19 July 2012

Fields of Gold

On Saturday, I finished the border between Panagia ("All-holy [one]," an affectionate term for the Mother of God) and the communion of the Apostles.

The icon of Christ communing the apostles is traditional behind the altar in an Orthodox Church. Above the altar is traditionally the icon of the Mother of God. Above her, in the dome, the highest point in the church, is Christ Pantokrator (Almighty, or literally "Ruler of All").

The place of the icon of the Mother of God above the altar comes from the shadows in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple.  In the Old Testament tabernacle, within the holy of holies was the Ark of the Covenant.  Within the ark was the tablets of the law, the rod of Aaron which budded, and a jar of manna.  Above the ark was the mercy seat, which was overshadowed by cherubim.  This was the type and shadow, now, in Christ is the fulfillment.

On every Orthodox altar, these shadows are fulfilled:  In place of the law is now the book of the Holy Gospel.  Instead of Aaron's rod, we have the Cross.  Instead of the jar of manna, we have the tabernacle reserving the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, Christ Himself, the true bread from heaven.  Above the altar is the Mercy Seat, the Mother of God.  Instead of an empty seat, as in the Old Testament, the mercy seat is now occupied.  This icon is of Christ Emmanuel (God with us) enthroned on his mother's lap.  The mercy seat is surrounded by the cherubim, who are always invisibly present around the Holy Altar, represented in the icons.  This is the context for these icons which Tom is painting.
On Saturday evening, Tom and I decided to take a break from our work.  We got pizza and watched Spiderman.  I enjoyed the film.  It was kind of like every other Spiderman movie: gets bit by spider, uncle gets killed, he seeks vengeance and turns into a vigilante.  I enjoy the characters and movies, but never got into the comics.

On Sunday, I chanted with Andreas at Orthros.  Andreas is the cantor at Archangel Michael. He is a professional singer (for weddings, parties, etc.) with slicked back gray-white hair.  He was wearing a white suitcoat.  Following suit, I did not wear my raso. Father Dennis had introduced us.  Andreas was excited to meet me, and glad I could chant with him.  He is also an artist, and showed me photos of his paintings: some of Greek islands, some of cottages, all in Kincade's style.

The Orthros book was formatted Greek on the left, English on the right.  We simply took turns and chanted antiphonally with Andreas chanting in Greek and I in English.  I gave him an ison (drone), which he did not provide for me (I found it difficult to chant without it since I am so used to it).  The custom at this parish is for the cantor to chant liturgy rather than the choir during the summer, so Andreas and I chanted for Liturgy as well, following the same format.  He chanted the epistle in Greek, and I followed in English. The Anaphora (communion service) was in plagal first mode, which was also the tone of the week.  During communion we sang "Recieve me today, O Son of God, as partaker of Thy mystical supper..." alternating in Greek and English.

After the liturgy was a memorial service.  We sang "Memory Eternal" with the same melody as St. Irene's, so it must be pretty universal.  The melody is hauntingly beautiful, and I would like to use it at St. Mary's.

You may listen to this melody of "memory eternal" below.  The choir in the video is directed by my teacher, Ioannis Arvanitis.

After Liturgy was coffee hour, of course.  The book store was open.  I bought a paraklesis to St. Nektarios with hopes of using this service in the future at St. Mary's.  I also found "Evlogeite: A Pilgrim's Guide to Greece" to help me prepare for my next trip.

At coffee hour, Tom ran into a lady who he knew from Greece, because they have the same geronda (elder). She lives in New York City, and was planning to visit friends further down Long Island, but made a wrong exit from the expressway and ended up at Archangel Michael.  The three of us went to a diner for lunch.
She was quite opinionated and was not fond of most things.  However, she introduced us to an incredibly beautiful and moving homily by St. Epiphanios of Cyprus:


St. Epiphanios is extremely elegant and vivid in his imagery as Christ dies on the Cross, Nikodemos bargains with Pilate, Christ descends victorious to Hades and destroys it, and raises Adam and all the faithful from the Old Testament who have been awaiting this day.  I know it is long, but it is worth it.  Please take the time to read it. You won't regret it.

On Monday, we worked for almost 14 hours on the gold leaf.  We placed thousands of 3 3/8" x 3 3/8" squares of gold to the wall.  Tom woke up at 3am to glue the wall so that it would be sufficiently tacky to start at 8.  The glue is sensitive and must be done in carefully planned sections.  The huge expanse was necessary to achieve the right look and avoid visible seams.  The process is painfully slow and my back and neck were not at all happy.  At the end of the day, the apse was half finished.

On Tuesday, I began the border above the apse.  It is a green floral border, almost like lace.

