Our Greek host on Santorini, a young hotelier and newly married tour promoter, is trying to sell us a Mount Olympus excursion. “Half the German tourists frown, they are unhappy, and you wonder why,” he explains. “We Greeks, we drink, we dance, we smile, we enjoy life. When you are on holiday, you should enjoy like you are one of us.” Our host provided excellent advice on the primitive village of Akrotiri; Profitis Ilias; the day hike from Fira to Oia along the narrow sun-washed trail, with its spectacular views of the caldera; beaches of various colors; and local wine. But my wife believes we will meet a special individual on Patmos, the Isle of Revelation where Saint John the Evangelist received the Word of God. So it came to pass that we entered the port of Skala near sunset, after a long day of airports and island-hopping across the eastern Aegean. We trade airplane and hydrofoil lines for a quiet seaside dinner at a local café. I eat fresh octopus in vinegar; my wife has a Greek salad; and our waiter relates the first of many legends: Saint John defeated a magician, whose remains lie underwater off the nearby Agios Theologos beach.
The next morning at breakfast at Hotel Skala, we are surprised to see Kallistos Ware, an English bishop within the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and lecturer on Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford, at the next table. A middle-aged woman explains that Ware is leading a tour for 40 Episcopalian pilgrims from the British Isles. Surely, I reasoned, Ware, the author of The Orthodox Church (Pelican, 1993), The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), and other books must be the special individual. My wife, admiring a brilliant display of blue flowers near the hotel’s arbor, is not as certain, and we set out to explore Patmos.
We hike a narrow road uphill for two miles to the Apokalipsis Cave before descending to the spot where Saint John received the Revelation. Iconography lines one wall. We are alone except for an Orthodox monk and an elderly Greek-American from Cleveland visiting with his adult son. We are fortunate the Ohioan speaks Greek. He asks the long-robed monk questions, and translates another legend: Apokalipsis Cave was split in three places along its ceiling when Jesus Christ appeared to Saint John in visions. The monk points to the fissures, and we imagine Saint John’s awe. We view a spot close to the ground where the Evangelist placed his hand. A few feet away, encrusted in silver behind a small railing, is the place where Saint John rested his head two millennia ago. Revelation 1:9 states,
I, John, your brother, who share with you the distress and the kingly reign and the endurance we have in Jesus, found myself on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God’s word and bore witness to Jesus.
No journey is worthwhile unless there is some hardship attached to it. We climb out of the cave and survey the rock-strewn, semilunar landscape of Patmos. Instead of descending, we continue climbing the road in the late-morning heat, reaching Hora and the Monastery of St. John near noon. The streets of Patmos’ largest town are near deserted, but inside the monastery there is talk of prayer and relics. More than one person expresses the opinion that the European Union is a force working against Christianity.
The flowers retain their fragrance despite the afternoon sun. We spend the rest of the day in Skala before enjoying another seaside dinner. I eat fish in garlic oil. My wife orders another Greek salad buried in fresh olives and feta cheese. We prepare to leave for Athens the next morning, uncertain if we will see Metropolitan Kallistos again at breakfast.
The sun rises early in the morning, but the temperature is much hotter at the dock. Travelers in Southern Europe understand transportation does not always depart or arrive on time. Once, farther north in Switzerland, a local explained to me that crews in Germany’s Federal Republic have their pay docked when they are late. He was only half-joking when he added that tardy Swiss crews are dismissed. The Greek crew at the Patmos dock controls the hydrofoil’s gangplank, and no volume of ugly American complaints about missed connections to Athens will cause them to surrender it until the engine mechanic arrives. My wife and I are in no hurry, and soon see we are not alone. A solitary Greek Orthodox monk stands on the dock. “Kalimera,” I greet him, and he answers in English, pointing to a nearby café, shaded and full of Greeks sipping their morning tsái. We join the monk and learn he is from Mt. Athos, the holiest mountain of Greek Orthodoxy. He asks my denomination, and I reply that I am Roman Catholic but attended Orthodox churches as a child, and pray both churches will be united.
