Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Living With The Monks At Xenophontos Monastery

It's 10 am on a sunny, warm and cloudless Wednesday morning and the fifty passenger, twin engined, fiberglass taxi boat has made it's trip through the crystal clear, turquoise shaded waters to drop a group of four of us off at the first stop which is the protruding concrete dock of the Xenophontos monastery. Being the only non-greek and not knowing where to go, I follow the other pilgrims up the ancient, winding rock steps into a well maintained and landscaped courtyard of the monastery where the entrance to the guest house is located. While milling around in the greeting room with just a handful of pilgrims, none of whom are American, I admire the tile floors, the wood ceilings, the heavy wood furniture and ever beautiful view of the Adriatic Sea. After 20 minutes or so of waiting, a young monk presents himself bringing refreshments of greek coffee, water and a jellied candy which in the West would be called, Turkish Delight but here in Greece, the phrase, "Turkish Delight" doesn't set well, because the Turks for all of known history have only given the Greeks heartache and problems and surely nothing even beginning to approach a concept like 'delight'. So, they have another name for this delicious candy but I can't remember how to pronounce it, so I will just call it, Greek Delight. No wine is offered, due to the time of our visit coinciding with the Dormition Fast period, (google it, if you're interested in knowing more about it). After filling out the guest book, we are given a quick tour of the church. This particular church happens to be the largest church on Mt. Athos and one of it's most notable features are it's colorful murals which cover every inch of the high walls and multi-domed ceilings, portraying significant events in the history of the church. Another especially beautiful feature of this church are the golden lamp stands and chandeliers which are both magnificent in size and design and amazingly, the candles they hold are the only means of light for this huge edifice. 

After returning to the guest house, I enjoy the sea view from the 4th floor balcony and then retire to my private room to finish reading my book on the writings of St. Silouan the Athonite. It isn't long before a young man shows up at my door who is an American student at the Holy Cross Seminary in Boston. He name is Costa and he is fluent in Greek and has spent every summer at the monastery for the past eight years. A monk had told him of another American pilgrim at the monastery, (me), so he was kind enough to introduce himself and spend the rest of the afternoon giving me a tour of the monastery grounds. Later in the afternoon, I check the guest register back to May which reveals only a couple of pilgrims from America, all of whom have greek names. I must say, I am astounded at the lack of interest or awareness by Americans of what this holy mountain is all about.

This monastery grows much of it's own food in their garden and greenhouse and they also have their own olive groves, vineyards and bee hives as well as a lumber mill, a rock cutting operation and a metal fabrication shop. Most of the monks don' t speak english, so I am fortunate to have been befriended by Costa, as he is well versed in everything going on at the monastery. Costa also introduced me to the two monks from America and I got to spend a little time after the evening services getting to know one of them. It is now after 9 pm and the next liturgy will start at 4 am and last until 830 am, after which we will have breakfast, which I discover is more like a meal one would expect for dinner. 

I haven't made an entry to my blog since Wednesday and It is now Saturday afternoon. I have fallen into the daily life of the monks; rising at 3 am for private prayers,(at least I'm trying), attending the daily matins and liturgy services from 4 am to 730 am, (well, almost all of it) then breaking for 30 minutes before attending the Paraklesis of the Theotokos for another 30 minutes and then entering the Trapeza for breakfast at around 830 am. After breakfast, there is a period of work until 2 pm, at which time, the monks rest until 6 pm when the services begin again with Vespers, another Paraklesis to the Theotokos, dinner and then Complines. After the last service ends around 8 pm, there is free time to fellowship until everyone begins heading for bed, which is usually around 9 pm. As far as I am concerned, these monks are comparable to olympic athletes in their lifestyle and it's absolutely amazing to realize they have been following this disciplined regimen in this monastery since it was founded in 998 AD. I read somewhere that Mt. Athos, is the heart of the church and if it ever stops beating, that is when the end of the world will occur. These monks are here to draw closer to God and to pray for the world, which encompasses their entire existence. Their intercessory prayers stay the hand of God, allowing mankind to repent and turn to God. So long as they pray, the world will continue but when there are no more monks to pray, the end of the world will occur. Albeit a debatable concept, it is most interesting to contemplate. 

These monks live an ascetic life and it shows in many ways, one of which is food; in what they eat, how much they eat, how quickly they eat and how often they eat. Their diet can be bland, (during the fast periods), with a typical meal (since I have been here), consisting of a bowl of potatoes, beans or lentils, (cooked in various ways) with common bowls of bread, olives, grapes, jam with an occasional bowl of tomatoes or watermelon and a pitcher of water. Because today is the weekend, (during the fast periods, wine and oil are allowed on weekends), we also have pitchers of wine on the table and we enjoyed a main dish of delicious stuffed peppers cooked with olive oil and also a bowl of fresh tomatoes, (from the monastery garden) and sliced onions in olive oil. We ate in silence and we ate quickly, all the while listening to one of the monks read from a book of the lives of the saints, (in greek) and shoveling the food in without stopping until the ringing of a bell by the abbott, signifying the end of the meal, at which time, a prayer of thanksgiving is recited after which we file out of the Trapeza, past the cooks, who bow in reverence and repentance before us, along with abbott on the other side giving his blessing. The monks share two common meals daily and also have access to food to snack on during the day.

