Heyr himna smiður – Hear, Heavenly Creator

For my first post back since the summer I thought I’d share this video that a friend just sent me.  Heavenly, otherworldly, and sublime.

The original poem was penned by Kolbeinn Tumason (1173–1208), one of the most powerful Icelandic chieftains of the 12th century, on his deathbed.  Here is the text:

Listen, smith of the heavens,

what the poet asks.

May softly come unto me

your mercy.

So I call on thee,

for you have created me.

I am thy slave,

you are my Lord.


God, I call on thee to heal me.

Remember me, mild one, 

Most we need thee.

Drive out, O king of suns,

generous and great,

every human sorrow

from the city of the heart.


Watch over me, mild one,

Most we need thee,

truly every moment

in the world of men.

send us, son of the virgin,

good causes,

all aid is from thee,

in my heart.

Of Anniversaries and Theatre Organs


It turns out that eight days ago was the four year anniversary of my starting this blog.  Happy belated birthday, blog.  Granted, I’ve been rather inconsistent with posting over those four years, usually only posting when I’m traveling or doing something that I think my 3 readers might find interesting.  And thus, I am posting today because I was traveling again, this time to North Tonawanda, NY.  It was well worth the trip.

During the summer I’ll often work for my dad, which is what brought us to North Tonawanda for a festival.  Normally on these sorts of trips we work all day, outside, selling our wares and then go and collapse and do it again the next day.  Today was a little different since it started out with thunderstorms and pouring rain i.e., not looking very good for festival weather.  We ended up taking refuge from the rain at the Riviera Theatre which was, blessedly, a short sprint from where we were.  Walking into this theater is like stepping back to 1926, to all the glitz and gilding of the age of the great movies palaces that once dotted the U.S.  What completed the scene was the sound of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ roaring from the auditorium.

It turns out that North Tonawanda was the home of Wurlitzer Pipe Organ Co., which manufactured all the grand theater organs in movie palaces across the country, and throughout the world.  The company ceased production of organs in 1946, but the organ at the Riviera miraculously remained.  It was a showpiece, a masterpiece of the Wuriltzer craft that almost went the way of the dodo many times when the wrecking ball threatened to destroy this landmark.  However, in 1989, after years of uncertainty, the theater was purchased by the Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society and has been restored to its current beautiful state.  The organ was also restored and continues to be lovingly cared for by the members of the N.F.T.O.S., who had opened the theater today and arranged for organists to come and play throughout the day.  And that’s where I met them.

This was the first time I’d heard a theater organ in person.  Those of you who know me know my organ geekery knows no bounds, however I had never actually heard a theater organ except on recordings.  So I had a little moment when I walked into the theater and heard the behemoth instrument playing popular tunes (circa 1930).  I had another little moment when one of the society members took me on a tour of the organ and the building.  And then I had heart palpitations when the organist paused between songs and asked if I’d like to play.  Now, for those of you who have sat at an organ console of a big church, it can be a bit confusing.  But I’m at home at them.  This one was different, delightfully different.  Elements were similar (keyboards, pistons, stop tabs, etc.), but putting them together was a challenge I was glad I had a coach for.

One of the "house organists" playing during the afternoon.

One of the “house organists” playing during the afternoon who so graciously let me play

The organ is, perhaps, one of the most frequently played theater organs in the country; the organ is used before each and every event, concert, and show at the theater as well as on Tuesdays and Saturdays by the organ society members.  Did I mention I was invited back to try it out again tomorrow?  Oh, yes.  That is happening, and it will be glorious.  Who knows, perhaps I’ll have to make another pilgrimage out here on a Saturday in the future to take advantage of their very kind invitation.

Suffice it to say, this was just one of those things.  One of those crazy things.  One of those bells that now and then rings, it was just one of those things.



Reflections & an Apologia on the Western Rite


It’s been too long since I’ve posted, and for that I apologize.  The last few weeks have been actioned packed, I participated in a summer course at St. Vladimir’s entitled Suffering and the Nature of Healing taught by Drs. Daniel and Jane Hinshaw, traveled back up to New England for the Antiochian Parish Life Conference, worked, and resumed a temporary role as organist at my old parish assignment for a feast day and Sunday.  That essentially brings me to today, spending some time with my mother and brother.  But I did want to offer a bit of a reflection on the last few weeks, for what it’s worth.

