Monday, August 9, 2010

0014 - Pilgrimage to the Skete of St. Anna by Joshua Trevino (2007)

By Rev Fr Chris Flesoras
The long-haul portion of our trip abroad is over: we’ve made it to Munich, and after eleven hours crammed into the steerage section of a Lufthansa Airbus 340, the ability to walk about and breathe fresh air is sweet indeed.  The first time I flew Lufthansa, four years ago, it seemed like the air carrier of my dreams: it was at the end of a month of air travel within Africa, from South African Airways at best—the equal of any Western airline—to RwandAir and Zambian National at worst, with Kenya Airways and Ethiopian somewhere in between.  Boarding the Addis Ababa-Cairo-Frankfurt flight, on a Lufthansa 747, was like reentering civilization.  No one was fighting for seats, there were no mosquitos in the cabin, and there was no visible material decay on the aircraft.  I fell in love with Lufthansa right then—not for taking me away from Africa, which I love (and would twice return to), but for reminding me that air travel need not be an exercise in dubious mechanics and exceptional danger.

I believe that Father Flesoras and our traveling companion, Harrison Pardini, will agree with me: the shine on Lufthansa is off.  Riding from Los Angeles to Munich was a long, dark voyage of stale air, pitifully little leg room, overheated cabins, and—insult to injury—a breakfast consisting of a thick slab of gray eggs.  If you’ve never been on an Airbus 340, picture one of the larger domestic jets in the United States, with a 2-4-2 seat configuration.  Now picture it extended to the length of a 747.  Economically, it works: the 340 enables its carriers to compete on the long-haul routes otherwise dominated by Boeing’s 747, 767, and 777.  But for the passengers in economy class, it’s a bad deal.  Because the aircraft body is comparatively narrow, the airline must make up for lost space by reducing leg room as much as possible.  And it shows: flying economy-class on trans-oceanic routes is never delightful, but it can be done comfortably on a 747 or 777.  (I once flew a South African Airways 747 from Atlanta to Cape Town on economy-class—a 15-hour ride—in comfort.)  I’ve never seen it done on an Airbus 340.  Add to this some bad air circulation and a showing of “Arthur and the Invisibles,” and you’ve got a flight that can’t end fast enough.
But for all this, it’s done, and we’re here, and in three hours, we’ll be in the air, hurtling toward Thessaloniki.  I’m a bit dubious that Aegean Air holds any exceptional experience for us—but arriving alive is its own reward.  And then Mount Athos—well, that’s a reward of another type altogether. What do you see when you approach Mount Athos?  The first thing you see is that there are no signs to Athos on the way from Thessaloniki.  Instead it is Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain, and its signposts are colored a deep rust rather than the blue that marks the towns and roads of Greece.  The next thing you see is that the roads are frequently terrible and never good: at one point, pavement disappears completely in favor of dirt track crossing a dry ravine.  Next, you notice that the locals on the peninsula are almost uniformly agrarian, and enjoy homes that would be the envy of a Californian in the central valley.  The houses are white, or pink, or faced with stone; they have spacious porches on which copious furniture is placed; and they all have the same red clay-tiled roofs.  Next, you realize that you are climbing, and that the road, such as it is, is suffused with hairpin turns and switchbacks.  The danger is enhanced by fleeting glimpses of stunning scenery: marble-colored boulders strewn across hillsides; Aegean inlets; and crumbling castles dot the landscape.  Here is a sign for a Byzantine fortress; there is a marker for the pagan sanctuary of Ouranopoulis; there is man-sized amphora from antiquity displayed on the roadside.  It would be possible to spend days stopping at each sight.  Sink a blade into Greek soil, and the land bleeds history.  But you do not stop, because the ferrys for the Agion Oros leave only so often; and the monks of your skete are expecting you.
You must take a ferry.  You must take a ferry because, though the Holy Mountain is on a peninsula, history has twice made it an island.  First the self-proclaimed king of kings, Xerxes the Great, cut his canal to bring his war fleet across the isthmus, the sooner to meet the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.  The cut is still there, having silted over in the long centuries since, but visible as a depression in the low soil.  And then, says tradition, the Virgin Mary landed and took possession of the peninsula.  Her will is enforced by the thousand years of monks who followed her.  They banished women—the Mountain has its Queen—and set to the infinite task of spiritual perfection.  And so the peninsula became an island again, this time cut off not from the mainland, but from the world.  A rough-hewn wall and a purposeful lack of roads make the ferry ride necessary; and the ferry ride means that the pilgrims and the curious must literally cross the sea to reach Mount Athos.
