Image compliments of St Isaac’s Skete: skete.com
A week on the Island of Paros
The Conference ended and with my wife’s leave, bless her heart again, I had something I had long wanted: time to bum around on a Greek island.
I felt prepared. I had learned enough Greek to get by. “Yes” in Greek is “Ne”, which sounds altogether too similar to English “No”. It’s often said while shaking the head sideways, believe it or not. “No” in Greek is “ochi” (guttural “ch”) – sounding not unlike English “OK”. Are we all clear on that? I also had learned something even more important: Που είναι η τουαλέτα? (Look it up.)
I had a room reserved on the island of Paros in the middle of the Aegean.
Why Paros I can’t remember. It was lovely – low mountains, pretty villages, good beaches and that blue sea all around, a peaceful place. (This was in the old days before the shores got covered with big tourist hotels.) Nor can I remember why I decided to arrive two days before I had the room reservation. I’d find a room. No problem
Problem! It was high season. I went from hotel to hotel, tourist house to tourist house asking “Domatia?” “Domatia?” only to hear over and over, “Ochi, no Domatia”. It was getting on towards evening. What to do?
I rented a little Yugo. (Does anybody remember Yugos? If you pushed very hard on the accelerator, oftentimes they moved, and if you drove very cautiously nothing important fell off. The noise and rattles you couldn’t escape.) I got a beach mat and a couple of blankets and a beach towel for a pillow, and drove to the nearest beach I could find, ‘cause it was now nearly dark. I found a spot with few stones and tried to settle in – alone on an isolated beach in a place I didn’t know. Later I heard some quiet voices down the beach, so I wasn’t alone. I felt a little better.
And then a wonder began. Maybe what follows here is commonplace for those of you who live in desolate places. But not for me.
The clear Greek summer sky became velvety black such as we folks who live near the city never see, crowded with stars. I hadn’t seen the Milky Way since I was a boy. The beach faced east. Hugging the horizon were the lights of Naxos, the next island over. Soon over Naxos emerged the smallest splinter of light, then bigger and bigger. By sheer chance I had hit the time of a full moon, which climbed regally like the goddess she is – first large and yellow, then progressively higher and smaller and whiter.
All night I watched the moon – partly because it was too beautiful to look away, partly because I couldn’t sleep. Even with blankets to cushion me, my middle-aged back hurt, so I woke often. I have read about ascetic saints who slept on boards or rocks. All I can say is: They’re welcome to it.
Some while later (I must have been asleep longer than it seemed), the moon was setting in the west, and in the east the horizon began to brighten. If you have never seen a Greek island summer sunrise… Oh! Great shafts of light appear, almost blocks of light. Then suddenly the sun crashes over the horizon in full splendor.
Image from We Go Travel
I can’t begin to describe it. You must go to a Greek island and see it for yoursel
That night has lived in my mind and imagination ever since. I can see it now, after all these years, as plainly as if I were there.
I still had one more night to go. What did I do that day? I explored till I found a more agreeable beach on the other side of the island, with very soft sand and more people about. I think I must have slept much of that day and night away.
The third day I found the room I had reserved – or actually my travel agent (remember them?) had. In those days before internet and Travelocity, she couldn’t know what it was like. To say that tiny room was Spartan would be to overstate the case. But it had a bed! albeit rock hard as many Greek hotel beds tend to be. And pillows! And a toilet down the hall! And a screened door! And a view of the bay! And the cost (hang on) was $7 a night! Please forgive all the “!”s, but that is exactly how I felt.
Even today (or at least five years ago, when I was last in Greece) if you know where to look, you can find a pleasant room on a gorgeous beach for 25 euros (about $25) a night. Right: This is it. I took this picture myself. Where? I’m not going to tell you. The place would soon be overrun with tourists.
Now, I’m not going to say I didn’t spend time on the beach, because I did. Paros is the kind of place where you do that. Besides, I love the beach (that’s another reason I would make a terrible ascetic saint) – the sand, the sun, the swimming, the rhythmic splashing of the waves. Nor will I say I didn’t also enjoy some other sights. (Don’t tell my wife.) But for me a beach is above all a place to read. Often I‘ve wondered if I was the only person on the beach reading the works of Saint John Chrysostom.
What a life! at least for me. Church in the morning, the beach in the afternoon. Besides absorbing the sun, I also absorbed Orthodoxy.
I discover Orthodoxy on my own
How could I resist? I had got a compelling taste of it at the Conference. Now I could see Orthodoxy as ordinary people lived it.
On Paros as on Crete there were churches and chapels everywhere. In the towns there was a continual stream of men and women going in and out, lighting candles, saying prayers, crossing themselves, as the fragrance of incense wafted out.
