Monday, May 18, 2015

Conference in Athens

I recently had the chance to go down to Athens for a fascinating conference on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care, which basically examined if and how the Orthodox Church should use the new digital media.

On evening I was there, the organizers (mainly Pemptousia) took us out to dinner along the seaside. It was a chance for me to visit with my fellow American, Fr. Patrick O'Grady (right), as well as Prof. Jean-Claude Larchet (left).

The next morning, I attended a seminar put on by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies. Thanks to the Farah Foundation, an Orthodox philanthropical institute, the Volos Academy puts on an annual lecture and seminar series. This year's speaker was Prof. Richard Swinburne, who is most famous as being the counterpart to New Atheism's Richard Dawkins in the public debate about the existence of God. Swinburne, a convert to Orthodoxy, spoke in Athens and Volos on the existence of God and the problem of evil (theodicy). I was fortunate to be able to host him in Portaria and we had a lovely conversation for several hours as we walked from Portaria to Makrinitsa.

Swinburne's visit to Greece came as a counterpoint to the recent visit of Richard Dawkins, who spoke in Athens at the presentation of the translation of one of his books into Greek.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

May Day at Panagia Xenia and Amaliapoli

As you may know, May 1 is a holiday in Europe, celebrating workers' rights. In Greece, it is also connected with an ancient Greek (pagan) custom of going out into the countryside at the start of spring to collect flowers and weave a wreath. This is the one holiday in Greece that has no connection with the Church.

In any event, schools are closed, so we decided to take a trip with the kids to the Monastery of (Lower) Panagia Xenia. There, we met with the Gerontissa and were able to venerate one of the monastery's most treasured relics, two small pieces from the Holy Belt of the Theotokos. According to the inscription on the reliquary, they were given to the monastery by Vatopaidi Monastery of Mt. Athos in 1552. The Gerontissa told us that they say the belt is made from camel hair, and you can see where it was embroidered and protected with gold and silver thread during the Byzantine period.

For the kids, perhaps even more exciting were the monastery's deer (above) and quail (below).

Here's Dami looking at the quail. 

And here's the entrance to the monastery.

After our visit to the monastery, we headed over to Amaliapoli, a picturesque town on the shore. We tried to find a place to eat, but the town was hopping for the holiday. Nevertheless, the kids had a good time sticking their feet in the ocean, playing at the playground, and--especially--playing with a snail they found in front of the church.

Here they are with the snail.

The church, dedicated to the Transfiguration, is built on a slope overlooking the ocean.

The kids also found some turtles -- including baby turtles -- that were being cared for, it seems, by one of the restaurants.

And here they are playing in the water on a very nice, warm day.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mt. Athos, Part 2: Hike to the Top of Mt. Athos

On our first full day at the cell, we decided to hike up to the peak of Mt. Athos, which stands at 2033 meters (6670 feet). It turns out Kerasia is the best starting point for this hike, so it was a great opportunity. My friend Iakovos went about an hour up with us, to make sure we found the right trail. We also went with two older gentlemen who were also visiting the cell.

Here I am with Iakovos during a brief stop.

We left the cell (500 meters) at 8:00 AM and reached the refuge, called Panagia (1500 meters) at 11:00 AM. The refuge has about 15-20 bunk beds in a single hall, along with a rudimentary kitchen and a chapel. We stopped to take our photo at the cross marking the spot, and then took a rest in the kitchen and filled up on fluids and bread. 

We also went into the chapel, prayed a petition and sang some apolytikia.

Then we set out again to conquer the last 500 meters, and reach the chapel at the peak, dedicated to the Transfiguration.

As you can see from the photos, the last 300 meters or so had quite a bit of snow. The wind was also quite strong, making it cold up there.

I hadn't expected to climb to the top and I didn't have good shoes, so I actually stopped about 200 meters short of the peak, when it became clear that the semblance of a trail was impassable due to snow and ice. Three of the other four decided to scramble up the rocks to the top, while I went back down to the refuge with the other man.

I headed back down to the cell at about 1:15 and reached there around 4:00. The others came back around 5:00.

The next day, boy, were we sore! So we spent the day reading, relaxing, and talking with Fr. Theologos about St. Paisios.

We also went up to a neighboring cell dedicated to St. George. There are only a few other cells in Kerasia, and it seems that most of them are "zealots" (i.e., "Old Calendarists"). This was also the case with the large cell of St. George, which has about 10 monks. Ironically, they themselves are split now into two groups. But they were very kind to us during our visit, and they showed me their woodworking workshop, where they make incredible ecclesiastical products. They gave me a CD with photos of all their work. When I get time, I'll post some photos. Really, it's some of the best work I've ever seen.

A photo of the church at St. George's from the backside.

And here's a photo of me as we hiked up to St. George's. What you see in the background is the Cell of St. John the Theologian, where we stayed.

For more photos from the pilgrimage, click here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mt Athos, Part 1: Kerasia

I recently had the unexpected chance to go to Mt Athos with my chanter and good friend Nikos, as well as another mutual friend, Apostolis. As is wont to happen, the plan changed drastically, and we ended up spending the whole time with my friend Iakovos, an American convert who studied in Thessaloniki with me and who now is a novice at the cell of St. John the Theologian in Kerasia, one of the most remote and ascetic parts of Mt. Athos.

