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

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Constantinople-Thessaloniki-Athos

The Patriarchal Church of St. George.

The Patriarchal Church of St. George.

Continuing the story of our travels, I left you standing in the Church of St. George, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch. We spent some time there, sitting and praying in that wonderful church with saints surrounding us. It was a truly palpable instance of being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” that St. Paul speaks of. We were a bit worn out after our walk there so the four of us stopped at a nearby café for some tea and water before starting the hike back to the Spice Bazaar area of the City. On the way back we decided to walk by the shore of the Bosphorus to take advantage of the breeze off the water. It was amazing walking that way, it was obvious tourists almost never came there because the shore was covered with local families relaxing and barbecuing on little charcoal stoves on the grass. Children dived into the water amongst apparently harmless swarms of jellyfish, and the fishing boats came and went along the moorings. By the time we got back to the Spice Bazaar we decided to call it a day and head back to Halki via an earlier ferry.

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The next morning we took our last ferry ride to the City in order to catch our flight to Thessaloniki. Blessedly, the trip went quite smoothly and we caught our flight and got to Thessoloniki on schedule. Our hotel was right down the street from the great Church of St. Demetrius where his relics are kept. The church is ancient, but had fallen into ruin by the early 20th century when it was eventually restored after WWII. The current church is magnificent, with side chapels and shrines to St. Demetrius, St. Nestor, the Theotokos and others.

The marble martyrium that houses St. Demetrius’ relics is on the left side of the church. St. Demetrius is know as “the myrrh-gusher” because his relics exude myrrh, a fragrant oil. Walking up to the martyrium is incredible because you can smell the myrrh before you see the tomb, and once there it can be almost overpowering. The myrrh is collected and then given out to pilgrims, a great blessing for us. While we were there they had started Vespers, and then immediately a supplicatory service to St. Demetrius which we stayed for most of. One thing that struck me was how even though there was a service going on, there was so much movement and other things going on. There was a priest on his cell phone in one of the back rows of chairs, Russian pilgrims scowling at him; little old ladies tending to the candles and directing visitors to their proper places, and giving us a look if we wandered too close to somewhere we shouldn’t. It was wonderfully active and vibrant, there was a sense of people being absolutely at home in this great church. I picked up a couple things for friends at the little shop in the narthex before heading out.

The martyrium over St. Demetrius’ relics

During the day we split up and walked all over Thessaloniki, including visits to the ancient church of Aghia Sophia, as well as the Church of St. Gregory Palamas where his relics are kept. Both were incredible spaces with soaring domes and beautiful iconography. St. Gregory’s has newer iconography, whereas Aghia Sophia’s mosaics are ancient. Fr. John pointed out to us that the inscription above the icon of the Theotokos and Child in the apse of Aghia Sophia was the quote from Acts 1:11, “Ye men of Galilee, why do ye stand there looking up to heaven?” And in the dome of the church is an icon of the Ascension, instead of the usual icon of Christ Patokrator (Ruler of All). Someone obviously had a sense of humor.

Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki

Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki

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Tristan and I went and had a cold drink overlooking the sea near the white tower (of Minas Tirith…), and afterward I went to an ecclesiastical goods store where I ordered a new cassock as well as a few items for certain monastics back home. It was a great experience because it gave me a chance to practice my Greek. The shop attendant didn’t speak any English, so I managed to order everything and get measured entirely in Greek. My old Greek professor, Dr. Dova, would be so proud!

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The reliquary of St. Gregory Palamas

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The dome of St. Gregory Palamas

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The interior of the Church of St. Gregory Palamas

We ended the day in Thessaloniki with a fantastic dinner of grilled and roasted meat items (the lamb was the star), since we wouldn’t be having any during our time on Mt. Athos. We had some retsina, ate our fill, sang a hymn, and departed to the hotel to rest up for our early trip to Mt. Athos in the morning.

That’s all for now, I’ll be posting again after liturgy tomorrow about everything we’ve been getting up this week.  We’ve been so blessed to come to Aghiou Pavlou with the kindness and generosity of Fr. Evdokimos and the Brotherhood.  Tomorrow I’ll tell of the services, bells, food, monks, washing, hiking that’s been going on, and what not.

Also, for those of you that have read this far, please check out my Facebook photo albums where I’ve been posting lots more pictures than I’m able to on here.  You can find them at:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152847876105573.1073741825.605415572&type=1&l=8d6b83fb4a

and

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152864839005573.1073741826.605415572&type=1&l=67e1882110

 

Constantinople Continued…

The choros of Aghiou Pavlou Monastery, Mt. Athos.

The choros of Aghiou Pavlou Monastery, Mt. Athos.

It’s been since Saturday since I’ve been able to post, but hopefully I’ll be able to catch you up on what’s been going on since then. I suppose I should start from then and work forward, just so I don’t confuse myself!

