church dedicated to the Mother of God to ask for directions, and I was able to take a couple pictures of the interior (see the top two photos). As you can see, the design and artwork is very similar to the baroque-style Catholic churches we saw in Rome. The Catholic Venetians held Corfu for over 200 years (approx. 1550-1797), and many of the originally Orthodox churches became Catholic churches during this time.

From there, we went to St Spyridon’s. The third photo is of the entrance to his temple. We were not allowed to take photographs inside, but it was a similar baroque style to the photos above.

The incorrupt body of St Spyridon (270-348 AD) is housed in a special room to the right of the altar. When we came in, we were fortunate that the priests were there to open up the coffin so that we could venerate his actual body – actually his famous feet. They call him the ‘walking saint,’ because he is still so active in performing miracles that he wears out his shoes – they have to change them regularly! After they change his slippers, they cut them into small pieces and hand them out as blessings to pilgrims – we were fortunate to receive these as well.

There are thousands of reports of miracles he has performed. For more information on him, start here. Despite being associated in modern times with Corfu, the saint actually lived his earthly life in Cyprus, and was a bishop there. He grew up as a simple shepherd, who was elevated to bishop after his wife died. He participated in the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD, and, along with St Athanasios the Great and St Nicholas of Myra, is said to have had a profound influence on the defeat of Arianism at the council, despite the fact that he was uneducated.

After St Spyridon’s, we walked around the temple for awhile, through narrow alleys full of tourist trinkets, etc. (See bottom photo.) I was quite surprised, actually, how ‘touristy’ the island was. It seems to be a particularly popular vacation spot for the British and Italians.

The Beach and an Old Fortress

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After lunch and our tour of the little village church, we stopped by a beach on the northern shore of Corfu, called (what else?) St Spyridon’s. (See top photo.) We relaxed there for a couple hours and then headed back to our place in Kassiopi.

In the evening (as it got cooler), we decided to walk up to the old fortress overlooking Kassiopi. It is currently undergoing a huge renovation project, and it offers a great view of the little town. The second photo is taken from our little apartment, across the small harbor. You can see the fortress at the top.

The third photo is of Kassiopi, taken from the fortress. The place where we stayed is just about in the middle of the houses you can see.

The last photo is of Kh Sophia and Pelagia standing on a part of the old wall.