We are very isolated on this long finger of land with the only mode of transportation in or out, being boats and not just any boat but only approved boats can provide transportation of which there are only about four unless you are privileged enough to get a ride on a monastery owned boat which is only for provided for very important guests. Primitive roads do exist between the monasteries but not to the outside world and today, (still Saturday), the monk who is in charge of the sawmill, took my Greek-American friend, Costa and I four wheeling in one of the monastery vehicles, which happens to be a very well made, Mercedes Benz four wheel drive jeep. We drove high into the mountains before coming to a small mildly renovated chapel which was in the midst of an abandoned skete, (a place where two or three monks live), which has been built around a thousand years ago. The skete had been built next to a beautiful creek and waterfall, which was barely trickling due to Mt. Athos being in the dry season, right now. We continued on deeper into the thick forests of the Athos, before coming to a quaint community of three or four sketes which are all part of the Xenophontos monastic community. We stopped to visit one of the monks, who lives by himself in a little house and who supports himself by making wooden prosphora stamps which are used to make imprints on the communion loaves used in every Orthodox liturgy. After enjoying as many figs as we could eat from a large tree next to his cell, we were invited in for greek coffee and some kind of strong liquor made from grapes, which was very tasty with an anise aftertaste. After a visit of an hour or so, we headed back down the mountain, along the eastern border of the Xenophontos property, from where we could view the neighboring monastery of St. Pantolemon, which is the Russian run monastery. It is the largest monastery on the mountain and at the turn of the last century, before the Bolshevik revolution, I am told there were around two thousand monks living here and Russian pilgrims would be brought here in droves on cruise ships to visit the monastery. The monastery now has around four hundred resident monks. The final leg of our adventure took us along the Adriadric seashore through the monastery owned olive groves which as everything else around here, are very, very old. It was quite an unexpected pleasure, to be able to go four wheeling on Mt. Athos, visiting ancient ruins and sipping greek coffee with a wild looking hermit monk as well as enjoying magnificent panoramic views of the Adriatic Sea, the Athos mountains and broad blue cloudless sky.

It is now 3:30 in the afternoon on Sunday and as usual, it is dry, warm and cloudless, yet surprisingly comfortable with a constant sea breeze. I had no idea what I was in for today and had I known ahead of time, I'm not sure I could have endured, either physically or mentally. At four in the morning, the sky was clear and stars were shining bright in the darkness and the church bells were ringing beautifully and I was walking briskly to church, feeling surprisingly alert and fresh. The Orthodox liturgy can be likened to good literature in that it unfolds over time, draws you in and then keeps you spell bound until the end of the story when you are released to enter the world outside again. Well, the world outside was pushing 9:30 am by the time we exited and all l I can say, is that I have never experienced anything like this in all my life. I'm sure, had I understood the language, it would have been immensely and amazingly edifying, but since I didn't understand but two or three words, I can only say it was amazingly edifying. Sunday liturgy was definitely different than the rest of the week and I could sense it in the general atmosphere and energies within the church, the bell ringing and the intensity of the chanting. I can't quite explain it but there is something spiritually and physically gratifying about dwelling in the midst of such beauty for so many hours. Oddly enough, my mind never wandered from the confines of this little piece of heaven on earth. I stood most of the time, captivated by the awesome beauty of the interesting architecture, the peaceful beauty of the long bearded, black robed monks with such serene, kind and solidly composed facial features, the auditory beauty of the mournful yet deeply joyful chanting, the mysterious and immensely moving beauty of the icons, the glimmering beauty of the functioning golden lamp stands, the worn beauty of the intricate wood carvings, the resonating beauty of the ringing bells, the aroma of sweet smelling incense, the marble floors, columns and granite block walls all bound together, supporting an indescribable beauty of a heavenly ordained tradition that has remained unchanged for over a thousand years in the very space I was occupying. Perhaps, all this beauty would not have impregnated itself so deeply into my conscience had I been concentrating on the words and so I suppose I can say, I am grateful, I couldn't understand the language, for it allowed me to participate in this liturgy in a way that was outside of the normal human experience. 

