Friday, November 14, 2008

Last Day at Vatopaidi

Monday morning was again 3:00 AM Orthros, followed by Liturgy (Vatopaidi has Liturgy every day). After Orthros all together in the katholicon, everyone split up and went to the various small churches throughout the expansive monastery. There we had relatively quick liturgies, followed by a meal all together again in the refectory.

After the meal, we asked about the boat which goes up and down the east side of the Holy Mountain. Again, it was canceled due to rough seas, so we prepared for the longer journey through Karyes back to Daphne. We got our bags ready and I had about an hour or so to go around the monastery and take photos.

The above photo is from the entrance to our area of the guest houses, looking in toward the center of the monastery. The crane in the background was being used that morning to begin repairing one of the buildings there.

This photo is of the front of the monastery's main church or katholicon.

This photo again is of the front of the monastery's katholikon, but from much closer.

Shortly before the taxi van was to leave to go to Karyes, from which you wait to switch to another bus down to Daphne, one of the monks kindly offered to let us ride down (for free) with one of the monastery's vehicles. In the photo above, the driver had to stop briefly in Karyes to drop off some mail. To the right of the vehicle is the administrative capitol building for the Holy Mountain, which is an autonomous entity within the Greek state. To the left is the Protaton, the church which hosts the Axion Estin icon mentioned previously.

After that brief stop, we headed down to the port of Daphne and bought our tickets for the return boat trip. Once back at Ouranoupoli, we got Paris' car and headed back to Thessaloniki. About halfway home, we stopped in the well-known little village of Agios Ioannis Prodromos (St John the Forerunner) for a lunch of their famous souvlaki. Then, finally, we arrived back in Thessaloniki.

So that's all for this adventure. Again, for all the photos from the trip, click here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Talking with Abbot Ephraim

After finally leaving the small Romanian cell, we continued down the road to our original destination, the Romanian skete of Kolitsou. When we arrived, a Romanian monk (who spoke very good Greek) led us into the small church to venerate the icons, and then treated us to the traditional water, Turkish delight, and raki. The elder of the skete, Fr. Dionysios, then sat down to talk with us for a few minutes. He was the disciple of the recently reposed Fr. Dionysios, whom many regard as a saint. His grave is in the background of the top photo.

Fr. Dionysios told us that they have 8 monks currently living at the skete. He gave us some books about the skete that had been translated into Greek and then, as it turned out, a couple Romanian visitors were heading out toward Vatopaidi with the skete's vehicle, and we were offered a ride. As the time was now getting quite close to time for Vespers, we gratefully accepted.

Above is another photo of Vatopaidi, as we returned.

Above is a photo of Michael and Paris walking into the entrance of the monastery. The red building you see to the left of the photo, covered with scaffolding, was where we stayed. The window to our room was the second from the left.

Anyway, after Vespers and the meal, we had a chance to speak for a few minutes with the abbot, Elder Ephraim, as he came out of the refectory. As soon as he saw Paris, you could tell that something clicked. He started speaking with him in a low voice, and then after a minute, pulled him off to the side by himself. Afterward, Paris was clearly moved by the experience. Although he didn't tell us what was said, he was clearly very impressed and says only that he believes the abbot is clairovoyant.

After Small Compline, we spoke with a young American from St. Louis who was staying at the monastery for a couple months. We then slowly headed to bed. Photographs inside the monastery are generally prohibited, so when I spoke to the elder, I asked and received his blessing to take some photos inside the monastery. The one above is one I took the next day, Monday morning.

But more on that tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sunday at Vatopaidi

Orthros started at 3:00 AM on Sunday morning. Liturgy began around 6:45 and we concluded around 8:45. After Liturgy, we walked across the courtyard to the refectory. The abbot of the monastery, Ephraim, is well known as a homilist, so he frequently would be inspired by the readings during the meal to stop the reader and explain some aspect of the reading.

After the meal, we ran into a French monk named Fr. Columba, and spoke to him for quite awhile, giving us more of a tour of the monastery. As it turns out, he was Catholic until he discovered Orthodoxy about 20 years ago (at the age of 45). He then become a monk at a monastery in France. On a visit to the Holy Mountain, he went to visit Elder Gavreel, the same saintly monk I met two years ago on my first visit to the Holy Mountain. As soon as Elder Gavreel saw him, he told him (without ever having seen or met him before): "It's not good for you to be around all those nuns. But don't worry, you'll become a monk at one of the big monasteries here on the Holy Mountain." As it turns out, Fr. Columba was at a small monastery in France that had the men's and women's monasteries side by side and, in fact, he became a monk at Vatopaidi (one of the two largest monasteries on the Holy Mountain) two years later.

