Posts in arrears

Sorry to be slow getting my travelogue and pictures up to the blog site. I’m a couple of weeks in arrears, I know, but life has not been as leisurely lately. I will explain all of that in its proper place.

I’m currently in San Francisco on the third day of vacation and have much to share. Typically, though, I’m awake a couple of hours before everybody else, so blogging will be my early-morning, first-cup-of-coffee activity.


Day 56, Mass at St Nicholas

Photos by Fr Michael Butler, Jul 9, 2011

Vodpod videos no longer available.

[Sunday, 10 July 2011] Woke up this morning a little late, which is surprising after the Mount Athos routine of getting up at 3:30 or 4 for services. It was good to sleep in; I guess I needed it. Fr Andrew had already gone to his church for the early Mass. I found my way around the well-stocked kitchen and made myself some breakfast. Not long after, Paul came down to eat, as well as a parishioner who spent the night at the rectory because he lived at a distance from the church. Fr Andrew came back shortly thereafter and we all had coffee before going to the church for the “parish Mass,” which I suppose would be called “high Mass” here.
Fr Andrew’s church, “the Parish and Ancient Church of St Nicholas,” really is ancient, the foundation being laid in AD 960. It has three naves, five altars, and innumerable shrines to various Saints, who are represented in statuary, Icons, and very often in relics. There were a couple of hundred in attendance at the parish Mass, people from all kinds of backgrounds, and from all over the world, in fact. It is a very conservative parish, and I saw the Mass served with great beauty, care and grace, and attended with faith and devotion. At the end of the service, which included a Baptism, the clergy processed to the Fatima Shrine in the back of the church and formally enshrined relics of two of the three visionaries to whom Our Lady appeared in Portugal. Then the whole church sang the Angelus (when was the last time anybody reading this heard the Angelus sung?).
After the Mass, in fulfillment of the caricature of Anglican parishes, sherry was served in the back of the church instead of coffee or tea. There was even a choice of dry, medium or sweet sherry. I, of course, chose them all, and had the chance to meet and talk with several of the parishioners.
(Oh, by the way, after Mass there was a picture taken of the entire congregation standing around the altar in the front of the church. I was asked to be in the picture, too. So, when the picture is eventually made public, y’all can all play “where’s Waldo” and try to spot me, because you will be in the know, while others will simply wonder at that one, strangely dressed parishioner that Fr Andrew has collected.)
In the afternoon, some three dozen parishioners came to the rectory and there was a great deal of socializing and a pot luck dinner. (I will add that the English are very generous with their liquor and have much better livers than I do.) But we all sat and talked for hours, and ate and drank, and had a fine time of it.
I’ll say it again here: many thanks and kudos to Fr Andrew and his parish for their kindness and hospitality to me while I was with them. God grant them all many years.
The next morning, Fr Andrew and Paul were very kind in coming with me on the busses and trains all the way back to Paddington, where I caught the express out to Heathrow for my flight home.

Day 55, Dorridge

David & Sue Johnson & family

[Saturday, 9 July 2011] I had a lovely time with David & Sue and their family. I was treated to a fine mess of fish ‘n’ chips for dinner. Afterwards, David and I walked to a local English pub for a pint of ale. We had a great time remembering people and incidents from our days in Dallas, which was about half a lifetime ago. The next morning was leisurely, taking the children to a park, visiting the local parish church, and more reminiscing. All of them came with me to the station to see me off, just as they had all come to the station to greet me when I arrived.

After staying with the Johnsons, I was to stay for a couple of nights with Fr Andrew Stevens, an Anglo-Catholic Priest in a parish in Plumstead, which is in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames in London. For those of you who regularly attend weekday Liturgies at St I’s, you will remember Fr Andrew, for he’s the one who comes around now and then when he’s in Cleveland on “holiday.”

Taking the train back to London from Dorridge turned out to be a bit of an ordeal. There was construction on the train line, so part way back to London, we were all ushered off the train and onto a bus for an hour of the trip, then put back on the train to make our way into the station. Having come from the northwest, I needed, of course, to be in the southeast side of London. A total of three trains, two buses and 5 hours travel time got me some 100 miles from David & Sue’s house to Fr Andrew Steven’s rectory in Plumstead.

Passing note: If public transportation is ever forced upon the U.S. as a whole, Americans will either slaughter each other out of pure frustration, or the sheer passivity of it will destroy the American character.

When I got to Fr Steven’s, I found not only him, but Paul Pangrace (from St Theodosius) there. He was staying a few days with Fr Andrew before going on a two-week tour of Turkey. Fr Andrew had some fine lamb shanks for us for dinner, and a well-stocked liquor and wine selection. We ate very well, drank very well, and talked until we couldn’t keep our eyes open.