This past Sunday I played the organ at the parish I had been organist at up until last September when I began my time at St. Vladimir’s.  The last year has been tough for the parish; their pastor was transferred to a new parish and in the meantime they were ministered to by substitute priests and then by a wonderful deacon until this past week when they received a new priest.  Such times are significant in the life of the Church, and I was privileged to be a part of it, if only in a small way.  Their new priest was ordained last weekend at our Parish Life Conference, and his first Mass was this last Sunday.  There’s something so very exciting about a priest’s first liturgy, and this was no exception.

photo (11)

St. Stephen Orthodox Church during Matins on Sunday

It was nearly a year since I had played a Western Rite Orthodox Mass.  I had played for the feastday during the week where the Vicar-General of the AWRV celebrated, but this was my first First Mass.  I had picked pieces by the French Baroque composer François Charpentier for the prelude and postlude, I had gone over the hymns and the Gregorian chant of the service.  But I was not prepared for the beauty of this first Mass of a new priest.  Sure, there were hiccups, but a serenity prevailed over the service that deeply affected me.  Without knowing quite how to explain it, I knew that this was a holy moment; it was an entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven (as I sat sweating on the organ bench).

I should back up a bit.  Some of you reading this might very well be unsure of, or even hostile, towards the Western Rite as practiced by the Antiochian Archdiocese.  I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I hope that, as flawed as it will be, I might offer an apology for the Western Rite for all of my Orthodox brothers and sisters.  Hang with me.

I was born into an Orthodox family.  My father grew up in the Church, my mother grew up Roman Catholic and then was received into the Orthodox Church before I was born.  When I was quite young we attended St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA which was then pastored by Fr. John Khale, of blessed memory. Fr. John was an incredibly kind and holy man who greatly influenced my vocation to the priesthood from a very early age, through his love and care for my family and myself.  When we moved back to Massachusetts we began attending St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lawrence MA, which has been my home parish ever since.

I was raised in the Byzantine Rite, loving the services and learning to chant; being taught how the services work and why they are the way they are.  There’s nothing I love more than hearing “The Noble Joseph” chanted on Holy and Great Friday, learning the prosomia, and learning to serve.  At the same time, an early memory I have was attending a Western Rite Mass at my home parish in Lawrence.  I remember going up to kneel on the solea, and the priest turned towards me with our Lord in his hands and I received Holy Communion.  I remember looking up at him in his golden vestments and seeing above him an icon of the the Mother of God with Christ, with her arms outstretched.

So, what gives?  Why am I so comfortable in the Western Rite when my last name is Lebanese and I grew up with the Byzantine Rite?  My only answer is that, well, something is right about it.

To most of us, the Western Rite is a foreign, unknown entity.  We don’t know what it is, we’ve never really experienced it, and, honestly, we have a lot of anti-Western baggage (and vice versa for those in the West looking East).  This is, I believe, what holds so many Orthodox back from experiencing, much less embracing, the Western Rite.  It’s just too foreign, it’s “not our tradition.”  But these things, when we separate them from our initial reactions, aren’t good enough reasons to dismiss the Western Rite.  I know it sounds snarky, but unless you’ve experienced this Rite for at least a month or more, unless you’ve lived in one of these parishes in the AWRV, unless you’ve seen what actually goes on there and met the people in these parishes, I don’t believe that you can therefore dismiss them as the weird cousins at the barbecue.  I am not trying to be contrarian or insulting to you, dear readers, I’m just trying to work it out myself.

I was asked to help with the music at a Western Rite parish in Massachusetts three years ago, and I still don’t think I’m qualified to “pronounce” on the Western Rite.  But the things I have seen, the services I have participated in, the people I have gotten to know; these things have confirmed for me over and over again that this rite is a rite of the Church and God meets us here.  The Church has always, up until relatively recently, had a multiplicity of rites, and to suggest that only the Liturgies of the East are valid, and Orthodox, is, to be perfectly honest, quite silly.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann agreed with this assertion, that there is nothing wrong with multiple rites as there were multiple rites from the early Church, but he did have a concern about adding another rite to an already fractured Church in America.  I don’t believe that his fears have come true because the Western Rite has fostered unity as well.

In my home diocese, the parishes that celebrate the Western Rite are an integral part of their diocese and the Archdiocese as a whole.  They’re not loners.  They celebrate rites and feasts that have been part of the Ordo for over fifty years, and they’ve been examined by commissions of Orthodox theologians, and have been blessed by patriarchates and synods.  Their parishioners join the Antiochian Women, and the Order of St. Ignatius.  Their devotion to our bishops is unparalleled, and the love they have for the gift of the Orthodox faith is so genuine.  I really can’t express in words my surety about this, but it is wonderful.  Sure, I’m just one person.  But so many others have experienced what I’ve experienced.  So why are we still afraid of the Western Rite?  That’s a question that will have to be answered person to person.

Be the start of change.  Don’t satisfy yourself with internet diatribes, go and visit one of our parishes yourself.  But don’t just visit once, because how well do you really know someone you’ve only visited once?  Go and pray with your brothers and sisters in Christ; they love the faith, they love you.  I know it’s not much, but I hope that at least my small witness to the Western Rite, as someone raised in the Church, might at least encourage you to reconsider.

