Monthly Archives: June 2011

Day 46, Thessaloniki & Ouranoupolis

Photos by Fr Michael Butler, Jun 29, 2011

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[Thursday, 30 June 2011]. I slept in a little this morning, and after bathing very carefully in the shower-without-walls-or-curtains, I had breakfast with an American who had grown up in Thessaloniki and learned a great many things about the city from him. (Also, one very good traveler’s tip: put your clothes on the shower floor when you bathe; the soap and shampoo will do them good, and they’ll get clean as you stomp them. They’ll only need a good rinse at the end.)

I walked around the city this morning, going first to the “Metropolia,” the cathedral church of the city, which is dedicated to St Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki (died ca. 1360). Liturgy for the Synaxis of the 12 Apostles was in progress, but I found the chapel with the reliquary of St Gregory Palamas, paid my respects, and then, once the Liturgy was finished, took pictures of the church.

I then walked up Hagia Sophia Street, where I found the Church of Hagia Sophia, which housed the relics of St Gregory the Confessor, Archbishop of Thessaloniki; and the similarly ancient church of Panagia Acheiropoietes (dedicated to the Icon of the “handless” Mother of God; Google it for the story). Here, there was only a Cross in the apse of the church, not an icon, and I tried to ask the man who was cleaning the candle stands if the Cross dated to the Iconoclastic period (when the Cross was the only acceptable decoration). He led me to the parish priest, who spoke good English, and who served me traditional hospitality: Greek coffee, a glass of water, and a cheese pita he had handy. I learned some things about the church, and that all the churches in the city had been turned into mosques for 500 years by the Turks. I received a few small Icons as a parting gift and made my way back to St Demetrios’s Church.

The crypt in St Demetrios was open, and I went down. It seems the most ancient shrine to the Saint was the prison cell where he was stabbed to death on the emperor’s orders, and there, directly under the altar of the present church, is the place they believe it took place. The church was built over the site some 200 years after his death, but an ancient “ciborioum” was apparently found, and this marks the traditional spot of his martyrdom.

After paying my respects to St Demetrios in his reliquary up in the church one final time, I packed what I needed for Athos into my backpack, left my suitcase at the hotel, took two buses out of town and some 3 ½ hours later arrived in the port city of Ouranoupolis, where I now sit in the paradise of a Greek resort town, with a room overlooking the ocean. I have located the Holy Office where I will get my papers at 7:30 in the morning, the dock and the boats to Athos, where I will board at 9:45 am, and from there will be on my way to a week on the Holy Mountain. I don’t think I’ll have any means of communication while I’m there, but, who knows? God may provide. I arrive back in Thessalonica on Thursday evening, 6 July, and will doubtless post something then, if not before.

Be well and pray for me, as I will pray for you, on the Holy Mount Athos, the Garden of the Theotokos, whose protection may we enjoy.

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Day 46, Thessaloniki

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[Wednesday, 29 June] Some brief notes on the day, because I’m beat.

Slept poorly at the Holiday Inn Express in London because I was nervous about the alarm clock not going off correctly (somehow you program the television to work as an alarm clock), and woke up at 4:15 am. Couldn’t get back to sleep. Showered, ate early at the breakfast buffet and stocked up on cheese sticks and hard rolls to take with me. Left early for the airport, in case security took a while. It did. Changed money into Euros.

Flight from London to Budapest was uneventful… for the most part. Was approached by a crew member mid-flight and asked if I would move to first class to get off the plane quickly when we landed. My connecting flight from Budapest to Thessaloniki was taking off five minutes after I landed. A very young airline representative met me at the door of the plane and ran me (literally) through the Budapest airport, security and passport control and all, and got me to the plane after the door had been closed. The Hungarian airline is not so uptight as American ones, so they let me on and put me in first class even. All in all, I think I was on the ground in Budapest for less than 30 minutes before I was airborne again.

Flight to Thessaloniki was truly uneventful. Going through immigration & customs involved walking under a particular sign and being ignored by the staff who were sitting in their offices and didn’t even look up.

(By the way, all the rioting and such are taking place in Athens, around the Parliament building. Everything seems perfectly normal in Thessalonica. Those of you who worry for my safety can rest easy, at least on this score.)

