Newbian Ponderings

by Jaqueline Sturm and Alex Petkas

This year’s Prodromos Monastery newcomers made their first acquaintance with a community which seemed rather well functioning.  Even though we were quite well apprised of the catastrophe and its extent, and were aware of the implications of it for the way the community functions, to us, it seemed like a reasonably well functioning machine.  There were visitors speaking with the nuns, we were welcomed with delicious coffee and treats, worship operated normally, and there was generally no obvious sense of loss in the air.  The obvious exception was the clear evidence of destruction to our right after entering: charred bricks, melted, twisted metal, scarred trees.

The nuns here are eager to put the loss behind them and continue with normalcy, as we were told before and then learned through our conversations with them.  What felt to veterans like a gaping hole in the periphery of the complex, we experienced as an open space, a lovely view in fact, but no less striking as a feature in the panorama than the beautiful chapel at the heart of the complex.

Today was our first real personal encounter with the loss, and the tragedy.  After a session of our presentations, as we sat chatting in the library, Sister Maria shared with us her experience of the night of the fire.  She brought vividly to our minds the speed with which the catastrophe unfolded once the first signs of the fire had been detected.  We got a sense of the helplessness which the nuns must have felt that night, not only faced with an inferno which they could do nothing to extinguish but also with the fact that there were simply too few hands to do all that needed to be done in the short time which was given them: there were older and more frail nuns who had to be transported to safer ground, icons to be removed from the central church in case the fire should (heaven forbid) spread there, in addition to all of the icons in the refectory which was already ablaze at the time.  When the firefighters finally arrived forty five to sixty minutes after the fire kindled, they realized that the fire was dangerously close to jumping past the fire-wall, by way of the wooden balconies which project along the perimeter of the monastery.  Nuns had gone into the building ahead of the fire in order to hew down a section of the balcony in order to break the path which the fire was following.  This they did in the face of strong resistance on the part of the firefighters, who thought the endeavor too dangerous.  It is difficult to imagine that they would have succeeded; fortunately – they would say miraculously – the balcony section at the fire’s blazing vanguard collapsed before it could spread to the next building.  If this had not happened, the complete south and east sections of the monastery might well have been lost – approaching half of the entire periphery of the complex. The account was so vivid that Jaqueline was beset by dreams that night of flaming buildings and collapsing balconies!

Earlier in the day, we had been to the bishop of Serres’ icon museum, where many icons which once resided in the Prodromou Katholikon are now housed for display. Emily’s presentation that morning gave us an excellent overview of the museum’s collection (with emphasis on the Prodromou pieces), as well as an account of the way in which they were first removed from the monastery by the former metropolitan, shortly before its re-inhabitation by the nuns, then later placed in the museum by the current metropolitan, and now find it difficult to return to their original home.  After hearing of our visit, Sister Theologia asked, “Did you see our icons?”

The day for us closed with the festal vigil of Saints Peter and Paul.  This was a particularly touching event for those among the group who are not Orthodox Christians, many of whom were experiencing the Byzantine festal liturgy for the first time.  The liturgy, chiefly with its combination of chanting, incense, and light – the nuns lit and swung the majestic polyeleos, a sort of Byzantine chandelier – assaults all of the senses.  A fitting end to a varied and fulfilling day.

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