old religion, new year

now the rain came pouring down; it was cold, my shoe was letting in water, and I had no place to stay. Regretting that I hadn’t taken the ferry back to the world, I sheltered in the doorway of one of Karyes’ three shops. There I met two Germans, who had walked the previous day from Karyes to Vatopedi – several hours in itself – and had made matters more strenuous by losing the track, and having to beat their way through thickets to regain it.  One of them had felt so beaten up that he had skipped the 3 a.m. service.

“I did the same at Simonopetra,” I confessed. “As far as I could tell, they didn’t mind much.”

“Oh, they minded at Vatopedi,” said the German who had stayed in bed. “My friend here went, and they kept saying to him ‘where is your friend? When will he be coming?’

Across the way, there was a series of minivans. One of them was going to Vatopedi.

“I don’t have a reservation,” I said.

“Well, let’s see what happens when you get to the boundary of their property,” said a chubby, helpful young Rumanian monk on his way to the dentist in another monastery. “Maybe they will let you in?”

At the red-and-white barrier to the Vatopedi lands, the guard looked me up and down, then disappeared to make a phone call. He let me in.

At Vatopedi too there was a tall glass of water, a short glass of ouzo, and huge sticky chunks of Turkish delight as a greeting. I was reminded to book ahead next time, and placed in a twin room with a retired Greek merchant marine officer, Evangelos.

“You know what?”, he said: “The Greeks don’t want to work at the hard jobs. On all the boats now they have been replaced by Filipinos.” I wondered about the cost of living in the Philippines.

As it was Saturday night, there was a change of schedule from the usual: instead of one service at 3 a.m., there were two: one at 8 p.m. (until midnight), and one at 6 a.m. (until 9 a.m.) For this, for some reason, I was wearily grateful. Of course first of all, there was vespers: Evangelos guided me to the church, did all his kissing-the-icons stuff, and led me into the nave, where he encouraged me to sit in the further forward of two rows that fronted on to the open area in front of the sanctuary screen: a ringside seat for the action to come. Mindful of my uncertainty about when to sit and when to stand, I demurred, and sat a row back so I could take my cues.

The church in front of me was an exercise in splendour: above a floor of variegated marble there hung a veritable firework display of gold chandeliers and candelabras, backed by the shimmering gold of the rood screen, with its icons of Jesus and Mary and the saints.

http://www.ouranoupoli.com/athos/church.html

Above all, at the apex of the dome, there towered a mighty icon of the pantocrator:

http://www.ouranoupoli.com/athos/church.html

The service began with the usual kyrie eleison; for an hour or more, there was chanting and chasing across the church to kiss the icons, and lighting of lamps and waving of incense. I stood and sat, and sat and stood, and crossed myself as necessary; when it was over I filed out and, led by Evangelos, into the refectory.

http://slavic.lss.wisc.edu/~kornblatt/easternorthodox/byzantine/byzantinepage.htm

This was cruciform, considerably larger than the one at Simonopetra, and jammed to the gills, mostly with monks. There must have been more than 100. The fare was similar to Simonopetra, though with the addition of giant tomatoes. I was crammed in with Evangelos and about eight other people at a tiny u-shaped table. Serving the meal in the cramped space was a festival of silent cooperation, while a monk in the pulpit read an edifying text in Greek. More time was allotted here than at Simonopetra to eat, and I had my fill. When it was done, everybody stood, and the chief monks filed out first.

Waiting for me in the courtyard was Father Matthew, an elderly grey-bearded monk from Wisconsin. He led me back into the church for the ceremony of the veneration of the relics, or at least to explain this to me. In front of the sanctuary screen there now stood a long table, on which there were a series of caskets which had apparently been brought out from somewhere secure; in front of them, a line of laymen bent to cross themselves and kiss the boxes. Each one, explained Father Matthew, contained a relic.

“To people with a conventional western point of view, it seems crazy to venerate some old bones or pieces of cloth. But for us, as we believe that in Christ the spiritual achieved its perfect physical manifestation, so the flesh participates in the spirit, and the physical remains of a particularly holy person, or objects that were around that person, still make the spirit of that person manifest in the world.”

There were pieces of the true cross, and the reed from which water was offered to Christ on the cross; a shawl of the Virgin Mary which had been taken to Moscow and apparently worked a series of implausible miracles there; and finally – the one that brought me closest to simultaneous gag and guffaw – in a silver, jewel-encrusted casket, the head of  the fifth century Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom, with a small door open in one side to enable a close-up view of his ear:

http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/01/translation-of-relics-of-st-john.html

When I got over this, I asked Father Matthew: “What do you do?”

“Well sure, we study”, he responded. “But mostly, we pray.”