On Wednesday, we endured another brutal leafing.  Today, we shaved off a couple hours and finished the same area in 12 hours.  The apse is now completely gilded.

I placed the final leaf.
Fields of Gold:
Enjoy this appropriate video:

13 July 2012

Photios Kontoglou

An iconographic portrait of Kontoglou. 

On this day in 1965, the ever-memorable blessed Photios Kontoglou fell asleep in the Lord. He was an iconographer, chanter, and writer. He brought about the revival of traditional orthodox iconography in the mid 20th century. I will repost one of his writings in iconography. 

May his memory be eternal. 

What Orthodox Iconography Is

by Photios Kontoglou

The religion of Christ is the revelation, by Him, of the truth. And this truth is the knowledge of the true God and of the spiritual world. But the spiritual world is not what men used to—and still do—call "spiritual."
Christ calls His religion "new wine" and "bread that cometh down from Heaven." The Apostle Paul says, "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away: behold, all things have become new."

In a religion like this, one that makes the believer into a "new man," everything is "new." So, too, the art that gradually took form out of the spirit of this religion, and which it invented to express its Mystery, is a "new" art, one not like any other, just as the religion of Christ is not like any other, in spite of what some may say who have eyes only for certain meaningless externals.

The architecture of this religion, its music, its painting, its sacred poetry, insofar as they make use of material media, nourish the souls of the faithful with spirit. The works produced in these media are like steps that lead them from earth up to heaven, from this earthly and temporary state to that which is heavenly and eternal: This takes place so far as is possible with human nature.

For this reason, the arts of the Church are anagogical, that is, they elevate natural phenomena and submit them to "the beautiful transformation." They are also called "liturgical" arts, because through them man tastes the essence of the liturgy by which God is worshipped and through which man becomes like unto the Heavenly Hosts and perceives immortal life.

Ecclesiastical liturgical painting, the painting of worship, took its form above all from Byzantium, where it remained the mystical Ark of Christ's religion and was called hagiographia or sacred painting. As with the other arts of the Church, the purpose of hagiographia is not to give pleasure to our carnal sense of sight, but to transform it into a spiritual sense, so that in the visible things of this world we may see what surpasses this world.

Hence this art is not theatrically illusionistic. Illusionistic art came into being in Italy during the so-called Renaissance, because this art was the expression of a Christianity which, deformed by philosophy, had become a materialistic, worldly form of knowledge, and of the Western Church, which had become a worldly system. And just as theology followed along behind the philosophy of the ancients—so, too, the painting which expressed this theology followed along behind the art of the ancient idolators. The period is well named Renaissance, since, to tell the truth, it was no more than a rebirth of the ancient carnal mode of thought that had been the pagan world's.

But just as those theologians were wading around in the slimy swamp waters of philosophy, and were in no position to taste and understand the clear fresh water of the Gospel, "drawn up to life eternal," so, too, the painters who brought about the Renaissance were in no position to understand the mystical profundity of Eastern liturgical iconography, the sacred art of Byzantium. And just as the theologians thought that they could perfect Christ's religion with philosophy, since for them it seemed too simple, they being in no position to penetrate into the depths of that divine simplicity: just so, the painters thought that they were perfecting liturgical art, more simply called Byzantine, by making it "more natural."

So they set to work, copying what was natural—faces, clothes, buildings, landscapes, all as they appear naturally—making an iconography with the same rationalism that the theologians wanted to make theology with. But the kind of theology you can get out of rationalism is exactly the kind of religious iconography you can get out of copying nature.

This is why their works have no Mystery, nor any real spiritual character. You understand that you have before you some men masquerading as saints—not real saints. Look at the various pictures of the Mother of God. "Madonnas" who pose hypocritically, and those in tears, weeping, which are even falser yet! Corpses and idols for shallow men! Our people, who for centuries have received a great and profound nurture from Christ's religion, even though outwardly they seem uneducated, call a woman who pretends to be respectable but who is really not, a Frankopanayhia, a "Frankish Virgin," thus making a clear distinction between the "Frankish Virgin" and the true Virgin, the Mother of Christ our God, the austere Odogitria, Her "more precious than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim". In other words, in the simplest way possible they make a neat, sharp distinction between the art of the world and the art belonging to worship.

Western religious painters who wanted to depict the supernatural visions of religion took as models certain natural phenomena—clouds, sunsets, the moon, the sun with its beams. With these they tried to portray the heavenly glory and the world of immortality, calling certain things "spiritual" which are merely sentimental, emotional, not spiritual at all.