On August 15, the feast of the Kimissis of the Theotokos (similar to Roman Catholic Assumption of Mary), I went to Liturgy at the oldest church in Greece, Panagia Ekatontapiliani. (Don’t even try to pronounce it.) Ekatontapiliani probably means “100 doors”. I didn’t count. It was built in the Fourth Century, at the direction of the Empress Helena when she stopped by on her trip to the Holy Land. A side chapel is even older. The large church barely peeks out above the surrounding walls – look closely – built to protect from pirates and invaders, of which there have been many over the centuries.
Image from Greek City Times
I’m sure people in those lands take their ancient history for granted, but I found it overwhelming. My home town, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, advertises our “historic downtown”, which means it goes back to the late 1800s.
Ekatontapiliani was still flourishing after those sixteen centuries – not counting the years when pirates or whoever chased everybody out and the island lay desolate for a while. The church was filled to overflowing. Greek Navy men, leaving their ships docked in the harbor, were ushers, trying to jam ever more people in. It was hot in there, so I hung towards the back as the Liturgy went on. And on. And on.
Afterwards, there was a procession around the village with bishop and clergy in their vestments, and acolytes carrying incense and candles and I don’t know what all, with a marching band leading the way, as guns boomed from the ships in the harbor. Our Anglican celebrations were considerably more subdued, to put it mildly. But did I like this? Yes.
On Sunday I went to Divine Liturgy at Longovardos Monastery up in the hills, celebrated by a long bearded monk who looked even more ancient than the hills. In another town I found a Baptism going on. Children were running around, men going in and out for a smoke, women chatting, some guy up in an elevated pulpit taking flash pictures, and the priest calmly immersing a naked screaming baby as the parents and godparents stood watchfully around. Again I couldn’t help drawing contrasts. Compared to our sedate Anglican Baptisms, this seemed more like a village carnival.
On my last night on the island, here’s what I wrote in my journal: “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.” OK, I know that sounds like out of a travelers’ brochure, but it was exactly what I felt. I was hooked on Greece.
And, as it turned out, on more than Greece.
“That Face” Again
It was time to go back to Athens.
I have serious advice for you. Listen very carefully. Never ever travel the Aegean by ferryboat during the Meltemi (summer high wind) season. Even Greeks were hanging over the rails of the ship. I went down into the lower lounge, where somehow I got the rolling of my stomach in sync with the rolling of the boat, while people all around me were retching. It took days for my stomach, indeed my whole body, to stop swaying. As I walked in Athens, the sidewalks and buildings kept moving – up and down, back and forth.
And then it happened.
Remember that face of Bishop Irenaeos? how I wrote last week “don’t forget the face”? I did not forget the face. In an icon store near the Athens cathedral I saw the face of Bishop Irenaeos again – in an old icon of Saint Nicholas. Right: this is it. 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 take on the aspect of Saint Nicholas, the prototype Orthodox pastor. Though I didn’t yet know it, Saint Nicholas was about to lead me into the Orthodox Church. The face of Saint Nicholas on that icon would suddenly inexplicably take on different expressions, and… But that’s another story.
My last Sunday in Greece I went to the Anglican Church in Athens, 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 remember saying to myself, “You’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, taxis, houses. Church concerned with social needs of people. Seems to go far deeper than the Christian veneer of western Europe and even home. Why?”
When I got home my wife, after I got done hugging her for a while, saw something different on my face. I no longer looked demoralized, distraught. As I told her about my trip, she asked “Do you want to be Orthodox?” I said “No”. I was lying. While I was in Greece, I had fallen in love with Orthodoxy.
I felt I had to find out exactly what had happened to me there, and why. I began reading everything I could find about Greece and about the Orthodox Church. I had to make sense of it all. And I did.
I can tell you what book I was reading six months later, almost which page, when suddenly my “paradigm” of Christianity was turned upside down, and I knew I was no longer a Western Christian, neither Anglican nor Protestant nor Roman Catholic. I was an Eastern Christian, Eastern Orthodox. Now my mind was in accord with my heart.
I hung that icon of Saint Nicholas on the wall at my Episcopal Church and then many things began to happen – too many to tell now. Here let’s only say this:
Today “that face”, that icon of Saint Nicholas, presides at the entrance to our Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, Cedarburg, Wisconsin – founded four years after my first trip to Greece. It’s blurred and worn now, after so many years of being kissed. In fact it finally had to be put in a glass case lest the face of our blessed saint disappear entirely!
Oh, I should add this: I got the “old Father Bill back”. I became myself again.
Since I had started over in mid-life and our new congregation was small and we had to get our daughter and son through college, even though our people were very generous, and even though Khouria Dianna (as she was now titled) had gone back to work full time, for some years we had little money to spare for travel.
Then finally… I had to see Greece again.
But that and many more trips and some wonderful stories are also for another time.
Next Week: Sunday December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day, so we may as well finish the story: How Saint Nicholas finally led me into the Orthodox Church
Week after next: We’ll see.