Wilderness and Purification

by Dawn LaValle

As I rounded the corner to walk down the now-familiar path into the monastery, at first I didn’t notice that anything was different. There was the same impressive green mountain rising up behind the same 13th century church, the same well-tended flowers in pots lining the way, the same slick marble floor slabs that give your feet little unexpected skids. But when I could finally safely take my eyes off of the floor long enough to look up, there it was. Or rather, there is was no longer: instead there was an expansive view of the lush green mountain where there used to be a building bustling with nuns, pilgrims and friends.

I must admit there was something exhilarating about that first glimpse of destruction. Only later did I realize that it was caused by the sense of wilderness that had been admitted into the monastery with the striking vastness of the mountain view. And the wind. The wind was immense. Looking more closely, I saw that our familiar potted plants were each blown to one side of their pots under the onslaught of that wind.

I have been taught, and have experienced for myself, that a monastery is to be a garden enclosed, and enclosure itself is essential to its nature. Suddenly the enclosure of the Monastery of Timiou Prodromou has been broken. Vistas that seem inappropriate for an enclave of cultural and spiritual ascent have opened up. If a monastery is supposed to represent order in the midst of wilderness, wilderness has been reasserting itself at Menoikeion, first in the ranging, supra-human power of fire, and now with the cleansing wind.

But after this initial impression of violation and exposure, I recalled the founder of the monastery, Ioannikios, with his little nephew Ioannis, living in the cliffs above the present-day monastery, alone in a viciously dangerous location, open to the weather with minimal shelter. I am led to recall that Prodromos monastery is part of that tradition too. The cave of the founder certainly had a view no less thrilling, wild and dangerous than that newly opened up, and yet they remained and monastic life has flourished here on their mountain. Perhaps what is essential has been maintained after all.

The fire that hit the monastery in December of this year, during the heaviest snow storm of the season, was strangely selective. It completely burned down the building where all of the guests used to gather, the social heart of the monastery for many visitors like us. Then it jumped over the next building to burn down the Despotikon, the building used to receive important visitors and house some of the archives. What was the building over which it leaped? The small Chapel of the Annunciation. Whereas before it was almost hidden under the enfolding layers of its neighbor buildings, now it stands in striking solitude, set against the backdrop of expansive mountain. Mary stands alone once again as the angel announces to her that she is to conceive the Messiah, the Son of God. In a moment of radical particularity, she says yes, and the world is changed. So too do these women in this wild place say yes, and the world is changed. The fire that destroyed so much was also a purifying fire. The blowing wind serves as a vivid reminder of what is perhaps the essential purpose of a monastery–to be a receptive location for incarnation. The decisive assent of Mary, and of the nuns of Prodromos, remains thrillingly permanent in the midst of radical change.

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