A Summer Sabbatical
Has it been almost 32 years ago already? I was on sabbatical from my church that summer of 1985. I was a middle-aged Episcopalian priest who had been trying unsuccessfully, I felt, to preserve traditional Christianity in the Episcopal Church. There are many different kinds of Anglicans. Like others in my little sub-set, I had long suspected the Orthodox Church was on the right track, and I wanted Anglicanism to be a kind of “western Orthodoxy”, firmly grounded in the Church’s Tradition, the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Fathers. By 1985 it was crystal clear that this was not going to happen. I was demoralized and burned out. I needed a break. My parish Vestry generously gave me the summer off. For a month my wife Dianna and I, with our two teenagers Jennie and David, did western Europe. Only one “religious” comment on that: In Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals there were often many tourists, but few signs of people praying – until we got to Saint Peter’s in Rome, which seemed a bit overbuilt, perhaps? but a truly holy place. The family flew home from Rome, and I took the train overnight to the heel of Italy. (At 6:30 a.m. a knock on the compartment door: “Here is your cappucino, sir.” Can life be better than that? I’m a train fan, and most of Europe, unlike the US, has excellent rail service. You’re going to hear more about this.) Then it was the overnight ferry to Greece and…
My “Mid-life Fling”
Who but a clergyman would have this kind of fling? I was on my way to a Church conference intended to introduce Americans to Greece and to Orthodoxy. I had no intention of joining the Orthodox Church – well, maybe after I retired, maybe – but I had read a lot about Orthodoxy and wanted to know more, and I had long wanted to see Greece. Next morning at dawn I looked out the porthole and saw the outline of the first Greek islands in the distance, and I thought, “That’s it. This is my place.” I couldn’t explain it. I still can’t. But I had known that feeling before, and I believe the hand of God was in it then. When I was a boy, every time we crossed the border into Wisconsin, I felt everything was somehow “just right”. I couldn’t explain that either, but where have I wound up spending 50 of my 78 years? In Wisconsin. It felt the same way with Greece that early morning. It always did ever after. On my trips over the years, every time the plane descended into Athens, that chaotic, noisy, if-I’ve-got-to-be-honest-with-you-not-very-beautiful metropolis, I felt it again.
This first time, however, I got to Athens from the west coast of Greece on a not-so-excellent train, and then by air to Crete, south of the Greek mainland, the Big Island in the middle of the Mediterranean, almost halfway to Africa. The conference was at the Orthodox Academy, on the shore next to Gonia Monastery, just outside a small village, Kolymbari, in northwest Crete. (This was where the recent sort-of-pan-Orthodox Great Council was held.) It was led by intelligent, well-educated, well-spoken Orthodox laypeople, male and female. I discovered that many Orthodox theologians and scholars are not ordained. I was impressed. Much of western Christianity is so dominated by us clergy.
OK, so the music is a bit weird (just turn it off), but you get a picture of the Academy, the Monastery and the village.
Something about it all captivated me: the white buildings, the simple open architecture and the rounded arches, the marble floors, so different from what I was accustomed to. The Greek food – tomatoes and cucumbers such as I had never tasted before, and the feta cheese! And churches everywhere I looked, including on the tops of many mountains dedicated to the Prophet Elias (Elijah) who, I was told, took over when the sun god Helios was demoted. So Orthodoxy, rather than simply condemning pagan practices, “used” them, converted them. I thought it was little wonder ancient peoples worshiped the sun. The Greek Light! so brilliant, so radiant it requires a capital letter. And the bleak rugged mountains, and the incredibly blue sea, and the smell of the herbs – oregano? thyme? – so fragrant it kept me awake at night. So did the mosquitoes. At the conference we were told several times in no uncertain terms about how the Crusaders ravaged Constantinople and the East hasn’t forgotten it. They tried to teach us a little Greek so we could at least say “kaly mera” (good day) to the villagers. One woman asked why she kept getting odd looks from the locals as she greeted them saying “kalamari”!
Was I Still an Anglican?
We Americans of various stripes heard many lectures and discussed many things, and I found that in every case I kept agreeing with the Orthodox. Orthodox worship seemed very “unreformed”, even from my traditional Anglo-Catholic perspective (solid icon screens – really!?), but so fascinating, so deep, so mysterious, so holy. We visited village festivals, churches, ancient sites, even had an audience with the kindly Archbishop of Crete. As we visited a little church for Divine Liturgy the old women, upon returning from receiving Holy Communion, stopped and hugged and said a few words to each other. That never would have happened in my old Episcopal Church, but it seemed right here. (Later in our new Orthodox Mission in Wisconsin our ex-Episcopalians, without my mentioning it, began to do the same thing!) I kept getting that “just right” feeling again and again. I felt too much at home with it all for my comfort. And then…
Sometimes we remember things wrong, so I’ve gone back to the original source, my travel journal. Yes, I remembered it right. In the entry for Saturday August 3, 1985, I see that in the evening we visited the local Bishop Irenaeos of Kastelli and had supper with him and some of his people in the courtyard outside his chapel. It says we arrived during a Baptism, though I don’t remember that. I do remember him and his clergy sweetly singing the Orthodox Vespers hymn Phos Hilaron (“O joyful light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven…”) at sunset on that lovely summer evening. Their love and affection for each other showed. Here is what I wrote that night after we got back to the Orthodox Academy: “Wonderful! Such joy! Bishop Irenaeos is a holy man. This is the way the Church should be… don’t forget the Bishop’s face: serene, holy, happy.” I did not forget his face. Ten days later I would see it again in an icon in an ecclesiastical shop in Athens. Greece and “that face” were about to push me over the edge. Stay tuned.