By Kate Hope Kennedy
These first few days, as we have adjusted to Greek time and monastic rhythms, we have met in various locations inside and outside the monastic complex for walking seminars combining cultural history, art history, contemporary religious practice, liturgical studies, etc. It has been one of the few truly interdisciplinary scholarly experiences I have had. With experts and inquirers on hand at all times, the line between seminar, frappe hour, dinner and casual discussion is blurred. One of our first activities together as a seminar was a hike to Lakos, a deserted village a couple miles north of Prodromos. The contrasts between this village and the monastery were striking. Finally abandoned in the 1970s, Lakos bears the marks of Ottoman rule and intense attack during the Balkan wars. In contrast, Prodromos’ exceptional status during both of these periods is apparent by its very existence, not to mention the original frescos, the dome which was forbidden for Orthodox churches during the Ottoman Empire, and its reception of important political figures during times of turmoil.
When we returned to through the gates the monastic complex, it struck me that we entered an image of the Garden of Eden. The lush green of the trees and flowers planted around the complex, the bright white-washed walls of the courtyard, the brilliant blues of the frescos on the chapel and the stones gathered together for walkways, walls and seating areas bring order and beauty to the chaos of the wilderness just outside these walls. The arrangement of the complex does not follow the kind of unified form we might expect, but rather it grew organically from the center of monastic life, the church — expanding into the landscape and building on top of existing layers to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the community. One of the questions we have been asking for the last few days is how to maintain this organic unity in the process of restoration. How can the interests of scholars be united with the needs of the working community here? Despite our retreat to the Byzantine “ivy tower,” the fortress where we hold seminars which was recently restored without any modern conveniences, the nuns constantly remind us that these spaces serve practical and spiritual purposes that sometimes conflict with historical interests.
During our seminar on the liturgy, Jamie highlighted for us the organic growth of the liturgy throughout church history, extending to incorporate new prayers and hymns in response to the needs of the people. Like the complex of Prodromos too, the liturgy establishes order amidst the chaos of life. In monastic tradition, each day is ordered by the Divine Office and Liturgy: morning, noon and night. Each week is ordered by the rememberence of Christ’s death and resurrection. Each year turns through the life of Christ and his saints from birth to death. And today we walked through the places ordering the various stages of life – from birth in baptism in the narthex, through nourishment by the Eucharist, and finally to rest in the ossuary. These rituals establish a sacred order to life, time and ultimately to history, investing every aspect of life with theological significance. It is a privilege to observe this alternative temporality for a short time.