Greetings from Thessaloniki! It’s been a long day of travel, but thanks be to God, we have all arrived without incident in the once capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia, and the second city in promience after Constantinople during the Byzantine era. Some of us started our day in California, departing from SFO through Munich, Germany to Thessaloniki. Father Constantine of the Annunciation Cathedral in Baltimore departed from Washington Dulles and traveled through Germany to later meet us at the airport, while one of our families traveled from the Greek Isles and two of our families ventured from Ouranopolis, where the gentlemen traveled to Mount Athos for a few days with the Theophileon Brotherhood at the Skete of St. Anna. What a joy it was to greet almost everyone, just a bit after 11pm (as a few were already asleep).
Tomorrow, our day will be full. After breakfast we will enjoy a full day city tour of Thessaloniki, the second largest city of Greece. It is here that Apostle Paul first brought the message of Christianity (50 A.D.) and Demetrius, a Roman officer died in martyrdom (303 A.D.), thus becoming the holy patron of the city. It is city teeming with ecclesiastical history, as well as Byzantine art and architecture.
The hotel in which are staying is located a block up from the sea and within walking distance from Aristotle Square. The accommodations are very nice, not to mention that it really is an ideal location. And, by most of our estimations, it was relatively quite although there is always a hustle and bustle to the city.
This morning, we gathered for breakfast at 7AM so that we could depart for our city tour by 8:30. The meal was a European fare, which we enjoyed with coffee, and did I mention coffee? By the time we concluded our meal, the bus, our driver Savas, and our guide, Vivi (Paraskevi) we’re waiting for us just outside.
After a very brief introduction, Vevi, a graduate of the University of Thessaloniki in archeology as well as a schooled and licensed guide, started our city tour. She shared a wealth of knowledge as we drove to the Old City, passing numerous historical sites, including the White Tour, the Galerius Arch and the Rotunda, which is a massive round building that was first a Roman mausoleum, then a Christian Church dedicated to St. George, then a mosque, and then it thankfully returned to being a Christian Church. Although we didn’t have a chance to enter the Rotunda, it possesses within its walls early Byzantine mosaics of exceptional quality and on the outside is found the city’s only minaret.
We arrived at the City Walls, built by both Constantine the Great and the Emperor Theodosios. Besides enjoying a marvelous view of Thessaloniki, Vevi also shared much about the history of both the old and new cities, especially about the populations, which at one time was almost half Jewish. I must admit that I knew there was a significant Jewish population, but I really had no idea just how great the population had been at various points in history. The information that she shared made St. Paul’s presence and missionary efforts all the more logical as he engaged Hellenized Jews sharing the Good News that Christ was the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets.
Our second stop within the Old City was in proximity to the Moni Vlatadon Monastery, now a functioning school of Patristics in the care of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Within its grounds stands a beautiful cross in dome Byzantine church dedicated to our Lord, specifically the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration. Tradition states that this is in fact the site where St. Paul preached the Thessalonians. It is in close proximity to the house of Jason where St. Paul stayed and of course in proximity, if not the very site of a Jewish synagogue. If I’m not mistaken, the Church boasts the oldest wooden iconostasis in the region.
After our brief stay, we traveled to the Church of the Great and Holy Martyr Demetrius. The basilica church, one of the oldest and most revered churches of the Byzantine era, is situated on the site where St. Demetrius was imprisoned and then martyred under the Emperor Maximian on October 26 around AD 304. In the year 312, a small house church was built over his tomb, which can still be seen in the crypt. A few years later on account of the far-reaching notoriety and intercessions of this blessed Saint, Leontius, an Illyrian nobleman, who had been cured of a fatal illness after venerating the Holy Relics of St. Demetrius, replaced the small church with a much larger edifice, which remained until it was destroyed by fire in 626. At this point, it was rebuilt in a much grandeur scale. This Church stood through the Ottoman Empire during which time it functioned as a mosque, only to be returned to a functioning Cathedral, which was again destroyed by the great fire of 1917. The Church was again rebuilt upon the catacombs and it’s fifth century columns, housing the myrrh streaming relics of the Saint in a hexagonal chapel in the left aisle of the Church. Although we will return to the Church for Divine Services on Sunday morning, we venerated the Saint, commemorated names that had been submitted to us for prayer, explored the cathedral and catacombs, and spent some time just being present in the presence of the patron Saint of Thessaloniki. May he ever intercede for all of us!
Our next stop was the Church of Agia Sophia, but a short drive from the Church of St. Demetrius and a few city blocks away from the Metropolitan Cathedral that commemorates and preserves the Holy Relics of Saint Gregory Palamas. The existing Church was constructed in seventh century after an earthquake in 620 destroyed the original sixth century edifice. Dedicated to the Wisdom of the Lord, the Church is essentially a domed basilica. An eighth century mosaic is found in the sanctuary arch, depicting the Cross of our Lord with a circle of stars and monograms of the benefactors of the Church – Emperor Constantine VI, his mother Irene of Athens, and Metropolitan Theophilus of Thessaloniki. Within the dome, is found a massive, magnificent mosaic of the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord on the Mount of Olives.
To the right of the main altar is found a smaller chapel dedicated to Saint Anna! Although we weren’t able to enter this space on account of it being temporarily closed, it was a joy to know that our blessed matron is commemorated in this historical church. And, it was a privilege to again ask her intercessions, together with the Holy Hierarch and Confessor, Basil the New a tenth century Archbishop of Thessaloniki whose Holy Relics are located in the narthex of this blessed church!
Since some of the churches close for the afternoon hours prior to the Service of Great Vespers in the evening, we departed for the village of Saint Anthony, which is in proximity to the airport and the Monastery of St. John the Theologian where the Holy Relics of our Holy and Venerable Father Paisios are enshrined. We traveled to the village to enjoy a meal at a restaurant that preserves cuisine from Pontus, a historically Greek region of the Asia Minor, specifically in the Southern Coast of the Sea in Turkey. This though isn’t what makes the restaurant unique. Rather, the restaurant is a beneficiary of grant money from IOCC through an affiliate organization Apostoliki, a philanthropic arm of the Church of Greece based in Athens. The women of this village (expelled from Pontus) under the leadership of the Presvytera automated much of their production allowing them to grow their business, bringing greater resources to the village, including product and monies for those in need, while also preserving aspects of their rich Pontian heritage.
Prior to enjoying our meal, we were greeted by Chrysanthe, who oversees the IOCC initiatives in Greece and also a representative, whose name is escaping me at this hour, of Apostoliki, both based in Athens. Although it was a blessing to make their acquaintances and to learn of the work that IOCC is doing in Greece, it was simply tragic to again learn of the financial crisis in Greece that has been exacerbated by the arrival of the tens of thousands of refugees. Unemployment remains the highest of any European country, and problems persist with meeting the basic needs of Greeks and refugees alike.
Thanks be to God for the effective, efficient, and compassionate nonsectarian aid provided by IOCC (www.iocc.org). This village is but another example of their good work, made possible by the financial generosity of the Orthodox Christian community in the Americas. May their efforts in Greece and beyond continue to be blessed and may our hearts continue to be softened to the plight of our brothers and sisters in each and every region of the world.
At this point, we made a quick stop at the airport to retrieve a misplaced item and then it was back to our hotel for a rest, dinner and some free time. Tomorrow, or should I say later today, we will rise for breakfast and then travel to Ouranopolis to be greeted by a few Athonite fathers, to venerate Holy Relics, and to cruise along the Athonite coast. We will return to Thessaloniki in the evening to meet Fr. Athenagoras, the founder of Faros Too Kosmou, http://www.farostoukosmou.gr a ministry of the Parish of St. Nectarios of Dendroporamou that serves the at risk children of the Roma community.
Our wake-up acll was at 6:30am. Although a bit earlier, I think we were all excited about the forthcoming trip to Ouranopolis (trans. the heavenly city) which is where we would board our boat for a cruise along the Athonite penisula. The road is long and windy, about a two hour drive from Thessaloniki (one hundred miles southeast of the city), but it is the drive that each and every pilgrim makes when they plan to visit the Holy Mountain, or like us, to simply cruise alongside the penisula.
