Day 36, Planes, trains & automobiles
[Monday, 20 June] I did manage to sleep on the plane, if collapsing in exhaustion into the sleep of the damned can be called “rest.”
We arrived at London Heathrow Airport a bit late, after flying around in circles for a while over Sussex. Getting through customs took longer than I thought, but when one is in England, I’m told, one gets used to “queuing up” and waiting for things. Every tribe, people, nation and tongue was there in line with me, and every major religion was represented, too (I know ’cause I checked). I had no monopoly on funny headgear (cowboy hat blended in just fine, as would have my skoufia). The people of the world are a fascinating lot, and there can be no better place for people-watching than at a customs office.
To get from the airport to the monastery required two train tickets, and a taxi fare, none of them cheap. Thankfully, one British Pound is worth about $2, so I just have to double the price in pounds of things here to get what it would cost in dollars. That means it takes less ciphering to figure out the prices and you get to “ouch” that much faster.
I left home at 2:30 pm yesterday and arrived at the monastery at 1 pm today. Altogether, it took 17 ½ hours to get here.
When I arrived, they had just finished lunch, so I was given a plateful of good monastery chow and devoured it ravenously. Then I was shown my room and left alone, so I fell on the bed and slept, had a hot shower, and arrived in time for tea very much refreshed.
Yes, this is England, and even monks have afternoon tea. Tea is an informal affair in a smaller refectory behind the church. Today there was a large group of pilgrims from the Greek parish in Birmingham (England, not Alabama), and they were already at tea when I arrived. As I came in the door, the priest accompanying in the group backed into me, turned around, took one look and said, “You’re an American.” “How do you know that?” I asked. “Just look at you.” Okay, I thought, marked for life, and I don’t even know how.
The pilgrims had brought a bounty of fresh fruit and Greek desserts, which were all generously passed around and enjoyed to boisterous conversation. Tea was served out of giant, gallon-sized teapots. By the time I left, about 30 minutes later, I had drawn upon the meager stores of every language I had ever learned to get through all the conversations, which were conducted in English, Greek, Russian, Romanian, French and German, and probably a couple of other languages I couldn’t identify.
The pilgrims had asked Fr Zacharias for a talk at the end of tea. As he began talking with them in Greek, I slipped away into the bookstore (go figure, huh?). There I met an elderly priest who is also visiting here, Fr Kyrillos from Istanbul, living now in Athens. I learned that his Spiritual Father for 12 years was the famous Elder Porphyrios, so I asked him about the Elder. He had seen many things with Fr Porphyrios over the years, he said, and Geronda (the “old man”) was very holy. I asked him, for the good of my soul, to tell me something that Geronda often said. He said, Geronda used to say, “Everything begins with love; and everything ends with love.” Now that may not sound like much when it’s read casually on a blogsite, but when you ask someone sincerely for a “word” for the good of your soul, and someone quotes to you from a Saint, that word has a certain power from the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart. And I think it was just what I needed to hear at that time. I hope to ask Fr Kyrillos to talk more about Geronda Porphyrios while we’re together, since we’ll both be here all week, and he is in the room across the hall from me, and neither of us have any schedule to speak of.
At 5:30 pm, evening prayer began, which, as I think I’ve said in an earlier post, is not Vespers at this monastery, but a 2-hour session of the Jesus Prayer, said in community. The church here, dedicated to St Silouan of Athos, is very dark. The windows have curtains over them, and even the doors to the church are covered with heavy curtains, so that we are not distracted by the light. The only lights are the lampadas on the iconostasis. A Priest began, “Blessed is our God,” and a reader continued with the Trisagion Prayers and the three Psalms from Compline. Then, Fr Kyrillos began saying the Jesus Prayer out loud in Greek, “Kyrie Isuse Christe, Hie tou Theou, eleison himas,” over and over, one prayer-rope’s worth (100 prayers). When he had finished, one of the nuns took it up in English, to a very pleasant, nearly song-like cadence. Then a nun recited in French, then back to English with a monk reciting. Then prayers to the patron of the church, St Silouan, the Saints of the day, and petitions for many people, all done with the prayer-rope. I’ll have to describe that in another post, because it’s a fine way to pray for people, and I don’t think I’ve ever taught anyone that. After a couple of hundred more Jesus Prayers, we ended with the Great Doxology sung to the same melody we use at St Innocent’s, and the usual conclusion for a service, which we all know.
Immediately after evening prayer came supper, which is taken in the large refectory. Lunch and dinner are formal meals, with the whole community eating at once, in silence, with a reading from a spiritual text during the meal. Tonight, they were reading the end of the life of St John of Kronstadt. It was read in French, but the diction and cadence were so clear, I understood almost everything, and my French is very bad these days.
After dinner I went straight to bed. When Annette and I were in England for our honeymoon some 26 years ago, we discovered that English beds were lumpy, cold and clammy. I am happy to report that, in the course of a quarter century, English beds are no longer lumpy…