In vain, however. Because the blessedness of the other life is not a continuation of the emotional happiness of this world, neither does it have any relation to the satisfaction the senses enjoy in this life. The Apostle Paul, talking about the good things of the blessedness to come, says that they are such that "eye hath not seen, and ear hath not heard, neither have entered into the heart of man."
How, then, can that world, which lies beyond everything a man can grasp with his senses—how can that world be portrayed by an art that is "natural" and that appeals to the senses? How can you paint "what surpasses nature and surpasses sense"?

Certainly, man will take elements from the perceptible world, "for the senses' sake," but to be able to express "what surpasses sense" he must dematerialize these elements, he must lift them to a higher plane, he must transmute them from what is carnal into what is spiritual, just as faith transmutes man's feelings, making them, from carnal, into spiritual. "I saw," says St. John of the Ladder, "some men given over with passion to carnal love, and when they received the Light and took the way of Christ, this fierce carnal passion was changed inside them, with divine grace. into a great love for the Lord."

Thus, even the material elements which Byzantine iconography took from the world of sense were supernaturally transmuted into spiritualities, and since they had passed through the pure soul of a man who lived according to Christ, like gold through a refiner's fire, they express, as far as is possible for a man who wears a material body, that which the Apostle Paul spoke of, "which eye hath not seen, neither hath entered into the heart of man."

The beauty of liturgical art is not a carnal beauty, but a spiritual beauty. That is why whoever judges this art by worldly standards says that the figures in Byzantine sacred painting are ugly and repellent, while for one of the faithful they possess the beauty of the spirit, which is called "the beautiful transformation."

The Apostle Paul says. "We (who preach the Gospel and live according to Christ ) are ... a sweet savour of Christ unto them that are saved and unto them that perish. Unto them that have within them the small of death (of flesh), we smell of death; and unto them that have within them the smell of life, we smell of life."

And the blessed and hallowed St. John of the Ladder says, "There was an ascetic who, whenever he happened to see a beautiful person, whether man or woman, would glorify the Creator of that person with all his heart, and from a mere glance his love for God would spring afresh and he would pour out on his account a fountain of tears. And one marveled, seeing this happen, that for this man what would cause the soul of another to stink had become a reason for crowns and an ascent above nature. Whoever perceives beauty in this fashion is already incorruptible, even before the dead shall rise in the common Resurrection,"
"Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind . . ." (Rom. xii. 2)
From Word MagazinePublication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North AmericaSeptember 1964 
pp. 5-6


Tom and I made progress on the Panagia and apse.
I worked extensively on the border and almost completed it.

Then, we both worked on applying gold leaf for a good ten

Each gold leaf is pressed on a paper, and there are 25 leaves in a book. We have used 32 books so far.

First, the wall is rolled in an oil based glue than sets for 5 hours to become tacky enough to accept the gold. It is workable for about 8 hours after that. Each leaf is pressed onto the wall and rubbed smooth with fingers and then the paper is removed.

The gold leaf is thinner than tissue and is too delicate to be handled on its own. Each leaf is lined up with the others, and is built up from the bottom, not unlike building many towers, then filling in the spaces in between.

Any missed spots are touched up with leftover gold stuck to the paper from overlapping. With a more 14-16 hour days, we should finish the gold leaf early next week.

12 July 2012

The Next Chapter Has Begun

On Wednesday, 4 July, I returned home. I am not the most patriotic person, but seeing the red stripes flying in the sky was a welcome sight, and I really think that returning home on Independence Day was fitting. My plane landed around 4 p.m. in South Bend. Rebekah picked me up from the airport. We stopped by a friend's house in Bremen. His dad is quite a talented homebrewer. It was the first good beer in 6 weeks. A fine welcome home. A number of friends were there as well and we shared stories of goings on over the past 6 weeks over fine homebrews and brats.

In the evening were fireworks. A fine first day back home in America.

In the morning I walked to the hardware store. I never realized how beautiful Syracuse was. Huge, deep green trees, the lake around the corner, American flags lining the streets, and flowers hanging from the lampposts.

Some of my sentiments are certainly just the feeling of being home, and some of it is that I am in a small town and not a large city. But I really think I appreciate small town Indiana and America in general much more than I did 6 weeks ago. My wife, family, home, history, roots, friends, and life are here. It is also green and lush, even in the drought. And part of it is that I can flush the toilet paper again. And there is not a shred of trash on the street and not a hint of grafitti on the wall. The streets are calm and mostly empty.

Now if only Indiana had history or an Orthodox Church on every street corner.

I spent a few days relaxing. On Saturday, Rebekah, Jerusalem (my godson) and I went to the zoo in Fort Wayne. It has been a yearly occurance since our engagement 4 years ago.

On Sunday, we baptized our new goddaughter Genevieve, Jerusalem's baby sister. Although our little parish can't hold a candle to anything I saw in Greece, it is wonderful to be home.