Please remember, these are only my ill-formed thoughts.  May the Lord bless and keep you.




Now that I’ve been back in the States for a few days and have recovered (mostly) from jet-lag, I thought I’d continue writing about our pilgrimage, for pilgrimage it was.  One of the guys made a comment to me that he wished it was a little less pilgrimage and a little more vacation, and there were times when I felt the same way.  But, really, our time on Athos was the centerpiece of the trip, and the purpose of the trip.  We had some delightful time in Constantinople, Thessaloniki, and Athens, but Athos is where it’s at.  Who would have thought that a rugged peninsula populated by monks who ate no meat, fasted from dairy most of the time, worked and prayed for most of the day, would be so wonderful?  I mean, sure, I love going to church; it makes sense given my prospective line of work.  But Athos is more than a place to come as a pilgrim, this is a place where the ancient and modern come together.  It is the world’s oldest republic, filled with ancient artifacts, watched over by a mountain.  We saw a cross made for Justinian himself, Byzantine built towers, charters from the Tsars of Russia, an icon kept by Empress Theodora.  Talk about a vacation destination for history geeks.  And it’s more than that.

I’ve now realized that I’ve lost the thread of what I was saying, and I’m not really sure where I was going with it.  But, suffice it to say, Mt. Athos was incredible.  A combination of things I love: Byzantine chant, sunsets, churches, gardens, mountains, cooking, the sea, forests, four-part Slavic harmony, nerdy astronomy discussions.  The only thing missing was a continuo organ, but perhaps there’s one somewhere…  Actually, probably not.  Anyway, it’s a delightful place.  It’s sad that it’s so far away, but with the ease of modern travel perhaps I’ll be able to visit again sooner rather than later.


One of the other aspects of the Holy Mountain that I so enjoyed was the people that you meet there.  And I don’t just mean bumping into friends that you didn’t know would be there (which happened to me twice), but the people who live there.  From the guy that made the fantastic spanikopita in Daphni, to the monk of 20 years who, before he was accepted as a novice, had to live in the caves around the peninsula for a summer to convince the monks he had what it took to stay.   It is such a crossroads, even the Patriarch of Moscow was there!  The world really is quite small.  In addition to my encounter with some friends, one of our members ran into a couple on the metro who were quite close with one of his close friends from college.  On the metro, heading into Athens.  Craziness.

Sitting on the balcony overlooking the sea while prepping veggies, or cleaning dishes, or drinking tea.  Little things, little events and experiences, that stand out in our time there are what have remained with me.  Seeing a monk fuss with a candle, or the charcoal embers flying around when a priest censed; hearing the abbot of Xenophontos chant, or holding ison for a monk during an all-night vigil.  And tonight, as I sit here typing, the smell of incense they used in the katholikon of Aghiou Pavlou is burning, bringing me back to the first night we were there; the light streaming in the windows as Fr. Evdokimos censed the church during the chanting of “Lord, I Call” at Vespers.  One of the monks told me that there are plenty of monks on Athos whose hearts are still back home, in the world.  He added that there are plenty of people in the world whose hearts are still on Athos.


One of the icons in one of the many hallways of Aghiou Pavlou is of a vision one of the former abbots had when he was walking gathering firewood.  He saw a woman sitting on a rock on the beach, writing in one of three books.  When he approached her, he asked what she was writing.  The woman replied, “In this book I am writing the names of those who stay here.  In the second, those who visit time and time again yet go back into the world.  And in the third book, those who visit once and leave.”  After she said this, the abbot turned around to walk away and, after a few steps, realized who it was that he had just encountered: the Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mary.  I hope I’ll be in the second one, but at least I’m in the third for now.

Exploring Athens



You’ll be glad to know that we all made it back to the U.S. safe and sound, after many hours in airports and on planes.  Now comes the time to decompress a little and reflect on the entirety of the trip, although before I do that I thought I should spend some time writing about our time in Athens and the trip back.  So here goes.

Athens is an interesting city, to say the least.  Like much of the rest of the world, Athens is a mix of ancient and modern; Athens is filled with ruins, souvlaki, churches, and tourists.  Walking down the street one will see people from all over the world marveling at the Acropolis, or buying cheap imitation statues of scantily clad ancient Greeks.  Wandering around the different neighborhoods it’s quite easy to go off the beaten track and explore the less touristy areas, where you can find the real life of Athens.  While I didn’t have a great experience on the Metro due to the theft of my phone, it is actually quite convenient to get around on.  For €4 euro you can get a 24 hour pass for the metro, which you can also use for the buses and other modes of transportation around the city.  So on Sunday after Liturgy at the beautiful church of St. George near Aghia Pareskevi metro stop, I grabbed my pass and my camera and wandered off to see the city.

St. George Church near Aghia Paraskevi stop on the Metro.

St. George Church near Aghia Paraskevi stop on the Metro.