During our drive to Ouranopolis, thanks to a quick text of informaation from Jason Ivey at Seminary, I was able to communicate with one of the fathers from Xenophotos Monastery. It was my hope that during our brief stay in Ouranopolis, probably after our cruise I would have the blessing and great joy to see or at least speak with Fr. Iernameas and or Fr. Zosima, both of whom were schoolmates who I haven’t seen in 20 years. Besides commemorating them in each and every liturgy, calling them frequently to mind, and learning of their wellbeing and prayers for us, I regret not having a chance to visit them all of these years. So, it seemed wise to at least try to schedule a few moments with them.
Upon arriving in Ouranopolis, we quickly made our way to the boat. It’s been several years since I’ve been to Athos, but it was so familiar, so comfortable. About this time I learned from Mike Dindio who had spent a few days at the Skete with his son Anton and Larry Finney prior to our travel that Fr. Anthimos from the Skete of St. Anna, specifically the Theophileon Brotherhood would meet us after our cruise. The last time that I had seen Fr. Anthimos was during my travel with Spiritual Odyssey, a program resurrected by Fr. Jason Roll when he served as the Director of Ionian Village. He graciously accompanied us on a similar boat cruise to great benefit and enjoyment of all.
For centuries, prior to its Christianization, this peninsula was known as Akte. Although it is often referenced as “Mount Athos,” this refers specifically to a peak, which rises over two thousand meters above the sea at the southernmost point of the peninsula.
The name Athos derives from a Thracian giant whose legend is bound to the history of the peninsula itself. One folkloric account details the giant Athos hurling the rocky peak of the mountain at Poseidon in a clash of Greek god and man. Another legend suggests that Poseidon buried the defeated Athos under the peak of the mountain.
Another legend recorded by Strabo and Plutarch, tells of the grandiose scheme of Deinocrates, the chief architect to Alexander the Great. He had suggested crafting Athos into the figure of the King. In one of the king's hands he would hold a city filled with his subjects, while in the other Alexander would offer a libation to the gods. Although not on account of modesty, Alexander declined.
Other historical writings recount that the famed Persian king, Xerves, intended to carve a canal through the Athonite peninsula to provide a safe passage for his ships so as to avoid the treacherous journey around Athos' southern point. Although some historians doubt that this canal was ever finished, pilgrims to the Holy Mountain may discover the long, narrow, and obviously artificial valley, long since filled with sediment, attributed to the Persian King.
In ancient times, this peninsula was the home of mostly young virgins dedicated to the goddess Diana. From all parts of Greece, young girls were sent here to become priestesses to serve the temples throughout the State. Some areas of the mountain were considered so sacred that no man was allowed to enter therein, a misstep punishable by death.
Holy Tradition maintains that the peninsula is the “Garden of the Theotokos”. This is because when traveling with the beloved disciple John to visit Lazarus on the island of Cyprus, their boat was thrown much of course, brining them to this Athos in approximately 52AD. As their ship approached the shore, the prominent statue of Jupiter crashed to the ground (the peninsula was pagan). Traditional also suggests that once the Virgin stepped foot upon the ground, the earth trembled and the pagan temples and statues all collapsed to the ground. It is said that even from the crumbling idols that they inhabited, the demons were forced to recognize and proclaim the Truth concerning the Theotokos, with words such as, “Men of Apollo, get to the harbor to welcome Mary, the Mother of the Great God Jesus!”
Meeting the Theotokos and her entourage at the port, the inhabitants of Athos met her with curiosity and honor. In perfect Greek, to the surprise of the people, the Hebrew woman answered all their questions, communicating the saving Truths of her son, Jesus Christ. On account of all that befell them, the people embraced this new faith, were catechized and baptized into the Christian faith.
Although the tradition of monasticism extends back into the earlier centuries (fifth and sixth) the first monastic community was built in Karyes in the 9th century. Due to its proximity, size, and history, the abbot of this community, the Monastery of the Great Lavra, bears a certain spiritual and administrative function over the entire Peninsula. Over the centuries, 20 monasteries were established, some with dependent homes or cells situated elsewhere on the peninsula. Of the 20, we were able to see the following from the boat (listed in order from Ouranopolis:
- The Monastery of Docheiarou was founded by the monk Efthimios around 970AD. It is one of the oldest Monasteries of Mount Athos and was named after its founder who spent time as a monk in Megistis Lavras, as a “dochiaris” (storekeeper). The Monastery, because of its position near the sea, was looted many times by pirates. So the Monastery has few relics. Its feast day is Archangels Michael and Gabriel on November 8.
- The Monastery of Xenophontos was founded by Osios Xenophon at the end of the 10th century. Following the history of the other Monasteries it will also know a period of decline, but it will be the first to become communal again in 1784. The small katholiko has murals of the 16th century and in the chapel of Agios Dimitrios exists a very of icon screen, embossed with icons. It is worthwhile visiting the new museum-library with many and important findings. Unfortunately, two of the most important relics - an Evanggelio of Alexios Komninos and an Evanggelio of the 9th century- were “bought” by an English traveler R. Curzon the same way as the Parthenon marbles - “were “bought” by Lord Elgin. The holy Skete of “Evangegelismos tis Theotokou belongs to the Monastery. The Monastery celebrates the Feast of St. George.
- The Monastery of St. Panteleimonos was founded by Russian monks in the 12th century and that it is why it is also called Rosiko (Russian). The monks had founded the Monastery of “Thessalonikeos” that was the original monastery of Agios Panteleimon, but was destroyed by Catalan pirates and son they moved to the present location. Up to 1902 over 200 Russian monks lived in the imposing Katholiko with eight domes laid out with green lead. Also that tall bell tower has the second heaviest bell of the world, which weighs 13 tons. The holy sketes of Vogoroditsa and Metochi Chromitsas belong to the Monastery. Its feast day is on July 27.
- The Monastery of Simonos Petra was founded by Osios Simon in the early 14th century and it is the most fascinating building of Mount Athos, being seen storey and 300 meters above the sea. The Monastery will be destroyed a number of times by fires and the barbarities of the Turks thus it will be completely deserted by the 17th century, but a little later it will be revived by the Russian monk Paisos Velitskofky. The hospitality of pilgrims in this particular Monastery is considered exemplarily. From the “Arhontariki” (sitting room) of the Monastery, one can admire the unique view. Its feast day is the Nativity of Christ on December 25.
- The Monastery of Gregoriou was founded by the Monk Grigoros, disciple of Agios Grigorios the Sinaitis, in the 14th century. It is found deserted in the early 16th century having suffered damages from fires and pirates, but in 1780 monk Joachim Makrigenis will manage and revive it. In the church the visitor should see two icons of “Panagia Pantanassa” of the 15th century and “Panagia Galakotrofousa”. Its feast day is St. Nicholas’ on December 6.
- The Monastery of Osiou Dionysiou, originally named Nea Petra, was founded around 1370 AD by Osios Dionysios and was completed with generous donations from the emperor Alexios Komninos III. The Katholiko is a church with five domes that was built in 1547. The murals of the well-known Cretan artist Tzortis decorate its interior as well as a woodcut “iconostasi”. Its feast day is St. John’s on June 24. The Monastery of Agiou Pavlou was founded by the Monk Pavlos Xiropotaminos in the mid 10th century and that is why initially it was named Monastery of Xiropotamou. In its history, no different from the other Monasteries of Mount Athos, it would suffer from pirate attacks, managing to survive. The Holy sketes of Theotokos (Nea Skete) and Agiou Dimitriou (Lakkoskete) belong to the Monastery. Its feast day is the Presentation of the Lord to the Temple on February 2nd.
- The Skete of Saint Anna, is the oldest and the largest Skete of Mount Athos and remains in the spiritual care of the Monastery of the Great Lavra. It is located on the southwestern shore of the peninsula, situated some 500 meters up on the cliffs above the sea. The Skete is accessible either by boat, approximately an hour trip from the port city of Daphne, or by foot, a six and a half hour hike from the aforementioned monastery.
The Skete consists of 58 homes, most of which possess their own chapel. The main Church of the Skete, the Kyriakon of Saint Anna, was built in the middle of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, the Church was expanded and fully ornamented with frescoes. The treasure of the Kyriakon is the left foot of Saint Anna.
