Well, as promised, I’ve severely slacked on my blogging, but at least I warned everyone!
I couldn’t, however, resist the desire to share a bit about the events of this weekend as they have been very memorable!. Yesterday (Sunday that is), was the Feast of St. Demetrios here in Greece (and for the rest of the new calender Orthodox world). I had heard about how special in was to the people of Greece (and especially the inhabitants of Thessaloniki) but it was such a wonderful display of piety and celebration...one that I could not have expected. Granted there was the usual superficial partying that occurs in all holy days and holidays...but the special moments became evident in the most unconventional ways.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I was trying to decide whether to stay in Thessaloniki for the feast or whether to use the few days off from classes to take a trip to a monastery or somewhere outside of the city. Christopher, one of the Americans studying here, invited me to join him on a trip to a small monastery in the tiny mountainous village of Siatista. His friend from school was a monk there, and also a deacon under the Metropolitan of that region. In the end, I decided to go with him, because I thought that it would be a nice retreat from the city and also a wonderful way to celebrate the feast.
We set out on Saturday morning in a coach bus for the town of SIatista to stay at the monastery for the weekend. It was a rainy saturday and as we passed the city limits, I wondered whether it would be this we throughout our mini vacation. We passed farms, factories, beautiful houses and picturesque hillsides. Finally, as we began to reach the town, our bus slowly climbed up into a small mountainous region where, as we were told later, many of the villages have as few as 30 residents. It was very surreal--paying $20 (EU) round-trip to make a 2 hr journey to a monastery in Northern Greece...but what can you do...enjoy the ride!
Needless to say, we met Christopher’s friend, Fr. A, at the bus stop in a neighboring town, where the Metropolis of the region was located (and the bishop that Fr. A served under lived) and accompanied him to the center. We entered the Metropolis center and were greeted by the sacred sound of silence and a very cozy yet venerable looking parlor, with antique mahogany chairs with red velvet cushions and large portraits of the previous Metropolitans adorning the walls. The center was as large as a small mansion I would say, but had a very intimate feel to it. We were greeted by the chancellor of the diocese, a very bubbly and joyful middle-aged priest, who welcomed us with open arms. Christopher and I waited in the parlour for a few minutes while lunch was being prepared. After about 10 minutes we were beckoned into a kitchen/informal dining room where we were invited to sit down to eat with the Metropolitan, Fr. A, the chancellor, the Metropolitan’s second deacon, and driver. It was a DELICIOUS meal, prepared by some of the women who worked for the Metropolitan, and was eaten in almost total silence.
After our meal we departed for the monastery, which was about 30 minutes away. We traveled on winding mountain roads that over-looked a gorgeous view of the neighboring villages. Finally we pulled into the monastery parking lot and entered through the large wooden gates. Christopher and I were shocked to find a paradaisical looking facility, with beautiful gardens, large tan-colored stone walls, and a complex of a few good-sized buildings, all tucked into the corner of a large mountain hill-side. We were greeted, from the very beginning, with the warmest hospitality by the all of the monks and even guests who stayed there. In total, there were around 7 monks (including the Abbot/Elder). 4 of them are hieromonks (priest-monks) and the others are simple monks/novices. We were taken into the church to venerate, and were struck by the beautiful iconography which dated back to the 16th century. Despite the fact that the monastery complex was very new (only 12 years old), it was built around a 300 year old church which was not only beautifully painted, but also had an extremely peaceful atmosphere. The entry-ways were all very low, requiring you to bow as you entered the dimly lit chapel, in order to show reverence for the holy place of worship. The monks chanted simply, but with a striking amount of sincerity (like you could really tell they meant what they were saying)...even compared to other monasteries that I have visited.
The Abbott/Elder there was full of humble love and joy. His name was Father Stephanos. He was an elderly man with a beautiful white beard, radiant smile and gleaming eyes. He greeted us after a long night of hearing confessions with love and heart-felt care. Throughout our stay he made sure that we were well taken care of even in the midst of the constant stream of pilgrims who wanted to visit with him. Another thing that struck me, however, was how much sincere love and affection his spiritual children (both monastic and lay) showed him when they were with him. They would embrace him and hold his hand and joke with him. Both Christopher and I came away from the monastery with the strong impression that we had just witnessed the strong spiritual love of a family.
We heard many powerful words and accounts when we were there, but it wasnt what was said that made it such a wonderful visit. The candle-lit chapel was not just ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ but conducive to the important work that has been set before us--prayer. Anyway, life is back to “normal” (as much as it can be in the surreality of living in a foreign country) here in Thessaloniki. I attended the “Oxi Day” military parade where I got to see huge tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, ant-land mine equipment, bazookas, rockets and the like stroll past me 10 feet away. It reminded me of all of my dear friends in the armed forces. Life is not a joke or a first draft I guess.
I will be going to class today after some time in the library. Please pray for me!