Friday, July 31, 2009

Four Local Monasteries

Thomas and I returned around 4:00 Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning, we had Divine Liturgy here in Panorama at St. George's, and then Thomas and I went for coffee with a group from the parish. Our friend Paris was celebrating his name day (St. Paraskevi), so he was treating us all to coffee.

We had been joined, unexpectedly, that morning by an Athonite hieromonk, Fr. Niphon, from Katounakia, and he joined us for coffee, along with Prof. Dimitris Tsellingidis, a well-known theology professor who is a member of our parish. After visiting for awhile, an interesting discussion took place about the difference between ethics/morals and ethos, with the professor and Fr. Niphon discussing.

For lunch on Sunday, Fr. Alexios came to our house and blessed the babies.

That evening, I took Thomas and Ana to two of the monasteries in Panorama, the Nativity of the Theotokos and St. Makrina's.

The nuns at both places took us to venerate the churches and insisted on treating us to some juice, sweets, and conversation. Thomas and Ana brought photos from their parish in Yakima and the monastery in nearby Goldendale to show the sisters, who were interested in Orthodoxy in America.

At St. Makrina's, they even allowed us to bring out the relics of St. Makrina for Thomas and Ana to venerate.

On Monday morning, we headed toward Halkidiki to take Ana for a swim at the beach, but on the way we stopped at the monastery dedicated to her saint, St. Anastasia the Deliverer from Potions. This monastery, founded by the Byzantine empress Theophano in 888, houses the skull of St. Anastasia, which we got to venerate.

Above Thomas walks in the pathway between the church and a building of cells.

Here Ana is getting a drink from the fountain of mountain water just outside the monastery entrance.

We then drove over to the monastery of St. John the Theologian in Souroti, where we venerated the skull of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian and the grave of Elder Paisios.

Here Ana and Thomas look out from a balcony at the monastery over the land. Thessaloniki and Panorama are toward the left.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Back to the World

On Friday afternoon at Simonopetra, we had Vespers at 5:00. The chanting there is balm for the soul, and is one of the main reasons this monastery is the first one that I've now visited twice.

After Vespers, we went for dinner at the trapeza. I was honored to sit next to the abbot of the monastery, Fr. Elissaios (Elisha), and the monastery's spiritual father, Fr. Galaktion.

We were starving, and the fare was a very simple pasta with tomato sauce. I was surprised that the abbot ate only about a handful of the pasta and was then done! I later found out that Thomas and Paris and the other lay people had been given a better meal than the abbot. The abbot also insisted on pouring my water for me. These are all small things, but they made an impression on me.

After the meal, we went back to the church for Small Compline and to venerate the relics, the most famous of which is the still-warm ankle bone of St. Mary Magdalene.

After that, Fr. Athanasios told stories to the pilgrims in the arhontariki (guest house). After that, we were sitting outside, getting ready to go to bed, when we noticed Fr. Galaktion, the monastery's spiritual father, sitting outside. This man is a blessing just to be around. His face just shines, and his eyes are so clear. His is an interesting story. He must now be at least in his late 80s, but he was once a baker in the world, with 5 children. After the children had all grown, he and his wife both decided to become monastics. His wife went to the famous women's monastery at Ormylia, a dependency of Simonopetra, where their daughter became and still is abbess. One of their sons is also a monk at Simonopetra and a famous hymnographer of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. One of their daughters is married to Fr. Athanasios, a well-known priest and spiritual father at the Church of St Haralambos in downtown Thessaloniki, another dependency of Simonopetra. And this former baker, a married father of 5, is now the revered spiritual father of a whole monastery on Mt Athos.

After speaking with him for awhile, we all retired for the evening to rest for the service which would begin at 4:00 AM the next morning.

The next morning the chanting was, again, fantastic. The Divine Liturgy ended around 8:00, and then we were treated to coffee at the arhontariki. We then wandered around the monastery and relaxed until about 10:00, when the truck took the pilgrims down to the port of Daphni.

Above is a photo I took just after Liturgy of a bell outside the church, along the old wooden walkway running around the very top of the monastery.

This is the wooden walkway.

This is the church, which is located at the very top of the seven-story monastery.

Here is the top of the long covered internal hallway leading up to the church. The church is in the background.

Here is a look down that hallway.

We took a walk over to the monastery's cemetery. Here is a photo of me there, with the monastery in the background.

Just before we left, we got to meet and speak with Fr. Myron, a well-known hieromonk from the monastery and one its elders. We then headed out in the van, which dropped us off in Daphne around 10:30. We had a snack and waited there at the port until our little speed boat left at 12:00. Above Thomas is waiting in between our speed boat on the left and the regular boat on the right.