Of course, this community is extremely important to us as a Parish since it was from here that we received our Holy Relic of St. Anna in 2005 and the Holy Relics of Ss. Joachim and Anna in 2008. It is the home of the V. Rev. Fathers Cherubim, Theophilus, and Anthimos, of the Theophileon Brotherhood who will be forever endeared to our Parish. I should also mention that these fathers are responsible for, that is the iconographers who wrote several icons at our Parish, most notably the large beautiful icon of St. Anna and the Thetotokos that hangs in the back left of our Nave, which is a copy of the miracle working icon of the Skete.
Regardless of a monk’s place of origin, by virtue of his enrollment into a particular monastic community of Athos, he is considered an Athonite monk (and a citizen of Greece). His day is divided into roughly four six-hour segments, one that is devoted to sleep, the second is devoted to prayer, the third is devoted to work, the fourth is devoted to person prayer and study. Of course, this schedule may be modified on account of personal need, the vocation of a monk, and/or the demands of the community in which he lives. Regardless of one’s vocation, iconographer, musician, goldsmith, tailor, shoemaker, farmer, librarian, etc., hospitality to pilgrims is by far the most edifying to the pilgrim and potentially the most time consuming responsibility, which may modify his entire schedule.
As for the food served at a monastery, it is simple and sparse, yet sustains the physical needs of a monk. In addition to coffee with a sweet or piece of toast in the morning, there are two meals each day, one at lunchtime and another in the afternoon. The consumption of wine, oil, and fish, follows the prescribed fasts of the Church and the various disciplines of particular monastic communities. As a reminder, our diets in the parish are meant to be the same during the fast seasons of the Church.
Now, back to our story!
As we cruised toward the first monastic community of the penisula, Vevi reminded me that one of the fathers from Xenophotos would bring Holy Relics for us to venerate on our boat! She also asked if we’d simply like to stop and venerate the Holy Relics or have him travel with us for a bit. Of course, I opped for the later. I thought to myself, with a bit of hopeful anticipation, what “if” Fr. Ierameas and or Fr. Zosimas would be the ones on the boat?
Thanks be to God, as the boat approached, I recongized the good fathers; it was indeed Fr. Dn. Ierameas and Fr. Zosimas who would processed the Holy Relics! After 20 years, both Fr. Dean and I were again able to greet our schoolmates. Although it’s been such a length of time, they’ve remained close in prayer. Now, on this ocassion, besides exchanging the more formal clergy greetings and expressing blessings, we were also able to embrace as brothers, friends and fellow graduates from Hellenic College and our Holy Cross School of Theology.
Our time together was well spent. We venerated the Holy Relics, enjoyed their fellowship, offered a prayer, sought and listened intently to their counsel, and even took a few photos. We also were able to purchase items prepared by some of the fathers of the Monstery, including Fr. Tryfon who traveled with them from Xenophotos.
As our time with them came to a close, we could only be thankful for this great gift of God who brought them into our midst. Again, as we noted many a time, we are always near in prayer to our brothers and sisters in parishes, cathedrals, and monasteries regardless of where we might be at any given moment. Similarly, our prayerful presence in front of Christ brings us into fellowship with holy men and women from each and every generation, since holiness is timless as is a life in Christ. Thanks be to God for our Orthodox Christian faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Who trampled down death and opened the Kingdom to each of us!
Our boat trip continued to the port, where we were greeted by another familiar, joyful, and grace-filled face, Fr. Anthimos from the Skete of St. Anna! It’s been over five years since I last saw Fr. Anthimos, who so warmly and humbly greeted us with a smile and a blessing. As I introduced him to our group, I couldn’t help but feel such a sense of joy for his friendship, his prayers, his example, and his vocation as an icongrapher, who along with Fr. Cherubim and Fr. Theophilos remain such gifts to our parish (and faith). After a quick hug with Mike and Larry with whom he was familiar and of whom he spoke so highly, Fr. Dean and I were able to enjoy lunch with Fr. Anthimos at a resturant that I first ate at with my father and father-in-law in 2005.
Far too quickly, our time in Ouranopolis came to a close. A meal, some shopping, a final blessing from Fr. Anthimos and it was back on the bus to Thessaloniki. I can’t say that I remember a fair portion of the drive, since I, like most of our group, was fast asleep, simply exhausted from the day, but what a day! A trip to and from Ouranopolis, a boat cruise along the coast of one of the spiritual centers of Christendom, time with three Athonite fathers, the presence of Holy Relics, it was a day that none of us will soon forget.
In a few hours, it’s off to visit the Metropolis, that is the Church of St. Gregory Palamas, to venerate his Holy Relics, a visit to the 11th century church of Panagia Chalkeon in the heart of the city, a stop in the silversmith shop of Panagiotis and George Triantafilou, a visit to the iconography workshop of the Christodoulos Brothers and the woodwork shop of George Oikonomidas, a visit with Fr. Athenagoras, the founder of Faros Too Kosmou in Dendroporamou that serves the at risk children of the Roma community, who we weren’t able to see this evening on account of needing some rest and then to Kalambaka and the incredible Meteora Monasteries with a stop in Beria where St. Paul once preached!
This morning, we were fortunate to have a bit of a later start, 9AM. We enjoyed another great breakfast, packed our bags (since we would be staying in Kalambaka this evening, and boarded the bus. Our first stop was the Metropolis Cathedral, the Church of St. Gregory Palamas. Close to the sea, it’s a magnificent church, fully decorated in iconography. The treasure of the Church though are the Holy Relics of St. Gregory, the proponent of monasticism and the theologian who so eloquently wrote on the experience of the energies of God through silent prayer (hesychasm).
Although it’s a very old site, several churches have been built at this location, the most recent structure was completed after a severe earthquake in 1974 or thereabout (the church essentially split in two). The priest who oversaw this building and iconography program was Fr. Gregory, a most respected and now 83 priest! I was blessed to have met his acquaintance several years ago and learned of his tireless efforts that have truly honored St. Gregory Palamas, all the while glorifying our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, he wasn’t here when we arrived, but I was able to point him out to our group as he is depicted in the iconography, assisting with the rebuilding of the Church.
While Fr. Dean, Vevi and I were explaining elements of the Church, a very congenial young priest, Fr. Evsevios, who is also assigned to the Parish, greeted us. He shared some fascinating stories about the Church, including the revelation that there was an underground meeting area right beneath the floor! It was in the space, revealed after the earthquake, when a loose stone was found in the sanctuary, that the faithful would gather while under Ottoman rule. Since this time, the space has been repurposed with a chapel and a meeting area.
Father graciously contacted the Proistamenos at the Church of St. Demetrios, Fr. Iakovos, to ensure that our paperwork was in order for Divine Services on Sunday. We also learned at this time that His Eminence, Metropolitan Anthimos would celebrate services and that it would be within this service that the Holy Relics of St. Demetrios would be transferred to the solea in anticipation of his blessed Feast! Needless to say, it will be a great joy for all of us to attend and pray services.
We departed for the Church of Panagia Chalkeon, a beautiful 10th century Byzantine Church, situated in the heart of the City. A beautifully preserved byzantine cross and dome church, with frescoes from the 10th century, it is situated some meters below street level, which suggests how the City has built up over the centuries. It is one of the few churches with a garden – roses, palm trees, shrubs…
I was so pleasantly surprised to recognize the neokoros of the Church, Iakovos, who I had met some years prior. An employ of the Church, he ensures that the parish remains open to the faithful during the day, while also tending to the many projects therein. In fact, it was Iakovos who recorded or at least was present during a video that is posted on our website, https://vimeo.com/22477543 For it was here that Fr. Cherubim who served as the priest of this parish during his leave from the Skete, presented us with the Holy Relics of Ss. Joachim and Anna in 2007! To commemorate this blessed event, we chanted the apolytikion of St. Anna.
Directly across the street is the workshop of George Triantafilou, a silversmith, from whom we have purchased many items for our Parish. Although George didn’t arrive until late in our visit, Vasilios and Dimitris walked us to the back of their small workshop to show us some of their current projects and discuss their sacred art. They are greatly respected and faithful craftsmen who are a credit to our faith. Of course, we purchased a few items for the Parish. We’ll be blessed to have the counsel of George when it comes time to decorate our church. At this point, he offered us in continued prayers and love in Christ.