I asked for the taxi stand at a bus ticket office, and they convinced me that a 0.80 Euro bus ticket ($1.50) was a better deal than a $30-40 cab ride. I agreed. Took the bus they indicated, got off on God-only-knows what street in God-only-knows what part of Thessaloniki and waited for the transfer. It being some 8 hours since breakfast, I ate the hard rolls and cheese sticks I took from the hotel, and also the banana left over from the meal the sisters had packed for me the day before. I caught the correct transfer, but missed my stop and ended up at the terminal on the far side of town. I have seen more of Thessaloniki, and spent more time doing it, than I cared to. But the nice thing about a bus terminal is that you can always catch a ride back, and that’s what I did. It was a 3 block walk to the hotel, where my reservation was in hand, and I was shown to my room.

Once I saw my hotel room, I knew I was in Europe again. If you’ve ever stayed in modestly-priced hotels in Europe, you’ll know what I mean: the tiny, one-person elevator that doesn’t quite hold you and your luggage and takes a little too long to go up one floor; the rather Spartan accommodations with uncomfortable furniture; the bathroom floor that’s raised just enough for you to stump your toe on as you go in; the lack of a shower curtain; the noise and diesel fumes from the street; all those things. Pure joy.

I got recommendation for a restaurant for dinner; it was a sidewalk café around the corner from the hotel, where I had had a fine, relatively inexpensive meal of chicken, with a basket of bread, a bottle of water, and a small flagon of dry white wine, that was too much for one sitting (I emptied the water bottle and filled it with wine). I feel compelled to eat meat today, for SS Peter & Paul’s feast day (even though it’s a Wednesday), because the Holy Mountain is on the Old Calendar, and it’ll be back to the Apostles’ Fast once I get there.

After dinner I changed into my cassock, startled the front desk with my transformation, and asked how to get to St Demetrios’ church. The basilica is, I think, 6th century, and since my first parish was dedicated to St Demetrios, I wanted to see him and the church. Besides St Demetrios, the Myrrh-streamer and Wonderworker of Thessalonica, is the Main Man around here, and it simply wouldn’t do to skip stopping by and paying your respects. It turned out to be a 10 minute walk.

I arrived during Vespers. Many tourists were about, in addition to several dozen of the faithful. I knew where the hexagonal shrine of St Demetrios was supposed to be: on the left side of the church, about the middle of the way up (they call it the “ciborium” and the original was made of solid silver, donated by a wealthy man whom the Saint had cured). I knew it when I saw it. An old lady (Greek churches always have old ladies in them) noted my piety and approached me, asked a blessing, and gave me one in return: a cotton ball with some of the myrrh which still streams from St Demetrios’ relics (they’ve been producing myrrh now since the 4th century). I was overwhelmed. I figured the myrrh couldn’t be had for love or money these days, but it turns out I was wrong.

She also pointed out to me a couple of things I didn’t know about. Apparently St Demetrios caused a fountain or well to spring up near his grave, and the basilica included it when it was built. It’s a stone water basin now with a brass faucet and a drain, like a sink, and it stands just to the left of the Iconostasis. I had to get in line to get to it, which was fine, because I learned what to do: drink the water out of your cupped hand, fill your bottle (if you have one), and wipe the rest of the water on your head and face. Further up in the left aisle, directly to the left of the altar, but outside the Iconostasis, were the relics of St Anysia the Martyr. The relics and episcopal vestments of a Greek Bishop-Saint, Gregory Callides, are in the back of the church. There is a crypt, too, under the altar, but it was closed. I don’t know what’s in it, but I’ll have to go back tomorrow to see it.

So much for the adventures of the day. Tomorrow, I hope to go back to St Demetrios, and, if time permits, visit St Gregory Palamas. He stays at the bishop’s headquarters these days. Then catch another series of buses for the trip out to Ouranoupolis, where I will spend tomorrow night.

God willing there will be internet access available there. If not, I’ll post again after I get back from Mount Athos.

Day 44, talks and a word


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[Tuesday, 28 June] I must cram a whole lot into a single blog post.

On Sunday, I did mosey down to the church early and take pictures, and I concelebrated the Liturgy in the ancient church, with Igumen Kyrill, the visiting Romanian priest, and Fr Petros and Deacon Bartholomew of the monastery. It was a lovely Liturgy, with well over 150 people in attendance, all crammed into the little church. Several of the sisters were on hand to sing, and if I haven’t said so in an earlier post, they do sing angelically, in English, French, Slavonic and Greek.

The monastery serves two Liturgies on Sunday: one in the church over Elder Sophrony’s crypt, at 7 am, and the other at the ancient All Saints Church at 10:15. Lunch is served about 1:30 pm. At 3 pm there is a Paraclesis service to the Mother of God, ca. 4 pm there are hour-long presentations in both Greek and English, with High Tea following (which means tea with sweet things to eat). Very many of the people who were at the Liturgy in All Saints hung around for lunch, the Paraclesis, the talks, and tea, basically spending the whole day at the monastery.