Well, that's all for this trip. I hope you enjoyed the photos!

For all the photos from the trip, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

An Epic Hike to Simonopetra

So we set off in the blazing sun toward Simonopetra. Here you see the sign pointing the way.

We took frequent breaks when we found a bit of shade, as you can see above. Michael related a helpful piece of advice that an Athonite monk had given him when they had hiked up to the top of Mt. Athos (a journey of at least 6 hours). Don't look ahead, because you'll lose hope. Don't look behind, because you'll be filled with pride at your accomplishment. Just look down and say the Jesus Prayer.

After about 1 hour and 45 minutes, we arrived and were greeted with this view.

But even after you arrive, you have to keep climbing. The monastery just keeps going up and up. Here Thomas takes a break on the last set of steps and takes a look out toward the ocean.

After we recovered with the traditional fare of water, ouzo, and Turkish Delight, Michael suggested that we walk a little bit further up to see the cave of the monastery's founder, St. Simon. Every additional step felt like a mile, but it was worth it to sit and have a view over the monastery like this one.

Baby Photo Break!

For those of you thinking: "Fr. Gregory, I don't want to be indelicate, because I like seeing the photos from the Holy Mountain and all, but WE WANT BABY PHOTOS!" -- well, here you go.

I interrupt this presentation of photos from our trip to show you what the women were doing while we were gone -- dressing up the babies! :)

Above is Benjamin.

Here is Paul and Phoebe.

From left (or top) to right, Phoebe, Benjamin, and Paul. Note that the hats in these last three photos were made by Emily Snell. Thank you Emily!

The Holy Monastery of Grigoriou

At 10:30 Friday morning, the boat stopped at Agiou Pavlou and we got on to ride up to Grigoriou.

On the way, we passed by the monastery in between the two, Dionysiou. You can see it in the background behind Thomas in the photo above.

After about a 30 minute ride, we arrived at Grigoriou, which--after all our hiking--was, happily, located right on the sea (see above).

Our plan was this: That night, was our last night on the Holy Mountain, and we had places reserved at Simonopetra, which is located one monastery further north, but way up in the mountain. My idea was to get off at Grigoriou, visit the monastery, and then walk up to Simonopetra. A good friend of mine and Paris, Michael Tishel, was also staying at Grigoriou for the summer, and we wanted to meet up with him.

Given the heat (it was the hottest day of the year so far, clocking in at 102 or so), a couple people suggested to me that this was a crazy plan. The distance between the monasteries had been estimated to me variously as anywhere between 45 minutes and 2 hours. The monks are notorious for citing what we call "monastic speed" time, which is about twice as fast as other people, so we figured it would be closer to 2 hours than 45 minutes. We had debated not going to Grigoriou and trying to find an easier way to Simonopetra (through Daphni), but ultimately we decided that we wanted to venerate the church at Grigoriou and that the Panagia would work something out for us to get to Simonopetra without collapsing.

It was worth it to stop there. The monastery is on the small side, and it has a real sense of home. We met up with Michael and went in for the traditional ouzo, Turkish delight, and water, and visited with him for awhile. Then a monk came along and took us to the church (see above). Even though normally the relics are only brought out once a day in the evening, I asked if there was some way we could venerate them before we left. They said the monk in charge would come by shortly. So we wandered around the monastery some and finally a monk brought out the relics for us. I can't remember all the treasures we venerated, but one I remember was St Euphemia, who was being celebrated that very day. I believe also it was there that we venerated the skull of St. Panteleimon.

Even though it was around 1:00 by the time we were ready to leave (and therefore quite hot), we decided to make the hike up the mountain to Simonopetra. Michael, who had done that hike several times, volunteered to come with us and stay for Vespers there and then return by himself. He even volunteered to carry the bag of the poor guy wearing the black dress. :) May the Lord bless him!

The chapel dedicated to St. Anastasia the Roman, whose relics we also venerated.

The courtyard of Grigoriou, with the church in the background. Thomas and Paris are talking to another pilgrim over on the right.

The entrance to the monastery.

An alley between the church (on the left) and some cells (on the right).

The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (St. Paul's)

If I remember correctly, it was about an hour's walk from New Skete over to Agiou Pavlou. Above you can see Thomas and me as we approach the monastery (in the background).