Monday, I drove 12 hours and 650 miles to New Jersey. The drive was uneventful, besides too much construction in Pennsylvania. I listened to half of "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern, several episodes of the podcast "Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy" by Father Andrew Stephen Damick, and a lot of music. The drive gave me a lot of opportunity to reflect on my time in Greece and what I have brought back from it. Specifically, I am thinking about ways I can bring what I saw back to our little country parish in Indiana. This fall, my goal is to split the choir το chant antiphonally and teach them Byzantine notation (watch out!).

I spent the evening talking to my inlaws about the trip.

Yesterday, Tuesday morning, I waited until rushhour passed, and left for New York. Traffic was a piece of cake at 11:00 a.m. Tolls were another matter: $12 to cross the George Washington and $6.50 to cross Throg's Neck.

After two hours and emptying my wallet, I arrived at Archangel Michael Greek Orthodox Church in Port Washington. I could'nt miss it from the road: a huge brick and tile dome with a cross. Although distinctly American, It looks like it would belong in Greece. The $17 million facility is still bustling with construction activity. I wandered in amongst construction workers and found the nave.

Tom Clark was working on the scaffolding, adding finishing touches of charcoal to a multicolored chalk drawing high in the apse. Below, the Communion of the Apostles is mostly finished, and covered with plastic for protection.

He descended and we made introductions.

He grew up in Chicago and his wife grew up in Grand Rapids, MI. They moved to Greece because of the spiritual and historical richness of the country. He has five sons; the oldest three (20, 22, 24) are tonsured monks and used to assist him on projects such as this church.

His faith is apparent in conversation. "The number one thing about painting a church is to be reverent. When you are painting a church, you are inside the heart of Christ. It is a gift."

He introduced me to the priest, Father Dennis. Tom has known Fr. Dennis since he was a boy in Chicago.

Tom and I ate lunch at a nearby diner. I ordered a philly cheese steak. As much as I love Greek food, it is good to be back and enjoy something purely American.

We finished lunch with a chocolate milkshake (Chicago style, a real milkshake, not the Boston style).

We returned to the church and I began my first task: scraping the walls. The walls must be scraped to remove any bumps as well as to burnish, compress, and smooth the surface in preparation for gold leaf. The wall is brand new finished and primed drywall and is a very nice surface.

While I scraped (and try not to gouge or scuff), Tom went over the lines with a dark red paint. Each figure has multiple drawings, each done with a different color chalk. The first drawings are a light yellow. He made adjustments with blue and red and finally charcoal. Last, he added a bold painted line which will show through the layers of paint.

After hours of scraping, I was covered in white flakes. Around 9:00 p.m. we went to Father Dennis' house to take showers. Presvytera (the Priest's wife) fed me still-warm leftovers from dinner while Tom showered. I had pork chops, peas, carrots, artichokes, and salad. I showered and we were on our way. We stopped by a grocery store to get water, fruit, cereal, and milk. We got to talking and somehow the fact that Ι grew up on a farm came up. He was fascinated that the earth keeps producing rocks that need to be removed so equipment isn't damaged.

We called it a night. By morning, my air mattress had entirely deflated. I found the hole; I hope scotch tape is enough.

I began painting a wallpaper sizing over the area where the gold will be applied. The sizing seals the surface so the adhesive will dry evenly.

After the first coat (it takes 2 hrs to dry) I began on a border. The first step was a gradient from white to ochre. About the time I finished that, it was time for the second coat of sizing. Meanwhile, Tom drew and cut out the stencil for the border. I ran out to Whole Foods to pick up some things for lunch.
After lunch, I began sponging a yellow ochre through the stencil to create the border.

Tom applied a small section of glue and painted some base colors to the icons. In the evening, I began to paint the border in the complicated pattern. When the glue had set for an adequate time (5 hours) to become tacky, Tom began to apply gold leaf.

Tomorrow, he will wake up early to apply the glue so it can be ready by mid morning. I stayed up late working on the border.

Ο Τέλος

Tuesday, 3 July was my last day in Greece.  It was as perfect as I could have hoped. I visited Aegina to venerate the holy relics of St. Nektarios. St. Nektarios was a recent saint.  He was a bishop in northern Africa, where we suffered much from the lies of his brother bishops.  He came to Aegina where he founded a monastery.  He is well known as a wonderworker and healer.

Fotis and I woke up at 7.  First, I looked at the ferry schedule.  A fast boat left at 8:50.  This should be doable.

Fotis treated me to a traditional Greek breakfast...a coffee and a cigarette. After breakfast, we rode the metro to Pireaus, where we bought our tickets and arrived at the dock with 10 minutes to spare.  The boat docked and unloaded, and the new passengers boarded.  The hydrofoil went quite fast and took us to the island of Aegina in half an hour.