My talk went very well, in part because I’m simply exotic and people were curious, and in part, well, because I’m good at that sort of thing. Not only did the talk go well from my point of view, but it was well received, too. Some of the sisters attended my talk, and whatever lingering hesitation some of them may have had about me were swept away, and my relationship with the all the nuns flourished from that point on, as well as it had flourished with the monks from the beginning. Also, several people gave me pomelnics (lists of names) to remember at Liturgy, and one woman included with her list a considerable sum of money, at which I was simply astonished.

Because of the busyness of the day, there was no evening service at the monastery, dinner was a serve-yourself sort of affair that was sparsely attended, and everyone, I think, went to their cells and dropped from exhaustion.

On Monday morning, there was only one hour of the Prayer, everyone being allowed to sleep in for an hour. I boxed up a very big book I had bought, along with a few small souvenirs, and toted it all up to the post office in Tiptree, and shelled out for postage the entire considerable sum of money I received as a gift on Sunday. It covered the amount almost exactly (thank you, Carmen). In the afternoon, Fr M. and I shared coffee and more fine talk about St Maximus, St Gregory Palamas, and the writings of Elder Sophrony and St Silouan.

I had asked to talk with Fr Zacharias once more, if he had the time, and before the evening prayer service, he approached me in the church and said the only hour he would have would be during the second half of the service and that I should follow him out of the church when he left. So that’s what we did. He didn’t take me back to his office, where we talked before. Instead, we went into the old rectory, and through several rooms, to a beautiful wood-paneled study filled with Icons and shelves of big, old books: exactly the kind of office I’ve always dreamed of having. When we sat down, Fr Z said that this had been Elder Sophrony’s study, and that “here he spoke the word of God to us.” Well, if that didn’t set the tone for the meeting…

We exchanged a lot of small talk, mostly about a few mutual acquaintances and the possibility of his next trip to America. I had only a handful of serious questions, mostly follow-up from our first talk, and I got very fine answers. Then I said one of the scariest things I’ve ever said to anyone (maybe second only to proposing to Annette). I said, “Father, would you give me a word.”

For those not familiar with Orthodox Tradition, to ask a Spiritual Father or Mother for “a word” is to ask him/her to reveal the will of God for you or provide fundamental direction for your life. Sometimes monks ask regularly for a “word” from the Spiritual Father, and if it is regularly given, it may direct the tasks at hand, or the course of the day or of the week. Other times, the request is completely open-ended, as mine was; it is asked for with great seriousness, faith and prayer, and it is given with the same, and it must be received with the same. Failure to obey the word that you ask for is tantamount to rejecting God’s will consciously and the consequences are generally acknowledged to be seriously sinful and disastrous. You never know what you’ve asked for until you get it, and then it’s too late to say no.

What he told me, he said in few words. I won’t repeat it here, and don’t bother to ask me later what he said, because I’m not telling. Besides, the word was for me, not for you. It was not revolutionary or surprising to me; I don’t know, in retrospect, why I should have been afraid; rather, it was a solid, absolute confirmation of something I needed to have confirmed, and after the initial shock of it wore off, I found that it was profoundly comforting, too.

But enough of that. It’s going to take a lot of prayer, thought and work to assimilate the word I received. I doubt most people will notice anything different.

That evening (Monday), I took a walk down another footpath with Fr M; it’s clear we’ve found kindred spirits in each other. Thunderstorms were threatening, and the fine clear day had turned very cloudy, and the air had grown still, humid and heavy. That night we all went to bed hot and sweaty, but, sure enough, sometime in the night it cooled off and the cold, clammy bed was back, and I woke up cold in the damp. I slept poorly and woke up early.

Today, after morning prayer, when I was again asked to recite the second prayer rope, I packed up all my things, stripped my bed and cleaned up my room (thus stealing part of Fr P’s blessing, who derives great spiritual benefit serving the guests by cleaning up after them). A group of some half-dozen Benedictines, mostly from St Willibrord’s Abbey in Holland, arrived on Monday afternoon and we had a little time to chat. One of the sisters who serves lunch packed me a “picnic,” a sack lunch to take with me when I left. After lunch, I said my good-byes to quite a number of the community. It seems they enjoyed having me almost as much as I enjoyed being there. I took a cab back to the train station in Witham, the train to Liverpool Street Station, the Underground to Paddington, the express train to Heathrow, checked in to my flight tomorrow, then took the shuttle bus to my hotel outside the airport. All in all, it took 3 ½ hours and cost me 48 pounds (about $90).