Afterwards, we headed directly for the Trapeza to enjoy a much appreciated and tasty stew of egg plant, squash, potatoes, olive oil and spices with side dishes of sauteed peppers, fresh tomatoes and onions and by the time we were finished with our meal, it wasn't even 10:30 am and the morning was still fresh. After helping with clean up, Costa and I had the good pleasure of spending the next four hours with Father Zosimah, the monastery librarian. We discussed many topics, as we sipped cold tea on his balcony, with the backdrop of the Adriatic Sea behind delivering it's fresh breezes. Spending time with Father Zosimah will probably be as close as I get to feeling like I was sitting at the feet of Christ as He taught His disciples and I'm sure, if Father Zosimah, read this, he would be aghast and scoff at such a description but I don't know how else to describe it. 

Later in the afternoon, Father Zosimah stopped by to provide me with a wealth of reading material which he burned on a CD. He also made arrangements to have me moved into more comfortable surroundings. After having spent the last five days in the attic room of the guest house, I were graciously moved four floors down to the daylight basement, where instead of a view of the kitchen wall, I now had a glorious view of the Adriatic Sea and instead of listening to the clanging and banging of pots and pans, I was entertained by the orchestra of waves breaking rhythmically upon the rocky shores within a stones throw of my window. The walls down here are more than four feet thick and although this building was renovated recently, it's still more than a thousand years old and the history it contains is mind boggling. The monasteries of Mt. Athos have suffered much over the past centuries, having been pillaged, robbed and sacked repeatedly by their fallen Christian brothers of Europe as well as raiding pagan pirates. Many of the great religious treasures of Mt. Athos and the East can now be found throughout Italy and the rest of Europe and sadly, most have never been returned. On positive note, though, I would speculate that the spiritual treasures, (the prayers and writings) that have gone out from this mountain, have contributed to the peace of nations and untold thousands, perhaps millions of individuals and have also resulted in an infinite number of blessings upon the whole world ever since this region became a habitation of ascetic monks over 1500 years ago.

It is now late in the afternoon of Monday and I have spent the last few hours reading. Earlier in the day, while helping clean the Trapeza, I had the opportunity to meet yet another monk from America whose name is Brother John. I think he is still a teenager and he came here two and half years ago from Carey, NC. I also got to have more sweet fellowship with Father Zosimah on his balcony as well as helping Costa, carry a heavy garbage can full of compost down to the dock, where we emptied it into the sea to watch the thousands of little fish nibble, feast and gorge on foul looking organic waste. 

It is now 8 pm on Monday and the day is ending and I am back in my room typing the last of my entries from the Xenophontos Monastery. I will be leaving this place in the morning and as I contemplate my stay here, I am especially struck by how isolated this mountain is from the rest of the world. These monks live in a world preoccupied with heavenly worship, intercessory prayer and working out their salvation. In many aspects, monastery life is the kind of life revealed to us in the book of Acts, where all things were held in common, sweet fellowship was experienced and the love for and devotion to Christ permeated every activity and relationship. These dear brothers and fathers in Christ have blessed me in indescribable ways and I sense that the Holy Spirit is going to use my visit here as a means to teach me many valuable lessons in the future.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Leaving For Mt. Athos In The Morning!

Day 9: It is Tuesday morning and the sun is shining on the little village of Ouranoupolis. I woke before daybreak and enjoyed a grapefruit and a banana on my balcony which looks out, not on the sea but on the only church in the village, which is ironic because this entire trip has been focused on the Church, the life of Christ and life in Christ. I am on a pilgrimage and as a pilgrim, I am seeking to draw closer to God through exposure to an ancient and material world of holy places and things and holy men which I hope will facilitate a deeper, more intense journey into a non-material and spiritual world where God, the almighty and merciful dwells in light unapproachable. Yet, how can a mere mortal enter into the domain of the glorious, intensely burning, uncreated light without being consumed? My observation is most likely worthless, so I will be content to commend you and myself to the Church Fathers for insight on this question. Meanwhile, I do hope this pilgrimage will equip and inspire me to better love my family, my friends and my neighbors with the beautiful and life changing love of Jesus Christ.

The village is beginning to awake as the sun is peeping above the mountains of Athos, which lies just to the east of Ouranoupolis. The village bakery, next store to my pension already has it shelves stocked high with freshly baked breads of all shapes and sizes. The son of the baker takes a break from helping his father in the back of the store to sell me a small raisin loaf. As I exit the hot, humid atmosphere of the bakery, to enjoy the cool, sea air laced with salt, I walk the short distance to one of the many beachfront cafes to enjoy a greek style frappe which I leisurely sip as I contemplate what it will be like, after leaving this quaint village life to return to America.

