Thursday, September 30, 2010

From the Archives

Here's something out of the archives -- from January of this year. The teacher gave me some photos of my visit this past Sunday, so I'm re-posting the entry along with one of the photo of me and the kids. See text from January below:

On Sunday, after Liturgy here in Panorama, one of the public school teachers from the elementary school asked me to come by her class and give the kids a talk about missionary work in the U.S. So I went this morning at 10:00 to Panorama's public elementary school and spoke for 40 minutes to a class of about 20 kids, who must have been about 8 years old.

First, I have to set this up, as it is quite amazing for me as an American, even after living here over 3 years. First, the class had gone to Liturgy that morning, and had just returned when I arrived. The Three Hierarchs (whose feast is celebrated Jan 30) are the patrons of education, and for this reason the tradition is for all kids to go to Liturgy on their feast. Since this year it falls on a Saturday, the kids went today instead.

So the teacher met me at the front of the school and we went to the classroom. On the way, I asked about the make-up of the class. She told me most of the kids were Orthodox, although one child was a Jehovah's Witness (yes, unfortunately, they're even here) and one, the poor soul, his parents had declared him as an atheist. So, in accordance with the law (I suppose), the teacher said to him that he could go join another class, since we were going to have religious instruction. He left, but the rest stayed, including the Jehovah's Witness.

The first thing I noticed about the classroom was a big icon of Christ hanging square above the blackboard. We had a nice discussion about the U.S., the religious composition there, and how some people are finding Orthodoxy and converting to it. One little girl gave me a nice drawing of a priest performing a baptism inside a church and wrote on it that they love me and want me to come back. They then all took my blessing and I left.

Before I left, though, the teacher took a photo of all of us together for their yearbook.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Babies Meet Some American Cows

On Saturday, we took the babies down to the American Farm School in nearby Thermi to visit a recent graduate of the Religion Department at Florida State University (where I did my Master's), who just arrived for a one-year internship at the school. We were put in touch by my old professors there and I wanted to welcome her to Greece.

As it happened, they were holding an exhibition of eco-friendly modes of transportation, and one of the items on display was the Segway, which they kindly allowed us to take for a "test drive." In the photo above, you can see Pelagia "zooming" down the road (the speed had been capped at 10 km/hr). You can see the school's church to the right.

In the photo below, Pelagia's getting the feel for the scooter. There are no buttons or pedals. You accelerate by leaning forward and brake by leaning back.

The parents of the 4-year-old triplets who live in our building gave us this triple-decker stroller this past week, so we tried it out here. Each stroller is independent, but they can also be linked together. Unfortunately, there is no sidewalk in all of Greece that could handle a stroller this wide.

We then took the babies on a little tour of the Farm School. The highlight was visiting the cows. In the photo above, you can see our American friend, Ashley, along with me, the babies, and the cows.

Another shot with the cows. The cows seemed very interested in the babies and were quite friendly. One of them licked Benjamin with its long tongue. We then went to see the baby cows, and one of them sucked on Paul's hand; he wasn't quite sure what to make of that. But the babies liked the cows and learned how to go "moo."

For a few more photos, click here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Around the Parish

On the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), one of the ladies of our parish prepared, as she always does, a beautiful flower arrangement around an heirloom piece, a 200-year-old hand cross that was one of the few material possessions brought here by the Greek refugees during the Asia Minor Catastrophe.

Two days later, on September 16, I went with Fr. Alexios and a small group from the parish to the small monastery dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Savior (August 6), which was founded by Elder Ioannikios from Mt. Athos and his small brotherhood. The monastery is located just outside the village of Sohos, about one hour from Thessaloniki. Elder Ioannikios is a well-known spiritual writer, most famous for his series of books focusing on particular themes in the Philokalia. We went there to ask him to come speak to our parish, which he kindly agreed to do. He will give a talk on Monday evening, October 11. (In Greece, it is common for spiritual talks to be held in the evenings during the week.) Below is a photo of the entrance to the monastery. Above is a close-up of the mosaic of St. John the Baptist located there.

As it so happens, there is another monastery practically next door to Elder Ioannikios' monastery. This one, by contrast, is huge, and is a women's monastery dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God (September 8). It is a dependency of the Monastery of Dochiariou on Mt. Athos. As you can see from the photo above, it is relatively new and still under a great deal of construction. We stopped there briefly to venerate inside the large katholikon (central church), which very much resembles a traditional Athonite katholikon.

