By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
We wake every morning to rows of cypresses, the tall Mediterranean trees that stretch like church spires against the low bushes and olive groves that sprinkle the mountain. Circles of trees embrace the monastery, spreading down to the terraced garden and around the funerary chapel. From the height of the mountain, near the caves where we hiked on Monday, the complex’s isolation became even more apparent, tucked into the folds of mountains inhabited mostly by cows, goats and stray cats. The cypresses are an entryway, marking the edges of a secluded holy space. But they also symbolize the tangled emotion that exists within the monastery’s walls, where a vibrant community must grapple daily with the memories and realities of pain, hardship, grief and death.
This sounds dramatic. But one of the most surprising aspects of our time in the monastery, at least for me, has been the way that grief and death are wrapped into the fabric of the everyday. On a previous trip to Greece, with Professor Luijendijk’s class on the Apostle Paul (also, I should note, sponsored by the Hellenic Studies program), we noticed the omnipresence of death in our museum excursions, simply because a large slice of the artifacts from antiquity were found in tombs. And death was certainly a subject of great concern for Paul and the early Christ-believers, for whom it meant the beginning of a new life.
This emphasis on mortality is no less important for the nuns, who think about their own deaths constantly. On a tour through the ossuary and funerary chapel, I was shocked to see open graves, ready to hold the next nuns to pass away. The ossuary is full of the meticulously preserved bones of thousands of monks who at one time inhabited the monastery, rendering death strangely sanitary. For the nuns, death is a fact of life. And for Western, non-monastic visitors like me, that ability to embrace the reality of both death and grief is at once disturbing and deeply honest.
The cypresses are particularly striking examples of the pervasiveness of these themes. Traditionally, cypresses are trees of mourning. In Greek mythology, they were named for Cyparissus, a youth who accidentally killed his beloved stag and, heartbroken, prayed to Apollo to be allowed to grieve forever. Apollo transformed the boy into a cypress tree, so that he would always be present for others’ grief, and even today, cypresses are planted around cemeteries.
Although our visit to the ossuary was perhaps our most blatant encounter with death (it’s still hard for me to imagine the work of the nuns who, finding a disorganized ossuary full of the bones of thousands of monks, cleaned every skull with a toothbrush and organized them on shelves), the most difficult moments came in the church. The chapel of St. Nicholas, with its overwhelming mishmash of frescoes, brought me near tears twice, with two fading images of Christ, as an adult and a child. The first was a traditional eleousa, painted above the arcosolium where Eleni’s bones were buried, a simple image of baby Jesus with his face pressed close to his mother’s; the second, Christ crowned with thorns, his face twisted in deep suffering. I stood for long moments in front of both, attempting to absorb the depth of the loss and grief in both frescoes.
In the second, Christ’s face melts with grief. Tucked into a corner of the sanctuary, his closed eyes and emaciated chest are illuminated by a shaft of light from the window, which reflects off the shards of gold in his faded halo. Looking at this image, it’s impossible to avoid what is so extraordinary about Christ’s life and death: that God came to earth in human form, and not only preached but suffered, embracing all of the joy and sorrow that comes with mortal embodiment. Christ’s vulnerable, suffering body allows us to look straight at grief; I saw myself in the pale fresco, hidden among the copious images of saints and angels that vied for space in the main sanctuary.
The other image, placed discreetly above the arcosolium that holds Eleni and her daughters, was no less heartbreaking. Mary and Christ embrace, their hands wrapped around each other’s bodies, their faces cheek to cheek. The tiny Christ, with his strange, adult face, looks up into his mother’s eyes, but it’s Mary’s expression that holds the viewer, drawing us into the grief that is to come. Her tragic visage foreshadows yet another image that transfixed me: the icon displayed in the sanctuary of the main church, depicting the deposition of Christ. Here, Mary caresses his dead body, her face dissolving with anguish. In the fresco in the upstairs chapel, Christ, held tightly in his mother’s embrace, is still alive, but the truth echoes through Mary’s face: she has already lost him. Painted in a time when death was a likely outcome from childbirth, above the bones of a woman and her daughters, the pain in Mary’s face strikes more deeply than a photograph. Her suffering could be any mother’s, and Christ could be any child.
Talking later with Isabelle, who was moved to tears by the icon in the sanctuary, we were both struck by one of Matt’s characteristically insightful connections between the image and a letter that Nikos had just described to us. Around the turn of the century, violence was erupting in the nearby village of Lakos, which was later devastated and abandoned. A visitor to the monastery recalled his revulsion at the sight of bodies after the conflict; returning to the church, he wrote of his admiration for the icon, noting the exquisite rendering of Mary’s anguished face. To see this icon of suffering after the real horror of war, Matt pointed out, is to recognize the universality of images and stories like these. Standing in the church, or among the tall rows of cypresses, or inside the ossuary and funerary chapel, we can’t evade the realities of grief in our own lives.
But strangely enough, amid all of these seemingly morbid thoughts and images, the nuns are able, daily, to extend extraordinary generosity to strangers. By recognizing the imperfectability of the world, they can allow these thoughts to inhabit but not consume them. I’m grateful, thus, for yet another surprisingly illuminating gift from my time in this space: observing the nuns’ ability to love unconditionally, combined with their honest gaze into the frightening and the uncertain, has given me a new way to look at sorrow.