Our next stop was the workshop of Dimitri and Panayioti Christodoulos, respected master iconographers of Greece (although their work is becoming more familiar to us in the States through a few projects in the east coast, they are well known throughout Greece, Estonia, Italy…) They were waiting for us with warm smiles, a table of treats and a willingness to share their sacred art. Our time with them was split between the studio upstairs and their workshop downstairs
The blood brothers explained to some of us the process of researching, preparing and writing icons; their work, refined over some 28 years is theologically sound, communicative, and inspiring. Panayiotis complemented our group for asking such thoughtful questions. While downstairs, we were able to witness one of our projects being completed, large wooden candelabras depicting St. Joachim on one and St. Anna on the other. God willing, they will be shipped in the next few months, along with the much larger brass stands on which they will be set.
Our next stop was the woodworking factory of George Oikonomidis, a master woodcarver and a dear friend. George’s father, who passed away in 2011, began carving liturgical items in 1958 (in fact, for his fiftieth anniversary, he was gifted back his first carving from a church in the region). Today, his sacred art continues through the efforts of his faithful and talented sons. In fact, their work is sent all over the world; in fact, they have a map with red pushpins marking where they have installed their carvings throughout the globe.
In great detail, George discussed the process of researching, designing and then crafting the woodcarvings for the Church. It’s a fascinating process that takes, in some cases, several years to complete. It’s never a matter of duplicating or simply modifying a piece for another church in which they work. Although it might look nice, by no means do the carvings communicate the uniqueness of the people – their faith, history, and region… And, when this is neglected, part of the beauty of Byzantine art, which as George noted possesses great freedom to communicate the blessings and presence of God to all people, is trivialized, if not lost.
We advanced from design center, essentially a desk with books and a computer since much of the work is done in consultation with theologians at the University of Thessaloniki, to the actual workshops. It was in these spaces that we witnessed the preparing, cutting, carving and staining of the wood. Many of us just stood, simply mystified, by the talent of these craftsmen. A few others, in addition to learning about and watching the process, were busy making notes, for our sanctuary, Thanks to Mike, we have a rough measurement of the size, styling, and cost of our chairs!
I almost forgot, we were blessed to meet George’s mother. She came to the factory for a visit, which allowed her to visit with us. I couldn’t help but think just how proud she must be watching her sons continue the sacred work of her late husband; a testament to their common faith, examples and talents.
We departed from George’s factory to begin our travel to Kalambaka, the town in proximity to the incredible Meteora Monasteries. We passed Beria where St. Paul once preached, had a little snack at a rest stop and arrived at our hotel about three hours later. Dinner was delicious and the company again outstanding! The evening ended quickly for some on account of another full day while others enjoyed a bit more fellowship in the lobby area. .
Last evening, we arrived in Kalambaka, which is a city in close proximity to Meteora (trans., to “suspended rocks”, “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above”). It’s the birthplace of our dear koumbara, Presvytera Eleni Palumbus, who now resides in Houston with her husband Fr. Luke and their three beautiful children. It was a quick, but relaxing stay as our day began at 8:45am with our departure from the hotel to the Monastery of St. Stephen, one of the monasteries of Meteora.
The awe-inspiring Meteora Monasteries are a rare geological phenomenon. There, perched on top of these unusual and seemingly un-scalable rocks are Byzantine monastic communities, second only to the most important monastic communities in Greece, after Mount Athos. The six monasteries that make up this community on the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly are built on the natural sandstone rock pillars that jet into the sky.
Beginning in the 9th century, ascetics (monastics who chose to live in isolation) moved to Meteora and lived in the fissures, some of which reach 1800 feet. They did gather on Sundays and on feasts though in a chapel that was built at the base of a rock known as Dhoupiani. By the late 11th or early 12th century, a basic structured monastic state - he Skete of Stagio - had been established in proximity to the Church of the Theotokos.
In the 14th century, Athanasius Koinovitis a monk from Mount Athos brought a group of monastics to Meteora where he established a monastic community – Metereon Monastery on the Broad Rock. The only means of reaching this community was by climbing a long ladder, which was drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened.
At this time, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans. Retreating from the raiders, some 20 monasteries were established upon the cliffs. Six of these original monasteries remain today – men inhabit five of the communities, while women inhabit one.
Our first stop was the monastic community dedicated to St. Stephen. This female monastery currently has approximately 30 sisters. I visited this community some five years ago, sadly at the time the Abbess Agathe, of blessed memory, reposed. The then, new Abbess, selected by the Grace of God, was Chrysonymphe, who continues in her stewardship this day.
During my initial visit I recall the sisters being extremely engaging and excited to learn that we were Orthodox Christians from the United States. One inquired of Fr. Seraphim Rose, who I noted was buried by a handful of hours from our Parish. I mentioned then that I would bring a book on his life the next time I came to visit. Well, as I noted to one of the sisters, it took me a bit of time, but the book was received!
Close to the Church is the talanda, the large wooden piece that is used for the call to prayer. The use of the talanda is founded in the Old Testament, specifically in the event of Noah calling the animals to the Ark prior to the flood. In like manner, the monastics are called to the shelter of the church (the vessel of salvation) for divine services.
Upon entering the Church, one could only be humbled at the beauty of the iconography that so ever vividly depicted the martyrdom of St. Stephen, St. Haralambos, and others. The work began several years ago and continues to this day. Although we were unable to take photos inside the Church, I’m confident that all will remember the magnificence of the narthex, nave, and iconostasis.
Inside the nave, to the left of the Holy Altar is found the skull of St. Haralambos. We venerated his Holy Relic, blessed our crosses and prayer ropes over his skull, and ask him to ever intercede for our pilgrims and the great list of individuals for whom we prayed. Vevi also provided a very thoughtful and insightful presentation on the history of the church, the icons, and the spirituality found therein.
Our next stop was the second largest monastery of Meteora, the Monastery of Varlaam. As of last year this community boasted (in a humble sense), the largest number of monks of the male monasteries. Built in 1541, yet with renovations continuing, the Church is dedicated to and commemorates All Saints; the Feast being celebrated the first Sunday following the Feast of Pentecost.
The church architecture was familiar to us, the Athonite cross-in square with a dome and side sections for the two choirs. Like the previous monastery, this church also has an extremely large narthex, and also an exo-narthex. One of the reasons for this is that all services need not be celebrated in front of the altar, instead, the fathers can gather in the exo-narthex or even the narthex, to pray particular services of the liturgical day or year.
After walking the approximately 270 steps, I noticed a throng of people from various groups simply passing by one of the fathers. I find this extremely tragic since the fathers need not open up their homes to us; simply we’re not entitled to invade their space. For this reason, how can we not express our gratitude with an acknowledgment, a smile, a “thank you”, a “Your blessing?”
It was with these thoughts in mind that Father Dean and I have intentionally taken simply offerings to each of the communities we’ve visited – icons, books, pens, candies, nuts… And, when we greeted father, thank him for his hospitality, and offered a little token of our affection, in this instance a box of chocolates and some nuts, He was pleasantly surprised.
As Vevi was offering a most thoughtful explanation to our group as to the history, the art and the architecture of this community, Father spoke for some time with both Fr. Dean and me. And then, with a truly gracious sense of hospitality, he walked us past many an individual and shared a bit with us about the Holy Relics tucked in one of the corners, just beyond where our group was standing. Tragically, at least by my estimations, most groups were simply passing by, not realizing the treasures before them – a piece of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross, Holy Relics of St. Panteliemon, St. Procopios, St. Nestor, and the founders of this particular monastery! Needless to say, once we were led to this place each and every individual before our after our group became all the more curious to either view or venerate these Holy Relics.
In nave of the Church was stunning. As Vevi shared, the iconography there was a mix of both old and newer icons. Two of the older icons found on the iconostasis were full-figured images of Christ and the second of the Theotokos, which are uncommon. The newer icons found on the wall are from the hand of a particular contemporary iconographer who is noted for his brighter colors and elongated figures. Like other naves in which we’ve stood and prayed (here we chanted the apolytikia of saints whose relics we venerated), the space is other worldly and sacred, lifting our spirits higher and higher toward the Divine, thanks be to God!
