At the upper right of these Posts, you’ll now see a new series of categories to help you search for older Posts by topic. (Thanks, Laurel!) You can still also locate them by date on the lower right. I am now s l o w l y getting previous Posts (all 344 of them) into their proper classifications.
My Final trip to Greece
I do not want to write this Post, which is why I’ve been so slow in getting around to it. However, unless 1) there is some phenomenal new medical discovery, and 2) I suddenly start getting younger… I won’t go back to Greece again. All good things must come to an end.
I still hunger for Greece, thirst for Greece – that’s the only way I know to express it. However, brilliantly (if I do say so, myself) I kept a daily journal on my trips, so that (as I wrote) “when I get too old to travel here, I can read about it and live it again”. Now that is what I do – and then share it with you, whether you want to hear about it or not!
As I’ve written, it all began in 1985. From the moment I looked out the porthole of my ferryboat room and saw the western Greek islands in the early morning mist… I was hooked. Somehow I knew Greece was for me. That was 37 years ago. I’ve loved the place ever since.
Corfu (courtesy of Cyphotos)
I thank God for my many trips to Greece, and also that I live today, when by pushing a few buttons I can see images and videos and sounds of the places we knew so well…
The Oasis in Plakias, Crete
… even the little taverna and hotel where we stayed.
I now await only “digital smell technology”, (no kidding – they’re talking about it) so I can inhale again the indescribably lovely herbal scents of the summer countryside, the fresh sea air, the intermingled fragrance of incense and candles in the old churches and chapels. Every so often those sweet smells come back to me now, unannounced, and then they’re gone… but just for a moment I’m back in Greece again.
And… No! You can tell I’m trying to put off writing this Post yet again. No. On with it.
It was 2015. Khouria Dianna and I were planning to go on an auto trip to the Pacific Northwest in September *, so I had no intention of going to Greece that summer. Then in about the middle of August she said (knowing that I always longed for more Greece), “Do you want to go to Greece?” “Yes…” “So go!”
- Just for the record, we did not go to the Northwest. On the first day we traveled at our usual pace, stopping to sightsee or get a cup of coffee here and there. We arrived in Des Moines ‘way behind schedule and weary after a half day of dodging semis and speeders on I-80. We asked ourselves, “Do we really want to do this?” – and turned around and came home. “Our vacation to Des Moines”, we call it.
So I went! All by myself.
At age 77 I was feeling less comfortable exploring on my own, so I confined myself to the same old places: Saint Nektarios’ monastery on Aeginia, and then the south shore of Crete – familiar churches and tavernas. And beaches.
I took this one myself:
This time I had an almost continual feeling, like a premonition, that this would be my last trip. I couldn’t shake it. And so it was. Soon thereafter my neuropathy set in. Thank God once again that a brilliant neurologist and about a gazillion meds got it manageable. But as for another trip to Greece? For a while I kept thinking, “Surely I can find a way”… … … but, no.
The visit to Saint Nektarios was lovely, light-filled and life-creating as always. I think this is what I miss most.
Standing in the chapel before his relics, I offered up the more-than-1300 names of individuals for whom my Saint Nicholas people had asked me to pray. As always I felt my people (and all their love for their family and friends, living and departed) present with me as I prayed. Truly a people of prayer. It moved me very deeply.
The little widow who guards the chapel let me take this picture, even though it’s forbidden.
On September 4 when the temperature on Crete was over 100 F (pushing 40 C), by the mercy of God I wound up at the little church in the village of Asomatos, the only air conditioned church I ever found in Greece – while my people back home suffered with a broken air conditioner on the hottest Sunday of the year. The retired priest at the church was getting more ancient each year, chanting ever louder and more off key. (It’s a mercy for everyone that I can’t chant any more.)