Back in the dormitory, Evangelos showed me the coffee machine, in preparation for the 8 p.m. service: the last four hours of 2011. Then he led me back to the church, making sure we were there early enough for me to reclaim the seat I had had earlier. By now it was pitch dark, and the candles glowed dimly in clouds of gold. Crowds of monks and laymen trooped in and did the circuit of the icons, crossing themselves and kissing; monks scampered hither and thither, their beards flowing, lighting oil lamps, the shuffle of their shoes on the marble floors. The chanting began. I stood for ages. Monks in the left apse sang for a timeless stretch; a monk scurried across from them to the right side, and those began to chant in turn. Thus the plainsong switched from right to left and back and back again; priests within the sanctuary brought out icons and caskets, to which the faithful circulated; monks crossed themselves to right and left, some turning elegantly, some whirling between the compass points. It became clear to me that, apart from certain obvious passages where a crescendo was reached, it was pretty much up to each individual to choose when to sit and when to stand; the layman next to me sat down and failed to rise for a couple of hours, by which time I had realised that he was asleep with his head in his hands crushed on the seat in front.

This gave me plenty of time to ruminate. On the correlation between monking and tallness: is it coincidence that there is a disproportionate number of longfellas in beards and black robes, or is there something about being tall that makes young men want to withdraw from the world? A sense of social awkwardness? A loftier perspective? On the similarities between this dark ancient mystery cult preserved in living 4th century amber, and other world religions: the spinning clarity of the dervishes; the still, glowing iconography of the Tibetans; the vivid and multifarious god/saints of the Hindus; the plainsong and genuflection of the Catholics; the narrow undulations of the Muslim call to prayer? All religions are one, but all religions are different? On the intense hold on the public imagination that this mystifying extravaganza retains, and its apparent connection with the diehard skinhead history-shackled nationalists of the Balkans. So the thoughts spiralled in and out of my mind in the dark glowing trance of the passing hours, while my feet and back ached, and slowly, slowly, I found myself taken out of time and all became one in the golden smoke – or was I falling asleep? Religious experience as attrition…

Finally, they wrapped it up. Ten past twelve, the dead of night, and the beginning of the year – 2012, though nobody remarked upon it. With rites to resume at 6 a.m., I forced myself to shower and shave, and packed my bags ahead of time; I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it in the morning. By 1 a.m. I was in bed, Evangelos snoring; four-and-a-bit hours sleep. Then the trudge back down to the opening doors, the kissing of the icons, the whirling and the chanting, the swinging of incense and the parading of the faithful: three more hours. From about half way the light inched in through the windows, till at length the lamps – or most of them – were extinguished, and the panoply lingered into the spreading grey morning like a smoky ethereal memory of the passion of the night before. It was, at great length, the celebration of the host; in the course of this, through the doors of the inner sanctuary, momentarily, I noticed the ageing, St. George-ish red-and-white clad celebrant hesitate, and one of the youngbeards guide him humbly to the next stage of the ceremony. This seemed odd; but then he emerged into the centre of the church with the host and the wine, and there followed a whirling orgy of censer-rattling and genuflection, and the presentation and consumption of the same flat cake I had seen at Simonopetra. This was the climax; the service was over. But strangely the monks did not all disperse; the ageing greybeard came over to near where I was, and a crowd of monks gathered around him, laughing and joking and asking him questions.

“This was in fact the abbot of one of the other monasteries on the mountain, officiating with us as a guest,” explained Father Matthew. “You may have heard that our own abbot was arrested on Christmas Day in connection with a land scandal, and placed in custody. He was described as a threat to the state and a flight risk! Even if these charges were true, which they are not, he would never run away! It’s absurd. But the abbot of one of the other monasteries has come to preside as a gesture of solidarity with us.”

“So what did you think of it all?”, he asked.

“Well, it was quite an amazing show”, I replied.

“It would be surprising if it wasn’t! After all, this is what we do!” I laughed; these words were almost exactly the same that George Clinton had used about p-funk at La Grande Arche de La Defense, six months ago.

Breakfast in the refectory, all crammed together again; wine was served in tin flasks. As I broke for the jeep back to the port, Father Matthew intercepted me and handed me a handwritten slip with some recommended reading. One piece was an interview with an orthodox monk: “don’t pay attention to the interviewer”, advised Father Matthew, “he has New Age tendencies.” The ride back to Dafni was on rough roads, skilfully and speedily negotiated; the ferry was cold, slow and rattly, but it got us there, the distant headlands hanging in the mist of the winter afternoon. The sea rode up us into the harbour; the boat pulled into the dock at Ouranopoli, and its passengers made up the ramp to the area where the bus would depart for Thessaloniki. A couple of shops were open; the middle-aged ice-cream lady came out of her store and looked around to see what was going on; shabby-looking laymen sat on their bags; a tall monk paced back and forth in his black cloak; a woman waited in her knee-length coat and long high-heeled boots, her brown hair tumbling down her back; small cars pulled away; a thin sunshine broke across the square.

“Hell,” I thought,  “I like the world!”

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