I again check in with the Office of the Executive of the Holy Mountain of Athos and they tell me, my visa will be ready tomorrow morning. After obtaining my visa, I will board a taxi boat for the twenty minute ride to the monastery of Xenophontos, where for six days, I will be graciously hosted by Athonite monks. After my six day stay on the holy mountain, I will take a bus back to Thessaloniki, where I will catch a plane to Warsaw, then a train to Kalisz, where I will meet my family, which will have all gathered together for my youngest son's wedding ceremony and celebration.

As for today, when not enjoying fresh bread from bakery next door or especially tasty, local fruit and vegetables from the produce stand which is next to the bakery, I will spend the day reading and contemplating the writings of St. Silouan The Athonite.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Waiting For My Visa To Enter Mt. Athos

Day8: The widow's house where I spent the night happened to be right across the street from the only church is town, which is right at the center of the village, so I was up early for the Matin's service which began at 7am. As always in Greece, the church was beautiful and I would even go so far, as to say, stunningly beautiful. The Christians of Greece and the surrounding regions have had two thousand years to establish and nurture their religious traditions and practices and it shows in the architecture and decor of their churches. As for the people themselves, it is difficult for me to connect with and understand them, since I unfortunately don't speak Greek. The service lasted until around 11am and by this time, my back was aching rather severely from standing for almost the entire time. The church did have interestingly contructed chairs along the walls that allowed the parishioner to stand with arm supports or to sit on a fold down seat. Every chair was ornately carved with the Byzantine symbol of two, unidentifiable birds and, what I think was a shield. As each parishioner left the church, we were handed a small loaf of sweet bread which was greatly appreciated, since I had not eaten since late afternoon of the day prior. Directly after church, I found a small hotel with an air conditioned private room, ahhh, for the same price as the widow's place down the street. After moving into my new room, I boarded one of the numerous sightseeing boats for a tour by sea of the monasteries of Mt. Athos. This is the only way women can see the monasteries, since only men have been allowed on Mt. Athos since it was decreed a haven for monks by the Virgin Mary many, many, centuries ago. The boat tour last over three hours and very interesting and informative. It was a great way to get an overview of the region before I actually end up there, which hopefully will be tomorrow. I am scheduled to take the boat tomorrow to the Xenophontos Monastery, which is where I will be staying for the next ten days. During that time, I will be out of touch with civilization and when I return, I'm sure I will have many pages of stories to tell about my experiences. Until then, you are all in my prayers and may God bless you all richly.

On The Way To Mt. Athos Via Thessaloniki

Day 7: I spent to morning in the air on the way to Thessaloniki, which is where I needed to be, to catch a bus to Ouranoupolis, which is the gateway to Mt. Athos. Thessaloniki turned out to be quite the surprise, as I didn't expect it to be such a beautiful city. Of course, the city is thousands of years old and it borders a sea, of which I don't know the name of. The city is laid out beautifully with landscaped plazas, all lined with outdoor cafes and fountains and oftentimes bordered by magnificent, ancient churches which are literally everywhere in this city. The ancient boardwalk along the sea also stretches for miles. I did a walking tour of the city center and entered into at least eight churches, all of which contained ancient decor of golden hanging chandeliers, awe inspiring icons, huge painted murals and ceramic mosaics with pain staking details. I have never seen such a city as this, which has so many churches both huge and small, yet all containing priceless religious treasures. It was also interesting to learn that the city is 98% Christian Orthodox. After spending a day here, from noon on Friday to noon on Saturday, I then boarded the bus for Ouranopoulis. The bus ride was uneventful and took about 3 1/2 hours on mostly winding, mountainous roads. The ancient village of Ouranoupolis is situated in a very remote area of Greece, bordering the steep, rugged, rocky and forested isthmus of the Mt. Athos region which surrounded on three sidea by virgin seashores. (Check out the link in the title line to learn more about Mt. Athos). Upon finding a room rented out by an elderly widow, I enjoyed dinner on the beach at one of the numerous outdoor cafes and then went for a swim in the crystal clear, turquoised shaded sea with all my clothes on, which was a great way to clean them without requiring a washer. The night ended early, after a bit of sightseeing around the village.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Another Day At The Mary Magdalene Church

Icon of Mary Magdalene "Equal To The Apostles"

The Mary Magdalene Church (Mount of Olives)

Miracleworking Icon of The Mother of God "Hodigitria" (Click on title section to read the story behind this icon).

Day 6:
I was so taken in by the beauty and history of the Saint Mary Magdalene Church and its' sacred art and icons, that I decided to spend my last day participating in the morning (Matins) and evening (Vespers) worship services. Since this was the day before the feast day of the Dormition of Mary, I showed up at the empty tomb of the Mother of God (which is also at the Mount of Olives), very early in the morning to venerate this holy site and only the caretakers, a nun and monk were there, which made for a blessedly, peaceful and mystical experience. The tomb is located in a large cave which is accessed by going down about 50 steps, and is adorned with ancient lampatas, icons and artifacts.