Upon departing the Monastery, we worked our way by several of the local vendors. What a congenial group of individuals who offer to visitors some simple yet beautiful products. My regret though was that we weren’t able to visit Presvytera Eleni’s father who has a similar business outside of the Great Monastery of Meteora on account of him being out of town. God willing, next visit we will again make his acquaintance.
Our bus trip back to Thessaloniki was long. Thankfully, it provided us opportunities to rest and or simply to enjoy fellowship with one another. With great skill and after a delicious lunch in Kalambaka, we returned to our hotel to check-in, only to return to the bus to depart for the Church of St. Nectarios in Dendroportamou, which would be an experience that many of us would not soon forget.
Before our share of our visit with Fr. Athenagoras, I would be remiss were I not to mention that we had the great joy of meeting a couple who was from the Cathedral in Baltimore while in Kalambaka. In a truly self-sacrificing manor and with great love and affection for Fr. Dean, the couple drove from the region of Patras – about five hours away – to embrace and greet Fr. Dean. Sadly, their time with Father, and by extension, our group, was no more than fifteen minutes. Their efforts (they translated our ecclesiastical documents for us requesting permission to serve at St. Demetrius Church) and grateful tears were a testament to their love and affection for Fr. Dean, his person, and his ministry.
Much of our group arrived in Dendroportamou, just outside the courtyard of the magnificent Church dedicated to and seeking the intercession of St. Nectarios. This Church was stunning and built by the poorest of the poor in an essentially crime ridden, cutoff western region of the city that has approximately 3,000 families, 2,000 of these families being Roma. As their name suggests, they have roamed from place to place from country to country, carrying little, but often inheriting a ghetto laden with crime. Their city here is no different.
What is different in this community though is the presence of extreme joy, a joy that radiates from the Sanctuary, through the nave and far beyond the confines of this Parish! Of course, this joy is ultimately founded in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Here though, where the vast majority of the community was not welcomed to the Church and unable to find joy – Christ – amidst the crime, the poverty, and the hopelessness, simply because they were “Roma”, joy came to their community some ten years ago and it came in the form of a youthful, humble and ever smiling priest with a vision to serve, Fr. Athenagoras.
Since the hour is quickly approaching the time for Fr. Dean and I are to depart for the Church of St. Demetrius, I am unable to post photos or conclude this writing. God willing, I be able to do so this afternoon prior to or on our flight to Cyprus, because this is when the story begins. A moment of prayer, essentially a parade through town, legos, dinner and a concert with dancing was what our night with hold. And, all with the poorest of the poor or more correctly, the richest of the rich since they have found a joy in the person of Christ that transforms every worldly woe and lament.
We arrived outside the Church of St. Nectarios and were very warmly greeted by a handful of individuals, including Fr. Athenagoras. Although Fr. Dean and I saw Fr. Athenagoras at the Clergy Laity Congress this past summer in Nashville, it has been some six years since I visited his beautiful parish. We followed Fr. Lazarus who also serves this parish, proceeding through the narthex and into the nave where we venerated a Holy Relic of St. Nectarios.
Once seated in the Church, we chanted the apolytikion of St. Nectariosand then Fr. Athenagoras began to share a bit with us about this special place – his joys, his ministry, his beautiful community of the Romas. Again, I think each of us was extremely touched by his words and the intentions of his ministry. It wasn’t until we departed the Church that we realized the true impact of this blessed soul.
As we departed the Church, walking to the elementary school that was built but two years ago, we passed home and businesses along the way. Waves, cheers, smiles…all as the neighbors saw Fr. Athenagoras. I can only compare the experience to being in a parade or with a celebrity. People weren’t running up for autographs though, but greeting him with hugs and asking for his blessing. And, as the neighbors came forth to the streets, we were continually welcomed and cheered as we worked our way to the school!
Upon arriving at the school, we were again welcomed with cheers and claps, simply greeted with great joy by the parents and the children of Dendroportamou! Up to the third floor we went to watch a brief, moving video detailing the life of the Roma children; not simply the great obstacles and adversities that should characterize their lives, but also sharing some of the blessings that they’ve found in and around the Church the St. Nectarios. One of the young men then shared his story, specifically with the robotics team, which led us to the room across the hallway.
In this room, packed with children and all of us, three children discussed their involvement and leadership with the robotics team. Their peers confirmed the joys of teamwork, creativity, opportunity, logic, and, in the end, freedom to be more than they or others ever thought that they could be! Testament to this is the fact that their team took first place in all of Greece and 16th place in the international competition in the United States this past year (out of 160 teams). Who would have ever thought a group of Roma children, destined for poverty and crime, would have so embraced Christ, one another, and robotics.
It was then into the hallway, which was now lined with tables, laden with food. Although I knew that the families would host us for a meal, I had no idea that the families would prepare such a meal for us. And, as we enjoyed our meal, child and parent alike would come and greet us at our tables, brining us more food, more drink, and more smiles, all affirmations of the blessings in Dendroportamou.
And, while we enjoyed our meal, some of the children from the music school began to play and sing. A guitar, drums, a keyboardist, and two vocalists made up the band. They had a performance just for us, with some of their parents, teachers and friends encouraging them on.
The music went on for some time and it was outstanding. Before we knew it, most of us were up clapping our hands and dancing with the children. Fr. Athenagoras was then summoned to the floor with cheers as he offered some vocal support on one of the songs. And, when the song was over, Father was embraced by no less than fifteen children, all of whom have such a deep love and appreciation for him, his ministry, and the hope that both he and the Church has given to them.
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. Had he asked us for anything, it would have been given twofold. Even as we made an offering to Father in support of the children, he suggested that we simply take the experience with us, learn of their needs and do as we are able. Both Fr. Dean and I agreed that this was unacceptable, so with two against one, we left a donation and agreed to prayerfully consider and share whatever needs are discerned, especially as they begin to construct a new facility that will accommodate more children.
I neglected to mention that Fr. Athenagoras is a celibate priest. He however doesn’t live alone. If I’m not mistaken, his small home in the neighborhood has over ten children leaving there! He has adopted several and houses even more, because this is the Gospel of Christ, this is our Faith, this is incarnate love.
Upon saying our good-byes, we assured one another that we would be in contact soon. God-willing, we will also be able to promote a forthcoming full length film on the Roma of Dendroportamou, directed by a young man who has followed their story for the past three years. He’ll be moving to San Francisco for six months while on a Fulbright scholarship to complete his film, debuting it at both the San Francisco and the Los Angeles Film Festivals next year.
Oh, and did I mention that the next robotics competition will be at Lego Land in Carlsbad 2017? Let’s hope that we can welcome some of these families to our Parish and also travel to support them as they compete for their next trophy!
May our Lord, through the intercessions of St. Nectarios, continue to bless, inspire and strengthen Fr. Athenagoras and those who serve with him, softening the hearts and providing love and hope to the children and families of Dendroportamou.
We will return to Thessaloniki in the evening to meet Fr. Athenagoras, the founder of Faros Too Kosmou, http://www.farostoukosmou.gr a ministry of the Parish of St. Nectarios of Dendroporamou that serves the at risk children of the Roma community.
This morning was an early morning. Father Dean and I departed from the hotel at 6:30am so that we could travel to and arrive at the Cathedral a bit before 7am, the time that Orthros would begin. Today, His Eminence Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki would celebrate Divine Services. There were approximately twelve priests and four deacons serving, mostly from the Cathedra and parishes of Thessaloniki. For some reason, one of the priests, Fr. Nectarios from Montenegro looked extremely familiar. Shortly before Liturgy when we greeted one another we realized that it was because we (Fr. Dean, Fr. Nectarios and I) prayed together at the Parish of St. Barbara in Santa Barbara last summer while we where there celebrating Renee and Jason’s wedding.
At the end of the liturgy, eight of the priests, with the rest in solemn procession, together with the deacons and acolytes, carried the reliquary of St. Demetrios from the small chapel in the nave to the solea of the Church, where it would remain through the Feast of St. Demetrios. Both Fr. Dean and I were asked to help carry the silver reliquary, which houses his sacred relics. It was humbling to say the least – a fourth century martyr, the silver casket wet and sweet with myrrh as thousands chanted the apolytikia of the Holy Cross and St. Demetrius, as well as the Kontakion of the Great Lent “O Champion Leader” and the Great Doxology. The Holy Relics will remain in front of the Holy Altar for three weeks so that the faithful may offer a nightly vigil and paraklesis to this blessed Martyr of the early Church.