When we arrived at the monastery, we rested for a bit and wandered around exploring (see photos below). We were introduced to the monastery's American monk, Fr. Ignatios, whole tus some stories and history from the monastery. We had Vespers around 5:00, followed by dinner. After dinner, we went over to the bookstore and looked around. I also got to speak with the monastery's British monk, Fr. Evdokimos, the brother of Fr. John Behr, dean of St. Vladimir's. Finally, we headed back to the church for Small Compline, at which time we were blessed to venerate the relics, which included, most famously, pieces of the gifts that the magi offered to Christ when He was born.

Later, we tried to write down a list of all the relics we had venerated at all our stops, but I don't think we remembered them all. Thomas has the list, but here we venerated large relics of each of the Three Hierarchs and St. Andrew the First-Called, among many others.

In the morning, the services (concluding with the Divine Liturgy) went from 3:30 to about 8:00, after which we had a small breakfast in the trapeza.

At about 9:30, the monastery took the pilgrims on a truck down to the dock, where we waited to catch a boat up north to Grigoriou.

Above are Paris and Thomas just outside the entrance to the monastery.

Above Paris is wandering around the narthex of the main church. It looks relatively new, and still lacks icons, because of a fire that burnt down the old one about 100 years ago.

Above you can see Thomas in the foreground and the main church in the background. Behind that, you can see the high walls that fortify the monastery from the upper side.

Here you can see the main church and the covered entrance leading across to the trapeza (refectory). We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the church is actually air conditioned!

New Skete and the Grave of Elder Joseph the Hesychast

On Thursday morning, we celebrated the Divine Liturgy at St. Anne's and then sat outside in the courtyard and had a coffee with a monk from one of the skete's cells, a monk who has been there for 30 years.

After coffee and a little artoklasia, we decided to head out for our next destination while it was still early and the weather was relatively cool.

So we headed off north/west, in the opposite direction from Little St. Anne's, over to our destination for the second night, the Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou. On the way, though, we had the idea to stop by New Skete, which is about halfway between the two.

We made it to New Skete in about 45 minutes, if I remember correctly, (see above of us walking that path) and made our way to the main church. On the way, we stopped and asked for directions from the elder of one cell, who asked about us and talked to me awhile about my dissertation, suggesting a couple useful books. We then tried to stop by the cell of another friend of Paris, but no one was in.

Finally we found the church and just as we came a monk was leaving. He let us into the church, which is dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God, and let us venerate (see above).

He then asked about us and it turns out that the elder of his cell, Fr. Nikon, is a spiritual child of Elder Ephraim from America, and he has been to the US several times. He insisted that we go to Elder Nikon's cell and have a coffee, so we went.

Visiting with this elder was one of the highlights of the trip for me. He was so full of joy, so lively, so interested in everything--we discussed books, movies (including Ostrov and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which he loved), theology.

I don't think their little cell has a priest, so the custom on Athos is to invite priests to come serve the Liturgy in their cells. I was honored that they invited me to come back and stay with them some time and serve the Liturgy for them. I really hope to see them again.

Above you can see us standing with the elder on the steps to his cell, and the monk who had met us in the church, Fr. Dositheos, takes our picture.

After leaving him, we then made our way over to the tomb of Elder Joseph the Heyschast (see above).

We venerated the grave of the soon-to-be saint and asked his prayers (see above).

Refreshed by the experience at New Skete, we then headed out again into the increasingly hot sun and made our way to Agiou Pavlou.

For all the photos from the trip, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Wednesday Evening at St. Anne's

The sun was setting as we walked back from Little St. Anne's to St. Anne's, and we stopped again at the cross to admire it, as you can see Thomas doing above.

Here the sun is setting behind St. Anne's as we approached.

Here Thomas and Paris take a rest in the courtyard outside the main church after we got back.

After we rested for a few minutes, the pilgrims decided to say the Salutations to the Mother of God before an icon of her as child in the arms of her mother, St. Anne (see above). There were probably about 10 or 12 of us, and we did about half of it in English.

Of course, I can't forget to mention that we venerated the skete's treasure, the left foot of St. Anne!

Monday, July 27, 2009

St. Anne's Skete and Little St. Anne's

So after getting off the boat at 9:30, we finally made it to St. Anne's Skete at around 1:00 on Wednesday. You can see Thomas and Paris climbing the last few steps in the photo at top.

When we arrived, we were treated to the traditional ouzo, loukoumi (Turkish Delight), and water, and enjoyed sitting in the shade with a little breeze, as you can see in the photo above. With all our visits that day, I think we had ouzo about 4 times (although it's kind of a blur). :)

After we rested a bit, we decided to take short walk over to see the cave of St. Gerasimos of Kefalonia. Then, summoning all our energy in the face of heat around 100, we decided to walk over to Little St. Anne's, because Paris' friend had told him that they were celebrating a festal Vespers for the founders of their skete, Sts. Dionysios and Mitrophan.