So here I sit at a Holiday Inn Express, not far from the international terminal, drinking my pint of John Smith’s Extra Smooth Ale, watching the rain, and wondering whether the general strike in Greece will mean that I will be stuck at the airport in Thessalonica tomorrow afternoon when I arrive. It appears that planes are still flying, but whether or not there will be a bus or taxi on the other end remains to be seen. Oh, well. More adventure.

The plans are that I will be in Thessaloniki on Wednesday night, then take the bus to Ouranoupolis on Thursday and stay the night there, and finally get my diamonitirion (permit) for Athos on Friday and take the ferry Friday morning to the Holy Mountain. What kind of internet access I have in Greece, I’m not sure. If I’m incommunicado for the next week, please pray for me. As I said in an earlier post, I’m a little apprehensive about this part of my trip; ignoring the civil unrest in Greece, there is still the language issue.

One of the monks here in Essex knows a Fr Ieremias at Philotheou Monastery (not far from St Pantaleimon’s, where I am going) who is Texan. Supposedly he drives some kind of vehicle around the monastery and drives it like a Texan, so when you see a big cloud of dust, you know it’s Fr Ieremias coming. I may have to pop in for a visit.

It’s a small world, after all. (Now try to get that out of your head!)

Day 41, attics and All Saints

[Sunday, 26 June] I seem to be a day behind getting my blog posts written. This is Sunday, the 42nd day of the sabbatical, but I still have things to say about Saturday.

In the afternoon, I asked what there were for laundry facilities were. Oddly enough, monastic laundry facilities are not as straightforward as monastic liturgies or meals. True, they have a new front-loading washing machine that can spin the clothes at up to 1200 rpm (your clothes come out clean, but tired), and a choice of powdered or liquid soap, but there isn’t a dryer. Instead of a dryer, I was shown where to hang up my clothes. Let me just describe the route: you pull your clothes out of the washer into a basket, carry them out of the old rectory, cross to the new rectory, go up the stairs to the second floor, pull down the trapdoor in the ceiling and extend the aluminum ladder, climb up the narrow ladder with your basket into the attic, and there you find the clothes-lines to dry your clothes. Verily, you never know when adventure will overtake you.

After vigil and dinner I walked again with Fr Melchizedek and we chewed over a bit more theology. He is responsible for giving the talk in English on Sunday afternoon, but he is clever and has roped me into giving part of the talk, and Fr Kyrill the Abbot has given his blessing for it, so I now have to prepare an adult ed class for the first time in weeks.

I also found out from Fr M that the old stone church I wrote about in my last post, in fact, belongs to the monastery. It is a 12th century church dedicated to All Saints, and Elder Sophrony, when he came by the property, put a simple Iconostasis in it, and the community has one of its Sunday Liturgies there. I get to concelebrate again on Sunday in that church, which I’m very much looking forward to. I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated in a 12th century church before; the oldest I’ve served in were the 13th ad 14th century churches in Moldavia & Bucovina that I visited when I was in Romania in 1999. The Liturgy in that church is late—10:15—so I’ll have plenty of time to mosey down there and take pictures.

Day 41, churches & hedges

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[Saturday, 25 June] I didn’t mention my walk yesterday after lunch. It’s worth going back to talk about because I saw something that, in fact, has turned out to be significant.

So I took a walk after lunch yesterday. Because it was a feast day, Liturgy was served later in the morning, so lunch was later, as well. That meant it ended 2-ish, and the day was warmer, so I decided to see what was down Old Rectory Road going the other direction from the way I go to walk through Tolleshunt Knights into Tiptree. There isn’t much, I found out: a couple of houses, a horse pasture, and, near the end of the road (for it is a dead end about ½ a mile from the monastery), there is an old stone church with a cemetery surrounding it.

The old church looked interesting. I was sorry I didn’t have my camera with me. It’s not a big church, and I couldn’t tell how old was. It had a medieval feel about it, but the sense of it was messed up because part of the exterior had been plastered over at some point. There was no sign on the building or the grounds, the bells were missing from the belfry, and I could see nothing through the large key-hole in the door. There were a couple or three dozen graves scattered about the church yard, all in various stages of disrepair, with leaning headstones and all. The earliest grave I found was dated 1801; the latest were for two local men who had died in the Great War. The church seems to have been abandoned shortly thereafter. But finding an old church answers the question about why the monastery is located on “Old Rectory Road,” for, in fact, the original building for the monastery was the old rectory for this church (the old rectory, I found out, is about 400-500 years old itself).