Unbeknownst to us, our faithful had a minor setback this morning. Sadly, the bus had some mechanical problems, which led to a delay of about an hour and half. Savas, our driver, was deeply apologetic, but came up with a solution that got our faithful to the church without further incident. And, what a joy it was to see our faithful scattered throughout the Church – along the sides, in the center aisle, up on the balconies overlooking the nave and the sanctuary, all glorifying God and seeking the intercessions of St. Demetrius together.
On account of the late hour, Fr. Dean and I said our good-byes. With both noted the extreme hospitality and kindness of the fathers with whom we served. In fact, both of us were given places of honor in the Liturgy – Fr. Dean was given the second place after the Proistamenos of the Church, while I was giving the first place of honor amongst the married clergy. We took a few photos with our new brothers, shared contact information, and thanked them for our hospitality. Now, off to
We departed for the Monastery of Agiou Ioannis Tou Theologou, that is St. John the Theologian, in the village of Souroti approximately 18 miles from the city. The Holy Monastery is dedicated to St. John the Theologian and to St. Arsenios of Cappadocia. In the Monastery are the Relics of St. Arsenios of Cappadocia, which are found in the Katholikon, along with the grave of the newly revealed and canonized saint of the Church, our Venerable Father Paisios, who is buried next to the church of St. Arsenios.
There was quite the wait to venerate the grave of St. Paisios. If I’m not mistaken, it took a few hours to finally kneel in front of his grave to say a prayer, kiss the marker, and to bless some of our crosses and medallions. Fortunately, the wait provided us another time to commemorate all of the names submitted by stewards and friends of our parish and the Cathedral community in Baltimore (it took over an hour to go through all of the names, but what a blessing).
As we departed the monastery, John and Susie were speaking with one of the sisters who was ever so gracious. As a small token of their affection for us, she offered us little icons of St. Paisios. Again, to receive their hospitality and kindness was such a blessing. Our gift, and at her request, will be continued prayers for Gerontissa and her synodia.
With a final blessing it was off to the airport. We said our good-byes to Sava, Vevi, and her boyfriend that joined us for the day, and also George Oikonomides who traveled to the airport to wish us well. Now, as we depart from Thessaloniki, we prepare for the next half of our adventure in Cyprus! May it be blessed!
We arrived in Larnaca in the early evening, met George who runs the travel agency that we worked with in Cyprus, were introduced to Tykes our driver and George our tour guide, transferred our luggage to our bus, and departed for Kykkos Monastery, an approximately two hour drive. What a drive, similar to portions of highway 50 on the way to South Lake Tahoe, but all the curvier! Sitting at the front of the bus reminds me of being on “California Adventure” at Disneyland.
Arriving at the Monastery, we were greeted by my dear friend and true brother in Christ, Momcilo who has resided at the Monastery for the past 15 years. He coordinates much of the hospitality at the Monastery, and in this instance, negotiated our two night stay in this blessed community. We were shown to our rooms, given a brief explanation of our program for the night and morning and then it was off to bed (it was about midnight, so quite a day of activity and travel).
The bells announcing services rang at 0500 and 0530 (500 for the Hours Service and 530 for Orthros). If I’m not mistaken, Father Dean was the only soul from our group to arise. It had been quite a trip so far; an extra few hours of sleep was quite a treat. A blessing was that even though many of us weren’t able to join in the formal prayers of the community, we did gather in proximity to the Church for our light breakfast. We thank Fr. Andronikos, Momo, and Mrs. Thekla for a wonderful, light Cypriot breakfast.
Before I write about the Monastery, a few words about the history of Christianity in Cyprus. The Apostle Paul and the Apostle Barnabas who was counted amongst the 70 Apostles in the Book of Acts brought Christianity to Cyprus. The first country in the world to be governed by a Christian ruler, they had as their first bishop, Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead by Jesus after four days in the tomb. As is known from John’s Gospel: “the chief priests took counsel that they might put to death Lazarus also, because by reason of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus” (12:10, 11). In turn, Lazarus fled Jerusalem and traveled to the island of Cyprus, where he lived out his years, being elevated to the Office of Bishop of Kition in 46 A.D. His tomb is located a few miles away from the Larnaca Airport, which we will visit later in our trip.
The Christian Church of Cyprus is the oldest Autocephalous Church in Christendom recognized by the Council of Ephesus (431), and reaffirmed by the Council of Trullo (692). The Church of Cyprus has thrived with the establishment of countless monasteries, cathedrals and parishes. In the days ahead, we will visit some of these communities, also venerating many of these blessed Cypriot saints who remain witnesses of the Grace that has characterized and sustained the faithful.
Of the many monasteries of Cyprus, the Great Monastery of Kykkos is unique. Founded at the end of the 11th century, it is considered the wealthiest monastery in all of Cyprus, with several dependencies on the island, as well as some in other historical lands in years past. Located in the region of Marathasa, it is situated on a mountain peak at an altitude 1318 meters northwest of Troodos. Although far removed, this monastery, which derives its name according to legend from a strange bird, that sang a quatrain in human voice (Kykkou, Kykkou, Kykkos hill, A monastery the site shall fill. A golden girl shall enter in. And never shall come out again) is visited by over 400,000 pilgrims and visitors each year.
Dedicated to the Panagia, the Mother of God, the community possesses one of three icons attributed to Saint Luke the Evangelist. Crafted in a mastic-like material, the icon depicts the Christ child cradled in the arms of His mother, Mary. It is located for all to see and venerate on the icon screen of the main church. Today, it is covered with sterling silver gilt and a beautiful embroidered silk tapestry, which fittingly protects and further dignifies this icon of Christian antiquity.
The grounds of the Monastery are simply breathtaking. Standing in the courtyard or walking through the corridors, the mind and spirit are continually lifted up on account of both the fresco and mosaic icons on the walls. And to think that we had a few hours to enjoy the Church, the icons found throughout the campus and even the museum prior to the busloads of tourists arriving was a great blessing (again, over 400,000 individuals visit the monastery each year, but I’m sure that we were some of the few from the states who have received the hospitality of the brothers).
Father Vasilios who hails from Finland is a dear friend and brother in Christ. Responsible for the three beautiful pencil sketches of the Saints found in our Parish Office, Father gave us an excellent tour of the sanctuary – the structure, the use of space, the various icons.... The attention to detail in the sanctuary, the beauty, the ornateness, which communicates reverence and holiness, really can’t be described. I’ve so looked forward to others standing in this space knowing that it would likewise evoke similar feelings of awe and grace. And, having celebrated Liturgy in the Church during one of my previous visits, I can attest that it all comes together so beautifully with our prayers, the chanting, the incense, the candles, and the Grace of God that takes us, at least for a few moments, into the Kingdom where we are not contained by space or time, joining those who have gone before us and the righteous who will come after us in giving fitting praise to our Lord and Savior.
With regards to this great cloud of witnesses with whom we pray in Diving Services, some years ago, the brotherhood converted a room located to the back left of the sanctuary into what I can only describe as a “Relics Room.” Upon entering this sacred space, one is entirely surrounded by reliquaries of the saints –men, women and children - of every Christian era and historical land. To be honest, I’m normally too overwhelmed in the space to actually read the names on the reliquaries. I often just stand there smiling, knowing, as I shared with Constantine, that this is probably one of the holiest places in which I will ever stand. For where else can any of us stand and be completely surrounded by the saints? Thanks be to God for the ingenuity and hospitality of this community that makes these holy treasures accessible to all.
Remarkably and or tragically, there are only some twelve fathers currently living at the monastery. In turn, their primary obligation is hospitality. Having said this though, since the community has so many needs, they employ a host of individuals to ensure that the monastery functions properly, not simply for the brothers, but also for all of its guests.
