Into the World and Out Again

By Anna Nilles

On Friday we left the oasis of the monastery.  After another delicious monastic breakfast, we piled into the van for our quick expedition to Serres.  Along the winding road into town we stopped at the city’s highest point (or acropolis) and soaked in the scenic view.  From that point overlooking the city we could hear the festivities below.  It was a holiday in Serres, honoring the city’s independence.  We stopped at a beautiful Byzantine church, which may once have been part of a monastery complex affiliated with Prodromos.  I love the combination of bricks and stones that characterizes Byzantine architecture.  Although the brickwork, both practical and decorative, creates a beautiful façade of its own, the building may once have been covered in white plaster and painted. Professor Gondicas explained that the radiating brick patterns above the windows and doors signified sacred light emanating from within the church.  I had never thought of this: not only does God’s light enter the building through the windows, but also that a different, changed light comes out into the world from within. It is a beautiful idea.

From there we went to the archaeological museum of Serres, which is housed in an old caravansary, once an Ottoman textile market.  The architecture captured my attention more than the objects on display. The rows of high brick domes, connected with arches and pendentives decorated with muqarnas, make the building feel so spacious and dynamic.  We left the museum and headed for a nearby café to recommence eating.  We sipped Greek coffee and frappe, and snacked on delicious Serrean pastries called bougatsa, while Henry taught us about the place of non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.  It is a region and time period I knew very little about before coming here, but I’m beginning to piece it together.  All of the talks have been very informative.  I am constantly impressed by the depth and breadth of knowledge of everyone around me.  From the snack café we went directly to lunch.  Unable to decide between two neighboring restaurants we split up into two groups and chose both!  The Greek food was wonderful, as always, and we had my two favorite things: tzatziki and fried zucchini.  As fun (and delicious) as the outing to Serres was, it made me realize how difficult it must be for the sisters to leave Prodromos to visit the city.  The pace of life is entirely different and it feels worlds away, even though it’s an easy 20-minute drive.

Back at the monastery we had time to rest before heading out the gates again, this time for a walk to the abandoned village.  The area surrounding the monastery is indescribably beautiful.  With the cows, and the ponies, and the sunset over the wildflowers, the striking cypress trees and the stone ruins, it really is a place that belongs in paintings and songs. I have been taking lots of photos, but I know that once I see them on a computer screen I will be disappointed; there is no way that a camera can capture this.

That evening, Jamie gave her presentation about Byzantine chant, specifically music from the manuscripts of Prodromos.  There is so much history here at this monastery! The music manuscripts are beautiful to look at, and were nearly impossible for me to read.  Jamie helped us decipher the symbols, and explained the importance of these manuscripts in the world of Byzantine music.

Later that night was my first chance to have a conversation with some of the sisters.  I was amazed by the warmth and openness with which they encouraged our questions, about any aspect of their lifestyle.  We talked about the Jesus prayer, and psychology, and the role of the monastery in the community, and even the personal journeys that led some of the sisters to this mountain in Greece.  I found myself unable to stop asking questions, and they kindly put up with my inquisitiveness.  Of all the things I have seen and experienced this week, I will especially remember the conversations we’ve had.

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