It is traditional in Greece, at the start of the ecclesiastical and academic years, to have a prayer service for the Blessing of the Waters (Agiasmo), which asks God's blessing on our various human endeavors. Inasmuch as this is still Greece, which is not (yet) completely secularized, this tradition extends to the public sphere. So on Monday, for example, we had three such services -- one for the blessing of the Panorama police force's new vehicle, one for the beginning of the year for the state-run day care facility, and one for the start of the season for the municipality's youth soccer program.

On Monday, I was fortunate that my friend Ivan, a great Byzantine chanter, came from Serbia on his way to Mt. Athos, so I had him to help me during the service in the evening up at the soccer field near my house. In the photo above, Ivan and I are speaking with the president of the soccer club before the start of the service.

Below you see the team of the youngest kids along with the mayor during the service.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Babies Update!

It's been awhile since there have been some photos of the babies, so here we go. The photos immediately above and below are from September 8. In the photo above, the babies are playing at the front of our parish church dedicated to St. George here in Panorama, just after the Divine Liturgy in celebration of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God. The babies communed and then we took them to go play in the park (see below).

Unfortunately, some punk kids practice their graffiti skills (in preparation for university) here at the local park. But otherwise it's nice to have two such parks just here in our little section of Panorama. Above, Phoebe heads down the slide and Paul walks around.

Here's Benjamin walking in front of the slide, on his way to some important business, it looks like.

A friend of ours from the church also came by with her 2-year-old granddaughter, and the babies had a conference underneath the jungle gym.

Here's a photo from two days later, on September 10. This one was taken inside a local grocery store called "AB." At the entrance they have a life-sized horse replica that the boys are riding here. Of course, Phoebe also got a turn.

Two days after that, on September 12, we went with Paul's godfather, Paris, for a visit to the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, which is located near the village of Souroti, about 20 minutes from our house. It is most famous as the resting place of Elder Paisios. Because the monastery has so very many people stopping in to venerate the elder, the monastery is divided into a public part and a private part, so that the nuns can have some peace and quiet occasionally. This private part, which includes the monastery's original church dedicated to St. John the Theologian, are, obviously, usually closed, but occasionally they are opened. When we went that day, it was open, so we took the babies for a walk back there in order to venerate inside the church to St. John (see above and below).

Here we are just outside the church in a little grove of olive trees.

Here Phoebe is walking back to the nuns' cells.

Here are Paris and Paul next to the grave of Elder Paisios, where a line waits to venerate.

These photos are from September 16, when our friend Angela, her two daughters, and her godson came to visit us here at the house. Pelagia recruited them to help with the yard project, which now consists of clearing the small central patch of land so that we can plant grass for the babies to play on. On this day, the task was to remove an old tree, which they had just accomplished here. In its place, Paul and Phoebe decided to plant themselves.

Paul sitting in the hole.

Here's Benjamin taking a break from all the work to give our dog, Argos, a pet.

And here's Benjamin climbing up the stairs from our yard to our back porch.

For a few more photos click here and here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

My Last Hours in Russia

We headed back to the hotel around 2:00. It was pouring rain and we were quite tired, so we rested until about 5:00. Since that afternoon was really the only free time we had in Moscow, I was hoping it would stop raining by then, but no such luck.

I tried to get someone to go out with me, but I couldn't find anyone who was game for an adventure in the rain, so I set out on my own. It was about a 5- or 10-minute walk from the hotel to the nearest subway stop. From there, I managed to make my way to a central hub, where I switched lines and finally ended up at a stop just across the street from the famous Christ the Savior Cathedral (see photo above).

There was a security station with metal detector at the entrance, but once I cleared that, I went inside for part of the Saturday night Vigil service. The church actually seemed considerably smaller than I had anticipated, since I was under the impression that it was comparable to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople or St. Sava's in Belgrade. Perhaps this is because of the way it is divided up on the inside, with several wings, like St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

I wanted to check out the famous ecclesiastical store Sofrino, and perhaps get a Russian-style priest's hat, so I headed out of the cathedral to look for the store, which I had been told was nearby. I eventually found it but unfortunately it had just closed. The rain had let up a good bit by then, so I decided I wanted to see Red Square, which wasn't too far away. I walked past Lenin's Mausoleum (see above) and tried to sneak a peak inside, but that too had just closed. There was something about the large corporate "SAMSUNG" building and sign looming over Lenin's Mausoleum that I found ironic.

From the south, I made my way north along the western wall of the Kremlin (see above), passing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I then made my way around to Red Square, which lies just outside the eastern wall of the Kremlin. At the top of the Square, I saw the gate (above) at which they had just finished the ceremony of re-dedicating an icon. You can see the scaffolding and green mesh around the icon, which sits just above the door. Large stands had been erected in the middle of Red Square for the event, so I didn't get as much of a sense of its size. It also struck me as smaller than I expected.