The ferries leave from the strange village of Ouranopoulis.  They all have saints’ names—we travel today on the good ship Agios Panteleimon—but their tiny port is not itself saintly.  The gateway to the world center of Orthodox monasticism attracts a surprising number of plain tourists: ruddy Germans and Englishmen seeking a cheap Aegean beach.  The usual cheap, gaudy establishments cater to them.  One is the Hotel Athorama, promising a suitable mixture of sacred and profane, if a bit more of the latter, and the ability to bring the missus too.  Into this element we wade, for behind Ouranopoulis’ gas station is the most unlikely thing: a customs and passport station.  The first monastery on Mount Athos was formally established in 963AD—the Great Lavra, to whose Skete of Saint Anna we travel—and in the millennium since, the monks have established a clerical republic on their peninsula.  It is a polity of astonishing longevity, maintained through a wise policy of abdicating external relations to the local power: the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and now the Greek state.  Thus it is Greek civil servants who man the Athonite border post at the Ouranopolis landing, doing their best to screen out tourists from pilgrims, and collecting customs fees of twenty-five euros per man for the maintenance of the post and the monastic statelet.  Pass their scrutiny, and you receive your Athonite visa, and a copy of the rules of conduct.  Then it is past cheap tavernas and a shabby tourist stand to the ticket office, to stand in line with solemn pilgrims, hirsute monks, and fat holidaygoers for your ticket.  And then you board.
Once aboard, the ferry casts its lines and steams into the shallow, brilliant azure waters of the Aegean.  Gulls circle and cry for handouts.  The tourists give them, and the monks do not.  First-time travelers crowd the railings to take photographs; the clerics sit quietly and wait.  A few camera-wielding types attempt to sneak photographs of the eminently photogenic monks, but this is a dangerous practice.  Like Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia, some sincerely believe that the theft of one’s image is a theft of one’s virtue; others simply, and more reasonably, find the objectification insulting.  Either way, they will be sure to let you know.  If you’re lucky, you’ll be harangued in Greek, which is beautiful and rich even in anger; if not, you’ll be excoriated in a Slavic tongue, with its wealth of metaphors for violence and outrage.  More sensible is the photography of the monasteries and sketes dotting the shores and hills of the peninsula.  Shocking green onion domes topped with gold crosses appear on the landscape; a castle that would be at home in medieval Germany rises from the rocky slopes; graceful pink-and-blue facades grace a grove of pines.  The ferries stop at each, discharging come clerics and travelers, and taking on more.  You wait, and watch, and marvel.  And then your stop comes.  And you disembark, and you are on the Holy Mountain.  And peculiarly, ineffably, inexplicably, you are home. The day at the Skete of Saint Anna begins with a Divine Liturgy.  This is a once-a-week thing for the lay faithful—or is supposed to be, at any rate—but for a monastic community, it is daily; and at the end of the day, there are vespers before dinner, and compline after dinner.  That’s in the absence of a feast day or celebration: then there’s yet more liturgical activity to consume the hours.  The apogee of the Church year is of course Easter or Pascha, followed by the major feasts such as Chrismas, the Annunciation, et al.  And then there are the name days of the specific monastic communities—in our case, the Feast of Saint Anna herself.
That’s tomorrow, and for it, the monks will gather in the Skete’s main chapel and hold a vigil for the Saint.  The vigil lasts all night—and beyond.  It is fifteen hours of continuous prayer and liturgy, and it is not done, as I foolishly assumed, in shifts: the entire community is expected to be present, and actively participating.  As a guest of that community, I will be expected to attend and be properly attentive throughout.  I have done long services before: but not this long.  Even the Pope only received a mere five-hour Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom from Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul this past November.  How much more honor do the monks of the Skete do to their patroness.  And how much more daunting for the likes of me, lacking the physical and spiritual discipline (and knowledge) of a dedicated monastic.  When we were in Istanbul, we would wake up to the tinny braying of the minarets of the Zeynep Sultan mosque.  “Prayer is better than sleep,” said the muzzein.  Here at the Skete of Saint Anna, we awaken to the lovely bells of the chapel: but we will test the muzzein’s assertion tomorrow night.