Day 54, back to England

[Friday, 8 June 2011] I went to bed with some trepidation. Word was that the Greek taxi drivers might, might be on strike today, so I didn’t know if I would have a taxi or have to take a bus to the airport, so I got up at 4:30, went downstairs, and had the front desk call for a cab. Thank God, they were not on strike, and one was at the hotel inside of two minutes.

The cabbie told me that the taxis had been on strike the day before, on Thursday. They had originally planned to strike on Friday and Saturday, but the rank and file who had the weekend off didn’t want to be inconvenienced, so the strike was moved back to Thursday. Says something about the present Greek financial crisis.

So I sat a while at the airport, but I didn’t care. I was there, the plane was on time, and I was on the next leg of my trip. Paid for my last meal in Greece: a cup of cappuccino and a croissant: 7 Euros, nearly $14.

Flight to Munich was uneventful, as was the layover, the flight to Heathrow, the express train into London, the Underground and British Rail trip up to Dorridge, near Birmingham, where I was to spend the night with a very old friend, David Johnson. Time in travel: almost 14 hours.

David and I knew each other in Texas in the early ‘80’s. He’s a few years younger than me and had converted to Orthodoxy the year before I did at St Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas, where we met. We were tonsured Readers at the same time. A few years later we lost track of each other, but he called me out of the blue a couple of months ago. Seems he had married an English girl and they were now living in England, in a little town a few miles south of Birmingham, where they have a family, as well. It’s hard to travel this far around the world and not stop in to see folk that you know, and I had included a couple of extra days in my itinerary for contingencies anyway, so I had the time.

We reminisced about the old days, talked about people we knew. He bought me a proper English dinner of fish ‘n’ chips. I bought him a pint of ale at a proper English pub. His wife, Sue, God bless her, has a washing machine, and my cassock, which I had worn almost continuously for three weeks, finally got washed.

Random thoughts

Young people are exactly the same everywhere.

Bulgarian beggars in Thessaloniki and Ouranoupolis give new meaning to the term “swarthy.”

For a peninsula inhabited entirely by several hundred bachelors with little regard for personal appearance or hygiene, Mt Athos is exceptionally clean and well-maintained.

If you ever find yourself squeezed in your monk’s stall between a fat Russian archimandrite on your right, and a fat Russian archpriest on your left during a long, hot vigil service, just wait a little while. You might be dripping sweat, but they’re melting, and will excuse themselves very early.

Athonite monks set their wristwatches to Byzantine time.

The difference between eating fish at a Greek monastery and eating it at a Russian monastery is that, in a Russian monastery, your dinner doesn’t watch you while you eat it.

Also, eating at a Russian monastery is kind of like having dinner with the Irish: you wonder just how many different ways they will serve you cabbage and potatoes at the same meal.

Also, Greek refectories smell like olive oil and garlic; Russian ones smell like cabbage. American refectories (the good ones) smell like incense and coffee.

Also, if there’s wine on the table at an Orthodox monastery, never touch it until the Abbot rings the bell and everybody else drinks theirs. Faux pas if you goof up. I had been warned ahead of time (thank you, Fr Daniel).

I can’t remember the name of the old actor who played Captain Bligh in “The Mutiny on the Bounty” and the hunchback of Notre Dame, but he must have retired from movies, grown a beard, and became a monk at St Panteleimon’s, because I’d swear he sat down with me at lunch one day.

Some Russian men have very fine, or delicate, features. Put them in a cassock and their hair in a bun and they look rather like school-marms.

The smallest monk in the monastery will be given the obedience of lighting the candles on the tallest candle stands.

Spiritual progress is fine, but it takes a serious toll on your feet. None of the Fathers tell you that.

You never think of people actually going to Sofia, Bulgaria.

Knowing that the Father Confessor is a clairvoyant Athonite Elder helps one to be scrupulously thorough in preparing for Confession.

Day 53, the end of Athos

[Thursday, 7 July 2011] Despite getting to bed after 2 am, I sprung from bed when my alarm went off at 6. I had sweat through my pants, t-shirt and cassock while walking to and from Xenophontos yesterday and badly needed a bath, which I took. I was as clean as I could get and was already walking out of the guest house when the gaunt monk started to ring the bell to wake everybody up. “It is time to pray, it is the hour of prayer. O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us and save us.” Clang-clang-clang…

I went directly to the church and found the one monk, wooden semantron in hand, ready to start banging out the call to prayer. A few minutes later and the bells began their bone-rattling toll.