I walked through Red Square to its southern end, which is marked by the colorful St. Basil's Cathedral (see above). I walked through the area for awhile, which is now quite commercial and upscale, and even saw a "TexMex" restaurant just off Red Square. This reminded me of the "Indiana Tex Mex" restaurant Pelagia and I had seen in Paris -- obviously, these were both catering to American tourists like myself, of which there seemed to be plenty.

It was getting late, so I then found the nearest subway stop and headed back to the hotel. The escalators down to the subway seemed to go on for miles (see photo above), and I wouldn't say it was the most tourist-friendly experience. Very little was in English so I was struggling to make out the Cyrillic letters. Nevertheless, I found some people who were happy to help a priest, and I made my way back to the hotel without incident.

The next morning, Sunday, a Russian girl who studies theology in Thessaloniki and was helping the group throughout our trip, Alevtina, arranged for us to attend services at a church dedicated to St. Antipas, a parish in Moscow at which her father was the rector.

As, it seemed, in most of Russia, Sunday Liturgy started at 10:00 (much later than Greek practice), so we had plenty of time to get to church in the morning. I needed to be at the airport at 1:00 for my 3:00 flight back to Thessaloniki (whereas the others' flight to the UK wasn't until 6:30 or so), so I brought my luggage with me to the church.

Metropolitan Kallistos did not serve, but Fr. Andrew and I did, and I was asked to say a few parts of the Liturgy in English. The smallish church was packed, most notably with lots of young people in their 20s and 30s.

After Communion, I had to say my goodbyes in order to make it to the airport in time. A subdeacon drove me to a metro stop where I caught an express train to the airport that got me there just before 1:00.

On the platform, the subdeacon found a young Russian woman waiting for the doors to open, and asked her to look out for me and make sure I got to the right place at the airport. She spoke English and we had an interesting conversation on the ride, which took about 45 minutes. It turned out that she worked in the travel industry in Egypt, but the most interesting thing from my perspective was that she had converted to Mormonism in her home town in Russia.

I don't know how common this is, but I'm sure she's not a unique case. Many well-funded groups made their way to Russia as soon as communism crumbled. The Mormons are one of the few missionary groups operating here in Greece, but I don't think they've had much success here.

Anyway, I made it to the airport with a safe cushion of time, only to discover that my flight had been delayed 4 hours!! So I settled in for a long wait in the airport. After two hours or so, I ran into Metropolitan Kallistos and Fr. Andrew, and I passed nearly an hour with them before saying goodbye again. With nothing else to do, I decided to go get in line to check in. Even though it was 3.5 hours before take-off, there was already a very long line, just like the one I had endured in Thessaloniki on the way here. This seems to be a calling card of this particular Russian airline, AVIA-VIM, which I would not recommend to anyone. We had the same chaos of people cutting in line, forming alternate lines, etc.

I finally checked in and had a chance to say goodbye to everyone else in the group as their 6:30 flight actually left before mine. After watching them board, I headed to my gate, where we got on the plane, and then discovered that there was an electronic problem. We waited on the runway for an hour and a half while they fixed it, and then finally headed out, 5.5 hours late. I arrived back in Thessaloniki, safe and sound, around 11:00 PM Sunday night.

And thus ends my trip to Russia. Now I promise to work on posting some photos of the babies!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Russia, Day 10: Liturgy with the Patriarch in the Moscow Kremlin

On Saturday morning, the clergy met in the hotel lobby at 8:00, at which time we were taken in two cars to the Moscow Kremlin, a place I had always heard about as a child growing up at the end of the Cold War. Besides acting as the seat of government and the official residence of the Russian president, the Kremlin also contains four historic cathedrals and numerous smaller churches.

Due to security, however, these churches are not used as regular parishes, but rather are used only for special occasions. On those occasions, everyone, including any laity who want to attend, must have a special pass to enter the Kremlin complex.

There was little traffic that early on Saturday morning, so we got there quickly and were waved through security. In the photo above, we got out of the car and walked to the historic Dormition Cathedral, where we would celebrate the Divine Liturgy for thefeast of the Dormition (Old Calendar) with the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.

Here we are inside the altar during Orthros, before the Patriarch arrived. All together, 18 priests were invited to serve, along with at least 6 deacons, and a total of 7 bishops, including the Patriarch. The first protodeacon was a married man in his 80s who was still quite energetic. He told me that he's been a deacon for 60 years (!) and traveled with Patriarchs Pimen and Alexy II to the U.S. many times.