It is expected that we will be properly attentive, and the stress is on the propriety.  The content of the faith and its practice are different things at points, and sometimes the latter veers from the realm of the holy into the realm of mere aesthetics.  Fr. Christopher is as conscientious and knowledgeable a priest as any parishioner could wish for, and yet many monks are simply interested to know why he has no beard.  And then there is Fr. Sophronius.  I met him this morning after liturgy, and I was interested to be told that he was from Jerusalem.  A Sophronius from Jerusalem is a meaningful thing: it was Patriarch Sophronius who surrendered the city to the Muslim armies in the seventh century, uttering as Islam claimed the Temple Mount, “Behold the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet.”
Tin efchises,” I said to Fr. Sophronius—“Your blessing.”
Fr. Sophronius looked quizzically at me.  “Joshua?”
“Yes!”  I recognized him now—he stood behind me at the liturgy.
“Joshua!” he exclaimed, and grabbed my hands.  Fr. Sophronius was certainly happy to see me.
“Yes, Father?”
“Joshua—” He pushed my hands together in front of me. “—you stand like this.  Like Orthodox!  No like—” Here he waved his hands about, putting them on his hips, behind his back, in the air—mimicking, I realized, his impression of me at the liturgy.  I was embarrassed, but also mildly indignant—the liturgy was long, as they tend to be, and I certainly hadn’t sat down—and, unlike all the other pilgrims save one, I’d never stepped outside.  But then, that had only given Fr. Sophronius more time to observe my wrongdoing, which apparently consisted of a failure to stand with hands clasped prayerfully before me.  I considered mentioning that I’d spent a great deal of time at parade rest, but thought better of it.
“Sorry, Father.”
“Okay,” said Fr. Sophoronius, “Is okay.”
I walked away vaguely stunned—although I learnt later that Fr. Sophronius immediately apologized to Fr. Christopher, in Greek, for having done that.  But of course, he had to mention it.  Now I know.  And tomorrow night, Fr. Sophronius and I will see if I can clasp my hands prayerfully before me for fifteen hours straight. By the time they bring out the twenty-one-century-old left foot of the maternal grandmother of Christ, you are running on a dazed devotion that supersedes the burning need for blessed rest.  The relic’s custodians are the monks of the Skete of Saint Anna, and in their nearly four hundred years of existence, they have made up for their youthful status—their parent monastery, the Great Lavra, is over one thousand years old—with the assiduous acquisition of relics of saints both great and humble, from the well-known Saint Anna herself, to the obscure yet sanctified Saint Harambolos.  It is a motly collection of bones, skills, bits and pieces, enshrined in various reliquaries ranging from simple wooden boxes to elaborate silver cases.  And it all comes out once a year, on the Feast of Saint Anna herself.
The commemoration of the Feast is the most tremendously long and tremendously impressive church service I have ever witnessed.  A skete is not quite the same as a “traditional” monastery, with its brothers in cells and living a life of communal uniformity and strict organization; rather, it is more of a monastic neighborhood, in which individual homes cluster about a common major shrine or chapel.  (In Athonite geograpy, this translates into a series of homes on successive mountainside terraces.)  Within each home is a house chapel, and the brothers of the house are more or less free to organize themselves as they wish—and hence to spend their time as they wish.  What brings the brothers of the skete together is not daily life per se, though they do visit and speak with one another regularly, but the celebrations of the Church, from Sunday liturgy, to major feasts—including the feast of the skete’s patron saint.  Because that patroness sustains and protects this Skete, the Skete’s brothers spare no effort in honoring her accordingly.
Saint Anna, wife of Saint Joachim and mother of the Virgin Mary, receives a vigil service from the brothers of her Skete.  My Catholic upbringing’s concept of a vigil service was merely a Mass held in the late evening, or perhaps at midnight, and rarely running longer than 90 minutes—and that only at Easter or Christmas.  Upon exposure to Orthodoxy, I was impressed and somewhat wearied to find that feast-day vigils could last several hours—sometimes even three.  So when I learned that the Skete of Saint Anna planned its own vigil, I expected, as befits an Athonite monastery, something long—five hours, perhaps, or even six.  Surely that is reasonable; surely that is sufficiently arduous and grand to show one’s devotion and love for God and his saint.
The monks of the Skete of Saint Anna do their vigils across fifteen hours.
