by Dawn LaValle
Thursday morning saw our van pulling out of the beauty of Serres and heading down the highway toward the Chalcidiki, which is both the summer playground of thousands of Thessalonikians, as well as the location of Mt. Athos, that most holy place in Orthodox Christendom. We had decided on our way back to Thessaloniki to take a side-trip to the Monastery of the Annunciation at Ormylia, the largest women's monastery in Greece, with about 115 sisters in residence. Why go from one monastery to another? Hadn't we had our fill yet? We thought it might be interesting to see another flourishing women's monastery in the area with a different tradition and different story. Ormylia was founded in the 1970's under the guidance of a charismatic priest named Fr. Aimilianos. The men under his direction re-founded the Monastery of Simonos Petras on Mt. Athos, and the women came to Ormylia--as close as they could get to the Holy Mountain.
We were greeted in English at the gate--Ormylia's nuns come from all over the world--and were led to a shady seating area, given the traditional Turkish Delight, or loukoumia
as the Greeks prefer, and Greek coffee, and were soon joined by a nun by the name of Sr. Augustina. We explained who we were and gained some knowledge of the monastery. As she asked us more questions about ourselves, she hit upon a fact that changed everything--some of us are students of Peter Brown! Her face lit up, and doors were opened, literally. Peter Brown had once come through Ormylia and given her a copy of his biography of Augustine, her patron. Any friend of Prof. Brown was a friend of the monastery of Ormylia! She rose, disappeared, and returned with the key to the inner area of the monastery where visitors are usually not allowed to go. She lavished her time on us as she gave us a tour of their overwhelmingly beautiful new church.
How different was this church to the katholikon at Prodromos! Separated by about 800 years, in fact. Everything new, everything fresh. Yet at the same time, there were all of the traditional elements that linked the two monastic churches together--the same saints adorned the walls, the same iconostasis, the same ancient type of chandelier which we had seen swing so bewitchingly a few days earlier at the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul at our monastery of Prodromos. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the creation of a Byzantine-style building piece by piece--the outlines of future mosaics still awaiting an artist sister's hand to complete them. As Prodromos struggles with the difficulties and delights of adapting their life-style to an ancient and uncompromising setting, the sisters at Ormylia have a chance to start afresh, to create a new monument for future generations to call ancient. More than anything, I think our group felt a sense of unity and continuity between the two monasteries--one building complex in the middle of its life, and one at the beginning. Both full of young energy and hope. May they both be granted many years!