At any rate, the whole old-church-and-cemetery thing had that romantic, Victorian quality about it you think of when you think of old village churches in England. A few ancient oak trees lent themselves to the ambience. The place was quiet. “Tempus fugit,” “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and other funereal phrases came to mind. All it needed was a resident ghost to be perfect. You half expect to find the place footnoted in a poem by Shelley.

Walking back from the old church to the monastery, I sauntered along and gave thought to the hedges that lined both sides of the road. There seem to be a whole lot of hedges hereabouts, mostly overgrown wild things that form a barrier between the road and a wheat field, or this man’s plot and that. Some of the hedges nearer the villages are well-kept arbor vitae, or other shrubberies we would recognize, but these rural ones have real character. They vary in depth, from a few to several feet deep, and most of them are impenetrable, except to rabbits and birds. What I found especially attractive was that you couldn’t walk more than a dozen yards along any hedge without running across a large patch of (black?-)berry brambles forming part of it, and all of the brambles are completely covered in blossoms. There is going to be a prodigious crop of berries this summer, that is, if the birds leave anything for the locals to pick. I asked one of the nuns about the berries, and she said that in some years they have gone out and picked, and thought that they would again this year, just because the crop looked so promising.

Also growing wild in the hedges are roses. I have seen the traditional five-petaled white rose (House of York or Plantagenet?), which has a light fragrance, and produces very large hips, as big around as a quarter; some are ripening already. There is also a purple-red rose, with more petals, that produces a smaller hip, but has a fragrance that’s simply intoxicating. Really, I’ve found one of the most fragrant roses I’ve ever come across, and it’s growing wild in a hedge in Essex.

Day 40, rain, scones & St Maximus

[Friday, 24 June] Following directly on my last post from yesterday afternoon, I didn’t stop by the parish church to see if it was old on the inside, because a storm was building up on the outside and rain was imminent. I decided to skip fish ‘n’ chips once I found out that the jam factory had a restaurant that wasn’t simply a tea house. So, I headed to Watkin & Sons but didn’t make it before a fierce wind and driving rain started. I arrived there to discover a rather proper English restaurant, patronized mostly by rather proper elderly folk, and although I was cold, wet, wind-blown, tired and hungry, and looked anything but rather proper, they took me in anyway and gave me a table.

I discovered that whole baked potatoes are called “jacketed” potatoes in England, and the English do not fill them sour cream and chives as we do, but with baked beans and rashers of bacon, among other things. They eat mackerel both hot and cold (I don’t eat it either way). Instead, I had a toasted (“grilled”) cheese sandwich with tomatoes and onions (very good, and cut corner to corner, and without crust; children everywhere would approve), a side of cole slaw (too much mayo), and finished it off with the house specialty: tea/coffee with a couple of scones, clotted cream, and my choice of jam (black currant!). Being cold, wet, etc., I opted for the very comfy cup coffee and skipped the tea.

I’m not sure how they come by “clotted cream,” but it seems to be plain old fresh cream, somehow rendered a little stiff, kind of like cream cheese at room temperature. In order to avoid scandalizing the local clientele with my barbarous ignorance, I asked the waitress how one properly went about eating one’s scone with clotted cream and jam. Upon instruction, I did a very neat job of it. There was one small miscommunication during the meal: I asked the waitress if she would warm up my coffee, and, God bless her, that’s exactly what she did: she took the dregs away, warmed them up in the microwave, and brought them back to me. I expressed myself in more direct English and got a full, fresh cup. All in all it was a fine meal, but a bit pricey at 12 pounds (roughly $23).

The front and the rain had passed through by the time lunch was over, so I finished the walk back to the monastery no longer wet, wind-blown, tired or hungry, but definitely cold.

Because Friday the 24th was the Nativity of John the Baptist, there was Vigil that evening. I was asked to read the three Old Testament prophecies. Vigil lasted only 3 hours. At dinner, I told Fr Melchizedek that I knew who he was, and we took a walk after dinner and talked about life, vocations (priestly and monastic), various Patristic scholars we had read, and much about current scholarship on St Maximus the Confessor.