The relic of St John the Baptist was made available again for veneration. Full hierarchical Liturgy proceeded flawlessly, the singing was magnificent, I received Communion at the altar with the other Priests, and life was good.

Lunch was a formal affair, with the monks following the clergy in procession to the refectory. Having entered the altar at Liturgy, I was now indisputably and publicly kosher, and one of the monks grabbed me and pulled me into the ranks of the brotherhood walking in procession. I was accepted as one of their own, and it felt good to be “in”.

After lunch, procession back into the church for final blessing and dismissal, I was taken to Fr Asterik, who promised to allow me to venerate the relic of St Silouan the Athonite. I had been waiting in the church, but I found out the relics were not stored there. They were in their own separate chapel. What I saw there took my breath away: two long glass cases filled with reliquaries: large relics of St John the Theologian; the Three Holy Hierarchs; SS Seraphim of Sarov; the wonderworking Unmercenary Physicians Cyrus and John (their whole skulls); all the Apostles; the True Cross; several New Martyrs I didn’t know; St John the Baptist back in his usual place; many, many more that I can’t even remember; and in one corner, on a table by itself, in a large, round silver reliquary, the skull of St Silouan the Athonite. Fr Asterik graciously left me alone in the chapel for a few minutes to pay my respects to the Saints and to pray. A great big, final Amen to the whole visit to Mount Athos.

Since I had an hour or so before the ferry boat came around to St Panteleimon’s, I went back to the guest house to check out and found Fr Filadelf puttering around in his tea room. There was tea, to be sure, but it being the heat of the day, Russians don’t drink hot tea, but prefer kvass, which he makes from leftover tea that he sort of ferments in a big vat that has a large, stinking mass of some kind of yeast or fungus floating on the top of it. I got detailed lessons in the homemade production of kvass, the difference between the Russian and Jerusalem productions, and the generous offer of my very own jar of stinking yeast/fungus to bring home with me to start my own production (like I was going to get that through customs without charges of biological warfare). We sampled both the Russian- and Jerusalem-recipe kvass (it’s made from rice and lemon instead of tea and sugar), and I have to say, it grows on you (as well as in the vat). There was also a little rose-flavored loukoumi (Turkish Delight) to go with.

Finally, it was time to leave. The ferry boat made the return trip from the Port of Daphne, and we put in at all the same monasteries on the way back. I stood on the top deck again, this time with a pair of men I had met on the path while hiking to Xenophontos. Come to find out, they were both Polish Catholics (gasp!), one a Carmelite who had studied Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and the other, a newly-minted diocesan Priest who had just finished his Ph.D. at the Institute Biblique in Jerusalem. They had been tracing St Paul’s missionary journeys and undertook a side-trip to Athos while visiting the latter-day Thessalonians. We had fabulous conversation.

The bus ride back to Thessalonica was long, hot, and uneventful. In the city, I transferred buses and saw that the temperature was 43 C, which is somewhere over 100 degrees; no wonder it was sweltering in the bus. I made it back to the hotel, had dinner without incident, took a long, exquisite shower, posted a few blog posts to the blog site, and went to bed.


A few illustrative pics

I went on-line today and found a few good pictures of Xeropotamou and St Panteleimon, of things I did not get pictures of, and to illustrate some of the things I’ve talked about in recent posts. These are not pictures I took on my own trip, but they do supplement what I’ve posted.

First, here are a few pictures of the narthex of the Catholicon at Xeropotamou. The frescoes are of scenes from the Apocalypse/Book of Revelation.

Narthex of Catholicon at Xeropotamou.

Narthex, Catholicon, Xeropotamou

Frescoes of the Apocalypse, Narthex, Catholicon, Xeropotamou

The reliquary of the True Cross, which is kept at Xeropotamou, and which I venerated while I was there:

Reliquary of the True Cross, Xeropotamou

And then, at St Panteleimon’s Monastery, St Silouan of Mt Athos:

St Silouan

The Catholicon, or main church, of St Panteleimon’s:

St Panteleimon's Catholicon

A view of the Iconostasis, Altar and canopy inside the church:

Interior, Catholicon, St Panteleimon

The large bell:

The large bell

An example of a polyeleios candelabrum with a chandelier in the middle of it. The ones at St Panteleimon’s were much closer to the ground, and the nave of the church is smaller, so they really filled up the space:

Example of polyeleos and chandelier

I hope these help to flesh out a bit more the descriptions I gave previously.

Also, while I’m at it with the supplemental material, check out the OrthodoxWiki article on St Silouan:

On Elder Sophrony:

On St John the Baptist Monastery:

On Xeropotamou Monastery:

On St Panteleimon’s Monastery:

2nd journey: maps

A few maps of the places I visited and mentioned in the blog posts.