The monk is curious. My father, a Catholic, permitted me to attend services with my maternal grandfather, or geede, a cantor in an Orthodox church. We would walk together along Drouillard Road in east Windsor, through an industrial area with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler factories, and numerous Orthodox churches with their onion domes, around which were built Eastern European ethnic neighborhoods. I still smell the incense of those Orthodox services and hear those exotic tongues.
“What’s happening to us?” the Russian icon painter Rublev asks the soul of Theophanes the Greek in Tarkovsky’s 1966 film as they stand in a church destroyed by Tatars. Andrei Rublev, released by the Soviets as the Sino-Soviet split accelerated, includes many subtle political themes. “Rus are murdering, raping,” the eponymous Rublev observes. “They join the Tatars to pillage churches.” The film also features a religious message: Greece is the source of Orthodoxy. “I’ve spent half my life in blindness,” Rublev confesses to Theophanes after the Tatars have sacked a Vladimir church. “Haven’t we one faith, one country, one blood?” he continued. “One Tatar even smiled. . . . and shouted, ‘Even without us you’ll cut each other’s throats!’ How shameful!”
Theophanes replies, “Through our sins, evil has assumed human form,” adding, “Remember Scriptures. ‘Learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed . . . Come let us reason together, saith the Lord.’”
Rublev responds, “Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a church,” but the Greek has already returned to Heaven. History records the destruction of other churches—not by Tatars, but the result of one conflict within Christendom since Constantinople was sacked.
The madness of Catholics and Orthodox killing each other is illustrated in Gogol’s Taras Bulba. Taras seeks revenge for the Catholic Poles’ torture and execution of his eldest son, Ostap. “Taras tore through Poland with his regiment, burning down 18 towns, and close to 40 Catholic churches, and pushing as far as Krakow,” writes Gogol. The victims included mothers seeking sanctuary in Catholic churches. “The cruel Cossacks,” Gogol notes, “were not moved” by their prayers.
One does not advance the spirit of reconciliation with references to conflict.
The hydrofoil’s engine is repaired before noon. We begin our trip to Leros, and I ask the monk to recommend some books. He suggests The Way of a Pilgrim (translation, Helen Bacovcin), The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Sr. Benedicta Ward), and five others. My wife and I inquire about life on Mount Athos, and the monk describes a “secluded retreat” slowly “overrun by visitors and modern ‘progress.’” He explains, “When I first arrived, the only way to get to the island was by a wooden boat that held no more than 25 people. There are now ferries that bring hundreds each day,” though the number of annual visitors is restricted. They include Greek businessmen calling on spiritual advisors. The monks grow their own food, the crop depending on the altitude. The use of technology, including cellphones, has spread. I tell him I do not own one, considering it a distraction.
The late Pope John Paul II worked to reconcile the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The monk says he is respected. “You left us,” he says softly, in his gentle voice. “We are waiting for you to come back.”
The monk teaches us the art of constant prayer as we cross the Aegean. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner,” he repeats, explaining the spiritual practice is achievable with discipline and inner growth.
The hydrofoil reaches Agia Marina on Leros, which once survived an Ottoman siege. We watch it depart, and the monk explains that the European Union is urging people to abandon Christianity for modernism and materialism. “Too many people in Greece are chasing the euro and material wealth.” He worries that the peoples of Eastern Europe are succumbing to the same evils, and invites us to tour Leros the next day.
The tour starts when six of us pile into a car and are driven to Merikia. We enter a small Orthodox panagia, a church devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The monk and his guests light candles and burn incense, and leave a small contribution before departing. The door remains unlocked, though we are told Albanian illegals in northern Greece have broken into so many chapels that they are locked when not in use. The monk explains that the position of the icons helps to identify the patron saint. We resume our tour and are driven to another religious site that includes relics. I think of Geede, a peasant shepherd in his youth, and one of his favorite sayings: “If they believe in the one true God I do not care about their affiliation.”
Later, we enjoy dinner: more fresh seafood, Greek salads, and wine in a café at Agia Marina. When the bill is presented, the monk from Mt. Athos pulls out a 20 euro note. We protest, but every offer of reimbursement falls on deaf ears. “Whenever I receive money I like to give it away by the end of the day,” he explains.
“God will provide tomorrow.”
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