I also learned from him something about “public footpaths,” because we took one on our walk. I had seen several small signs for public footpaths (“foot” nearly rhymes with “boot” and “path” must be pronounced “paah-th”) while walking into Tiptree to the library, and they seemed to be simply unmaintained dirt paths either along the edge of somebody’s wheat field or between a pair of houses, leading Lord only knows where, because the signs certainly don’t say. It seems public footpaths are an ancient, venerable and well-protected institution. It is probably easier to change the English Constitution than it is to move a public footpath. Many of them are there by long-established custom going back centuries. They seem to be maintained exclusively by foot traffic trampling down the grass, and from the poor condition of a couple of them I saw, I’d have to know exactly where it went before I wandered very far onto one and got lost or shot for trespassing.

This morning we had Liturgy for the Nativity of John the Baptist. Several of the Priests of the monastery, as well as myself and a visiting Romanian hieromonk, were invited to concelebrate with Fr Kyrill the Abbot and Fr Zacharias. Altogether there were 6 Priests and 2 Deacons. A lot of visitors, too, for the feast. At lunch afterwards, Fr Kyrill said that Elder Sophrony always considered this feast to be one of the major days for the monastery—the monastery being dedicated to St John the Baptist—because it was the first feast of St John that they celebrated when they moved to this property in 1959.

Being a feast day, we were allowed fish, wine and oil at lunch. There was chocolate cake, too.

By the way, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the community here eats very well, even during fasting seasons. Breakfast is informal, after morning prayers or Liturgy, and is a typical continental breakfast with a variety of breads, margarine, jam, and coffee or tea. Afternoon tea is also informal, and offers pretty much the same fare as breakfast. Oh, yeah, I need to mention that the English eat something at breakfast called “Marmite,” which the Australians call “Vegemite,” a noxious, abominable concoction made from cast off yeast from the brewery. There seems to be no middle ground on Marmite; you either love it or hate it, and you can probably tell how much I smeared on my bread…

Lunch and dinner are more formal affairs, take place in the large refectory, and are eaten in silence, accompanied by spiritual reading. At these meals we’ve had mashed and curried potatoes; peas, creamed and plain; steamed carrots and broccoli; stewed celery, eggplant, and zucchini; various pastas with and without sauce; rice dishes; fresh salad from the garden; various kinds of beans; baskets full of bread; and bowls of fresh fruit. Like the food in every monastery I’ve ever been in, the quality is excellent—probably because it’s all made with Psalms.

There’s also that peculiar European herbal tea that is served this time of year (I remember having it at Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, too). Americans don’t seem to know anything about it, but it’s made from the leaves and flowers of the linden tree, which is blooming now. It’s very light and pleasant—many of the monks drink it with sugar—and, being caffeine free, they serve it in the evening.

I’m finishing this post on Friday evening and will quit now because it’s late, and I want to go to bed. Saturday Liturgy starts at 7 am. Fr Kyrillos, the elderly Priest from Istanbul has left; I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear any more stories about Elder Porphyrios from him. A Bulgarian Archimandrite showed up for dinner, but he speaks no English, I speak no Bulgarian, and we haven’t yet worked out what third language we may have in common.

[Saturday morning, 25 June] It rained last night and somehow it’s even colder this morning than I thought possible for a summer day. We had Liturgy, and at breakfast afterwards, I worked out that, no, the Bulgarian Archimandrite and I do not share a third language in common, so instead I talked with an older couple who had come in by car, and they very kindly gave me a lift to the library into Tiptree so I can post this. I’ll have to walk back, but I have an umbrella this time, not that it’ll do much good in the wind, but at least I am as prepared this time as I can be.

I’ll not have internet access again until Tuesday evening, when I leave the monastery and stay the night in hotel in London. On Wednesday morning I have a very early flight to Thessaloniki, on my way to Mt Athos. Y’all be well, rest assured of my prayers, and please pray for me. I’m a little apprehensive about the Greek leg of this trip, since language will be much more of an issue and could result it more serious misunderstandings than getting a cup of microwaved coffee dregs.

Day 39, things and prayer

After dinner last night, I sat a moment in the refectory with Fr Zacharias. I commented on the Scripture verse on the handle of his cane, “Thy right hand upholdeth me,” that Orthodox Christians often think to make such connections between Scripture and common things.

Fr Zacharias said that we can make that kind of connection all the time. Fr Sophrony did so with many things. As he closed the door to the refectory behind us, he moved it back and forth and said, we can say, “Open to me the doors of repentance…”; when we wash our hands, we can say, “I will wash my hands in innocence…”. Everything can be accompanied by a prayer.