Saturday night, His Eminence, Metropolitan Elpidophoros, dined with us and spoke with us afterward about the importance of Halki and plans for its future. Sitting in the grand reception hall of the monastery, with its great chandeliers and the portraits of its founders and professors, it was an almost surreal experience sitting where St. Raphael once did, and countless other hierarchs, priests, and professors. His Eminence expressed hope for the continued strengthening of ties between St. Vladimir’s and the Ecumenical Patriarchate and with Halki. It’s definitely something I can look forward to, and I look forward to visiting again.

After liturgy with His Eminence

After liturgy with His Eminence

Sunday was our last full day in and around Constantinople and it began with the celebration of Liturgy in the monastery chapel. Our dean, Fr. John, presided at Liturgy, with Fr. Alex, Fr. Marcus, and one of the priests from Halki, Fr. Samuel. His Eminence, Metropolitan Elpidophoros, the abbot of the monastery, presided from the throne while we sang liturgy. It is quite possible that this was the first time that Liturgy was celebrated entirely in English in the chapel there, and possibly the first time a four-part choir sang there as well! The Liturgy was prayerful and the singing reverent (enhanced by the good acoustic). His Eminence presented each of us with gifts from the monastery, and bid us a very fond farewell as he would not be able to see us before we left early on Monday morning.

At the psaltiri of the monastery chapel on Halki.

At the psaltiri of the monastery chapel on Halki.

After Liturgy we walked down to the harbor to catch the ferry to the City. I had debated going, if only because I was pretty worn out by that point, but it was a very good thing I went back. As an aside, I think that taking the ferry every morning and evening was one of my favorite parts of that leg of our journey. Not only was it time outside, with the salt air and a breeze, but it was a time to reflect on where we were and what had happened there. I mentioned before how Aghia Sophia had left me a bit melancholy with the vicissitudes of history so “in your face” there, but after reflection it only serves as a testament to one of the most important lessons from the Psalms: “put not your trust in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” Put not your trust in princes, not even emperors like Constantine, because they do not last. Neither do great churches.

Looking across the right balcony in Aghia Sophia

Looking across the right balcony in Aghia Sophia

Anyway, Sunday afternoon we went for coffee and bavlaka (the best I’ve had thus far on the trip), and went to the Spice Bazaar where I picked up some Frankincense along with a couple other little items for friends and family back home. After that the group split up and I went with Gregory, Tristan, and Dn. Nicholas on the walk to the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch. It was a hot day so we took it slow, but the Church of St. George was well worth it.

The Patriarchal Church of St. George.

The Patriarchal Church of St. George.

The church and surrounding buildings are few, but beautiful.

The facade of the church

The facade of the church

The might of Constantine has vanished, and only faith has remained. Inside is dark, with oil lamps hanging from the ceiling and large reliquaries lining the walls. Off on the left side of the church I knew I would find the relics of my patron saint, St. John Chrysostom. They’re kept in a carved alabaster casket, with two others next to it containing the relics of St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory the Theologian. The Three Hierarchs, as they’re known in the Orthodox Church, together again.

St. John Chrysostom in the foreground, St. Gregory the Theologian in the middle, and St. Basil the Great furthest.

St. John Chrysostom in the foreground, St. Gregory the Theologian in the middle, and St. Basil the Great furthest.

I’ve been trying to put into words what it was like standing in front of my patron saint, and nothing I’ve written has really been adequate. We pray to our patrons, certainly, and we probably have an icon of them. We read about their lives and their struggles, and we wonder what it was like at the time. It’s all kind of abstract. But there I was, standing in front of the bones of this great saint, Chrysostomos, the golden-mouthed. And that’s what I did, stood there. Like an idiot with my mouth hanging open, trying to think of adequate words to say to him. That’s when I realized that I didn’t have to say anything. He’s the one nicknamed “golden-mouth” anyway, so I figured he could say something to me. That’s when I remembered that Saint John has been with me from when I was named, and when I was baptized (on his feast, actually). He’s seen me grow up, he knows my weaknesses and my failings just as he knows my strengths. And he was, and is, watching over me. It was nice to visit with him.

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I’ve realized now that I’ll not be able to write about our time in Thessaloniki just yet, nor even our time on Mt. Athos thus far. It’s about 10 p.m. here and we need to be up at 4 a.m. in time for Midnight Office, Matins, and Divine Liturgy. To keep you interested, though, here are a bunch of photos from our time in Thessaloniki and on Mt. Athos with some captions to tide you over. Please keep us in your prayers, as you are in ours. More updates over the next few days!

The pillar upon which our Lord Jesus Christ was scourged.  This was brought to Constantinople from Jerusalem by Constantine himself.

The pillar upon which our Lord Jesus Christ was scourged. This was brought to Constantinople from Jerusalem by Constantine himself.

 

One of the side chapels in the Katholikon (main church) of the Holy Monastery of St. Paul.

One of the side chapels in the Katholikon (main church) of the Holy Monastery of St. Paul.

 

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The relics of St. Demetrius

St. Demetrius is one of the most widely venerated saints of the Orthodox Church, especially among the Greek-speaking peoples. We were blessed to have time in Thessaloniki with him, as well as being able to venerate St. Gregory Palamas and other saints of Thessaloniki.