I also visited the prison where Barabas and Christ were kept and the home and burial site of Yoakim and Anna, the parents of the Theotokos. Both of these sites are within the walls of the ancient city. If you haven't read the story of Yoakim and Anna, I would encourage you to do so.

This was my last day in Jerusalem and there is so much more I could have seen while here, which means I will have to come back someday. When I scheduled my airport shuttle, they told me I had to be at the pick up spot at 245am, which made for a very long day, so I took a nap from about 11pm to 1am and then enjoyed a beer and a falafal on Zion's Square which is a very popular shopping and eating area with young people. At 1am, it was still bustling with sidewalk musicians on every corner, playing for change.

There are so many stories I am leaving out of this blog which I wish I could share with you, which have all contributed to making this pilgrimage the most memorable trip I have ever made and it isn't even half over yet! Tomorrow, I will be flying to Thessaloniki.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Bittersweet Bus Tour

Day Five:
Fearing for a repeat episode of missing my means of transportation, I woke up every hour on the hour throughout the night until I could take the suspense no longer, dragging myself out of bed at 445am. I was instructed to be at the designated pick up location at 6am and I made it with plenty of time to spare. After having spent the past four days walking myself into a state of near collapse and heat exhaustion, I was basking in the luxury of spending the day on an air conditioned bus occupying the first row, where I could enjoy a panoramic view of the ancient, arid scenery throughout our thirteen hours of travel and sightseeing. What a glorious day this was going to be; I just knew it! 

We were scheduled to visit Nazareth, the city of Christ's childhood and the place from which he was driven, because his neighbors just couldn't accept that He could be the messiah. As we traveled into and out of Nazareth, we observed, Mt. Tabor, the place where the transfiguration of Christ took place. Traveling north, we drove through Cana, the city of Christ's first miracle, then crossing the Valley of Armegeddon, where the battle to end all battles will take place, ushering in the end of the world. From there, it was on to the Sea of Galilee to visit the site where Christ healed the Mother-in-Law of the Apostle Peter, and in the same area, was the hillside where Christ preached the Beatitudes, and then, it was onto the site where the five loaves and two fish fed thousands. 

Before heading back to Jerusalem, we stopped at a Lebanese restaurant for lunch where I enjoyed a wonderful smorgasbord of vegetarian delights stuffed into pita bread. Last but not least, at our final bathroom stop of the day, I eyed an Arab offering camel rides for 20 shekles; so, with newly acquired, seasoned tourist, negotiating skills, I talked the camel driver down to 10 shekles for an enjoyable first time camel ride around the parking lot of our rest stop. Times like this are when I wish I hadn't lost my camera!

As I contemplate the day, it is absolutely mind boggling to consider how much sacred history took place on such a small area of the earth. My only regret of the day, was not getting to spend enough time venerating all of the holy sites packed into these rolling, rocky hills, mountains and sea shores. All in all, it was an absolutely wonderful day and I can't help thinking, I will return someday, with my family in tow.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I Have Now Proudly Graduated To The Level Of A Seasoned Tourist

The Church of Mary Magdalene

Day Four:

...except for one problem; I lost my camera within a week of purchasing it. But, you know that really isn't a problem anymore in today's modern world of computers, for I can put together a complete photo album of my trip to the Holy Land simply by using, Google's image search engine. You may be asking yourself, "Why would I be proud to be a seasoned tourist?". Well, I will tell you why. I didn't get ripped off even one time today by a taxi cab drive, a professional tourist guide or a struggling gift shop owner. 

Today was also a very special day. Why? Because, I visited the "Church of the Ascension" which is a Russian Orthodox Convent. The convent is built on the site where Christ ascended into heaven and there is also a chapel on the grounds which is built over the burial site of, St. John The Baptist. The Convent is located in the middle of an Arab neighborhood on the Mount of Olives and in order to get into the place, you have to ring a bell, which is mounted to a large steel door, which is hinged to a thick and high stone wall. The doorkeeper was an Arab who, I think lived in a little room next to the gate and it seemed that his only job was let in visitors, either through the big gate for cars or the little gate for people.