Given that I’d yet to have lunch I thought my first stop should be somewhere to grab a gyro.  I mean, I couldn’t have gone to Greece and not had one!  Although, alas, that’s what ended up happening.  I looked up this one place that a friend had recommended, a place named Kostas (there are two of them, actually, but one is closed on Sundays) and wrote down the directions after checking on Google (Hail, Google), but when I got to where the directions said it should be it was nowhere to be found!  So I set off again around the area and ended up walking down to Monastiraki to the plethora of souvenir shops and overrated souvlaki stands.  No dice on Kostas.  So I wandered around some more, stopped to ask directions a couple times, and finally found it!  As luck would have it, it had just closed.  Foiled again, I made my way back to Monastiraki to look at all the shops (no, I didn’t buy anything) and get a Fanta.

Looking up one of the streets near Monastiraki toward the Acropolis

Looking up one of the streets near Monastiraki toward the Acropolis.  Ah, a Starbucks.

After a couple hours of walking I realized with a start that I only had about a little over an hour before I had to be back at the Acropolis metro station to meet the rest of the guys and head back to meet Fr. Stephanos at his church and then to dinner with him.  So with a burst of determination (and surprising speed) I grabbed a train to the Acropolis stop and started the walk up to the top.  What I didn’t realize is that the entrance to the Acropolis is actually quite a ways from the metro stop, so picking up speed I made my way to the ticket booth near the entrance while enjoying the music of a fantastic trio (saxophone, tuba, and hammer dulcimer; it’s as weird yet awesome as it sounds).  Once at the entrance I made the climb up to the Acropolis and walked around the Parthenon and other buildings.



At dinner a few of the guys made the same comment about being up there: while the ruins are incredible, the views are even more so.  There’s no way to capture how stunning the city looks from the top of the Acropolis.  The sun reflecting off the roofs of tens of thousands of buildings, glinting off domes of churches.  Looking out you can see the Areopagus where St. Paul preached to the Athenians, you can see the ancient theatres and the columns standing like sentinels around the city.  It’s just breathtaking.



Well, that’s all for now because I need to run a few errands and grab some lunch.  I’m debating between a burger or some Chinese food (two things I was craving toward the end of our trip…).  I’ll be posting more about our time in Athens, as well as the wild ride back to the U.S.  More pictures to come as well!

Away We Go

The helicopter pad at Aghia Anna Skete on Mt. Athos.

Just a quick post to prove I’m still alive, even without a phone.  It’s oddly freeing, although I would have come in really handy a couple times today when I went in search of the perfect gyro (I failed in that quest).  But we had a good day otherwise, with a beautiful Liturgy at the Church of St. George near the Aghia Pareskevi metro stop.  I wandered around Athens for about three hours, going to Monasteraki and other areas before heading to the Acropolis in the late afternoon.  One mini-reflection that a few of us shared is as awesome as the ruins of the Parthenon and other buildings are, the views are the winner of the Acropolis; just stunning.  In the evening we headed back out to the parish for dinner with the parish priest (and respected academic), Fr. Stefanos Alexopoulos, who took us to a fantastic restaurant for a farewell dinner.  It was funny meeting him because it took me a while to make the connection between him and the Stefanos Alexopoulos whose articles I’ve read in the past.  Very nice to meet him in person, he and his parishioners were so very welcoming and provided a great end to our stay in Greece and our experience of Orthodoxy here.

Alas, my computer’s battery is about to die and I seem to have misplaced my outlet converter so it looks like I won’t be able to post till I get back to NY tomorrow, but be assured that there will be many more posts coming with details of the trip, as well as many more photos.  Because of my battery life problem I wasn’t able to download the pictures I took from my camera so those will probably have to wait until NY as well.

Please keep us in your prayers as we make the long trek back to St. Vladimir’s Seminary!

Athens: Pinnacle of Ancient Civilization and Modern Den of Thieves

We arrived in Athens without too much fuss, or so it seemed.  Turns out that one of the pieces of luggage was lost without a trace during the really, really short flight to Athens from Thessaloniki, but, by the grace of God, it wound up here at the hotel tonight when we got back from dinner.  And there was much rejoicing.

However, my cell phone was stolen while getting of the metro at Monasteraki stop.  I know exactly who did it, a shifty -looking bald guy in a polo shirt who bumped into me on the way out.  Oh well, at least my money and passport were unharmed.  I was pretty upset about it when it happened, and am still quite irritated, but it’s only a phone.  I guess that’s one of the hazards of traveling in foreign (and home) lands.  The funny thing is that I’d been reminding myself to keep everything important out of my pockets while in Athens because I knew just how prevalent pick-pocketing is on the metro, but in the rush of getting off of the stop with my bag I was the perfect target.  About five minutes later one of our group, the good Sir Gregory, realized a man was rooting around in his pocket looking for valuables.  Sir Gregory naturally gave him one of those glares that the English are so good at giving.  But it was telling.