Aegina is a quaint island close to Athens.  The town has beautiful buildings and countless boats, each named after a saint or feast.  When St. Nekatrios was canonized, the port of Aegina was so packed with pilgrims that there was concern that the piers would sink.

The first order of business was determining transportation to St. Nektarios.  There was a bus leaving in 30 minutes.  We found a bakery and bought a couple of pastries for a more substantial breakfast. Fotis called a client for a website design, I called Arvanitis to schedule one last lesson, and finally Fotis called his mother to share the excitement of visiting St. Nektarios.

"Most kids grow up with Spiderman," Fotis explained to me. "I grew up with St. Nektarios.  I have never come here before...Thank you."

While we were waiting for the bus, we took off our shoes and waded in the crystal clear Saronic Gulf.

 We boarded the bus with more than  a dozen other people.  The bus wound its way up  the mountain from the port.  The bus was older than the Athens buses (everything there was new for the 2004 Olympics).  Fotis said this bus was made in Thessaloniki.  We passed many farm chapels just as in Naxos.  Fotis explained that most of these chapels are dedicated to St. Elias (Elijah).  There are also many shrines along the road that look like a tiny church on a post (not unlike a mailbox) which are usually placed where someone died in a car accident.

The huge church of St. Nektarios was visible from quite a distance.  The bus stopped and emptied entirely.

We entered the huge church, which is still under construction.  There is scaffolding in the dome for the iconographers to work.  The iconostas is hand carved wood, with a pulpit above the royal doors. The relics of the saint are in a silver reliquary in a side chapel. We venerated them, said prayers, and took some photos.

Somehow Fotis knew that this was not all.  We ascended many flights of winding switchback stairs lined with beautiful flowers to the monastery proper.  St. Nektarios founded this monastery in the early 20th century.  The church is new since his canonization, but much of the monastery remains as he knew it.

The gate of the monastery told the dress code.  Fotis' shorts were not so strictly forbidden since he is Greek and not a tourist.

In the monastery, we found the small chapel where St. Nektarios served liturgy.  His holy skull is enshrined here inside a silver mitre.

At least three hundred lamps adorn the ceiling.

Not long after our arrival, a paraklesis (supplication) service to St. Nektarios began.  In the course of the service, there was an unending line of pilgrims coming to kiss the relics of the saint, much like at St. Ephraim of Nea Makri. Hundreds of pilgrims passed through the monastery in the brief time we were there. We returned to the bus stop, where we learned two things:
1. The bus would not come for another 45 minutes
2. St. Nekatarios' house was open for visiting.

In his bedroom are dozens of icons and some personal effects, most notably his prayer rope.  After venerating his head one last time, we returned to the bus stop.

We climbed the stairs back to the monastery and found his house.  It is preserved exactly how he had it: his books in the bookshelf and his family photos on the walls.

At the bus stop, a quite obese gypsy was selling nuts from the back of his moped. Fotis did not take the offered free sample and cautioned me to do the same. We talked with a couple of yia yias at the bus stop.  Fotis was excited to introduce me and they were excited to meet me, an American convert to Orthodoxy.

We rode the bus back to Aegina town.  For my last day in Greece, I wanted seafood, especially since I was on an island.  We found a waterfront taverna.  I ordered grilled octopus.  Fotis made sure it was fresh and was satisfied when the owner told him it was caught yesterday. The octopus was perfection.

After lunch, we still had 2 hours before the boat would take us back to Pireaus.  We went to the beach where we waded and skipped stones.  This was the first time Fotis has been in the sea in 2 years.

We took the boat back to Pireaus, where we parted ways: Fotis took a bus to his apartment in Egaleo, and I took the metro back to the center of Athens.  I went a few extra stops to visit St. Nicholas Planas.  They had found my icons and returned them to me.  I got the icon of St. Philothei from my apartment and went to the metropolis one last time.  I found a priest who was quite happy to bless her icon over her holy relics.  It was emotional to leave Saints Gregory and Philothei.  It was like saying goodbye to dear friends.

I cleaned and packed before my lesson with Arvanitis.  I made the 25 minute trek one last time, and got one last frappe. Along the way, out of five million people in Athens, I ran into Lycourgos Angelopoulos who was glad to see me. I explained that this was my last day in Greece, what an honor it was to sing at St. Irene, and he said farewell.

The lesson of course was very good.  We continued to study ornaments and sang some hymns in English.  After the lesson, we talked for about half and hour.  I gave him a bottle of wine and he gave me a few CDs of his choir and of another choir singing hymns that he composed. We exchanged a Christian kiss.

