The Island of Paros: A Quick Immersion into Greece and Orthodoxy
The conference on Crete was over, and with my wife’s OK I had scheduled a week to bum around. So it was off to the island of Paros in the middle of the Aegean. I can’t remember why I chose Paros, but it was a lovely peaceful place. This was in the old days before the shores got covered with tourist hotels. The first two nights I couldn’t even find a room and had to sleep on the beach. Oh, the stars! the moonrise! the sunrise! in that clear Greek sky. And oh, my aching middle-aged back. The simple room I finally found cost (hang on) $7 a night.
For a week I just absorbed Greece and Orthodoxy. On Paros as on Crete I was amazed to see a multitude of churches and chapels wherever I looked, and people using them – a continual stream of men and women going in and out, lighting candles, saying prayers, crossing themselves.
On the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos I worshiped at the oldest church in Greece, Panagia Ekatontapiliani. (Panagia means “all holy”, a common Greek title for the Mother of God. Ekatontapiliani probably means “1oo doors”. I didn’t count.) It was built, they say, at the direction of the Empress Helena in the Fourth Century when she stopped by on her trip to the Holy Land. A side chapel is apparently even older than that. It’s not a highly decorated church by Orthodox standards and is constructed in the ancient basilica style. In the picture below, the church peeks out above the surrounding walls, built to protect from pirates and invaders.
If you watch the video and wonder how DaVinci’s Last Supper got in, I can’t tell you. Nor do I know who is the man who stares at us at 0.15 and 3.58!
After over 1600 years the place was still flourishing, filled with people for the feast. Greek Navy men were ushers, trying to crowd ever more people in. I was startled to see a man navigating his way in and out through the Great Entrance procession at Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, trying to take a candle up to the front of the church! At home during Anglican services people stayed obediently in their pews. Orthodox worship everywhere I went seemed so ordered, yet at the same time so relaxed (sometimes obviously a bit too relaxed), so ethereal yet so homey. I couldn’t figure it out. After Liturgy, there was a procession with a marching band around the village, as guns boomed from the Navy ships in the harbor. Wow.
This picture is from the holy island of Tinos, but it shows what it was like on Paros that day.
On Sunday I went to Divine Liturgy celebrated by an ancient monk at Logovardos Monastery up in the hills. One day in the village of Naoussa I dropped in on a Baptism with children running around, the men going in and out for a smoke, the women chatting, some guy up in what I took to be an elevated pulpit taking flash pictures, and the priest calmly immersing a naked screaming baby. Compared to the sedate Anglican Baptisms I was accustomed to, it seemed more like a carnival. I must confess that I also visited the beach again on some afternoons. Probably I was the only one there reading The Orthodox Church by Timothy (now Bishop Kallistos) Ware! I’ll tell you more about Paros on a future return trip.
On one of my last nights on the island, here’s what I wrote in my trip diary: “I love Greece! stars, breeze, smell of basil, thyme and salt air, sheep and goat bells, blue sky, cobalt sea, beckoning islands, beaches, Greek food, white churches all over with icons and smell of candles and incense, chapels and monasteries on hills. Asperity. The scenery is pure, stark, but the landscape is alive.” I was hooked.
“That Face” Again: Saint Nicholas Gets Moving
Back to Athens. Never travel by ferryboat during the Meltemi (summer high wind) season. It took days for my stomach, indeed my whole body, to stop swaying. Then in an icon store near the Athens cathedral I saw the face of Bishop Irenaeos again – in an icon of Saint Nicholas. I had to have that icon, that face, so I spent considerably more than I intended and bought it. That night I wrote, “The Saint Nicholas icon has the happy holy look of the Cretan bishop.” Only later did I come to see that it was Irenaeos who looked like Nicholas. Good Orthodox bishops often come to look more or less like Saint Nicholas, for he is the prototype Orthodox pastor. Though I didn’t yet know it, Saint Nicholas and that icon had me on my way to Orthodoxy. My last Sunday in Greece I went to the Anglican Church in Athens, a nice congregation with well-done worship, where I knew a few people. To my shock, I felt as if I had just left “The Church” and gone back to Anglicanism. I said to myself, “I’d better get home fast”.
It was too late. The last words in my journal written just before we landed in Milwaukee were, “The Greek Church has a remarkable integration with everyday life – icons in buses, stores, cabs, houses. Church concerned with social needs of people. Seems to go far deeper than the Christian veneer of western Europe. Why?” I felt had to know, had to find out why, and you can see what it led to. Looking back, I can see I was already in love with Orthodoxy.
I came home and began reading every book I could find about the Orthodox Church, and in the middle of Church, World, Mission by Father Alexander Schmemann suddenly my “paradigm” of Christianity turned upside down, my theology flipped, so to speak, and I knew I needed to be Orthodox. A number of things happened during those years that I can only describe as miraculous, and the evening when Saint Nicholas through that icon told me that Saint Nicholas Church was coming… well, all that is a story for another time.
My wife and I and a few others with us became Orthodox in 1989. “That face”, that icon of Saint Nicholas now presides at the entrance of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, somewhat blurred and worn now from over 27 years of being kissed. Since we had started over in mid-life and our new congregation was small and we had to get our two children through college, for some years we had little money to spare for travel. But I never lost my love for Greece.
And then, finally… I had to see Greece again.