By Eleanor Wright
This morning John gave a presentation about pilgrimage–its history, its significance, and its connections with tourism–which got me thinking (as he probably hoped) about our journey to Prodromos Monastery. Pilgrimages promise to unite imagination with experience: you visit a holy site to have a real personal encounter with a place you met in a story. People seem to agree that coming into physical contact with something sacred is meaningful in a different–and perhaps deeper–way than contemplating it from afar; that conviction is what’s made pilgrimage so widespread.
And that conviction is certainly what brought me here. Having studied ancient Greece and early Christianity in an academic context, I was curious to find out how closely what I’d been picturing resembled reality (at least, the reality of Greek Orthodox monasticism). In most ways, it turns out, Prodromos is nothing like what I expected: when you’re sitting in Firestone researching icons and martyrs, you don’t think much about what language the nuns speak, what kind of food they eat (I tried the multivitamin-flavored juice today!), or the cows that wander around their parking lot. At the same time, there’s plenty I do recognize: liturgical practices I’ve read about, evidence of historical trends I’ve studied, images of familiar saints. I’ve encountered these things before, just in a different setting. Seeing them here, in their natural habitat, is sort of like running into your dentist at the grocery store.
I’m becoming increasingly aware, too, that being an outsider–a pilgrim–shapes my perception of the monastery. John talked about how manufactured many pilgrimage (and tourist) experiences are, and it makes sense that it would be difficult–maybe impossible–for a pilgrim to escape the role of spectator. We at Prodromos aren’t even trying to adopt the nuns’ perspective: we’re here for academic reasons, which is why we talk so much about things like Byzantine politics and rudimentary musical notation. At the same time, we really have entered the sisters’ world–a world delineated unambiguously by the monastery walls and reinforced by the clothes we wear, the rituals we witness, and the routines we follow. This afternoon, several of us walked to a nearby chapel where Dawn showed us a holy spring, and we each took a sip. Drinking from a holy spring isn’t something you do in religion class; nor can I say I believed in the water’s power the way a devoutly Orthodox visitor might. But I did want to drink it, and I did feel that it had some kind of significance. That complicated attitude made me realize the strangeness of being immersed in a world I don’t totally belong to.
And it’s strange that some of us belong to this world more than others. We all came to Mount Menoikeion from different academic and religious backgrounds; some are experiencing the monastery from a pretty secular perspective, while others are connecting in more spiritual ways. Before dinner, Anna, Natalie, Jamie, and I got a chance to talk with the Abbess, and I was struck by how diverse our questions were and how nimbly she hopped between religious and secular topics. One minute she was advocating unwavering trust in God; the next, she was listing the vegetables in the monastery garden. But I guess the point of monasticism is to integrate the exalted and the mundane: nuns repeat their prayers over and over as they do daily tasks, until gardening and God don’t feel separate at all.
This has turned into a rather meandering post, but the point is that I’ve been noticing some of the strange subtleties of the relationship between a pilgrim and a pilgrimage site–especially when the pilgrimage site is its own fully-functional ecosystem already inhabited by non-pilgrims. The complexities of pilgrimage felt especially salient during tonight’s “synaxis,” a celebration and performance and gift-exchange ritual we shared with the nuns. As we showed a PowerPoint of photos from the past four days, and as Jamie and Emily explained their Prodromos-related research, I saw the sisters nodding and smiling to signal their appreciation for the way we experienced the monastery. Several of us sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” in a round, and Nikos, a seminar veteran, performed virtuosically on his lyra. Even the non-monastic entertainment affected different audience members differently: most listeners knew Greek and recognized some of Nikos’s songs, while I just felt impressed by his artistry and intrigued by the exotic tradition it represented.
In sum, it’s fascinating to be in an environment where people are having so many obviously different levels and types of experiences. I guess this is a situation the nuns have to navigate regularly, interacting as they do with each other, with the laypeople from Serres, and even with tourists and visitors like us. But I’m less used to it, and I’ve come, over the past four days, to admire how easily it happens here.
I’ll end these pilgrim-themed musings by saying how much I’ve enjoyed the seminar and everything it entailed: learning about Byzantine history in a really dynamic, memorable way; observing and talking with the nuns, whose lives are so different from mine; and witnessing practices like the all-night liturgy, which was entirely new to me and extraordinarily beautiful. John’s pilgrimage talk included a discussion of the souvenirs pilgrims take from their destinations and the marks they leave behind; and, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I’ll say that I definitely feel I’ve established a bond with this place–a bond that might, if I’m lucky, bring me back again next summer.