The grounds consist of about twenty stony acres of olive tree groves, grave sites, housing for monks and nuns, numerous chapels, a church built on the site of Christ's ascension and a very, very, tall bell tower, which can be seen from all over Jerusalem. As I entered the gate, I began walking through a long garden courtyard, towards the large church marking the site at which Christ ascended. The church was closed due to renovations, so I continued to stroll around the grounds until I came upon a spry, elderly monk who was sweeping pine needles off the dirt ground. As he looked up at me from a distance, he spoke in Russian and when I answered in English, he promptly switched gears, speaking English and told me he was from Pennsylvania. As we talked, I learned that he had spent twenty-two years on Mt Athos before being evicted from the Russian monastery by the present Patriarchate of Constantinople and that he had been in Jerusalem for the past twelve years. Before going to Mt. Athos, he had served with the St. John the Wonderworker in San Fransisco. After engaging for sometime in conversation, I offered to help him with his sweeping chore of which he was delighted to share with me. The task of cleaning the courtyard area was supposed to take him until lunch but since we finished early, he took time to show me where I could pick ripe figs from a tree just outside his cell. He then invited me into his cell where he offered me some kind of cactus fruit which was delicious as well. After feeding me a snack to last until lunch, he showed me around his cell and then unexpectedly gave me an icon of St. Seraphim. He generosity was overwhelming! This was most interesting because I had just finished reading a book about St. Seraphim on the flight over, I had just venerated St. Seraphim and his relics in the convent chapel and Father Seraphim was the name of the hiermonk offering me this precious gift. I had a strong sense that I should contemplate more on the teachings and life of St. Seraphim. Father Seraphim also had many words of wisdom to share with me as we worked. After having lunch with the nuns and monks at the convent I headed for my next destination, "The Tomb of the Great Prophets", which was in a cave, amongst thousands of grave sites located on the side of the Mount of Olives. Here I met yet another godly monk from France who was living at the other Russian Convent on Mount Olives. We sat at the entrance of the tomb of the prophet, Haggai and talked for about an hour. He had many precious words of wisdom to share with me and afterwards gave me a tour. Upon parting, he extended to me, an invitation to celebrate divine liturgy early Thursday morning at the, "Church of Mary Magdalene", which is one of the most beautiful churches in Jerusalem crowned with multiple, bright and glorious golden onion domes. As I walked back to my hostel, contemplating the events of the day, it seemed as though I had spent the day in the company of a host of heavenly angels, surrounded by God's mercy, grace and favor, all of which, I most of all, did not deserve. God is so good.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Highlights Of My First Few Days

Three amazing days have been spent in Jerusalem venerating ancient holy sights, eating delicious food and getting to know interesting people of various faiths from all over the world.
Jaffa Gate Entrance To The Ancient Walled City
Day One:

My flight from TelAviv arrived at 4am in morning and by the time the taxi bus dropped me off at the front door of the hostel, it was 6am on Saturday morning and 6am on Saturday morning isn't a good time to be dropped off anyplace in Jerusalem and you may be asking, "How come?". Well, I'll tell you why; you see, Saturday is the Sabbath day and the Sabbath day is a very important day here and nobody works on Saturday, so not only was the chair behind the reception desk empty until 630pm Saturday night but the front door was locked as well and a special code was needed to open it and I didn't have the special code. So, while standing there, dumbfounded and tired, my stomach asked for some food, so I approached a group of taxi drivers to ask where the nearest restaurant might be and they informed me that restaurants aren't open on the Sabbath in Jewish neighborhoods and we were in a Jewish neighborhood and if I wanted breakfast, I would need to hire a taxi to take me the an Islamic neighborhood to have a bite to eat and he knew of the best place in Jerusalem to have an ethnic Islamic breakfast. With that line, he hooked me and not being totally savvy, nor totally nieve, I asked the friendly Islamic cab driver how much the trip would cost and he quoted me a decent price but these guys deal with tourists all day long and they know how to play them, which is what he proceeded to do to me. Enroute to the breakfast place, he asked if I would like to see an overview of the walled city from the highest vantage point in Jerusalem and I thought to myself, "Wow, it would be really interesting to see the ancient walled city of Jerusalem from the highest point in Jerusalem", and when I asked him, "How much?", his reply was, "I will make it worth your while and it won't cost that much". Well, because he was such a friendly and helpful soul, I thought to myself, "Oh, Gary, just trust him...", so off we drove to the top of the Mount of Olives, where I enjoyed a magnificent view of the ancient walled city of Jerusalem just as the morning sun began to bath the hazy landscape and cool air with shooting, soft rays of light. After our mountain top excursion, we had a breakfast of fresh baked bread with a side of a powdery spice I have never tasted before and Arabic coffee which was very tasty, spiked with yet another unusual, unidentifiable spice.

On the trip back to the hostel on Jaffa Street, the friendly taxi cab driver provided me with additional tips for the tourist and for all this I paid 180 sheckles, but the memories it created are worth it.

It isn't even 8am yet and I am back at the hostel, standing in the dusty doorway with my backpack leaning against the stone wall, wondering what to do next. After 10 minutes or so, my lucky break comes, when as a hostel couple exit the building, I grab the door and scurry inside and think proudly to myself, "What a brilliant move!". Feeling really good now about how the day is unfolding, I take yet another enjoyable hour to catch up on email communication using the lobby computer for guests. By now, I am pyched and ready for my next adventure which will involve scoping out on foot the general layout of the walled city. 