I arrived at my apartment just in time for Fotis Dionysopoulos to check me out of the apartment. There were no problems, and he hoped to see me again in Athens.

Soon after, Fotis Oikonomou arrived. He offered to hang out and walk with me to the bus to the airport. He didn't think it would be safe to walk by myself at 3 a.m. carrying all of my baggage.
We went out for some souvlaki, which we ate in monastiraki square.  We watched people mill about under the acropolis.

On the way back to my apartment, we stopped by Panagia Kapnikarea to listen to a street musician. He was quite talented: he played American folk/rock songs with a strong reggae influence.  Nearby a juggler performed.

I caught one last glimpse of the acropolis.

Goodbye, Greece. For now.

I know I'll be back.

10 July 2012

Final Adventures

I became close friends with Fotis Oikonomou during my last several days in Greece.

He chants at St. Irene's, and I have seen him over the past couple of weeks, but had not gotten to know him until last Saturday. After vespers, I went to the Metropolis to venerate the relics of Sts. Philothei and Hieromartyr Gregory. Fotis had the same idea, and we spent some time talking on the steps of the metropolis.

This Saturday, 30 June, Adrian and I again met Fotis after vespers. We walked went for some coffee near Monastiraki. A beautiful icon adorned the wall of the cafe. A gypsy rode a motorcycle down the street with a sound system blaring. With cappucinos in hand, we walked past the ancient Agora to Thisseo, an ancient sacrificial site. We sat in a park, under tall pine trees. Fotis played "The Scientist" by Coldplay as he told us about his life. His father and grandfather were killed by a drunk driver four years ago. This and other sufferings has produced an incredibly strong and vibrant faith. "My father is close to me. Sometimes my [baptismal] cross is heavy and pulls from my neck. Sometimes I feel my father pat my knee."

After changing the music to "Hurt" by Johnny Cash, Fotis showed us a photo on his phone. He has a huge smile and is flashing "thumbs up" next to the skull of St. Ephraim of Nea Makri. "We're homeboys...both from Trikala." We proposed going to Nea Makri the following day, as Adrian had not visited the Saint. Fotis was excited to visit the saint again.
He is a graduate student of informational technology. He is finishing his masters and hopes to earn his doctorate in England. He has asked God for three things: to study chant with Angelopoulos, earn his degree, and find a strong Christian wife. God has granted him two of these: he asks us to pray for him to find his wife.

As dusk was descending, Adrian and I wanted to grab a bite to eat. We parted ways as Fotis headed towards the metro at Syntagma.

On Sunday morning, 1 July, Adrian and I stood with the choir one last time. They were quite impressed with his deep voice and low ison (drone). After the liturgy was a memorial for all Greek Orthodox killed by the Turks.

We bid farewell to Anastasios Stellas, Ioannis Tsiotsiopoulos, and Lycourgos Angelopoulos. Now we began our pilgrimage to Nea Makri. We went with Fotis to Victoria via the metro. Victoria is a major bus hub. The bus to Nea Makri would leave in half an hour. Nature was calling but there were no public restrooms. Fotis recommended the park. "You're in Greece." A bush in the park served well. We explained how this is a crime in America. He assured us that we'd be fine and that less civilized peoples (i.e. non-Greeks) would just use the sidewalk...

The bus finally arrived. We rode it for an hour to Nea Makri. In the square, we got souvlaki before we began the 4 km uphill hike to the monastery.

Along the way, Fotis retold the story of St. Ephraim: in the mid 15th century, the Turks invaded central Greece and forced Christian boys into military service against their own people. St. Ephraim's mother sent him to Attika (not yet overrun by the Turks) to escape. He became a monk and excelled in asceticism. He became a hermit up in the mountains and came to the monastery once a month for communion. One Sunday, he returned to the monastery to find all of the brothers slaughtered by the Turks. He gave them a proper burial and lived in the monastery. The Turks returned. When he would not convert to Islam, they nailed him upside down to a berry tree and tortured him every day for 9 months. On 5 May 1426, the Turks took a burning log and pushed it through his stomach. He was fogotten for 500 years.

In 1950, a nun took up residence in the ruins of the monastery. Following an inner voice, she found the buried relics of the saint, cleaned them, and placed them in the church. Because he suffered greatly, he works countless and great miracles.

The road was lined with olive trees and led only to the monastery, and there was steady traffic. An elderly man pulled over and offered us a ride, which we gratefull accepted. The pilgrims at the monastery were full of the stories of St. Ephraim's miracles. We stayed for vespers. For an hour, there was an unending line of pilgrims kissing his relics. The peace and stillness around the saint was indescribable.