Anyway, I’m absolutely exhausted and am going to head to bed, but I wanted to post to let all of you that have my number know to no longer try and contact it.  Since I wasn’t able to do it, my dad contacted the phone company and shut it down from afar.  God-willing no sensitive information was gathered by the nefarious pick-pocket, and I changed all my passwords on email and things.  May God have mercy on whoever took it, I hope they needed it more than I did.

We had dinner a great little restaurant near our hotel.  The hostess was so kind, the lamb was delicious (as was the loukaniko and saganaki dish), as was everything else.  Because of the loss of my phone the brethren were most generous in helping sooth my bruised pride.  World traveler, not so much.  But it was a very enjoyable meal and a very welcoming place.  If you ever find yourself near the Acropolis Select, it’s right down the street.  Rather new, and it’s all made right there.  We certainly enjoyed eating in the courtyard and then meandering for a beer near the Acropolis.

Tomorrow we’ll be going to Liturgy at the parish of a friend of Fr. Alex and then have the afternoon free to visit the Acropolis and other sites of interest.  I’m looking forward to seeing where St. Paul preached, especially.  Hope you’ve all been well, wherever you are.  I certainly miss Aghiou Pavlou and the fathers there, I pray that God will bring me back there sooner rather than later.

Hope your day was better than mine!  Please keep us in your prayers, I’m definitely looking forward to being back in the States, although I’m so very thankful for the experience we’ve had thus far.

The Time Has Come to Say Goodbye

The time has indeed come to say goodbye to the Holy Monastery of St. Paul’s here on Mt. Athos.  In a few short hours we’ll be boarding our boat to Ouranopolis, and afterwards to Thessaloniki and then Athens for a a few days.  It’s a very sad thing to be leaving Aghiou Pavlou, we’ve been so warmly received here and had such an incredible opportunity to explore and experience the life of a monastery of Athos.  This is from the heart, the monks here have been so kind to us and have made this trip the incredible experience that it’s been.  Most people who come to Mt. Athos come for three or four days, hopping from monastery to monastery.  They never really get into the rhythm of the monastery, they don’t really get to meet many of the monks unless they come back frequently.  Our group, on the other hand, has been so blessed to spend nearly two weeks at Aghiou Pavlou, and I really hope that I will get to visit again sooner rather than later.  While it might seem silly, I look forward to working in the refectory with Fr. I,  Fr. A, and Fr. G.  Spending time with such genuine people, talking about everything from the Jesus Prayer to where they get the nectarines from, has made the trip such a valuable experience.

One of the things that has most struck me about our time on Athos is how very normal, yet otherworldly it is.  The monks I’ve met are, for the most part, just regular guys who came here to work and pray.  But the saints feel close here, and the Mother of God’s presence is felt everywhere.  Over the past two weeks I’ve gotten to venerate the relics of saints. Most of us who venerate the relics of saints, only venerate a teeny tiny fragment of the saint in question, a relic that is suspended in wax in a small gold and glass theca.  Here on the Holy Mountain your experience is entirely different.  Instead of a small speck of one of the saints, you are confronted with the fragrant leg of St. Gregory the Great, the incorrupt hand of St. Maximus the Confessor, the foot of St. Anna, the skull of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, the right hand of St. George, the foot of St. Theodore the Commander, the skull of St. Tryphon, the arm of St. John Chrysostom, the gifts of the Magi that were presented to our Lord Jesus himself in Bethlehem.  Sure, you might say it’s all pious claptrap.  Perhaps you’re right.  But Mt. Athos has been under the patronage of the emperors of Byzantium from the beginning, and the refuge and storehouse for the holy things of Christendom for over 1,000 years.  The miracles that have been witnessed by thousands, and the fragrance of the myrrh that flows from the bodies of the saints leave me speechless, as mute as a fish.  I stood before a reliquary containing the bones of my patron saint, and next to it was a reliquary containing part of the skull of the great healer saint, St. Panteleimon; next to that was the hand of St. Maximus the Confessor.  These men loved Christ, they still love Christ, and their witness to the Resurrection is their continued presence through their relics and their prayers.  This has been an experience I will never, ever forget, and one that I will absolutely treasure.

But now we have come to the end of our time here.  We’ve experienced the life of the monastery in ways that most pilgrims never do.  This was really a once in a lifetime opportunity, one given to us by generous benefactors and donors, and through the prayers of all of our friends and families.  I know that I’ve certainly, hopefully, been changed by what I’ve seen and experienced here; the devotion of the monks and the beauty of the services, even the simple daily services, is one that is apparent to one who visits, even for a short while.