I entered the city through the Jaffa Gate, one of the six gates in use today. Of all the gates, Zion's Gate is most used by the Jews to access the Wailing Wall, the New Gate and Damascus Gate are most used by the Muslims for their pilgrimage to the Dome of the Rock and the Jaffa Gate is most used by the Christians who come to venerate the holy Christian sites.

I would need to write a book, if I were to share all the experiences and thoughts of my first day in the ancient city of Jerusalem and because I really don't have the time or desire to write a book, I will endeavor to share just highlights of my daily adventures and I will start with the most significant encounter which was at the Church of the Holy Sepuchre. After having waited in line at for at least an hour, I finally arrived at the entrance to the tomb, which was adorned with a multitude of hanging golden lampatas, ornate icons and detail stone work. Stooping to enter, I was emotionally overwhelmed as I knelt beside the marble slab, spreading my arms over the breath of the burial bed and placing the side of my face against the stone on which Christ was laid, I began to quietly sob. The experience was over in less than a minute, so that others could enter and off I walked, stunned by where I had just been and by what I had experienced.

The Holy Sepuchre

Day Two:
Apparently, my biological clock wasn't quite acclimated yet, because I awoke at 530am, wide eyed and bushy tailed ready to enjoy the experiences of my second day in the Holy Land. I was especially excited today, because it was Sunday and I would be participating in a liturgy at, "The Church of the Holy Sepuchre". Arriving early, there were very few people in the church, which gave me yet another opportunity to venerate the tomb of Christ before participating in the Matins service and then the liturgy. The liturgy was beautiful as is typical of Orthodox liturgies but this one was a bit strange in that the Roman Catholics were holding a Mass just adjacent to where we were and the volume of their Mass ebbed and flowed with loud bell ringing and a constant Latin chorus. Additionally, tourist kept walking into the temple during the service to take pictures and to oogle at the architecture. All in all, it was a very strange scenerio, yet the priests seemed to take it all in stride and showed no indication of frustration. When the time came for communion, I had intended to go up and simply ask for a blessing, since I hadn't been to confession, but my intentions were thwarted when I realized the priest didn't understand what I was asking for and he was determined to feed me the sacraments, so, rather than make a scene, I accepted the sacraments and thanked God for His mercy to me.

After the service, I signed up for a walking tour of the Old City which was to last three hours. When the tour was about to start, we were informed (the two of us), that unless more people showed up, the tour would be canceled. Well nobody else showed up and the guide decided "What the heck, we'll do it anyway" and I am very glad he did, because we were able to get special attention and the tour ended up lasting five and half hours. Our guide was a retired American college professor of history and philosophy and boy, was he liberal, cynical and knowledgable. During the tour, he would make disparaging comments about Christianity, which I just couldn't let go by, which resulted in ongoing spirited debates throughout the tour and yet, by the time it was over, we had become endeared to one another. I did end spending the rest of the day with the other guy on the tour, (a reformed Christian from Switzerland), engaged in interesting conversation about the differences between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism while we shopped at the Central Market.

The Birthplace of Christ

Day Three:
The highlight of day three was my excursion to Bethlehem. Prior to making the trip to Bethlehem by bus, my intention was to visit the site of the Upper Room where the Last Supper took place but somehow I got sidetracked and ended up at a place where the Roman Catholics claim the Dormition or Assumption of Mary took place. What is strange, though, is that two Benedictine orders within the Catholic Church maintain different burial sites and to this day, the Pope hasn't settled the matter. Orthodox tradition teaches that her Dormition took place at Gethsemene.