By the way, once upon a time old-country priests all had long hair and long beards. I have told you that both were getting shorter as time went on. On this trip, I noticed that the style among many young Greek guys was a spiky almost-crew-cut and about a five-day beard. In Iraklion airport I saw a young Greek priest in his traditional cassock (rassa/gibby), sporting a “spiky almost-crew-cut and about a five-day beard”. Times they are a’changing! even in the Orthodox Church.
Saint Nektarios does it again, with help from a Friend
Now, when traveling overseas I was almost compulsive about checking for my passport, wallet and keys. If my wife was there she would ask: Are you missing something? and I’d say: No, just checking.
However, you long-time readers will recall that when I was alone I regularly did some stupid things (lost keys, no petrol far from a gas station, and the like) from which Saint Nektarios regularly delivered me. He has also played little “tricks” on me – long lost friends from America suddenly sitting beside me on the bench opposite his shrine – that sort of thing.
These don’t rise to the level of miracles in the usual sense, although I feel sure they were more than coincidences. I think their purpose was to prepare me so I would know what to do in 2013, two years before this trip, when Khouria Dianna had major aggressive cancer: Without having to think about it, I begged Saint Nektarios night and day to storm the gates of Heaven. The result I can see even now, sitting across me in our living room, healthy as can be. As I say, I have learned what to do when I’m in trouble.
Back to the story: This time I was alone on the far south coast of Crete. I can’t resist showing you the area:
Marc Ryckaert at Creative Commons
And I did it again. I finished supper at the taverna. It was dark (people eat late in Greece), and I decided I needed a gelato, so I drove into town and got one. Back to the hotel… reached into my pocket… no wallet. I checked the room, the hall, the stairs, the entrance way, inside the car, around the car, everything twice. No wallet. I drove back to town, to the gelato shop, to where I had parked. No wallet!
The Greek word for heart attack is emphragma (έμφραγμα), and that’s how I felt. How likely was it someone would find it in the dark, wherever it was? Or maybe someone already had it, and if they did, they had my credit card, my cash card, all my money and my driver’s license – and with me 5500 miles from home. What was I to do? And worst of all I would have to call my wife and tell her how stupid I had been (again), and have her stop the credit card. So I went back to the hotel ready to face the music.
Now here is how the saints came in. All during my panic I found myself automatically, continually praying “Saint Nektarios, help!” “Saint Phanourios, help!”
“Saint Phanourios?” He’s a saint I had met since the last time I did something stupid overseas. Let me tell you his story.
Saint Phanourios, the Newly-Revealed Martyr
Short story. We know almost nothing about his life, not even where or when he lived. So how we do we know about him? Because of a large icon below which was discovered about the year 1500, during the time of Ottoman Muslim rule, in the ruins of an ancient church on the island of Rhodes. I hope the image is clear enough for you to see the title: “o Άγιος Φανούριος”, “Saint Phanourios” – a saint previously unknown.
The icon was discovered not by Christians but by a band of Arab pirates who were ravaging the island, digging for treasure. At this church, they discarded the icons as worthless and moved on. Some Orthodox monks who lived close by then drew near and realized that, though the other icons were faded and decrepit, this one icon of Saint Phanourios looked as if it had been freshly “written”.
We do know he was a martyr, because on the sides of the icon are depicted the gruesome events of Saint Phanourios’ martyrdom – by whom? That also is unknown.
Now comes the part of the story which seems like superstition – except that it works! Among Orthodox people there emerged the custom of praying to Saint Phanourios to find lost things – very much like Saint Anthony among Roman Catholics. Perhaps this was because Phanourios himself had been “lost” for so many years.
I could tell you some stories… … …
OK, if you insist, I’ll tell you two.
A woman in our parish lost her wedding ring. She had looked everywhere, high and low – many times. Finally she was standing looking towards their back yard, and thought to ask Saint Phanourios. Suddenly in a ray of sunshine ‘way in the back of the garden there was a glint of light, which was her wedding ring.