One of the other results of our time here has been the strengthening of my relationships with my brother seminarians.  I know it sounds trite, but traveling with these guys has been so great.  I thought that by now we’d want to kill one another, what with the close quarters and the growing awareness of how much so and so aggravates us.  But, I’ve felt the opposite happen.  Instead of getting annoyed with someone, I feel closer to them.  I’ve had some great conversations, gotten to enjoy sitting on a balcony with friends and fathers of the monastery while we wait for the international space station to fly by overhead.  It’s pretty much everything you could ask for in a trip.  While I’ve grumbled and bemoaned certain things over the trip, looking back on what we’ve experienced thus far I can honestly say that I’ve loved it.  I mean, when was the last time you got to travel with internationally renowned patristics scholars, seminarians, hierarchs, saints, and monks?  The doors that have been unlocked for us, the allowances given, the help offered; all of this results in one of the best travel experience of my relatively short life.  God is good.

Tomorrow morning we’ll take our boat to Ouranopolis and then make our way to Athens, as I said.  Monday we’ll be flying back to New York.  Already, our time is so nearly over.  I will admit that I am quite looking forward to a gyro and souvlaki in Athens (as Fr. Evdokimos joked with us about), but I treasure the meals spent in the refectory and the services attended here.  I will treasure the love shown to me and to our group, to the tours offered, and the care that the fathers of the monastery have offered us when our weakness has overcome us.

Please keep us in your prayers as we close one leg of our trip and begin another.  Know you’ve all been in my prayers and I pray that the Panagia and all the saints will watch over us and keep us within their care.  It’s been a wild ride so far, I’m looking forward to seeing the Acropolis and all the sights that Athens has to offer.  But I will still always remember, and look forward to coming back to, Aghiou Pavlou on the Holy Mountain, in Panagia’s Garden.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

Traveling on Athos

I figured that today would be a good day to write about some of the places I’ve been on Mt. Athos thus far in our pilgrimage seeing as I just got back from a little trip with one of my friends.  As you can imagine, traveling takes a while on Athos, mostly because you’re doing it either by sea or by paths (sometimes, if you’re lucky, a road).  The picture at the top of this post was one I took when walking back from St. Anne’s Skete which is one of the more difficult monasteries to get to by foot.  If, on the other hand, you go by boat it’s usually only a couple of euros and there’s often a bus that takes you up to the monastery if it’s a bit of a hike from the shore.  I’ve mostly stuck around at Aghiou Pavlou, though, because the monks here are wonderful and the grounds and the views are incredible.  Part of the reason for our trip was to get a feel for what the life of a monastery is like, and so I made a decision early on not to travel that much.

Some of the other guys have traveled all over the place.  They’ve gone to the top of the mountain (all 2,067 feet of it), to Iveron, Megisti Lavra, and other monasteries more far afield from our home base.  I’ve made only two trips to other monasteries, but both of them were incredible.  The first was last Saturday when I hiked to Aghia Anna, a small skete dedicated to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary.  It’s set high in the cliffs over looking the Aegean and can only be reached by foot or by mule train.  While I was on my way the donkeys passed me a few times with their loads of supplies and construction equipment.  It’s amazing that on a peninsula in the Aegean, where you can get wi-fi at certain monasteries, 3G or 4G phone service pretty much everywhere, and monasteries have hydro-electric plants, that there are places that you need to take a donkey to.  It’s wonderfully refreshing.

Some of the animals I met on the way to Aghia Anna

The hike to Aghia Anna was tough, and the way back even tougher, but it was rewarding in many respects.  I went by myself, since most of the guys had already been, and it was good to get a little alone time in the wilds of the mountain.  The path I took was one that went “up and over” instead of the one that hugs the coast, more or less.  I was told that there was less altitude changes with the “up and over” path since you more or less go up and up, instead of the shore path that keeps ascending and descending before making the final ascent up to Aghia Anna.  Anyway, there were a few hair-raising moments both on the way there and on the way back.  There are parts of the path that hug cliffs and you suddenly find yourself with a giant rock on one side of you and, well, a 500 meter drop to the sea on the other.  Good times.

On the way up to Aghia Anna I met two new friends who shared their frappe’s and a cheese sandwich as we sat on a bluff overlooking the sea.  We hiked the rest of the way up to the skete (a skete is a collection of monks who live relatively separately but come together for some services and share resources) and enjoyed the hospitality of the monks while there.  I got a couple things there for some of my relatives and friends who bear the name of Anna, and went to the church where I was able to venerate the miraculous icon of St. Anna, as well as the relic (her foot) that the church has.  All in all it was an incredible day, one that was I wouldn’t hesitate to have all over again.

On Monday I traveled to Xenophontos Monastery which is up the peninsula a bit, towards Ouranopolis, where some of my friends from Holy Cross in Brookline, MA were visiting.  Had I remained at Holy Cross for my MDiv. this was the group I would have been traveling to Greece with since HC/HC has a senior trip to Greece every year.  Since these were the guys I was going to be graduating with, you can imagine how good it was to see them here on the Holy Mountain.