This fifteen-hour liturgical extravaganza is no mere succession of quiet prayers and silent watchfulness.  It is a massive undertaking of gorgeous chanting and nonstop ritual involving the entire brotherhood that incorporates, by my count, one entire Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom—itself a multi-hour affair—one ritual dressing of the bishop, one hours-long display and veneration of the holy relics, and hundreds of pilgrims from across the Orthodox world.  The number of devotees of Saint Anna is a true surprise to one, such as me, who knew little of the saint or her cult.  But she is a known quantity to the informed faithful—and her miraculous icon at the Skete is reputed to bring children to childless couples who seek her intercession.  The base of the icon is strewn with photographs of babies conceived after her help was requested, and it is difficult to gainsay these accomplishments.  So the pilgrims come, some to pay respects, and some to fall to their knees before the saint, her icon, and her relic, and beg for her help.  Tradition says that Joachim and Anna had no children for fifty years of marriage before conceiving Mary: surely this is evidence that in God, all things are possible.
Among the throngs of pilgrims and monks, we stood the watch.  Chants came and went, and various things occurred that I, in my ignorance of Greek, perceived as immensely important and simultaneously incomprehensible.  Among them was a segment in which monks rushed about lighting every candle in the chapel—and giving hefty shoves to the various chandeliers to make them spin.  The chandeliers’ anchors groaned in the centuries-old stone ceilings, and I experienced my own moment of faith as I looked up.  Every few hours, I would venture outside—sometimes to pray, sometimes to see the pilgrims sleeping on the cold stone in the pitch-black of an Athonite night, and always for a bit of fresh air.  Mount Athos does not shun modernity: but neither does it embrace it for its own sake.  The brothers of the Skete have an icon in their dining hall that depicts Saint George slaying a scorpion-like beast made of consumer electronics and paper money.  When technology comes, it must come to bring the brothers closer to God—not to provide a diversion from this unceasing goal.  And so the stone chapel of the Skete is lit entirely by candles and oil—and of course it has no air conditioning or heating of any kind.  The effect is to transport the worshipper to an earlier era, and to remind him that a space may be heated by bodies as well as fire—and that both render even the most holy places unusually warm and thick.  Nighttime on Athos is pleasantly cool, but a Greek summer is what it is—and so to step outdoors, into the black sky and brilliant stars with hundreds of fellow believers, was a blessing in itself.
I would like to say that we all stayed awake, but this is untrue even for the brothers, many of whom dozed off in the dark hours—only to be awakened by a fellow monk’s admonition.  Pilgrims slept even in the chapel itself, leaning against walls or slumped in the high wooden chairs that are purposefully designed to be uncomfortable—lest the seated repose too often.  Many times I slipped into unconsciousness, only to awaken to stand for the passing of a censor or the reading of the Gospel.  The long stretch from 1am to 4am was especially difficult—as was looking at my watch at the latter hour, and knowing that we still had six hours to go.  Once, I confess, as I took a walk, I laid down among the pilgrims on the cold stone outdoors, and slept for thirty minutes, with the sounds of the monastic chanting from within washing over me like a holy lullaby.
On Athos, the sky begins to lighten around 5am, and the sun rises perhaps 90 minutes later.  It was in this strengthening dawn that the procession and veneration of the relics began.  The queen of them all was the left foot of Saint Anna—perhaps the oldest explicitly Christian relic in existence—and it was held aloft as it was processed out into the courtyard to be laid onto the long stone bench before the entrance.  The hundreds of us lined up, clerics first, to venerate them all.  We went down the line, and at its end was the bishop with a cross and a sprig of hyssop, with which he put holy water onto our heads.  I waited my turn, and when it came, I looked with interest upon the saintly foot, encased in silver and barely visible through a protective metal grill.  My first thought was that was it remarkably preserved; and my second was that it did not, as promised, smell sweet.  Supposedly, one way in which the faithful may know of a relic’s sanctity is its sweet smell—something especially miraculous in the realm of unpreserved human flesh.  But it is a gift, both inherent to the relic, and to the believer.  So when I smelled nothing, I was disappointed.  But there was the left foot of Saint Anna, and sweet scent or not, venerating it was a blessing in itself.

The relics came, and the relics went; and then the culmination of the vigil began as daylight advanced across the craggy Mountain—the Divine Liturgy.  I took Communion, and then I went to the miraculous icon of Saint Anna.  Kneeling before the photographs of infants from across the world, I sought her help.  Then I went to the bishop for his blessing with the hundreds of other faithful.  Then, as the exodus from the chapel began, I lingered for a bit.  I walked over to the relic of Saint Anna.  I leaned over to have a final look.  And it smelled like the sweetest honey.
As originally published on

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