Above you can see Paris standing just outside the entrance to St. Anne's Skete, as we are preparing to leave.

Here Thomas is looking out over the cliff we were walking along on the southern tip of the Holy Mountain as we headed to Little St. Anne's.

Here a cross marks the southern tip of the Holy Mountain, a point we passed about halfway between the two sketes named for St. Anne.

When we arrived, Vespers had already started, but we caught the last 1.5 hours. There were three bishops serving, the Metropolitans of Veria, Drama, and Xanthi. Afterwards, around 6:30 or 7:00, we went to eat a fantastic feast that the monks had prepared. When we had first arrived, I sort of stumbled into the kitchen looking for some water and I saw the monks preparing the feast. They had enormous metal pans, 4-5 feet in diameter, filled with octopus, rice, and snails.

It was a great meal--a real feast--that was enjoyed by probably 100 guests. At the end, the monks, bishops, and guests broke out in song.

It was quite a memorable experience, and we felt blessed to be able to attend. Finally, after 8:00, we headed back to St. Anne's.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Trip to the Holy Mountain

Early Wednesday morning (5:00 AM), Thomas, my friend Paris, and I left Panorama and headed toward Ouranoupolis to go to the Holy Mountain. This was my eighth trip, and the first for Thomas. We arrived there around 7:00 or shortly before, quickly arranged our paperwork, and then sat down for a coffee and a spanakopita as we waited for our boat.

At 8:00, we got on the little speed boat and headed to our first destination for the evening, St. Anne's Skete. The boat stopped briefly at the Holy Mountain's main port of Daphni, and then headed down to the southern tip of the Holy Mountain, where we arrived around 9:30.

This was my trip to this part of the Holy Mountain, which is generally regarded as the most ascetic part of the Holy Mountain. There are very few roads down here, so donkeys--as you can see from the photos above--are still widely used to transport goods from the small dock up to the cells and sketes.

In the first photo, we had to stop and wait for the dust to settle as one of the donkeys rolled around for awhile.

St. Anne's Skete is a hike of about an hour or so up the hill. After about 20 minutes or so, we came to a cell in which an old friend of Paris' lived, Fr. Michael. Paris knew Fr. Michael from their time in the army together, before he became a monk.

He was very happy to see Paris, and welcomed us warmly, despite the fact that they had just completed a vigil at Little St. Anne's Skete in celebration of the skete's founders, Sts Dionysios and Mitrophan.

We visited with him, another priest, and a German convert monk for over an hour, and then resumed our hot journey up the mountain. The days we were there were sunny with average highs around 100. In the photo above, you can see Thomas standing the shaded courtyard of the cell, and the cell's donkey waiting outside. In the photo below, you can see Thomas and Paris with Fr. Michael at the door to his cell.

Before we left, we were fortunate to take the blessing of Fr. Prodromos, the abbot of Megisti (Great) Lavra, hierarchically the first monastery on the Holy Mountain and by extension in the Orthodox world. He was visiting the monks at that cell after the vigil at Little St. Anne's.

The next stop on the journey, another 10 minutes or so up the mountain, was to the cell of Papa Ioannis. You can see us approaching the gate in the photo at the bottom. This elderly priest-monk is one of the most famous elders on the Holy Mountain today. As Paris tells it, half the people think he's a saint, and the other half think he's crazy. He told us himself that he was crazy, but the fact is that over 7000 people have visited him just since Pascha.

Paris tells a story of his friend who went to see Papa Ioannis, and the old monk wouldn't let him in. He stuck his head out his window and told him to go away, he didn't want to see him. But Paris' friend argued and pleaded with him and wouldn't leave. Eventually the monk started throwing things at the guy, telling him to leave, but still his friend wouldn't go. He was resolute to take the old man's blessing and hear some word of wisdom. Finally, after about an hour, according to the story, Papa Ioannis cracked a smile and let the guy in.

We didn't have to go through all that. When we pulled on the rope to ring the bell inside the house, a young guy came to the window to see what we wanted. He told us to wait and ducked back inside. We waited about 15 minutes or so and eventually Papa Ioannis came out, escorting a couple other visitors out.

By this time it was almost noon, and he had been seeing people since 9:00, so I think we were the last visitors he would receive for the morning. He brought us inside the gate and we spoke to him for about 5 or 10 minutes or so and took his blessing.

Then we were off for the final push up the hill to St. Anne's.