Around 12:00, we set out for a walk. (The photo above is of the entrance to the monastery as we were leaving.) We had the idea to visit the Romanian skete, where its elder, Fr. Dionysios, had recently reposed. According to the monks at Vatopaidi, many considered him a saint, and his body gave off a strong aroma at the time of his death. Unfortunately, we were getting varying reports on how far away the skete was. According to some, it was 45 minutes. Others said 1.5 hours. The directions we got were also less than clear. We were somewhat worried about making it back in time for Vespers and trapeza (the meal) at 3:00, but we finally decided to just start walking and let God decide what would happen.

There were no signs, but from the directions we got, we were able to make some guesses about which way to proceed. Soon enough, a car came rumbling down the dirt road, kicking up a huge cloud of dust, and we asked the driver if we were going the right away. He basically told us that we were crazy, that the skete was "VERY far" away, all uphill, at least 2 hours. Now thoroughly confused, we decided to keep walking anyway.

The photo above is of the ruins of the Athonite school, taken from the dirt road we were walking up. According to one Greek site: "In the middle of the 18th century, the Athonite School was established in a building near Vatopedi Monastery, its purpose being to teach theology, philosophy, and logic to the monks and to those wishing to become monks. In the early years, when the Greek enlightener Evyenios Voulgaris was director, the school attracted large numbers of students and gained a considerable reputation. But when Voulgaris left, it fell into a decline, and closed down in 1799. Several moves were made in the 19th century to reopen the school, and in 1832 it began to operate again as a kind of seminary. The Athonite School was officially reestablished in 1953. Now named the ‘Athonite Ecclesiastical Academy’, it occupies a wing of the Skete of St Andrew in Karyes and follows the Greek secondary school curriculum combined with ecclesiastical education. There are six teachers and about 100 students." The school is also famous for its role in the Kollyvades movement.

Despite the dire warnings from the driver, we kept walking up the dirt road. Just a few minutes later, one of the taxi vans drove by, empty. We stopped the driver to ask if we were going the right way and how long it would take, and he offered to give us a ride halfway there, as he was going that way anyway. Grateful, we hopped in. At the top of the hill, he dropped us off at the crossroads for the Romanian skete, which we may have missed if it weren't for him.

So we headed off down the new road, but still no signs. Finally, just when we were starting to think we must have made a wrong turn somewhere, we ran into this old monk that we had seen that morning at Liturgy at Vatopaidi. We stopped to talk to him, or at least try to talk to him. He was a Romanian monk, and didn't speak hardly any Greek. He was a cute old monk who just seemed to be wandering around outside. We guessed that he lived in an old tiny cell we saw hidden somewhere back off the road. Anyway, we managed to exchange enough information to learn his name, Fr. Gerasimos, and tell him our names and ask him to pray for us. He also pointed us in the right direction.

So we kept going, and a few minutes later, we came upon the scene in the photo above. We walked down to the building and cautiously approached to see if anyone was there. From the icon above the door, it seemed to be a cell dedicated to St. John the Forerunner. After a couple minutes, a young monk answered the door and was very happy to receive us. Again, he was Romanian, Fr. Ioannis, and didn't speak any Greek or English. But in spite of this, we managed to gather that the place we wanted was actually another few minutes down the road. We tried to leave, but he insisted, with a big smile, on sitting us down and giving us water, homemade raki, apples they grew, and some Romanian donuts they made. We sat and ate and drank with him and tried to communicate. My friend Michael happens to know a few words in Romanian, so that gave us something to go on. We learned that his cell had three Romanian monks--himself, a novice named Dimitrios, and the elder, Elias.

Soon enough, this Fr. Dimitrios came by and was very happy to meet a couple Americans and a Greek wandering through the woods. He made quite an impression on us, as he was all smiles. As Paris put it, he was like a small child. He took us to the church to venerate the icons and we were floored by the beautiful new iconography thatcovered the entire small church. It was an absolutely gorgeous style. Apparently, a Romanian monk, a real master, had just recently completed the project. He then took us to the small trapeza (refectory), where he himself was working on the icons (see photo above). He also had a hobby of taking objects he found along the coast and making little pieces of art with them. He insisted on giving us one, but we declined because we had no way of carrying it back without ruining it.

For all the photos from the trip, click here.

