33. 2007 Trip, Part One: Patmos, the Island of Saint John the Theologian

Homesickness: an unnecessary Introduction which has nothing to do with Patmos

When I’m at home I’m homesick for Greece. When I’m in Greece I’m homesick for home. I think the Greeks have a word for this, which I’ve forgotten. Maybe the Germans too.

I love home. I love my family. I love Wisconsin. I think I’m really a Wisconsin patriot. “The rocks and rills, the woods and templed hills”, the clean open countryside – and its now-lost Wisconsin Progressive tradition of clean open government. Ah, the old days…

As for the USA, over the years I’ve visited our gorgeous country and her kindly people, 47 states from Bangor to San Diego, Seattle to Miami and a lot of what’s in between, and I love the USA, despite today’s bizarre frightening ridiculous craziness. Would you believe that 60 or 70 years ago when I was young our government functioned well and almost everybody trusted it, and our cities were safe, and mass gun murders of ordinary people were so unheard of that when Bonnie and Clyde shot up a dozen people in their travels across the midwest, people talked about it for years. Ah, the old days… But “this is my country”, as we used to sing. This is home.

But Greece feels like my second home, and obviously it isn’t because of clean open functional government! I love the place. I told you of the beauties of Greece in Blog posts last spring. But it’s more than that. It feels like Greece is in my DNA. I wonder if one of my great great great great great great great great great grandmothers in Germany or Britain was more than friends with a Greek soldier from the imperial army! Going to Greece reinvigorated and refreshed me like nothing else. When the plane descended into Athens, that tumultuous city, my heart always gave a little pitty-pat. I put those last sentences in past tense because unless my health improves mightily, my days of traveling to Greece are over. After 15 or so trips and at age 79, I should complain?

Nevertheless, sometimes when I think I’ll never see Greece again I feel like I can hardly stand it. I hope C.S. Lewis (following Plato) was right that all things here are shadows, and on the other side we’ll find the true Narnia, the true England, the true America, the true Greece. I wrote in my travel diaries that I was doing it so that when I could no longer travel I could read them and relive it all again. And so I do. And now writing about it makes it even more alive to me. So… it’s 2007. Let’s go to Greece again!


2007 was a great trip – and in these days of super-hyperbole I don’t say that casually. Khouria Dianna and I were together for a happy week of vacation on Crete. (One of these times I’ll tell you more about Crete.) Then she flew home for her niece’s college graduation in Oregon, and I took a Blue Star ferry to the island of Patmos – the place where the Apostle John the Evangelist and Theologian spent some years in enforced exile, about the year 90, and wrote his Revelation.

Why Patmos? Because a few years ago Mike Huber, a man from our congregation, gave me a book on Patmos, A Place of Healing for the Soul by Peter France, an Englishman, formerly a skeptic, who was baptized there by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Ever since I read it I had wanted to see the place for myself.

This is a video of “blissful Patmos”. It really is.

This video is of Saint John’s Monastery and the Cave of Saint John at the top of the island. Turn up the volume: the words are a bit hard to understand. Who are the tourists who pose from time to time? I do not know.

Patmos is a lovely peaceful small island on the eastern frontier of Greece. On a clear day you can see Turkey, the coast of Asia. (There are many negative things one can say about Turkey, but I could pick up classical radio music from there, which is more than you can do in Milwaukee, and I spent my last evening on Patmos packing and listening to Nat King Cole from Turkey!) As the ship approaches by night, the Monastery of Saint John all alight atop Patmos is spectacular. Here it is by day. I wish I could find an image by night.

Though Greece is about 98% Orthodox, a good many don’t practice it much except on Pascha and to light a candle from time to time. Patmos, however, is a place where Orthodoxy is very much part of peoples’ lives. With a population of about 2500 (less than a quarter the number of people in my hometown, Cedarburg), Patmos has about 500 Orthodox churches and chapels. The small local military base has an Orthodox chapel. The exclusive resort Porto Scoutari has an Orthodox chapel. All of these have services from time to time – but when? where? Usually when the bells ring, you look around and can see 8 or 10 churches – and which one is it? By the time you find out it’s usually too late. On Sunday after Divine Liturgy I decided to drive about and visit every church and chapel I saw. (Well, some I decided not to climb up to.) Most were open and had candles burning. They were being used.