I had two options regarding my trip to Bethlehem, take a guided tour or just wing it on my own. Unfortunately, I made what could be called, an uninformed decision. What I didn't realize is that there is a big wall with armed guards, barbed wire and maybe even land mines between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Bethlehem is within Palestinian Territory and consequently, the residents of one area can't cross over to the other area without special papers and clearance. Even though I have been vaguely aware of the political problems between Israel and Palestine, actually being here and seeing it first hand increases the sense of the tragedy of it all. Anyways, upon reaching this big ugly, imposing concrete and steel barrier, we had to disembark from our bus, which at this point, quickly made a u-turn and proceeded at mock speed back in the direction of Jerusalem. Somewhat stunned, I simply followed the herd through a series of steel doors and turn stiles until we reached a stark, brightly lit and barren room with guards who checked our papers from behind six inch thick glass windows. The presence of an x-ray detector was enough to indicate to me what needed to be done next; remove change, belts, watches and zippers from your clothing and proceed through the machine that is going to cause my genes to mutate, promote cancer and probably give me a heart attack someday. By this time, I concluded that this wasn't going to be a normal tourist excursion. After walking through what had the configuration of a "rat maze", I ended up on the other side of the big ugly wall in an area strewn with debris, rocks and scores of yellow taxi cabs with dark tanned, greasy looking men leaning against them holding big picture books of all the religious sites in Bethlehem. One of them came slithering over in my direction and I knew I was in for another high pressure "time to shake the shekles out of the tourist pockets", experience. Well, I had no idea, how well trained these guys are in the art of bribery, thievery and beggary. Having somewhat survived the first but not to be the last thrashing, I did make it to the birthplace of Christ but not without, somehow happening to pick up a hitch hiking "professional tourist guide" who kept showing me his credentials and assuring me of the absolutely necessity of a professional travel guide to assist me in my veneration of the birthplace of Christ. The beggars in Bethlehem increduously take coins, cash or credit cards. It didn't stop there though. The guide just happened to know a struggling gift shop owner with ten starving children at home who wanted to show me his goods. Well, by this time I was thoroughly truamatized and could only think of escaping back to the other side of the big ugly wall which I managed to do but not without having first, willingly given away my weight in shekles. My only consolation is that the poor of Bethlehem, somehow benefited from my forced spending spree. I must say, that, regardless of my unpleasant experience with the locals, having venerated the birthplace of Christ was worth it all.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A quick blurb on two books I read on the overseas flight,

'"Better Off", Flipping The Switch On Technology' & 'St. Seraphim of Sarov'

Here is what I concluded from Eric Brende and his book on technology: I need to exercise a constantly careful and quiet contemplation of life and who is in control, me or the tool I am welding and to insure that the technological tools at my disposal do not obscure, distract or hinder me from realizing the subtle magnificence and quiet beauty of God's creation and the image of His holy trinitarian nature which permeates and is reflected in everything around me. Basically, either the tool needs to be brought under dominion as God intended or it needs to be abandoned for something basic, brawny and fleshy; something that brings me closer to the earth, the plants, and the animals and ultimately to my Creator.

"St. Seraphim of Sarov", is about a Russian priest/monk who lived during the late 1700's into the early 1800's. I stand in awe of a man, a true Saint, who fulfilled and epitomized all that is revealed to us in the Holy Gospels of what Jesus taught and accomplished. St. Seraphim was living proof of the actualization of our Lord's statement, "Greater things shall you do, than even me, because when I leave you, I will send the Holy Spirit to you". You'll have to read the book, if you want to know more about this amazing saint.

The Saga Continues

My Athens sightseeing adventure included a visit to the Byzantine & Christian Museum which contains many beautiful ancient icons and architectual displays. Here's a trivia question for you: What happened to all the Greek pagan temples during the early reign of the Byzantine Empire? All, including the Pantheon were converted to places of Orthodox Christian worship. Here's another trivia question: Name the only major metropolis in the world that doesn't allow skyscrapers? You guessed right, Athens! No building can be higher than 23 meters from the ground. I guess they really want to preserve their ancient culture.

Here I am standing beside one of the butcher booths at the Athens Central Market. This butcher has a sense of humor; notice the faux rubber "Free Range Organic" chickens hanging above the meat case. I had the smoothie stand next door to the butcher stand put one of these in my banana smoothie. 

After an absolutely exhausting day of Athens sightseeing with most of my worldly possessions in my backpack, I managed to execute what I would describe as "a semi-cave man crawling walk", from the airport subway exit back to the "Jet Lag Recovery Center", which I guess isn't the official "Jet Lag Recovery Center", because a police swat team had to flush me from my temporary residence. They didn't tell me where the official "Jet Lag Recovery Center" was, but they did tell me to sleep anywhere else but where I was sleeping. I guess some airport patrons complained about a vagrant sleeping in the doorway of the chapel entrance. Here is another boring picture of me posting to my blog at the local McCafe. Notice the tasteful Americana decor in the background. 

Thursday, August 7, 2008

My Pigrimage To The Holy Places - Israel & Mt Athos

This is me in the Jet Lag Recovery Center at the Athens Airport.

What a pleasant surprise! A beautiful Orthodox Chapel in the Athen's Airport

I can't believe this...I missed my connecting flight to TelAviv. Here's my excuse - I had already flown from Spokane to Seattle to Paris to Warsaw to Stuttgart to Africa to Antartica to Athens and my brain was absolutely fried! After realizing I missed my flight and would have to wait another 24 hours (and an extra $120.00) for the next flight, I went back to the Jet Lag Recovery Center and crashed with my fellow cohorts who remained in a vegetative condition until I began to recite my morning prayers at which time they all promptly fled the area. 

Relaxing in the city square of Athens with a hangover (not from alcohol) and posting to my blog