More tomorrow...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Trip to the Holy Mountain

Early Saturday morning, I went with two friends--one Greek, and one new American who is studying here now--to Mt. Athos (my sixth visit). We had reservations at Vatopaidi, so we were hoping to take the boat from the east side of the peninsula and go to Vatopaidi directly (see map here). My friend Paris drove and we arrived in Ierissos around 8:00, but the boat was canceled due to the rough seas. So we drove over to Ouranoupoli, the tradional departure point, and took the boat down the west side.

God arranged it that my friend, Fr. Barnabas, an American hieromonk of Karakallou monastery, was taking the same boat with us, so we got to visit with him for the whole two-hour trip. The photo above is of Fr. Barnabas and my two friends on the boat, with Xenophontos in the background.

When we arrived in Daphni, we caught the bus up to Karyes. There, we had to wait for a bit to take the van over to Vatopaidi, so we went with Fr. Barnabas into the Protaton to venerate the wonder-working icon, Axion Estin. The picture above is of us walking into the church.

Eventually, we got into the van and headed over to Vatopaidi. Interestingly, I suppose since Vatopaidi is in a rather remote location by itself, it has a gate and guardhouse along the road about halfway there (see photo above). The old guy they had "guarding" was quite a character. First, we stopped and waited forever. Then the guy came over with a list of invited guests to the monastery and was supposed to check all the people in the van. He asked us to call out our names and he checked them. When we called out "Edwards" (the reservation was in my name), he was totally lost and confusion set in. Eventually, my Greek friend, Paris, showed him our visas. Apparently, when the monastery had radioed him with the names, he couldn't understand my foreign name, so he just didn't bother to write it down. So, anyway, very little having actually been checked or guarded, we finally resumed our journey after about 45 minutes of total confusion.

We finally arrived at Vatopaidi around 1:30 probably and got settled in our rooms. The photo above is of my two friends just outside the entrance to the monastery. At 3:00, we went to Vespers, followed immediately by a meal, followed immediately by Small Compline. During Small Compline, we venerated an amazing array of relics, including the Holy Belt of the Theotokos (the actual belt worn during the earthly life of the Virgin Mary) and the skull of St. John Chrysostom, whose left ear is still incorrupt. According to tradition, this is because the Holy Apostle Paul himself whispered the correct interpretation of his epistles into the ear of St. John Chrysostom, who then used this information in his masterful homilies. We also venerated several miraculous icons of the Panagia. After Small Compline, we took a brief tour with one of the monks. After that, we visited the bookstore, which is quite extensive, and then went to bed (around 7 PM!)

More tomorrow...

For all the photos of the trip, click here.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Celebrating St. George in Panorama

St. George the Trophy-Bearer is one of the biggest saints in Greece and also the patron of our local parish here in Panorama. His primary feast is April 23, which we celebrated this year with His Holiness Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki (yes, the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki has the special prerogative to be referred to as "His Holiness" because of the importance of his see, the second city of Byzantium).

But St. George also has a second feast on November 3, which commemorates the dedication of his temple in Lydda, Palestine (and the transfer of his relics there) during the reign of St. Constantine the Great (early 4th century).

His Holiness Metropolitan Anthimos is currently in New York City, so he sent a surrogate to represent him, His Grace Bishop Panteleimon of Theoupolis, who is retired. The feast began last night at Vespers. The protosyngellos of Thessaloniki, Fr. Ioannis, brought the relics of St. Theodora of Thessaloniki (August 29) from her church in the center to our parish here in Panorama. For a little typical taste of Greece, the car he was in with the relics was given a flashing-light police escort for the 20-30 minute ride from the center to Panorama. All the clergy waited outside the church to receive the relics and then processed into the temple.

We then waited for the arrival of His Grace to begin Vespers, which lasted from about 6:30 until 8:30. Bishop Panteleimon, having been a bishop in Australia for many years, asked that I do my litanies in English, which was nice for me!

The proistamenos of our parish, Fr. Alexios, then arranged a very nice meal for after the service. It was done by a new catering company that markets itself as using only organic foods, and it was very good.

The next morning (today), we celebrated the liturgy, again with His Grace Bishop Panteleimon, followed by a nice meal. Pelagia took some photos and a video from the balcony. My mom sent us a newer camera, as you'll immediately see, if you can compare with previous photos taken inside our church here in Panorama. Unfortunately, though, the battery ran out so the video is from the very beginning of Orthos, when the bishop first arrived. I'm the one hanging on to his coat-tails, so to speak.

God-willing, I'm heading to Mt. Athos on Saturday with two friends, returning Monday. So hopefully you'll see lots of photos on here starting next Monday.