60. My Travels: 2009 Trip – Saint Nektarios, Crete

Christ is risen! Truly he is risen! 

We’ve been dealing with a lot of heavy subjects lately. We need a break. Our late Antiochian Metropolitan Archbishop Philip (of blessed memory) directed that clergy should stay in our parishes during Great Lent, but now it’s Pascha – and besides, our Milwaukee forecast says freezing rain and snow this weekend. Snow?! In fact we’ve had no spring at all so far, no tulips. So Iet’s get out of here.

Why did I keep going to Greece? Go back and read Blog Post 1. This will be nothing theological, just another travelog with a little commentary thrown in now and then. I hope you like going traveling with me.  If not… see you next week when we’ll get serious again.

The Trip

Sorry, unlike previous years my 2009 trip had no new “tricks” from Saint Nektarios. No need. He doesn’t have to catch my attention. I know he’s here now. Before leaving I lit candles and asked him and the Lord Jesus for a safe trip, I prayed as we traveled, lit candles all over while I was there, and gave thanks after we got home safe and sound. Thank you, Saint Nektarios. I’ll tell you his whole story one of these times. But, you say, Saint Nektarios is known not as a travel guide but for helping with cancer. Yes. As I was to learn, that’s why he was catching my attention. We’ll come to that in a future Blog post.

I left on the day after Pascha (Khouria Dianna joined me later), exhausted from about 25 hours of public Holy Week worship. I hadn’t felt well all winter with a virus or something that just wouldn’t give up. As the plane roared up out of Milwaukee, I wondered if I was out of my mind to travel at such a time in such a condition. I was not. Going to Greece always rejuvenated me.

Aegina Town

After landing in Athens, First things First. Immediately I visited Saint Nektarios. Took the bus to the port of Piraeus and was so sleepy I forgot to get off at the right dock. The kindly bus driver took pity and actually drove his bus all the way back from the end of the line to take me to the right place.

I’ve told you before that Saint Nektarios was from the island of Aegina, about an hour west from Piraeus the port of Athens. (Sometime soon I’ll tell you his story – both before and after his death.) In Aegina town, I stayed in the little hotel where Bishop Nektarios used to stay when he rode in on his donkey for supplies. Given his habits, I half expected to hear him walking down the hall during the night. Next door to the hotel was Saint Nicholas Church, with bells that ring exactly like ours at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, and with tower clocks that never tell the right time just like ours at home.

The first evening I sat on the big pier on the Aegina waterfront watching all the boats, large and small, coming and going, and the sun going down over the islands and the Peleponnese mainland to the west, and thinking there’s no place more lovely than this in all the world.

Out on the pier is a chapel of Saint Nicholas Patron of Seafarers, staffed like most chapels by widows dressed in black, as most Greek widows are. Many people were going in and out. I also went in and lit a candle. There were teenagers all over – 2 boys preening themselves using the outside windows of the chapel for a mirror! They saw me smiling at them, laughed and ran off after some girls.

I had supper in a little restaurant by the shore and fell asleep during the meal.

Saint Nektarios

The Monastery where Saint Nektarios’ relics lie is out in the country on a hill above the main road. I love the place: it’s happy, peaceful, sweet. As always there were many pilgrims praying, coming and going, buses parked in the lot down below. I rented a car this time and so paid 3 visits to Saint Nektarios, had time to pray slowly for each of my people and their needs, lit candles for all with special needs, prayed for the 500 people whose names they had given me and then gave them to the nuns for their prayers. At Vespers a nun chased me, in a kindly way, out of a chapel which at such times is reserved for women.

I tried to visit 2 nearby women’s monasteries in the hills where I could hear the bells ringing and the semantrons clacking, but they didn’t welcome male visitors. Have I told you that Greece with the population of Wisconsin and Minnesota combined (about 11 million) has over 1000 Orthodox monasteries and sketes?

So instead I drove up to an open hill above Saint Nektarios to a chapel where I was all alone – absolute quiet except for the wind from the sea and the cry of the birds. It was a gorgeous clear day. Saint Nektarios Monastery was down below, and far away I could see ships coming and going out of the port of Athens. On the chapel tower was a bell and on the bell was a rope hanging down and on the rope was my hand. Couldn’t resist. I rang the bell hard, then drove away slowly trying to look innocent. Who? Me?

My Greek had improved enough that, at my evening visit to Saint Nektarios, I could understand the priest who wanted a ride back to the limani (port), and we were even able to chat a little. He wanted to talk about President Obama whom he liked, as I gathered most Greeks did. Uh… should I say this? So did I. Didn’t agree with him about everything but, oh, his personal character.


Otherwise it was an R & R vacation on Crete. I took the big overnight ferry from Piraeus, and arrived at the crack of a misty dawn to find a little rental car waiting for me and the high mountains of Crete covered with snow – the last thing I expected so far south. For the remaining days I slept a lot, ate, and drank retsina, the resin flavored wine. Drink it only with Greek food. With other food it tastes awful. (Why is it that I can’t handle alcohol at home, but in Greece…. well, never mind.) Dianna soon joined me. I had some gorgeous big beaches almost to myself – this is one of them  – which is where I like to read.

