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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.


Trip 2, to England & the Holy Mountain

(T minus13 days, but who’s counting?)

The second trip on my sabbatical is the one I had wanted to do first: visit St John the Baptist Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights by Maldon, in Essex, England, and then on to Mount Athos.

The main reason for going to St John’s was to visit with Fr Zacharias (Zachariou), who is the spiritual father of the monastery, and who is fairly well-known in the states for his three books on spiritual life. Fr Zacharias was a disciple of Elder Sophrony (Sakharov), of blessed memory, who was, in turn, the disciple of St Silouan of Mt Athos. (A few of the books by Elder Sophrony, including his biography and edition of the writings of St Silouan, can be found here.) I had written to the monastery last November, and Fr Zacharias has agreed to receive me, but he was out of the country until June, so I rearranged my schedule to be sure we would have time together. I will be 8 days at the monastery.

This monastery has some unique features. In the first place, it is a mixed monastery having both men and women monastics in it, some forty monks, all told, I understand. Some of the nuns have good reputations their spiritual maturity, and I hope to have some conversations with them, as well.

In addition, because of the peculiar circumstances of Elder Sophrony’s life (he lived in a nursing home in France as an invalid for several years and began his monastic community there), St John’s does not keep the usual monastic typikon of the daily cycle of services. Instead, they gather every morning and evening for 2-hour sessions of saying the Jesus Prayer in common, and they celebrate the Divine Liturgy several days a week. While I look forward to the Liturgy, frankly the thought of sitting still for four hours a day in contemplative prayer strikes me as, well, probably beyond my means. We shall see. I didn’t plan these trips with ease in mind, and this is certainly going to be a challenge. By your prayers, I’ll be up to it.

After 8 days at St John’s, I will be flying to Thessaloniki, then making my way to Ouranoupolis, which is the port from which one embarks to Mt Athos, the Holy Mountain. The trip to Mt Athos is the fuzziest part of my sabbatical. As of this date, I have not yet heard back from the Pilgrim’s Office saying that I can actually have a pass onto the Holy Mountain on the dates I have to travel there, nor have I received word from the two monasteries I want to visit, saying they have reserved a place for me to lay my head. I suppose I’m going to have to break down and call, hoping (against hope) that somebody on the other end will speak English or French, ’cause my demotic Greek is pretty lame.

On the recommendation of a friend, I have been planning to visit Xeropotamou, a Greek monastery. “Xeropotamou” means, literally “dry gulch,” which appeals to me as a Texan. It also has, among its relics, the right hand of St Maximus the Confessor, which was cut off when he was tried for defending Orthodoxy against the Monothelites. (I wrote my dissertation on the Confessor, and he remains one of my favorite Fathers.)

Also, because St Panteleimon’s is near Xeropotamou, I thought I might visit there, too, for variety’s sake. St Panteleimon’s is the Russian monastery on Mt Athos, it also happens to be the monastery where St Silouan lived and where Elder Sophrony began his monastic life. (Ah, you see, it all comes together, and you pick up the common thread.)

But, alas, as I say, I have not yet finalized the plans to visit anyplace on Mt Athos. This bums me, as I like to have all my plans place well ahead of time so that I only have to deal with the spontaneous issues and grief that will no doubt arise, and not worry over things like reservations. But I’m hopeful. One day this week I suspect I’ll have to get on the phone at 6 am and make phone calls to Greece and hope we are able to communicate about my plans. If only they had answered letters and faxes none of this would be necessary. But who said pilgrimage was easy?

Itinerary (T minus 19 days)

The itinerary for the sabbatical.

15 May. Last Liturgy at St Innocent’s. After Liturgy, the sabbatical officially begins.

16-24 May — Fly to San Antonio, TX. Week at Lebh Shomea House of Prayer near Sarita, TX.

24-26 May — Time with family & friends in Clute, TX, my home town.

26-28 May — Time with my parents in Comfort, TX.

29 June – 19 July — Home with my family.

(14-17 June, attending Acton Institute’s Acton University in Grand Rapids, MI, where I will be lecturing on an Orthodox approach to environmentalism. This is not part of the sabbatical, but it is something of significance that I’ll be doing.)

19 June — Fly to London.

20-28 June — Week at St John the Baptist Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights by Maldon, Essex,  England.

29-30 June — Thessalonica & Ouranoupolis, Greece.

1-7 July — Xeropotamou & St Panteleimon Monasteries, Mount Athos.

8-11 July — Thessalonica & London.

11-17 July — Home with my family.

18-25 July — Week at St John of Shanghai Monastery, Manton, CA.

25 July – 18 August — Vacation with my family in CA, NV, UT, WY, MT, and WA.

19 August — Return home.

21 August — Back at St Innocent’s, the sabbatical finished.