The church on the left is the “Old Katholikon” dating back over 1,000 years. The “New Katholikon” is a mere 300 years old…

Xenophontos is a large and beautiful monastery with large guest accommodations and a very welcoming brotherhood of monks.  The guys from HC had arrived on Sunday and had chanted at the All-Night Vigil for the feast of Sts. Constantine & Hele (Julian Calendar), so when I met them on Monday they were just a little tired.  Getting to spend time on the Holy Mountain with my brothers from St. Vladimir’s and from Holy Cross was a huge blessing for me, and it was something on God, in his infinite wisdom, could have arranged to have coincided so perfectly.  Neither group coordinated with the other to make sure we were on the Holy Mountain together, it just happend naturally.  And, even more blessings, because I ran into two more friends from Boston when on the boat to Xenophontos.  There are certainly no such things as coincidences, but it was still quite the pleasant surprise to see them!  We also learned that there were students, professors, and clergy from St. Tikhon’s Seminary on the Holy Mountain at the same time as we all were.  SVOTS, STOTS, and HC/HC together in the garden of the Theotokos.  Talk about the Orthodox Inter-Seminary Movement.

The dome of the “New Church” at Xenophontos Monastery

I had quite the surprise when my friend, JMB, gave me a shipping envelope that he had been meaning to send to me at St. Vlad’s.  Inside were two, autographed CDs from Marcel Peres, one of my favorite early music interpreters/conductors.  I was really blown away.  But, just goes to show you that your friends can and will surprise you, and inspire you even when you don’t expect it.  Anyway, the time at Xenophontos was delightful, especially because Liturgy on Tuesday morning was celebrated by His Eminence, Metropolitan TARASIOS of Argentina.  It was truly one of the most beautiful liturgies I’ve ever been to.  The abbot of Xenophontos has an incredible voice and chanted the Cherubic Hymn as well as “The Angel Cried” during liturgy.  It was one of those times where all I could do was sit and let the sound wash over me.  So, so cool.

The narthex at Xenophontos

After going to Xenophontos, I returned here to Aghiou Pavlou where the monks in the refectory were glad to see me, since most of the guys had been traveling so they needed all the help they could get in the refectory!  I think I mentioned that we were given an obedience by Fr. Evdokimos to help in the refectory and, to be honest, it’s been one of my favorite parts of being here.  To be able to sit and prepare lettuce that was grown locally and still has the dirt on it, while sitting on a balcony overlooking the sea speaking with the monks has been an experience I’ll treasure.  It doesn’t hurt that Fr. A. and Fr. G. keep giving us treats after we finish up the daily washing, like fresh bread from the huge ovens with jam (like last night).  But being able to work and pray at a monastery on Mt. Athos has been the boon of the trip for me, at least.  These conversations have been so informative and beneficial; learning how these men live and pray is important for someone learning how to live and pray.  Suffice it to say, I will really miss working with these monks when we leave.

Lettuce attend. Ha.

Today, Tristan and I took the boat to Daphni to kill a little time, it’s always so enjoyable being on a boat.  I picked up a couple things for family and we shared the best spanikopita I’ve ever had (sorry, mom!) before heading back here for the afternoon.  I’ll be heading to the kitchens in about an hour to partake in our usual ritual of dinner preparations before heading to Vespers and then Compline at sunset.  It’s crazy that we’ve been here for nine days already, and crazier that we only have two days left on the Holy Mountain!  I guess I should probably start praying…  I kid, I kid.  I’ve been keeping all of you in my prayers, lighting plenty of candles, and learning how to navigate a prayer rope (it’s harder than you might think…).  Please keep us all in your prayers as we begin to wrap up our time here in Panagia’s Garden and prepare to travel to Athens and then make the long flight back to the States.

Athos: The Garden of the Theotokos

Mt. Athos

It’s been too long since I’ve posted, I know, but it’s only now that I think I’m able to write about part of what I’ve experienced on the Holy Mountain thus far.  I was just talking to a friend of mine and we agreed that it’s hard to speak about, hard to write about, if only because life here is so unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.  I suppose I could write page after page and still never really get close to what I want to say.  I’m going to make an attempt, however, but it won’t really capture everything.  Nor, upon reflection, do I think it should.  There are some things that we experience, either places we go or people we meet, that are so very personal, or intense, or whatever, that we might never share them with our friends, let alone the entire world on a blog.  That being said, I’ll try and describe what I’ve been doing here and what I’ve seen because there are some of you who won’t ever visit this place, and I think that the place of Mt. Athos in the world is one that is important, even if we’re not quite sure how or why.

Knock and it will be opened to you, seek and you shall find.