And for those who say Orthodoxy is not evangelistic enough, on the waterfront on Patmos is the Orthodox Information and Cultural Center with good video displays in many languages. At the entrance is an excellent presentation on Orthodox environmentalism, a major concern of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, as it should be for all of us. (We had a Blog post on that in September, but I noticed that very few read it. Ah, we bloggers know many things.)

Little Patmos has two large monasteries – Evangelismos women’s monastery to the right on the west coast with about 45 nuns, where I went for Sunday Orthros and Divine Liturgy, and Saint John’s Monastery hanging on the top of the island like a fortress, with about 25 monks and a magnificent church and museum. There is another small women’s monastery, and there are hermits back in the hills who do not give out their addresses for the obvious reason. I try to imagine all this in, say, the east side of Cedarburg where my wife and I live, which as I say has about the same population. I cannot.

Everywhere you look there goes a monk driving a pickup truck or a priest walking by. One weekday morning I saw a priest and his flock of about 20 leaving a church after Liturgy, heading down the street, no doubt to go to the kafenion, the coffee shop – just like home. Orthodoxy is so much the same wherever you go. As I came into Sunday Orthros (Matins) I thought: Why is the priest censing at the wrong place? But he wasn’t. They had started earlier than I thought, and it was the usual censing at the Song of Mary, just as we do. Some of the music was different, and it was in Greek of course; otherwise it was our Matins and Liturgy.

As I say, the Orthodox Church is integral to the life of Patmos. So has this turned the people into a bunch of hard-nosed religious fanatics? Not at all. There is a sweetness, a gentleness, a grace that pervades the place. You can feel it. The non-Orthodox lady who ran my hotel (a German who moved to Patmos) wrote in her book about the island: “While the Greek Orthodox Church plays an important but not all-dominating role in the life of its adherents, it disapproves of any religious fanaticism – its views are far too human.” Yes! Orthodoxy is humane.

Also, the book says there is no reported thievery on Patmos (except for construction materials…no explanation given!), no reported violent crime, and the last murders took place during World War II, about 80 years ago, committed by German Nazis not by Patmians. There is no great wealth on the island, no great poverty, and she wrote that it is considered tasteless for those who have money to show it ostentatiously. (Take me back to Patmos…)

One evening walking on a back street I came on the Byzantine Tekne (arts, crafts) store with wonderful things, including many original icons. One icon of John the Apostle, Saint John the Theologian, Ο Άγιος Ιωάννης ο Θεολόγος as he is on the icons, caught my eye: it wasn’t a perfect icon, and it turned out to be a paste up copy. In that respect I was “ripped off” as they say. But I loved it. It showed John as an old man. His face was filled with wisdom and knowledge and pain – driven out of his homeland, then out of his new hometown Ephesus and exiled to Patmos. But his face was above all filled with love. They say that in his great old age they would carry John to church, and he would say only, “Little children, love one another.” I asked the price, gasped, left and thought about it, came back, left and thought about it some more – and decided if I didn’t buy it I would always regret it.

I had the money, thanks to gifts (not “fees” by the way; we don’t charge for sacraments and blessings) which my parishioners had given me for house blessings and weddings and the like – so I bought it and gave it to our Saint Nicholas Church in memory of our dear Deacon John McQuide who knew and loved his patron Saint John so very much. In personality Deacon John was like his patron. Both were sons of thunder (“boanerges”, the nickname Jesus gave to young John and his brother James), and both also were filled with love. Deacon John, dear friend Jack: May your memory be eternal

The young man who ran the shop made incense for most of the churches on Patmos (he must be rich!) and for monasteries on Mount Athos. As usual I was traveling incognito (so people would neither fawn all over me nor run from me) but I obviously was showing an unnatural interest in incense, and he asked, “Are you a priest?” I said, “Yes.” So he gave me the names of his family to be remembered at Divine Liturgy, and we prayed the following Sunday at our Liturgy at Saint Nicholas for “Anastasia, Anastasios, Vasiliki, Zoe, Nikolaos and Vasilis”. God bless them, whoever they are.

I also brought back three kilos of that elegant incense. The one I loved most is made from a gardenia, phouses, which grows only on Patmos. I also brought the latest from Mount Athos – elasticized prayer ropes, one size fits all! The Orthodox Church has finally entered the elastic age.

Next Week: What I discovered by reading John’s Gospel, Epistles and Revelation on Patmos –  and Saint Nektarios does it again, on Patmos!



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