Shortly before 9:00, I think, we went outside to wait for the arrival of the Patriarch. Here I am in the Russian-style vestments they loaned me.

The Patriarch arrived in a long black limousine around 9:00, surrounded by bodyguards who follow him everywhere, including inside the church. Some of these photographs are from the many professional photographers covering the event. Seehere for more.

This is probably my favorite photograph. Yours truly is on the right. Unfortunately, Fr. Andrew and I didn't have the cool Russian hats.

A view from the back of the church.

Inside the altar. This photograph was taken by a professional, but he must have been standing directly behind me, because this is where I was standing. The issue of where each of the priests stood was a somewhat humorous one. The Russian priests were, from my Greek-influenced perspective, absolutely obsessed with where each one would stand. I suppose that, since we had seven bishops, there was little else for them to do. Compared to Greek practice, the whole affair was quite militaristic, with lots of lining up and marching from here to there without any immediately apparent purpose.

All the bishops behind the altar. Metropolitan Kallistos was given the second position, after only the Patriarch.

The Patriarch during the proskomide.

One of the priests serving with us was Starets Ilia of Optina (above), the Patriarch's spiritual father, whom the Patriarch has kept close to him since he became Patriarch.

Here's a photo featuring my hand. ;)

The iconography from the cathedral was incredible and surprisingly well preserved considering the fact that the church was in disuse for so many years during the Soviet period.

Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Kallistos at the end of the Divine Liturgy. After the Liturgy, which went from 9:30 until almost 12:30, we went outside to bless the four sides of the church with holy water. The Patriarch ended the service by saying a few words about the feast, which were widely played on the national news that day.

After the Liturgy, the clergy were invited to a private lunch inside the Kremlin with the Patriarch. This was one of the most extravagant meals I've ever been to. We each had 5 or 6 forks and 5 or 6 knives and I don't know how many courses, including salads, soup, a fish plate, a sausage plate, a beef plate, etc. The table was also full of top-grade vodka, wine, caviar, smoked meats, and smoked fish (which were particularly delicious). It was so much food that it got to the point where I would just take one bite of the latest plate and then wait for them to take it away. Our Russian tour guide, who works for the Patriarchate, described this as just an "average" feast. Yikes!

The meal was full of lots of toasts from the various clergy in attendance, and it concluded with Metropolitan Kirill speaking. Unfortunately, Fr. Andrew and I didn't have a translator next to us so I don't know what he was talking about. In the photo above, the Patriarch is presenting Metropolitan Kallistos with a present. He also gave us a little something.

Metropolitan Kallistos (and, by extension, we) were invited to stay and attend the re-dedication of an icon over one of the gates of the Kremlin. It was a major event, with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin to attend, but Metropolitan Kallistos declined and we went back to the hotel for a much-needed rest. Apparently, these icons over the gates had been taken down by the Soviets, and they are now being slowly restored.

It has started raining toward the end of the Liturgy, as you can tell in the photo above. This photo inside the Kremlin was taken as we waited for the car to take us back to the hotel.

For more of my photos from the day, click here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Russia, Day 9: Moscow

At about 9:00 AM Friday, we left the Danilovsky Hotel and headed to the famous Tretyakov Gallery. The photo above of the Danilovsky Monastery was taken just outside our hotel as we got on the bus.

Before heading into the gallery proper, we stopped first at the 17th century church dedicated to St. Nicholas to venerate the extremely famous Vladimir icon of the Mother of God (see photos above and below). According to tradition, this is one of the few surviving icons painted by the Apostle Luke himself. Of course, according to the scientists, it dates from about the 12th century.

It is interesting that this church is now technically part of the museum -- this seems to have been a compromise solution so that the beloved icon can be both part of the museum and available for veneration and liturgical use. This, unfortunately, is a common problem in Russia (which we would encounter shortly with the Rublev icon of the Trinity, which is still inside the museum), since so many churches and their treasures were made into museum and museum pieces by the Soviets -- artifacts of some distant past.

In the photo above, the parish rector was telling us that, despite its unique status, the church is a functioning parish with about 500 people, and that typically weekend services have 50-100 people.

He also told us one story about the Vladimir icon (above), which is viewed by Russians as the protectress of Moscow. In the winter of 1941, as the Germans were approaching Moscow, the Soviets (yes, the Soviets!) took the icon up in a plane and flew it in circles around the city. A couple days later, one of the worst cold fronts in history struck. Grandmothers who are still alive today remember that when they went to take water from the river, it froze in their pails as they walked back home. This cold front halted the German advance and saved the city.