One of the stops of pilgrims and tourists alike is the magnificent museum. As one climbs the steps, one is able to see and or venerate a beautiful icon of Christ and the Mother of God, made from thousands of miniature mosaic tiles. And, then, rounding the bend, one enters museum, which cost some three million dollars to construct. The collection of antiquities – parchments, liturgical instruments and vessels, vestments, artifacts…is amazing! We agreed that it would take several days to thoughtfully walk through the museum, studying so many pieces, some from the early Church. Without question, it is one of the finest museums that I’ve had the occasion to visit.
Unfortunately our time in the Church and in the museum was limited since we would travel approximately two hours to the Monastery of Panagia, located near the village of Lazania, Situated at an altitude of about a half a mile up on the slopes of Mount Kionia in a picturesque valley of the Machairas Mountains, the monastery houses the miraculous icon of Panagia of Machairas. Tradition maintains that it was here that an icon written by St. Luke was revealed to two monks. Needing to cut away the undergrowth in the cave to reach the icon, a knife, a machairi, was given to them by a divine hand. The icon of Christ and the Mother of God was therefore called Machairotissa, and later also the monastery.
Obtaining financial support from the Emperor of Constantinople in the eleventh century, two later fathers constructed a small chapel. The space was enlarged a few centuries later, although a fire in the sixteenth century would destroy the church, all but the beautiful icon of Christ and the Theotokos. Rebuilt a little over a century later, it contains icons that span the ensuing centuries, including work that was completed in 1993.
The three-nave church of the monastery was built between 1892 and 1900. Georgios Kyriakou made its wood-carved iconostasis between 1919 and 1921 from the village of Chrysida. The bell tower is approximately 65 feet high and dates to 1900.
Before arriving at the monastery though, we stopped in the village of Fikardou for a traditional Cypriot Meze lunch. The restaurant was quaint with just enough room for our group in one of the dining areas. A tasty table wine was served in gourds, while we enjoyed our meal what was served in several courses – bread, cheese, yogurt, olives, taramasalata, salad, spinach with egg, pastichio, dolmathes, sausages, boiled wheat in a red sauce, pastichio, and chicken and potatoes, with candied watermelon wine for dessert. It was a much needed and enjoyable break for all of us, especially after quite the drive from Kykkos.
We arrived a bit late in the day at the monastery. We were able to visit one of the chapels, venerating the icons and relics therein. We were also able to visit the cemetery, viewing the monument for the abbot who tragically died in a in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, when the helicopter in which he was traveling with dignitaries from the Church of Alexandria crashed off the coast of Mount Athos. May his memory be eternal! Of course, we found time to visit the gift shop before our return to Kykkos for the evening.
Upon our return to the monastery, after quite the winding drive once again, we enjoyed tea and coffee with a delightful dessert that Momcilo made for us. With all of the tourists gone for the day, it was just our group with a few fathers enjoying a little fellowship and a treat before we ventured off to sleep, only to awaken at the first bell so that we could pray services for the Feast of Holy Apostle, Evangelist, Physician and iconographer, Luke.
I neglected to mention that Fr. Vasilios traveled with us for the day. What a blessing that he would take time from his schedule to spend time with our group, enjoying a meal, venerating holy icons and relics and enduring the bus ride. We benefited from his prayerful presence, enjoyed his wit, learned about his history leading up to and through these days at Kykkos and gained further insight into a life in Christ though his studies and counsel.
And now, off to bed! The bells ring early (and loud) at the monastery. But, what a blessing it will be to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to receive the Eucharist with the fathers of Kykkos!
With the toll of the first bells, it was up and out to the main church of the monastery. As our time would be limited to divine services and a quick breakfast, our bags had to be packed so that we could join Tykes and George on the bus. Today we would be visiting the wine village of Omodos and the Monastery of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross found therein, the Holy Monastery of St. Neophytos, and then transitioning to the coast of Limassol for our last two evenings.
Divine Services were simple and simply beautiful. Father Andronikos was the celebrant with a few of the fathers and Fr. Dean singing the responses in Greek and English. It was perfect start and the perfect end to our time at Kykkos. Again, we experienced first hand the hospitality and graciousness of the fathers in services and at the light breakfast that would follow; again thank you to Mrs. Thekla for such a great meal! We said our good-byes to Fr. Vasilios, Fr. Vlachos, Fr. Agathonikos, Fr. Andronikos and Momo and off we went to our next stop.
“Good morning, dear people and good morning to Tykes. It’s another beautiful day in Cyprussss.” With these words, we departed the Monastery of Kykkos for our first destination, the well-known “wine” village of Omodos. This translates to “we only have to drive the roads to and from Kykkos this last time!
Arriving in Omodos, our first stop was the Monastery of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross. Built in the heart of the village, it’s one of the oldest and most historic monasteries on the island and a significant part of Cyprus' cultural heritage. According to tradition, it was established before St. Helen's arrival in Cyprus in 327 A.D., but the exact date of its establishment is unknown. The monastery possibly existed before the village was founded. The theory is that the village was built around the monastery.
Historians refer to St. Helen's visit to Cyprus noting that she left a part of the Holy Rope in the Monastery. This rope, with which Christ was bound to the Cross, is described as red colored and "stained by the blood of Christ". The Bishop of Paphos, Chrysanthos, did a full renovation of the monastery in the second decade of the 19th century, in collaboration with Dositheos, who served as a church Steward from 1810 until 1821. The monastery also holds a piece of the original Cross of Christ and other Holy Relics.
While in the Church, we were surrounded by elementary-aged school children from an English speaking school in Limassol who were on a field trip. What a blessing to have teachers walk students through a church, encouraging them to venerate icons and holy relics. I also shared with the children how amazing it was to think that they were visiting sites well over 1,000 years old, especially since our children didn’t have such opportunities available to them in California, or for that matter, in the United States.
We departed from the Church and walked through Omodos amidst a throng of tourists. As Fr. Dean and I walked with the group, tourists had quite the fun attempting to take photos of us. Father Dean would instinctively, but jokingly say “No photo” to which most would say “sorry”, then repositioning the phone or camera would attempt to in fact take a photo of us. It was more comical than not; to think that two Orthodox priests from Maryland and California would be considered locals in the streets of Omodos.
In addition to the town being known for wine, it was also known for its bread and a Cypriot treat called sousouk. A healthy treat of _________ it was found in many a window. A few samples and purchases later it was back to the bus.
As we departed from Omodos, heading for the ancient site of Curium, Tykes our driver received a phone call. Unbeknownst to us, Hannah was left in Omodos! We simply took it for granted that everyone was back on the bus. Tykes quickly turned the bus around and drove back to our meeting place. Although a bit shaken for obvious reasons, Hannah was thankfully fine, just waiting for our return.
We again departed for the ancient site of Curium. Considered one of the most spectacular archaeological sites on the island, Curium was an important city kingdom where excavations continue to reveal impressive new treasures. Noted particularly for its magnificent Greco - Roman theatre, it is also home to stately villas with exquisite mosaic floors and an early Christian Basilica among other treasures.
The House of Eustolios, which we were able to visit, is a complex of baths and a number of rooms with superb 5th century A.D. mosaic floors. It was was once a private Roman villa before it became a public recreation center during the early Christian period. What a blessing it was to view and photograph these early Christian mosaic floors.
It was in the parking lot of Curium that we had to say our good-byes to Fr. Dean, who unfortunately had to return toBaltimore for Thursday funeral services for one of his parishioners. Although not from our Parish, Fr. Dean has truly become an extended member of our Parish family over the years and to have him spend such quality time with our immediate family and our greater parish family though our fellow pilgrims was a gift. God-willing, we will identify other opportunities for us to bring our faithful together in fellowship, and even in travel. After several hugs, the exchange of well wishes and prayers, and even a few photos, Father was off for a brief stop at a convent to offer a memorial prayer and then to would be off to the airport, traveling through Dubai on the way back home to the US. Thank God, it may it home without incident. May the memory of his parishioner be eternal.
Since it was the early afternoon, we stopped by the sea for lunch. The setting, right below Curium, was beautiful and the food for many of us didn’t disappoint. I can’t speak for other tables, but I couldn’t have been happier than to eat an octopus cooked on the grill. A little Greek salad, some warm bread, calamari and fries made for the perfect afternoon meal.
