Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Red, White and Blue...

This past week shall be dubbed "the American Invasion." A few days ago I parted ways with two Sisters from the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood, City PA who were passing through Thessaloniki on a size-able tour/pilgrimage of Ellada. Just on Saturday I met up with some pilgrims coming from PA who were headed towards Athos. It was a nice taste of home :). We (the nuns and I) were able to visit some of the wonderful sites that ancient Thessaloniki has to offer. Did you know that Thessaloniki received its name a few hundred years before Christ when a King, to celebrate a victory, named the city after his daughter. Since then it has passed through years of struggle and occupation, but has also seen years of economic and spiritual flourishing. You don't have to go very far to realize that you are treading on the same ground as emperors, soldiers and great minds and hearts of old. In our pilgrimage-by-foot of Thessaloniki we began at the top of the city, at Moni Vlatadon. A peaceful complex, removed from the hubbub of urban live, this one-time Monastery was founded by the two Vlatadon brothers who were monks on the Holy Mountain and disciples of St. Gregory of Palamas. They founded the monastery on the place where tradition holds to be the place that St. Paul preached to the Thessalonians on his Second Missionary Journey. There is a corner of the ancient church with some 2,000 year-old stones that are said to have come from the Agora (marketplace) where St. Paul would have preached. The bishop who lives at Moni Vlatadon, and who hosts a number of students studying Theology, likes peacocks. He has many of them in a large enclosure near the church.

We saw a view of the city that we were about to conquer from a tower near Moni Vlatadon which is part of the ancient walls of the city. For a long period of it's history, Thessaloniki was enclosed by thick defensive walls, originally built by Emperor Galarius (4th century), that protected them from pirates and marauders seeking to loot the once wealthy and flourishing trade/port city. It was a clear day and you could see for miles away. The sun hit brightly on the buildings and made the nearby Thermaic Gulf look like a giant mirror.

We wound down through the narrow, traditional side-streets of Ano Poli (literally "Upper City"), which currently houses many descendants of refugees coming from Asia Minor during the population exchange in the 1920's. This part of the city has retained a precious "village" atmosphere, and you can still encounter the traditional Greek hospitality (or "philoxenia") if you need to ask for directions or just in a passing "hello". Often, the locals will even walk you to where you need to go and give you an earful of history along the way (or gibberish depending on your knowledge of Greek :)). We visited the ancient, 5th century, Church of Osios David, which contains rare mosaics (including one of Christ enthroned and BEARDLESS!!)...it's the only one of it's kind in the world, and depicts Jesus in his "mystery years" (i.e. between his childhood and later ministry and Passion). We encountered another "relic" at this church. Maybe it isn't polite to say this, but SHE was both elderly and radiant (thus, we use relic in both senses). The caretaker for the church was an elderly Greek lady who tried to speak to us in a combination of Italian, German and English, despite the fact that I suggested we communicate in Greek. As soon as I entered the church, she enlisted me to help her change some coverings on the icons, which she couldnt reach, and told the nuns to sit and rest while I stood precariously on a small wooden chair covering icons with ecclesiastical cloths. Afterwards, she proceeded to give us an extensive tour of the tiny chapel, and explained it's history from its founding all the way through its existence throughout 500 years of Turkish occupation (15th-20th Century). She was quite simple, loving and willing to share the history. She was the child of refugees from Asia Minor, and the wrinkles on her face were turned upward--more smiling than frowning. It showed strength, the strength of a victim of persecution and hardships, who was not infected by fear, but stood strong in her joy. We all felt as though her presence was a blessing for the nuns along their journey, and we parted ways with happy hearts.

Next we made our way down the hill to St. Demetrios where we venerated his relics and saw where he was martyred during the persecution of Christians in the 4th Century under Diocletian and Galarius.

Thessaloniki is alive with history. The history hasn't ended, although the life of the city (the true life, not the night life) is found mainly in forgotten corners and hidden in humble hearts. But you can still find it, that's for sure.

Advice to pilgrims: if at all possible, venerate the relics, not only of those who have fallen asleep, but also of those whose physical hearts are still beating. They are here, but are not to be found in the guide books unfortunately. Thus, you need to ask a local or a student where they can be found. This should be included in your itinerary, though, or at least in your prayers when you ask for the pilgrimage to materialize. :).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fall is in the Air

You know that crisp, clean, brisk fall air that you can almost drink? Yup, Thessaloniki has officially turned fall. No transition though. Not even a warning day. We went from swimming-weather summer heat, to New England Turkey-day chilly. Thank God though, it makes you feel alive. Today I will be picking up two nuns from the States who are making a pilgrimage to Greece. It will be nice to host some fellow Americans in this beautiful city!

Yesterday we drove down to Halkidiki for the morning. I accompanied a priest who had some business to do down there. It's a beautiful drive. The ocean out the window was choppy and a deep blue, a color set off even more by the brownish green hillsides and white and blue houses. The houses dot the landscape, scattered in no particular order or pattern. Some are looming and majestic, while other neighboring houses shelter impoverished gypsy families. We passed olive groves and farm fields, factories and churches, villages and harbors. Greece is a mix of worlds. Old and new, clean and dirty, light and dark, harsh and soft. Everything unexpected.

Until next time,

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Had the chance to take a day trip to a nearby monastery dedicated to the Ascension of the Lord with a priest that I know. It was in one of surrounding towns called Panorama. It is a beautiful little monastery with an exquisite view overlooking all of Thessaloniki (thus the name of the town :)). The nuns there make all sorts of ecclesiastical cloths, vestments and paint BEAUTIFUL icons! They were all very hospitable and it was especially enjoyable to witness their natural behavior with the priest. He is a long time "client" and friend of the monastery, and they were very natural and loving with one another.

In other news, the Greek have voted their current Prime Minister (Karamanlis) out of office in the recent elections, and elected Papandreou who lived for a long period and studied in America. Some say that he's not Greek enough, others say he is too liberal etc etc. It should be interesting to try and track the changes that ocurr as a result of the new power-change.

Hope all is well with you! Drop me a line if you'd like!