The prayers that accompany the gestures of the Liturgy are not inherent to the rite, but they were added later, so that no gesture is unaccompanied by a prayer.

He told me that when he used to serve as acolyte to Fr Sophrony, when they served Liturgy in the old chapel, the altar table was very small, and after the Gospel reading there wasn’t room on the Holy Table to put the Gospel book on it and unfold the antimens, so Fr Sophrony always handed him the Gospel to put on a table in the corner. And Fr Zacharias found that every time Fr Sophrony handed him the Gospel and he would lay it aside, he would say the verse from the long Psalm, “Your word burns exceedingly, and your servant loved it” [Ps 118.140 LXX]. That’s the way the prayers of the Liturgy develop.

Day 39

[Thursday, 23 June 2011]. Well, last evening at prayers, I recited my 100 Jesus Prayers in the community and, apparently, the Spirit was not quenched, nor was anyone slain (in the Spirit or otherwise).

At dinner, the Finnish Priest, Fr Melchizedek, was sitting next to me, and we chatted a bit. He confirmed his suspicion that I was Texan and told me that when he was studying in Thessalonica in 1991, he spent 2 weeks on the Holy Mountain. While he was there, there was a feast at which many of the local hermits were gathering to celebrate. He saw there one old monk, with a long white beard, very radiant and joyful in his appearance, and Fr Melchizedek thought he would go and meet him after the service. “Apo pou eiste?” (Where are you from?), he asked. “Eimai Amerikanos!” (I’m an American!), the hermit replied loudly with a broad Texas drawl.

I like this story, because it gives me hope. Not of being a monk on Mount Athos, but of arriving some day at radiance and joy, even if I am American and loud.

Because Friday is the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, the usual Thursday morning Liturgy has been put off until tomorrow, to celebrate the Feast.

This morning I got to recite the Prayer in church again. After Fr Zacharias, who recited in Greek first, I recited in English, followed by the Prayer in Arabic and Romanian. The fifth hundred seems always to be a compilation of prayers to the Saints: John the Baptist, the patron of the monastery; St Silouan of Athos, the spiritual grandfather of everyone here; the Saints of the day (“Holy Father Mark of Ephesus, pray to God for us… Holy Virgin Aethelreda of Ely, pray to God for us,” Orthodoxy is very broad here), and then prayers for the Abbot, the community, those travelling and sick, etc. After this set of prayers, there was another hundred Jesus Prayers, then a set to the Mother of God, and we ended with singing the Great Doxology and the Troparia of the day.

I found out at breakfast this morning that this Fr Melchizedek is Fr Melchizedek Tollefsen, who wrote a very fine dissertation on St Maximus the Confessor, which I have read. We will have to get together later and talk shop.

Since I am posting to my blog, you know that I have walked the 2 miles through Tolleshunt Knights (which you’ll miss if you blink) to Tiptree. I didn’t come in cassock, to maintain some anonymity. I suppose I’ll sit here for a while and read blogs, check my e-mail, ‘n’ such; then wander into the local parish church to see if it’s as old on the inside as it appears to be on the outside; possibly have lunch at the local fish ‘n’ chips establishment; and definitely have tea and scones at the Watkin & Sons jam factory before I head back to the monastery.

Day 38, Fr Zacharias

[Wednesday, 22 June] Last night the Jesus Prayer was recited in English, Romanian, Arabic and Greek. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the schedule right and missed the prayers this morning. But I may redeem myself: I have been invited to recite a prayer rope this evening. Whether or not the community can maintain its devotion while I recite in Texan remains to be seen.

The weather is very cool here. The wind blows constantly, and on a clear day, you can see the bay (or maybe it’s the Channel). Also, the Apostles’ Fast started last Monday, so there is very little fat in the diet, and I’ve gotten cold, like I always do during fasts. For the second night in a row I woke up shivering and had to rearrange the blankets, except last night, it didn’t help much, English beds remaining steadfastly cold and clammy. I had planned for a warm climate, not a cool one, and I don’t have enough clothes to keep me warm. I may have to borrow something. I’m really looking forward to a hot cup of anything this afternoon at tea.

This morning I was confronted by a stout nun who had a sack full of jelly donuts, one of which she forced upon me as a “consolation”. I didn’t want the “consolation,” but wasn’t able to refuse. Thankfully, the Scottish monk came by just then, and I was able to foist half of it onto him. He is young and thin and was going to work in the garden and could use the calories; I, of course, am none of those things.