The cell's elder, Fr. Theologos, kindly sent Iakovos down to get us from the port, along with three mules. It's about a 1.5-2 hour hike straight up from the port (see above) to Kerasia, which is at about 500 meters.

Here I am on my donkey.

And here is the donkey behind me, carrying our bags.

About halfway up, we made a stop in the shade so that Iakovos could disappear into the woods and say "Christ is risen!" to an old Russian ascetic who lives in a shack somewhere hidden in the forest. The purpose was also to check up on him and make sure he was okay.

A bit further up, Iakovos pointed out a small green shack hidden in the forest. This was another ascetic's home.

Finally, we reached the cell. We sat on the balcony and enjoyed the traditional Athonite greeting of water, tsipouro (distilled alcohol), and loukoumi ("Turkish delight").

Here are some more photos from the scenic balcony.

Fr. Theologos studied architecture in Paris before becoming a monk, and still works designing churches. His spiritual father, St. Paisios, recommended that he help Archbishop Anastasios of Albania with missionary work, so he spent 10 years as a missionary in Congo-Brazzaville and another 10 years in Albania.

On our final evening with him, we finally managed to get him to sit down with us and tell us stories about his experiences with the newly canonized St. Paisios.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Around Portaria

Not far from our house, we have a chapel dedicated to St. George, built in 1765, where we celebrate his feast day. Here is a photo from just before we began Vespers service. In the foreground is our friend Alexandros, who immigrated from Afghanistan about 12 years ago. He is now becoming a novice on Mt. Athos. After the service, he told his amazing story in our parish hall, located next door to St. George's, while we had some tea and cookies.

After Liturgy for the feast of St. George, our neokorisa (church cleaner) clowns around at the coffee hour by wearing the beret of one of our parish council members.

We had our first BBQ of the year the other day. The boys love climbing up on the covered area out in our yard.

On Friday, April 24th, the bishop came to celebrate Divine Liturgy for all the school children in Portaria--pre-school, kindergarten, and elementary school. In Greece, there's a actually a law that says kids have to attend church once a month on a school day. This, however, was different. The bishop has been going around doing "Catechetical Liturgies" for school kids of all ages. Essentially, the Liturgy takes place out in the center of the church, and the bishop stops at a few points to explain what is happening in the Liturgy. Everywhere he has gone, the kids--as well as teachers and parents--have been very enthusiastic. Many--if not most--don't understand almost anything that is happening in the church services. 

The kids have been on Portaria's soccer team since the fall, and they recently had their first tournament on a Saturday. Portaria's team is in green. In the background, behind a cypress tree, you can see one of our chapels, dedicated to St. Symeon the Stylite.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Nafplion, Part 3: Palamidi, Nemea, Thebes

On the last day, we began with a visit to Palamidi Castle overlooking Nafplio. It's an enormous castle, built by the Venetians in only 3 or 4 years (1711-1714). Incredibly, though, after building it, they left it manned with only 80 soldiers. It was thus taken by the Ottomans after only 1 year.

The view from the top.

The key attraction for the kids was seeing the prison where Theodoros Kolokotronis was held. We even went down into this cramped, damp, lightless hole, where Kolokotronis spent 10 months awaiting execution, before being pardoned because he was needed to lead a new battle. It seems the Greeks only stop fighting each other when there's someone else to fight.

Here are the girls entering the dungeon cell.

Here are the kids hiding under a series of arches.

What an incredible view. If you squint, you can see Pelagia and Dami out at the end of the castle wall.

And here they are walking down one of the ramps.

After Palamidi, we started the long trek back home, stopping first at the ancient site of Nemea, the site of Hercules' first labor.

Here you can make out the boys sitting at the base of one of the columns of the massive Temple of Zeus. Three of the columns have remained standing since it was built ca. 330 BC.

Here's Dami, with the Temple of Zeus in the background.

Nemea was also the site of the Nemean Games. They recently discovered a tunnel that connected the athletes' locker room with the stadium. Here is everyone walking through the tunnel into the stadium. And here are the boys racing each other, just as they did in ancient times, while Pelagia and Dami stand next to what I guess was an altar.

After Nemea, it was back into the car until we hit Thebes. There is very little left of the ancient city, and the modern town is built around the little that is left. In fact, we ate at a little restaurant that was next to a playground for the kids, as well as an "archaeological site" with no less than three signs denoting it. I couldn't see anything, so I asked, and our waiter pointed at a big rock next to us, covered in weeds and trash, that he said was related to the great ancient Greek poet Pindar. Indeed, there was also a modern monument to Pindar. I've looked into this a little, and the only thing I can guess is that perhaps they say it was the site of the house of Pindar, who was born in Thebes. They say that Alexander the Great spared only his house when he razed the city in 331 BC, out of reverence for the great poet.

That's the rock behind the sign pole.

Finally, we took a brief look at the remains of the city's castle, which are used to house the city's archaeological museum. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for renovations, so we headed home.

For all the photos from the trip, click here.