St John the Baptist Monastery & environs:


Mt Athos:

England after Mt Athos:

Day 52, Confession & Vigil

Day 52. Confession & Vigil.

Tomorrow is the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist on the Old Calendar. When I was at the Monastery in Essex, which is on the New Calendar, this was the first Liturgy I concelebrated with Igumen Kyrill. Now it will be the last Liturgy I attend on Mt Athos. Given my love for the Forerunner, somehow it seems an appropriate beginning and end of this trip abroad.

9th Hour and Little Vespers were served late today, at 7 pm. I asked after the service, when there was a break before Vigil, what would be necessary to receive Communion. I was told I needed the blessing of the Spiritual Father of the monastery, Fr Makary.

Fr Makary is a true Elder in the Athonite tradition, meaning that, not only is he a generally-recognized holy man, but he is also gifted with discernment and clairvoyance, meaning he can see right through you and tell you your sins without you having to open your mouth. Elder Sophrony in Essex was like that. Now if you stop to think about it, the prospect of meeting with someone who can do that is downright terrifying, but I had said I wanted Communion, so I was committed to seeing him. Fr Zadok received a blessing from Fr Makary to serve as a translator for me during my Confession, which he did.

I don’t know why I get all worked up over this sort of thing. Of course, my dread was unfounded. Fr Makary was the icon of meekness and love, and why should I have been afraid? But, I think, if you don’t approach a clairvoyant Athonite Elder with a little bit of fear, you probably don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.

After the Confession and absolution, I asked a blessing to receive Communion at the Liturgy the next morning. He asked my jurisdiction. I told him, the Orthodox Church in America, with Metropolitan Jonah. At the mention of Vladyka Jonah’s name, Fr Makary smiled broadly and nodded his head. “Good. He is our friend,” he said.

To get an idea of what the Vigil was like, I have to describe the church, as best I can. (And the monastery is using only one of the three churches here.) I’ll leave aside the narthex, which is simply big, with four great square pillars holding up the dome, and everything covered in big, golden Icons, and the walls lined with monk’s stalls.

The Iconostasis is five levels high, soaring up near the ceiling of the church. The main Icons are probably 3’ x 4’, all with silver covers. The Royal Doors are solid, some 15’ tall. The altar is square; with a baldachin/canopy over it that reminds me strongly of Bernini’s canopy over the high altar of St Peter’s in Rome. This one also has twisty columns and is covered with gold leaf (in fact, most everything in the church is covered in gold leaf).

In front of the Iconostasis are two large shrines, on the right, St Panteleimon, the Greatmartyr, Wonderworker, and Unmercenary Physician, the patron of the monastery; on the left, the Mother of God. Both Icons are about 3’ x 4’, with silver covers, and the shrines are about 25’ high.

In the center of the nave, there is hung a polyeleios, a kind of candelabrum shaped like a giant circle or a bracelet. It is made up of ten flat panels and is suspended from the ceiling by several chains so that the panels hang straight down. I figure the circumference is somewhat over 50’ around. It is gold –plated and has double-headed eagles and Icons on it, it has forty candles along the top side, and there are ten ostrich eggs hung around the bottom of it. It is immense.

The only thing bigger than the polyeleios is the sterling silver chandelier that hangs in the middle of it. Just say it’s huge and be done with it. It would have made a fine accessory in the Grand Duke’s ballroom in old St Petersburg, but here it is.

The rest of the nave is cruciform, with wings on each side for the two choirs. As I said in an earlier post, I was placed in the left choir, where visiting clergy go.

Vigil was preceded, of course, by a monk walking around the church, beating on hand-held wooden semantron with a mallet. He then beat on the big wooden semantron that hangs outside the church with the same mallet. He then beat on the big metal semantron with a metal mallet.

And then the bells began to ring. You know Russians are famous for the bells, and rightly so. The first to ring was that big one I was telling you about. You heard it, yes, but you also felt it all the way to your marrow. Then all the other bells began to ring. Nearly deafening. And really swell, too. I had to laugh it was so delightful.

Now, if you’ve ever attended a Vigil in the Russian style, you’ll have an idea of what went on. It lasted only 5 ¼ hours. I was expecting something much longer, what with an Archbishop-Abbot, a couple of priests and deacons serving, two choirs, a medium-sized feast to celebrate, and nothing else to do but praise God.

I have never heard such singing before in my life. These men have voices like angels, except for the basses, who have the voices of archangels, and maybe even the archangels are jealous.

So we served Compline, then Vespers with Litya, and began Matins. The most spectacular thing happened during Matins. I have to tell you about it.