A man in our parish had taken a short cut through a field of tall grass, and when he got to his car – no keys. He went back to search through the field, but chances of finding his keys in all that grass were extremely slim – until he thought to say, “Saint Phanourios, help!” He looked down, and there in front of him, almost invisible in the tall grass, were his car keys.
I could tell you a couple of less dramatic stories of my own, but I won’t.
Now it gets even stranger. Well,…. bizarre. When Saint Phanourios has found something, the custom arose (no-one knows why or how or when) of baking a cake in thanksgiving, a “phanouropita”, “φανουροπιτα. And in some places, they say that when you first eat of the cake, you should say, “May the Lord have mercy on Saint Phanourios’ mother” – because… well, no one has any idea. Since no one knows the story of Saint Phanourios, it seems extremely unlikely that anyone knows the story of his mother! Nevertheless… This is just how things are in the Orthodox Church. “It’s a mystery.”
left: courtesy of Johnsandinopoulos.com.
right: courtesy of Saint Isaac’s Skete: skete.com
As I said, as I looked for my wallet and drove and looked and drove and looked again, I kept saying over and over (unbidden – it just poured out of my soul): “Saint Nektarios, help! Saint Phanourios, help!”
I gave up and returned to the hotel. As I walked in the back way, ready to go up to my room and call my wife, a young Greek woman came in the front entrance, looked at me, held up my wallet showing my picture on my driver’s license, and she asked, “Is this you?” “Ναi!” (Yes!) “Ευχαριστώ! (Thank you! Thank you!)” And “Ευχαριστώ τον Θεό! and Saint Nektarios and Saint Phanourios!”
In the dark unlighted parking lot in town she just happened to look down and saw this little black object lying there and wondered what it might be. I had at least been smart enough to put the hotel card in my wallet, and she was an honest woman. But, really, what were the chances…?
The first thing I did was go to my smart phone and find the Akathist to Saint Nektarios and the Akathist to Saint Phanourios. I read them both. Then I finally stopped shaking and settled down.
Now, I know I can’t prove the saints rescue me when I’ve been stupid. (Truth is we can’t ultimately prove anything in life.) You know I was educated in science. I am by nature skeptical. After all these years I still have to fight for my faith, and I hate superstition; it gets in the way of true religion. But these things just keeps happening and happening. It seems too much to be coincidence.
Have I told you this story? Once years ago there was a potentially calamitous situation at our Saint Nicholas Church. I had no idea what to do. So I prayed “Saint Nicholas, help!” I hate to tell you this, but I also bribed him: I put $100 in the candle basket. And within three hours the situation was totally, amazingly cleared up.
Of course our prayer, whether assumed or said, must always be, “Father, Thy will be done.” But God has His assistants, both in this life and the next. He does not intend that we should live all alone in a panic. We have loving help available. So use it. “Saint Nicholas, help!” “Saint Nektarios, help!” “Saint Phanourios, help!” Or “[Any Saint you feel close to], help!” All I can say is: I do believe they help.
And so I returned home safe and sound, wallet intact and wife undisturbed till I told her the story and how it all came right in the end.
As the airplane took off from Athens Aerodromeo, I looked out the window, and the feeling was still there: “I won’t see this again. This is my last trip to Greece.”
I’m hoping that C.S. Lewis (and Plato before him) was right: that we live here in the “shadowlands”. Have you read the last book of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia? where, as the children move ahead, beyond the End of All Things, to their amazement they find the True Narnia and even the True England.
We believe that all good things are to be lifted up into God’s eternal Kingdom, renewed and made whole. (Romans 8:22)
So, on the “other side”, by God’s grace, will I find first of all Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother and all the saints – but also the world renewed: the True Wisconsin? the True America? the True Greece?
If so, then when the time comes, this old man will be eager to make the Big Trip.
Glory to God for all things!
Next Week: A Remembrance of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
Week after next: The changes I have seen in the past Eighty Years.