Besides my daily prayers and Bible readings (Keep these up when you travel; sanctify the trip.) I read 3 books by the old English author G.K. Chesterton (Do you know him? You’ll either love him or hate him.), the super old Mary Stewart trilogy on King Arthur, The Gurus, the Young Man and Elder Paisios about a Greek guy who got involved in a Hindu mind-control cult before returning to the Faith, (Do not mess with the occult! But also please do not believe that most Hindus are like this.) and much more. At the end I discovered I had read almost 4000 pages, but who’s counting? On the trip over they inspected my suitcase, probably wondering what that big mass of stuff was. I bet they were surprised to find that it was all books!

Churches on Crete

But I did go to church on Sundays and on Saints Constantine and Helen. (More advice: brothers and sisters, when you’re out of town, always go to Liturgy – not only for your spiritual nourishment, but because the same old worship comes more alive in a new environment.) I also tried on Ascension Day but couldn’t find a Liturgy. 3 of my 4 experiences were good, the first not so much.

In all the Cretan churches, picture a full old fashioned iconostas, Christ presiding on high from the dome, the walls covered with good (not Victorian) murals which always include the Cretan saints, most women on the left, most men on the right. And shafts of the sunlight of the risen Christ flowing in through the high east windows.

On May 10 I was at the village of Kandanos up in the mountains of southwest Crete. All women but 1 wore black. They couldn’t all have been widows. Here is the only reason I could imagine: The Nazis shot all the men and boys of the town, all of them… and for a long time all women there were in mourning dressed in black, and maybe it became the custom. All during Liturgy men came in, went up front and lit candles and then 90% of them walked out. There was a continual undercurrent of conversation. I got so irritated with it that I left early.

On May 17 I went to church at Akoumia in south central Crete, a village squeezed on the side of a mountain, so much that you had to enter the narrow church from a side door in the middle. The candle stand was front and center as you came in, then cantors to the right where also stood a very holy-looking old priest, men to the left, all women segregated way in back. The church was full, the people reverent. At the sermon the people’s eyes were glued on the priest; you could see he loved them and they loved him, and he was truly speaking to them. 1 1/2 hours seemed like a a few minutes. I grew up in a country village in Ohio; I think it would have been like this if it had been Orthodox.

For Ascension I was at Kalyviani women’s monastery in south central Crete, along a main highway out in the country. From the highway you drive up this long wide road, then walk through an arched gate onto a street with blooming trees on both sides and birds singing, past the orphanage and the school and the conference center. It’s an active monastery with 30 or 40 nuns, a happy feel to it. Finally you come to the big church on the right. When I arrived in the middle of Orthros (Matins) the place was already nearly full: girls from the orphanage, people with Downs Syndrome, many laymen and women from the area, and people just kept coming. At the Great Entrance some nuns ushered people further front so more could get in. It got really claustrophobic: a good problem!

On May 24 Khouria Dianna and I were at Spili, a village of about 700 people with a large handsome church – this in a village of 700! – with 3 priests, a young deacon, a superb male cantor and a very good female cantor. The Divine Liturgy was done well, correct but not fussy. Much felt like home: green plants all around our church, the church 3/4 full, maybe 120 people. Like us they can’t get Matins done in an hour, so Liturgy began about 10 minutes late. Like us at the Great Doxology the bells rang, the lights came up. Parents lifted children up to kiss the icons. People wandered in late. Just like home.

Some things were different. The deacon read the Gospel from a lectern hanging way up there on a left pillar. I want one of those! No sermon. The people participated verbally very little. Only children received Holy Communion. Not good.

But otherwise it still amazes me (who came from Protestantism) to walk into an Orthodox church 5000 miles from home, and without knowing the language immediately I can tell exactly where they are in the service. Orthodoxy has an amazing uniformity.

And almost everywhere I’ve been in Greece, Orthodoxy looks alive and well.

Old World Orthodoxy today

What else? Old country small town Greeks are less formal then we are. I rarely saw an acolyte vestment. At the Great Entrance at the monastery 2 people carried candles: a nun and a teen-age boy wearing a purple soccer shirt with a big 73 on the back! In 4 Liturgies I saw only 2 or 3 men in suits. Even at the monastery women had no head coverings and some wore slacks. Many clergy have short hair and short beards. All the churches I’ve visited in Greece have had chairs for people to sit. Some American Orthodox try to imitate old-country Orthodoxy as it was once was, not as it is.

How should we dress for church? There are no eternal rules. 1500 years ago all men wore robes like priests still do. That changed. The basic rule is: Dress so as not to call attention to yourself according to the customs of your culture. Dress so that people will look at God, not at you.

Finally, here is a good thing the trip did for my spiritual life: An occupational hazard of being a clergyman is that we get paid for going to church. This produces mixed motives. Sometimes I used to worry: Am I here because I love God or because it’s my job? So when I go on vacation I wear my civvies, nobody knows I’m a priest, nobody’s watching, I have no role to fulfill. And thank God on Sundays I could feel the Church drawing me as to the light. I wanted to be at Divine Liturgy. I love the Church. I love to worship the Lord. This is not just my job, this is my life.

After 4 weeks I was eager to come home, and I was also not ready to leave. For a long time after, I would wake up hearing the bells and smelling the incense and the herb-scented air, feeling the sun, hearing the rush rush rush of the sea…  I still almost can. Maybe I’ll go over to Saint Nicholas and ring the bells and light up the incense – and maybe turn all the water faucets on high.

Next Week: Back to our series on Orthodoxy and other Faiths – Classical Protestantism

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