We also had the chance to venerate, in the same church, one of the oldest Great Friday crosses in the Russian church, dating from the 14th century.

Afterwards, we headed to the gallery, where we had plenty of time to leisurely explore and enjoy the museum. I'm happy to note that, even though it's a public museum, the clergy were admitted for free. :)

The display began with some fine mosaics, dating from the early 12th century in Kiev (before the rise of Moscow). We then moved on to a room with 12th and 13th century iconography from Novgorod, which was in a wonderful style, not so different (at least to my untrained eyes) from the contemporary iconography here in Greece.

There was simply too much to recount here, but suffice it to say, I found the exhibit very moving, especially the Rublev Trinity, which is truly a masterpiece. One is conflicted, though, because the instinct is to venerate these wonderful icons, but unfortunately it is not allowed inside the gallery proper. From what I understood, the Church is attempting to get these works back inside a liturgical atmosphere, but museum officials are reluctant because they believe the church will not take proper care of them.

After the Tretyakov Gallery, we took the bus to Donskoy Monastery, which was founded in the 16th century. There we venerated a 16th century copy of the Panagia Donskoy icon, the original of which we saw earlier that morning in the Tretyakov Gallery. We were also blessed to venerate the complete relics of St. Patriach Tikhon, known as an Enlightener of North America. In the photo above, the bishop greets Metropolitan Kallistos and the two of them then lead prayers of supplication before the icon (to the right) and the relics of St. Tikhon (to the left).

We were then given a tour of the sprawling monastery, which has less than 10 monks. The photos above and below are of the interior and exterior of the "Great" or "New" Cathedral:

The Great or New Cathedral was begun in 1684 on the orders of Tsarina Sofia, Peter the Great's half-sister and regent for the early years of his reign. The cathedral has some unusual features which can be attributed to the fact that its builders were masons and artisans brought from Ukraine. According to Ukranian custom, the five domes of the cathedral are positioned to represent the four corners of the earth, a design which scandalized Old Believers, who gave it the name "The Antichrist's Altar". The impressive eight-tiered iconostasis was carved between 1688 and 1698, and centers on a sixteenth century copy of Lady of the Don. The frescoes in the cathedral were painted by Italian Antonio Claudio between 1782 and 1785, making them the first church paintings in Moscow to be executed by a foreigner.

During the tour, Metropolitan Kallistos was stopped (as he often was on our trip) and asked to give an interview to a local news outlet.

The monastery has extensive cemetery grounds and a cemetery chapel, which were funded by the many aristocratic families buried there. The photo above is of one of the new graves there, that of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

The monastery's walls.

Our final stop on the tour was the residence of St. Patriarch Tikhon, a small apartment inside the monastery in which he stayed when he was imprisoned there by the Soviets in 1922, and where he continued to live until his repose in 1925. The apartment now serves as a sort of museum of photographs and personal belongings of the saint. The above photo is a view of the cathedral from a balcony near his apartment.

The bus then took us back to the hotel for a short rest before we headed to the Moscow church dedicated to the icon of the Mother of God called "The Joy of All the Afflicted." The above photo of Danilovsky Monastery was again taken as we got on the bus outside our hotel. I thought the clouds were particularly striking.

We arrived at the "The Joy of All the Afflicted" church at 6:00 PM to celebrate the Vigil for the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God with Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) (see photo above). I was blessed to be able to participate in the service, which included Holy Unction and Artoklasia, and which ended about 8:30.

I was also able to meet and speak briefly with Fr. Gabriel Bunge, who at that very service was received into the Orthodox Church. In the altar, he was clearly almost beside himself with joy. He told me that this day was the culmination of a 50-year journey into Orthodoxy, a journey which began when he was a 21-year-old student visiting Greece for the first time.

At the end of the service, Metropolitan Hilarion presented Metropolitan Kallistos with a blue mitre, and Fr. Gabriel with an icon of the parish's "Joy of All the Afflicted."

Interestingly, I'll note here that Fr. Gabriel, an Eastern Rite catholic monk, was received into the Orthodox Church, as a monk and priest, simply with a confession of faith and concelebration.

Above is a photo of the outside of the church. Afterwards, the two bishops and Fr. Gabriel went for dinner, while the rest of us headed back to the hotel.

That evening, many of our group gathered in the hotel lounge and sang traditional English songs. Fr. Romilo and I stopped by briefly before retiring for the evening.

For more photos from the day, click here.