After lunch, we departed for the Saint Neophytos Monastery just outside Paphos, near Tala village. Saint Neophytos founded the monastery in 1159 who died there in 1219, at the age of 85. The main church of the monastery was built around 200 years after his death and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The frescoes in the Enkleistra (an enclosure carved out of the mountain by the hermit, His rock-table and the stone platform on which he slept are still preserved in his cell, as is his grave) date from the 12th to the 15th centuries and are of exceptional quality.
As our group was departing from the Enkleistra, I was able to meet the abbot, Father Neophytos, one of the novices and one of the workers. One of seven fathers at the Monastery, Father has an advanced degree (PhD); his studies focused on this historical site and his blessed namesake. I was able to learn a few other tidbits from this trio and with a blessing went on my way, down to the main church and then into the gift store with the rest of the group.
On our way back to the hotel, we made one final stop to see Petra tou Romiou, an interesting geological formation of huge rocks off the southwest coast in the Paphos district and one of the most impressive natural sites in Cyprus. As we learned in great detail from George, it is associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. According to legend, this strikingly beautiful spot is where Aphrodite rose from the sea foam and floated ashore on a scallop shell to the rocks known as ‘Rock of Aphrodite’ or ‘Petra tou Romiou’ in Greek.
Dinner at the hotel is great! It was another amazing day of travel that closed with outstanding fellowship, good food and spirits. To our surprise, we also were able to enjoy Greek music and Greek dancing. A few of our folks made it to the dance floor while Gianna was busy taking photos. Shortly thereafter, it was off to sleep since we had another full day ahead of us, which would be our last day in Cyprus.
“Good morning, dear people and good morning to Tykes.” With these words, we were off to Limassol to the premises of Dr. Thoukis Georgiou, PhD, who is the Officer of Agriculture A, Section of Viticulture-Oenology, of the Department of Agriculture, Cyprus. Dr. Georgiou is also the Deputy Head of the National delegation of Cyprus at the OIV, a member of the National delegation of Cyprus at the EU institutions for wine, the President of the Wine Experts Committee of Cyprus, a member of the Union of Oenologists of France (U.OE.F), a member of the Union of Qualified Oenologists of Cyprus (E.P.O.K), and a member of the Pancyprian Association of Agronomists. More importantly as I would learn, Dr. Georgiou is also a most devout Orthodox Christian.
I was introduced to Dr. Georgiou in 2007 through his cousin, a childhood friend of mine from the Annunciation Parish in Modesto. In 2008, after several conversations with Dr. Deborah Golino, the Director of Department of Plant Services at the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Georgiou on behalf of the Department of Agriculture of Cyprus, cuttings of the Xynisteri and the Marvon grapes were sent to the United States for our Parish vineyard. After being examined, propagated, quarantined for two years, and cataloged, these vines were delivered to and planted on our grounds by Mike Dindio and his crew of volunteers with counsel from Dr. Richard Hoenisch, of the National Plant Diagnostic Network, the WPDN Training and Education Coordinator of the Department of Plant Pathology, UC Davis. And when our vines were planted, these mavron and xynesteri varietals were the first to be found in the United States!
We arrived at the facility that boasted a vineyard for experimenting with various root stock on Cypriot varietals, a warehouse with all the necessary equipment for making wine, a tasting room, and even a still for making a Cypriot grappa. Surprisingly but so fittingly, Dr. Geourgiou asked if we could begin our time together in prayer. A table was set up with a censor, candles, icons, a bowl of water and basil for the Blessing of the Water. He also kindly provided me a list of names for all those who work on the premise, in addition to his seven-month-old son, Panos. Together, we raised our voices in prayer, asking God to send His Grace upon this vineyard (how appropriate), as we also prayed for these individuals who labor on His behalf. And, the more Dr. Georgiou spoke as our day time passed, the more obvious it was that he truly considered his work to be a reflection of and an offering to our Lord, Who was the first Oenologist, turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana.
Once we concluded our prayers and exchanged greetings, our pilgrims and those associated with this facility came forth for a blessing, venerating an icon from Kykkos as they were sprinkled with Holy Water. We then advanced to the tasting room where we were introduced to three experimental wines, one being a version of Commandaria that is made from the grapes we planted. As we enjoyed each of the wines, Thoukis and his associate Xenos provided us great insight and explanation with regards to what we tasted. And, when we had a question, Thoukis would identify the individual by name and refer to him or her as brother or sister, since we are united in Christ. Again, I couldn’t have been more humbled by his understanding of our relationship in and through Christ. What a testament to his faith and to our common Orthodox faith.
We advanced to a room that housed a still, which is used to make the Cypriot grappa (don’t worry Tim and Emil, we have photos). We then worked out way outside to the vineyard where we discussed our grapes – pruning, harvesting, etc. We also agreed that it would be a blessing to welcome Thoukis and Xenos to our Parish so that they can continue some of their research on and with our vines, as well as to assist us with pruning and harvesting our grapes. So, if any of our parishioners have miles to fly two individuals from Cyprus in February and October, please let me know!
We again exchanged well wishes, while also expressing our profound gratitude for their hospitality. As they sent us forth with two bottle of Commandaria from a limited batch, which we will save for the feast of St. Anna in 2017, we too shared our intention to send them a large icon of St. Anna blessed on our Holy Relics as well as a photo of vineyard for their facility. It was also agreed upon that we should document our efforts in a writing that could be shared in media sources both in Cyprus and America.
At this point, another high on our trip, we traveled to the 11th century Byzantine Church of Panayia Angeloktisti, whose name means “built by angels”. The church was erected over the ruins of an early Christian basilica in Kition. The original apse has survived together with one of the finest pieces of Byzantine art from the Justinian period, a rare 6th century mosaic of the Virgin and Child between two archangels. What’s fascinating about this icon is that the Mary is referred to as “Saint Mary” rather than “Theotokos” which suggests that this Church might have once had more of a Monophysite leaning, theologically speaking.
While in the Church, I had a chance to speak with Petros, the neokoros, or keeper of the Church. He shared with me some of the other interesting facts about the icon of Christ flanked by St. Luke the Evangelist and St. Lazarus, Bishop of Cyprus, amongst other things. He also graciously allowed me to venerate the altar table and to take a few photos from the Sanctuary.
The last Church that we would visit is the Church at which I normally start my time Cyprus, the Church and Tomb of St. Lazarus, situated in the center of Larnaca. This magnificent early 10th century stone church of Saint Lazarus is one of the most important surviving Byzantine monuments in Cyprus. Byzantine Emperor Leo VI built it in exchange for the transfer of the Saint’s relics to Constantinople. The church lays over the tomb of Saint Lazarus, the resurrected friend of Jesus Christ who came to ancient Kition in 33 AD. He was the first bishop of Cyprus and remains its patron saint.
George provided an insightful explanation of the Church – the architecture, the use of space, the icons… I was able to discuss some of the blessings of St. Lazarus and note the change in the reliquary prior to us offering a short prayer through the singing of his apolytikion. We then venerated his Holy Relics and proceeded to the church crypt.
Here, we were able to view the tomb of Lazarus as well as several other marble sarcophagi. It’s a small space, but a blessed space as we consider not only the miracle of St. Lazarus, but also his episcopacy and ministry, as well as his repose in Christ, in which he too shares in yet anticipates the Second Coming. Thanks be to God for this beautiful Church, the presence of the crypt and most notably the presence of his Holy Relics. May St. Lazarus ever intercede on our behalf.
As we traveled back to our hotel for an early, free evening (yes, we managed to find time for one free evening amidst our most full but memorable schedule), George and Tykes wished us well. The close of our trip, as George noted, was bitter sweet. It was as though we were listening to a Cypriot John Steinbeck, “It was the best of timessss, it was the worst of timesss…” Regardless our trip was coming to a close.
Although some of us would travel back to California together, some would also depart earlier hours and even travel to other locations. Dinner and a toast, followed by warm embraces and gracious words sent us on our way for a stroll along the beach, to our rooms to pack, to the outdoor lounge to listen to music, or even to the Starbucks about 2.4 miles away to purchase a cup that said “Cyprus” on the rim. Thanks be to God who brought our group of pilgrims together for a most memorable trip. May our travels home be without incident, may the love of our Lord sustain us, and may the saints who we venerated ever intercede on our behalf as we build up our sanctuary to the glory of God, seeking the intercessions of our blessed matron, Saint Anna!