We came to sing the Polyelei. The choirs are belting it out, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy is forever, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” While they’re singing, one of the monks comes out with a long stick and begins to swing the polyeleion candelabrum. It oscillates back and forth, like the mainspring of a watch, until it’s going pretty well. Then the monk grabs the bottom of the silver chandelier and gets it to swinging around in a big circle, too. (Remember, these are the biggest things in the nave, and not that far overhead, so this is almost scary and a little disorienting, too.)

So the choirs are singing their hearts out, one side and then the other, the polyeleion is rotating back and forth, the chandelier is swinging round and round, and in the middle of all this delicious delirium of music, light and motion, the clergy come out from the altar bringing not an Icon of St John the Baptist, but a relic. I didn’t even know there were relics of St John the Baptist. It was in a reliquary of gold and enamel, like a little toy church; it even had a little onion dome on the lid.

Well, this about did me in right there. Sensory overload and astonishment over encountering my favorite Saint of all time: open-mouthed stupefaction. Unlike St Vladimir’s envoys to Constantinople, there was no question as to whether I was in heaven or on earth.

Of course we got to venerate the relic. It was a piece of bone about the size of the middle joint of your index finger. I had but a moment, since the church was packed with monks and pilgrims waiting to do the same, and the Abbot was waiting to anointing everyone with oil. (Note to the faithful: when you get too much oil on your forehead, rub it into your hands, face and hair; it’s what the monks do.)

When we got to the canon of Matins, the clergy went back into the altar, but, God bless ‘em all, every one, they left the relic in the middle of the church, so everyone that wanted to—and there were many of us—went back and venerated it again, taking more time, praying, making prostrations, all the usual stuff. Such warmth of piety I saw: men pressing their lips and their foreheads fervently to the relic, laying the side of their heads on it and praying, prostrating for minutes at a time, some so humble they barely dared to approach.

When the service ended at 2 am, I didn’t know how the night could get any better, but it actually did. There is no light pollution on Athos, so the stars blaze out overhead and are breathtaking. Just before I went into the guest house, a green meteorite streaked brightly through the sky: a final, cosmic doxology to the Maker of all.

Glory be to God for all things!

Day 52, St Panteleimon’s

[Wednesday, 6 July 2011] Today is my 26th anniversary, and it is the first time Annette and I have not been together for it.

The bell ringer in the guest house seemed to ring his bell with extra zeal this morning. He is a tall, thin Russian monk, with long black beard and hollow cheeks.  “It is time to pray, it is the hour of prayer. O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us,” he would cry intermittently. I couldn’t move. Standing in church several hours a day and walking around the side of the mountain have made my feet and ankles swollen, and they hurt. The night had been warm and muggy; I don’t think I slept well, either. I didn’t look forward to going to church.

The services were a blur; I spent all my time trying to stay awake and focus. I noted that, here and there, a few of the monks had nodded off to sleep. It is the tail end of the Apostle’s Fast on the Old Calendar. I think between the heat and the fasting, everyone is about done in. It being a Wednesday in a fast, there is only one meal in the refectory today, and that is at 5 pm. However, the monks are compassionate on the poor palomniki (pilgrims), and the tea room in the guest house was open, with two large pots of strong tea, a samovar full of hot water to dilute the tea, bread and jam waiting for us. God bless Fr Filadelf. I ate and went back to bed and slept for two hours.

Everybody here must sleep in snatches of a few hours. I’m probably ruined for life: eight straight hours of sleep seems like a distant dream. I don’t think I’ve had one since I left home.

Random notes: Different customs in different villages lead to misunderstandings. At the end of Liturgy yesterday morning, two trays of antidoron bread had been set out for us. After venerating the Cross which the Abbot, Archbishop Sergei, held, I went and took a small piece from one of the trays and went back to my stall to see if, in fact, the services were over and it was time to go out. It was, and I went out. Later, Fr Zadok told me that some of the monks had noted I had not taken any antidoron and were wondering if the reason was because I was Catholic or something else. Come to find out, the first tray held the actual antidoron, the second tray held extra bread that had been cut up. I had taken a piece from the second tray only. I remembered seeing some of the monks take from both trays but thought nothing of it. This morning I very deliberately took bread from both trays and thus confirmed, to the eagle eyes of the monks that watched for that sort of thing, that I am, indeed, an Orthodox Christian.

It wasn’t lemonade they poured into my cup at lunchtime; it was kvass. I wouldn’t go out of my way for it, but it ain’t bad.

There were boys as young as six or seven with their fathers at lunch today.

I want to describe the rest of today in a separate post.