My next stop was in Athens, the capital of Greece. The feel of this city, which is home to about half the country's population (~5 million), is an interesting mix of antiquity and post-modern urban life. It is a monstrous city! I was blessed enough to stay with my friends in a beautiful picturesque suburb village about a 30 minute metro ride outside of the city's center, near the airport--Paiania. The Metro system in Athens gave me a wonderful and efficient experience. It was amazing to me (and I hope soon to the entire world) that during the construction of this public transit system, archeological discoveries were made and they are well-preserved, please click here. This is just one example that shows the capability of the country of Greece in preserving and revering its own treasures from antiquity. I am referring to the long-awaited return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. My friends and I took a day trip to spend it in the city visiting the New Acropolis Museum, and the Acropolis itself. I think this part of Athens is the most beautiful, and it sparks much reflection for me, as Thessaloniki did simply because it too is a holy place. The Parthenon itself used to be an ancient temple dedicated to the mythological goddess Athena, and even a mosque, but more importantly, it was also consecrated and used as an Orthodox Church, dedicated to the Mother of God. We also had great views of Mars Hill (Areos Pagos, Άρεος Πάγως), the hill on which Saint Paul preached to the Athenians, as well as Lycabetos Hill, where there is a Chapel dedicated to Saint George. Our trip atop the Acropolis concluded with a guard of soldiers marching up to the flag pole and ceremoniously lowering the Greek flag, chanting the national anthem. It was simply awesome.Later that week, I took a solitary adventure on my own into the city to visit the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the National Gardens (I always need a nature walk!), all within walking distance of the Parliament Building, where I did the typical touristy things of picture-taking of the guards as well as a random demonstration that blocked traffic on the major road right in front. Strikes are a favorite past time in Europe it seems. There were more holy places I had wanted to visit, but alas, I ran out of time. Perhaps on the next trip, as the Lord wills. On October 31, instead of even remembering that it was Halloween, my friends and I took a ferry boat ride to the island of Aegina, located in the Saronic Gulf, located west of Athens. We set out for a pilgrimmage to the resting place of Saint Nektarios of Aegina, Bishop of Pentapolis and wonder-worker, a beloved 20th Century saint of the Orthodox Church. It was a most beautiful island, and the monastery which he founded has possibly one of the largest churches in Europe. It was a great blessing to see the fruit of his labors, his own cell with all of his things still in it, as well as to venerate his tomb which holds his miraculous relics. This was yet another reminder to me about how important it is for all Orthodox Christians to go on pilgrimmages to places where the saints used to live. This is a way for us to get to know them even more personally in addition to learning and reading about their lives. Venerating their relics and visiting their 'stomping grounds' and their humble abodes is an even more tangible and concrete way for us to come closer to them. We need to be friends with our saints, because they have become the friends of God. Later, we experienced warm, traditional Greek hospitality at a family's home on the island. My friends were well-acquainted with a lovely priest, Father Emmanuel and his family of 10 children, and his Presvytera (his wife) made a beautiful meal for us, and we enjoyed fellowship with them. It was so refreshing to see a family in the 21st century who still lives simply and traditionally, like in the old days, a life dedicated to Christ. Father Emmanuel is a fisherman by trade and he has written books on historical figures of 19th century Greece. In fact, when we later attended Vespers with him at his Church (which was built in 1806), he told us about how that very same Church was the parish of John Capodistrias, a famous Greek hero and leader of Greece after the Revolution of 1821. I really loved how my trip has been such a great balance of going on a spiritual pilgrimmage, learning the history of my heritage, having lots of fun with good friends and meeting people overflowing with love and hospitality. On the hour boat-ride back, we played make-shift Mancala games with pistachio shells. :)
December 19, 2009
The remainder of the week involved more visits to monasteries and churches, as well as nice social gatherings. We visited the monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Souroti outside of Thessaloniki. This was very special for me because we had the chance to venerate the tomb of Elder Paisios--one of our modern-day saints who reposed there in 1994. We stayed for Vespers with the sisters and it was a great blessing to be there. Below is a taste of the beautiful garden there. Many of the people I met had known him personally and their lives have been touched by his presence and they are continually blessed by his prayers.Our next stop was a neighboring monastery in the village called "Δήμος Βασιλικών" (Village of Vasilikon) at the foot of Adrianos, one of Mount Hortiatis's summits, dedicated to Saint Anastasia of Rome the Healer (celebrated December 22). Here, we encountered the end of a baptism, visited the grounds of the monastery that was founded in 888 A.D., got some blessed water from a mountain spring, saw a path that led to caves where ascetics used to dwell, and most importantly, venerated the relics of Saint Anastasia and Saint Theonas. It was amazing to be in a church that is older than the country of my birth, the U.S.A. On the feast day of Saint Demetrios, October 26, we attended a vigil service at Holy Trinity Monastery in Panorama that concluded around 2 am, and there was a relic of his there as well. I was very much struck by the abundance of saints' relics in almost every church I attended. Having the chance to venerate and remember men and women who lived and died for Christ on that very ground I walked on is something I valued during my visit and continue to keep in my heart. We don't have this kind of easy access to relics in the States, unless one visits San Francisco where Saint John Maximovich reposes or Saint Anthony's in Arizona, where various saints' relics are kept. The people in Thessaloniki are keenly aware that their city is an ancient dwelling-place of many saints, and as I have mentioned, it is obvious in the atmosphere and the life there. After spending my nameday on an outdoor adventure in the mountains near Mt. Olympus with my friends, we visited Saint Demetrios' Church that evening. It was amazing to see crowds of people waiting patiently in line to venerate the Saint on that day which commemorated his martyrdom for Christ. The line went from near the altar to the back in the narthex, and that is a LONG distance, given that this is a basilica we are speaking about! That's the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki, Anthimos, on the right in the above picture. We found him later that week at the Parade celebrating "OXI" Day next to the waterfront, and got his blessing before heading down to Athens on the midnight train.