Mt. Athos is a microcosm.  Or, rather, every monastery on Mt. Athos is a microcosm.  One of the things that many people get wrong when thinking about this place is that every monastery does everything the same way, or the monks believe the same things about this or that.  Or that “Athonite” monasteries in the U.S. or elsewhere represent the fullness of Athonite spirituality, traditions, and what not.  After careful reflection, however, I’ve found that is not the case.  While their churches might be similar, the robes they wear the same, and the language they pray in is often identical, each monastery is as different from one another as one person is to another.  I know that my brother and I, while from the same family and growing up together, have different tastes in music, books, food, etc.  We look different, even though we laugh the same.  We share many things, but are also very different from one another.  I think the same is true of the monasteries here.  While they “grew up” together, and have developed on the same peninsula, they are still very independent from one another and do things differently from one another.  This is a beautiful thing, and shouldn’t be homogenized into one “Athonite” lump.  Unity in diversity, under the watchful eye and loving care of the Mother of God who is so present here.

Our group has been graciously welcomed into the Holy Monastery of St. Paul (Aghiou Pavlou), named after a hermit and monk of the monastery who worked out his salvation at the monastery.  It was originally dedicated to St. George the Trophy-bearer and Great Martyr, and they still celebrate him as a patron of the monastery.  The monastery was founded (the monks say) in the 9th century, while their first Typikon dates from sometime later.  The monks here live a cenobitic life, meaning they live and work and pray together.  There are monks of all ages here, from all over the world. There’s an American, an Englishman, Romanians, a Russian, Greeks, and more.  The brotherhood numbers around thirty-five and grows and wanes with the years, but always is around this number from what I’ve been told.  The monks have been incredibly kind and welcoming to us, opening their home to us.

Fathers of the monastery with whom we’ve been working in the refectory.

We’ve been eating with the fathers, and the pilgrims, as well as worshipping and working with them.  Hearing the bells for Midnight Office, Orthros, and Liturgy at 3 a.m., and for Vespers in the afternoon, and for Compline at sunset has provided the rhythm of life here.  While we’ve often traveled to other monasteries (I’ve gone to the Skete of St. Anna and Xenophontos), this has been our home.  I mentioned how each monastery is a microcosm, and St. Paul’s is no exception.  There are short monks and tall monks; big and small monks; grumpy and sweet monks.  It’s like anywhere you’ll go in the world, but so very different.  Here, men have given up their families, jobs, and lives to live in community and to pray for the salvation of the world.  I’ve struggled at times with understanding why someone would chose this life, but the more I’ve experienced life here the more I believe that it’s simply one of the many vocations that God calls people to.  Instead of marrying and having a family, these men have married the Church and entered a brotherhood.  My thoughts are still very scattered and probably not well thought out, but that’s where I’m at at the moment.

I think that’s enough ill-conceived reflecting for now.  In terms of experiences of the last week or so, there have been a number that stand out.  Getting to venerate the relics of St. George, St. Stephen the Protomartyr, St. Marina, St. Anna has been something I will treasure for the rest of my life.  Visiting with the monks, speaking with them about their lives, about prayer, about our favorite Marx Brothers movies, is fantastic.  There is such a diversity of experience here, of life experience and of wisdom passed down that can, in some small way, help figure out things out in the world.  I just noticed that I’ve been using the word “experience” way too often, but I think it points to a truth of faith in God in the Church.  It is experiential.  I was speaking with one of the monks the other day about how often we get bogged down with abstract notions about God, about Christ, and we forget that Christianity is experiential.  It’s good and sometimes useful that I can use the Fathers to refute Arius, but that doesn’t necessarily teach me how to visit someone in the hospital and bring Christ to them.  The experience of life here on Mt. Athos has reminded me of that fact.  One of the monks told me on Sunday night that soon he would die and join the brothers in the ossuary, where they keep the bones of all the monks who die.  He said that when he dies he so wants to be with Christ, and that he could never exist without him because, as he said, “Christ is so beautiful.”  Standing outside the monastery gates, with stars shining overhead, I knew at that moment that the monk knew how beautiful Christ is from experience, from prayer, from the life he’s experienced.  It wasn’t because he’d read some books and thought, “Oh, this Jesus fellow seems like a good guy, I bet he’s nice; certainly has some good ideas.”  The best part about being told how beautiful Christ is, how beautiful our Lord is, is that we are given the same opportunity to know, to see, this as well.  It isn’t something reserved to monks, or priests, or saints.  We can see it here and now, and that gave me a lot of comfort.

Well, that’s all for today.  I hope that, in some small way, these accounts and photos can relay something of what I’ve gotten to experience first hand.  I was traveling around Athos the last few days, so I’ll be posting more regularly now.  Make sure to check out my facebook photo albums for more pictures, too: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152847876105573.1073741825.605415572&type=1&l=8d6b83fb4a