Yesterday afternoon, at the end of lunch, Fr Zacharias invited me to come and see him. We went to his office and exchanged pleasantries until a sister brought us refreshment (coffee for me, tea for Fr Z, cookies and dark chocolate for the both of us). Then, when we were alone and uninterrupted, he answered all of the questions that I asked, and several more I didn’t ask but had been thinking about. The questions I figured would have been the hardest, he answered immediately, without thinking about them at all. He allowed me to use my digital voice recorder during our talk, so I have the whole thing, in order to transcribe it. Here is one exchange:

Me: How do I keep myself strong and guard my own heart when people come [to me] with things that are so heavy [to bear]?

Fr Z: Just what the Lord did in His day, in the days of His flesh, in His sojourn with us: “with a strong cry”. You remember in the Epistle today—Hebrews—that He offered to God petitions “with a strong cry.” And He was heard because of His reverence. Yes, I don’t think there is a rule. When you are made a Priest and a Spiritual Father, don’t think there are any more recipes for you. You just have to scream to God daily for help. It’s like being thrown in an ocean, and you have to swim, and come to the shore. There are no recipes, but surely, one thing is sure, we have to scream, constantly, for help, for God to do the impossible. Many times we scream to God to do the impossible, because it’s proper to Him. He is the one who said that what is impossible to man is possible to Him, and all this time we struggle for things which are impossible for us.

That’s the way it was, and we talked for over an hour. This was real consolation, not the jelly donut kind, and I left him with my heart settled about a lot of things.

After my talk with Fr Zachariah, I discovered medieval England still persists in pockets of Essex: the only public internet access of any kind is two villages away, beyond Tolleshunt Kinghts, at the public library in Tiptree, a two-mile walk up the lane. The library is only open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and that being Tuesday, I packed up my netbook and off I went. The locals, I think, found my drawl quaint as I asked for directions, because everybody tried not to smile too obviously.

I did pass one famous place along the way: Watkin & Sons, the makers of jams, jellies and marmalades, which I know I’ve bought in the States, has its factory here, and the air smelled sweetly of strawberries as I walked by it. Their 150th anniversary was just a couple of weeks ago and the Queen herself came by for tea and scones graced, no doubt, by Watkin & Sons finest preserves.

In order to gain internet access at the library, I had to get a library card. That turned out to be kind of fun. When the librarian asked what my address was, I mentioned the monastery and a great many questions about Texans-at-large-in-Tiptree were answered. Thus I was able to gain internet access and make my last blog posts. I told the librarians, when I left, that this was the first time anyone in my family had had an English identity in well over 200 years, and that I felt very proud to have gained a library card and become one of the locals.

After evening prayers and dinner, Sister M., an elderly English nun, caught my eye and we had a chance to talk a bit. She had been in the community for quite a while and knew Elder Sophrony in his last years. I asked her to tell me something about him, for the good of my soul, and she said it was just his presence that she remembered most, that he was so very humble with everybody, and gave anyone his undivided attention (of course, he could see right through you, she added). But it was such a joy just to be in his presence; that was enough to do you good. I asked her where he was buried, and she told me how to find the crypt.

So, I crossed the road back to the side where the church was, found the lamppost in the center (which I hadn’t noticed before because it’s completely covered in vines and looks to be part of the hedge), and turned right. At this point, I felt a sense of adventure, since turning at the lamppost reminded me of Narnia. I passed the mosaic Icon of St Nicholas, turned left down the next path, found the small chapel, then the door next to it, which was standing open and had a stairway going down. At the bottom was the crypt. It was chilly, dark, and damp, as is proper for crypts, and there was a nun there tending some business, who kindly turned on the lights for me. Elder Sophrony’s crypt is the one in the middle, and it has a lit lampada on it, and a mosaic crucifix on the wall behind. The nun finished her business and I was left alone. I was not surprised that, upon kneeling at the foot of his crypt, I burst into tears. I can’t tell you why. I spoke to Elder Sophrony about several things, and what consolation I had gotten from Fr Zacharias seemed to be confirmed, or strengthened, or something I can’t quite put into words. But like Sister Marina said, being in his presence was enough to do me good, and I am grateful for that. God is glorified in His Saints.

Pictures from St John’s, Essex

A slide show of some pictures from the Monastery here.

I know there are no pictures of people. I hope to get a few pictures of the people I’ve come to know and can post them later, but that requires permissions ‘n’ such, and, after all, they’re monks, not tourist attractions.

Again, if you click on the picture itself, you’ll be taken to the Picasa website, where you can have a little more control over how you look at the pictures.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
Essex upload, posted with vodpod