The man drove us back to Athens, where we caught the metro back to the apartment. Nea Makri is close to Marathon and the road to Athens follows the famous route.

On Monday, Adrian and I visited St. Nicholas Planas. The man tending the candles could not find the icons I left and told me to return the next day. Adrian and I ate Indian for lunch and bought some last minute tourist kitsche. I rode the bus with Adrian to the airport. In the afternoon, I bought a cassock for Charlie. They brought me to the back room to drink orange juice while the lady hemmed up the bottom to fit. The view from the balcony was incredible.

In the evening, I had a lesson with Arvanitis. After the lesson, Fotis and I hung out. We got McDonalds. I tried the "Greek Mac" which was basically a hamburger pattie dressed as a gyro. We grabbed a couple of beers at a kiosk and ate on Syntagma square. We made plans to leave early the next day for Aegina.

08 July 2012

Saturday, 30 June: The Synaxis of the 12 Apostles and St. Michael the Gardener

On 30 June, the day after the chief Apostles Peter and Paul, the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the synaxis (gathering) of the 12 apostles.  Since the Apostle Matthew is my patron saint, this day is one of my name's days (the primary being the feast of his martyrdom, 16 November).
Adrian and I chanted in the choir at Orthros and Liturgy at St. Irene.  We arrived in the middle of Orthros and were welcomed to sing. 
After Liturgy, we gathered in the priest's office for coffee.  We spent a few hours talking to two cantors, Taso Stellas (a professional Opera singer and a computer programmer) and Demetrios Gallos (an actor in television dramas).  We mostly discussed cultural differences between America and Greece. 
Greeks have a strong national identity. They are a tribe: sharing the same ancestry, faith, language, history, culture, music, etc.  Every Greek knows which village his grandmother is from.  The faith and language helped preserve their national identity during centuries of Turkish slavery. 
Americans on the other hand have no such bond, other than we live in the same place, and most Americans speak English.  There is no common bond to unite Americans, as this land is a melting pot.  The cultures, history, and language of our ancestors were lost, while Protestants brought their multitude of fractured sects.
Our friends were shocked that we did not know offhand the villages in Germany and England where our ancestors were from. 
Another shock to both parties is that of income.
"How much do you make in America?  While not particularly offended, and thought they asked out of curiosity to compare cost of living, I did explain how this is quite a private matter. However, in Greece, ones income is common conversation.
"I got a new job."
"That's great! How much will you make?"
"I got a raise!"
"Congratulations! How big of a raise?"
Demetrios' jaw hit the floor when he learned that Adrian and I have been friends for 10 years and did not know what the other earned.  Or that we did not know our parents' salaries.  Or that Adrian and his girlfriend do not know each other's salaries. Or that some American married couples do not see each others' check stubs.
After talking for a couple hours, noon was approaching (I love the earlier starting times for liturgies in Greece).  We walked down the street from St. Irene's to the Fish Spa.  I was meeting with Fotis Dionysopoulos to get a scale to weigh our luggage.  I also lost a shirt from the clothesline and was wondering if it was possible to retrieve it, or if it belonged to the ages. 
Fotis warmly greeted us at the Fish Spa and sat down with us in his Zen garden outside.

We shared our experience on Mount Athos.  He was disappointed that we only spent one day.  In 1999, he spent a week there and walking from monastery to monastery. After he was sufficiently convinced that we were having a great time, he came with us to retrieve the shirt.  First, we got a key from the book peddler on the street below the apartment.  We ascended a flight of stairs to a floor not accessible by elevator.  We opened a door, and I climbed through a window to the tiny courtyard where my shirt was. 
In the afternoon, Adrian and I went to the Olympeion, or the Temple of Zeus. 

30 June is not only the feast of the 12 apostles, but also the commemoration of the beheading of the martyr Michael Baknanas.  St. Michael was a gardener in Athens. 

When he was 18 years old, Turks captured him, falsely accused him, tried to force him to convert to Islam and finally killed him.  He was lead to the Temple of Zeus (which was being used as a mosque at that time).  Along the way, he asked forgiveness from all Christians he met.  At the temple, the executioneer hit his neck with the blunt side of the sword to scare and to give him one last chance to convert.  St. Michael's last words were, "Strike for the Faith!"  He was beheaded on 9 July 1771.  The church remembers him on 30 June each year.  On the pillar where he was beheaded, faithful Christians left this inscription: "1771 Ιουλίου 9 απεκεφαλίσθη ο Πακνανάς Μιχάλης" (July 9th 1771 Michael Paknanas was beheaded).  The illumined pillar (the furthest right) has the inscription which was clearly visible in person, but difficult to photograph. St. Michael is a patron saint to gardeners, dieticians, and nutritionists. 

 I heard rumors that a liturgy is celebrated there each year on 30 June, but could not nail down any specifics, so Adrian and I went to St. Irene in the morning.  Nevertheless, it was moving to visit this holy site on his feast, just as it was to be on the Areopagus for the feast of the Apostle Paul.

02 July 2012

The Feast of the All-Glorious and Chiefs of the Apostles Peter and Paul

The feast of the Chief Apostles Peter and Paul is celebrated on 29 June each year.  Both apostles share the same feast day since both were martyred in Rome on the same day, 29 June AD 67.  Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded.

Adrian and I had the awesome and providential blessing of celebrating the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul in both Thessaloniki and Athens, two cities where St. Paul preached the Gospel. We attended vespers at St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki. There was a solemn procession around the church with a large icon of St. Paul. It was placed in the center for the people to venerate.

We returned to the train station to find an impressive sight: the chapel was full of people at 10:30 celebrating the feast with a vigil. Remember this is a chapel in a train station and it was packed. This is a testimony to the growth of the faith first brought to this city by the Apostle Paul. Other signposts would be the icons in the bus station, icons in the public bus, in the taxis, in every store and cafe. 

We took an overnight train to Athens. Again, it was regrettable. The woman in front of us had 2 puppies. Another couple couldn't stop yelling and/or screaming for the whole ride. Thanks to exhaustion, earplugs and Advil pm, I slept for most of the ride.  
We arrived in Athens at 5:30. I did not make it to St. Irene for Orthros at 7:00, but I did make it to Liturgy at 8:30. 

After the customary post-liturgical coffee, I returned to the apartment to wake up Adrian (who did not sleep a wink on the train).  

We saw the acropolis and the Areopagus, which we though was appropriate for the feast of the Apostle Paul. At the acropolis we lamented that the Christian history of these places is completely overlooked. The parthenon was a Christian Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary for a thousand years...centuries longer than it was a pagan temple.  German interference has made the pagan, pre-Christian Greece the ideal, and the great Christian history into a narrative of decline. "The destruction of the Parthenon began with Christians..." was the only acknowledgement of the museum that it was a church. It's ok, despite what the nations wish Greece was, Adrian and I saw the soul of Greece in the Holy Mountain and the Thessaloniki train station. Besides, the Christian graffiti still bears a silent witness to the true history of the place.

In the evening, we returned for vespers at Areopagus. I got us lost in Plaka and we ended up skirting the south edge of the agora. We could see the Areopagus, but couldn't get to it. The trail spit us out on Απόστολου Πάυλου (Apostle Paul Street). I at least knew how to get there from that point. As I was kicking myself for making us late, we began to hear a marching band far off. It got louder the closer we got to Διονύσιου Αρεοπάγιτου (St. Dionysios the Areopagite Street). We found the source of the band: there was a grand parade with hundreds of priests (four of them were carrying a life size icon of the apostle Paul), dignitaries, a military band, and many soldiers. Hundreds of people lined the street, crossing themselves when the icon passed. They joined the end of the procession, and Adrian and I joined them. Providence, not mine ineptitude, led us on the wrong way.
The parade ended with great pomp. The priests assembled at the base of the Areopagus and the four priests with the icon ascended the hill, where the Archbishop was waiting. The national TV cameras were rolling. The band played and the soldiers stood in rank at attention.  The priests placed the icon in a stand in front of a cross, on the spot where the Apostle to the Gentiles gave his famous speech.
Between 500 and 1,000 people were crowded around the base of Areopagus; it is not a large area.

The band silenced, and the archbishop gave the blessing to begin vespers: "Blessed is our God always, now and forever, and unto ages of ages. Amen."

The verses for the Apostle Paul filled the air.  Church bells rang continuously throughout the city. Wind whipped past the priests holding his icon on the hill.  We could not but be moved to emotion.

Psalm 140/141 was chanted and the deacons began the great censing around the hill and through the crowd.

Incense filled the open air as the wind tried to diffuse it.

After chanting "O Gladsome Light," the appointed time for reading was upon us.  From the same place on the hill and the original speech, the direct successor of the apostle Paul, Archbishop of Athens Ieronymos solemnly read the speech with converted the philosophers:
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, "What does this babbler want to say?"

Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods," because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak?  For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean."  For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:  "God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring.'  Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead."
And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, "We will hear you again on this matter."So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. Acts 17:16-34

Over the past several weeks, I have experienced the effects of this sermon and the power of Christ.

Two millenia later, the pagan temples are in ruins and the nation is full of churches with standing room only on weekday nights. Through the prayers of the All-Praised Chief Apostles Peter and Paul, O Christ Our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.