A Side trip to the Monastery at Ormylia

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!
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Impressions from a Rushed Visit

by Nicholas Marinides

I arrived at Prodromos quite late, due to the need to attend
a wedding back in the States. I found myself in a somewhat strange position: as
a latecomer (and having only visited the monastery once before, four years ago,
and then only for a short time as well) I was not able to experience the
monastery life as intimately as my colleagues; but as a seasoned monastic
pilgrim and as a Greek-speaker, I was able to adjust to the monastery’s rhythms
more easily than them. But then again, as a man and as being much more familiar
with men’s monasteries, the visit to a women’s monastery was something
relatively unfamiliar.

The differences are of course apparent in the chanting:
instead of the deep full sound of an Athonite choir, “like the voice of many
waters,” there was the more ethereal and refined sound of women’s voices. I
also noticed it in the nuns’ account of their reaction to last winter’s fire
(which I heard second-hand from some of the students, not from the nuns
themselves). The event was deeply traumatic for them, and at the end of a
frightening and exhausting day of fire-fighting, they gathered together to weep
over the loss they had suffered. Such a catastrophe in a men’s monastery would
be as traumatic in its own way, but I suppose it would evoke a different kind
of emotional response. Lastly, if I had been at the monastery longer I would
have been able to converse more with the nuns and learn more about their
monastic experience; but as a man I would have felt obliged to maintain a
certain respectful distance and formality that would not be as necessary for
the women in our group.

As it happened, I was able to learn something from our group
conversation with Gerondissa Fevronia, where I served as translator, and by
speaking with her personally about my research for a bit afterward as the group
started moving back toward the library for our final talk. Here I met the
refreshing simplicity of monastic wisdom, which can overcome the limits of
gender. In speaking to Gerondissa, I heard the same kind of tranquil conviction
and insight that I have heard in the speech of Athonite elders. And I can
understand how that calm ascetical figure is a pillar of strength for the
community in the difficulties of the fire and its aftermath.

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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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Crossroads, Intersections and Kormos

by Jenn Morris

Today I have been preoccupied with thoughts of crossroads and intersections.  From making simple breakfast decisions (Should I pair my iced cappuccino with a slice of milk pie?  Nikos and Dimitri demand that I do.  Immediately.) to mulling over the nature of interactions between the monastery and the Serres community to considering future directions for the Menoikeion seminar, we Princetonians have much to contemplate during our time in Greece this year.  And we are realizing that shifting lifestyle habits and environments at Prodromos signal significant changes for our group and our understanding of how we fit into the monastic setting, academically and personally.  For those of us returning to the mountain for the second, third, or seventh time, these alterations in the social landscape are rather jarring, perhaps even painful.  While we all harbor some nostalgia for the Prodromos we once knew, however, we sense the nuns’ eagerness to move past last year’s tragedy and ourselves feel sparks of hope for what lies ahead.  In the end, we realize that the convent is an organism of sorts which adapts and continues to thrive despite having some of its limbs quite literally cut off.  The soul of Prodromos is alive and well, even as the heart of the community has been displaced and relocated.

Like all organisms, Prodromos is largely self-sufficient but relies to an extent upon other things and beings — an ecosystem delicately balanced between isolated enclosure and outreach to and from the town of Serres (and beyond).  This idea hit home with me during our early morning excursion to the Technological University of Serres (TEI), where we had kindly been invited to visit and tour during our week here.  Upon our arrival to the campus, we met with the rector and other officials of the university who informed us of the school’s mission and its ambitions to attract students globally.  We felt like local celebrities as a camera crew filmed our discussion and then interviewed members of our group, inquiring about our activities at the monastery and our impressions of Prodromos after the fire.  When someone asked Emily her opinion of locals’ reactions to the disaster and of the extent to which there should be governmental and civic contributions to the crisis, I realized that the monastery was not alone in standing at an intersection in deciding how to proceed:  from distant bureaucrats to local devotees and pilgrims, everyone seems to be looking at a giant question mark.  How do we find the funds to help the nuns?  How do we take appropriate measures to survey the damage and excavate whatever archaeological remnants we can recover?  How much of the previous structures should we attempt to preserve when there is a need and desire to fill in the empty spaces, and how do we make this happen responsibly,  conservation-wise?  As Matt Milliner, a longtime Prodromos veteran, wisely remarked, the history of churches and monasteries could easily be told in terms of fires.  These are the moments that define monuments and enable us, as later viewers, to discern their pasts and relive their stories.  Both monastery and community are at a serious juncture now, figuring out how the time, money, and design for repair will ultimately materialize.

Professor Zchomelidse’s lecture on notions of the numinous and its reproduction in Italo-Byzantine paintings brought us back to a different conception of crossroads after a very delicious lunch which left us in postprandial comas (as she herself remarked over a bowl of baked giant beans and fried zucchini flowers:  “After this, how can I go back to reality?”).  We listened as she talked about the ways in which West and East came together in medieval Italian art in the form of iconic paintings and the devotional and ritual practices which accompanied them — allowing us to contemplate what Xenophon and I like to call ‘icons in action.’  Besides offering an insightful overview of the subject which was particularly helpful for non-specialists like myself, Professor Zchomelidse’s lecture brought us to a fruitful discussion of the Menoikeion seminar’s history, purpose, and future goals at the monastery.  Although there are many decisions to be made about the direction of Princetonians’ involvement with the seminar and the way our research should proceed, what remains clear is that we very much value our time at the monastery and feel that our yearly congregations at Prodromos are an important part of our collective and personal development, both academically and socially.  We all feel that this is a time for responsibility, engagement, and leadership, and we must seriously reflect upon the shape that our project will take in the coming years.

Not all is tragedy and loss, however, and both the Princeton team and the nuns find many sunny moments each day.  I, for one, have made a personal study of the unusual and conspicuously large size of Serres pigeons, and have come to the conclusion that they are heftier because they enjoy too much of the famous local mpougatsa.  The nuns seem to be steering us towards a similar demise of waistlines, as they feed us impossible-to-resist meals and sweets which surely will result in our having to be rolled down the mountain in barrels by the end of the week (they happened to remember, for instance, that I have a special weakness for the indescribable creamy deliciousness called kormos, and insist that I have at least one or two per day).  And everyday tasks such as visits to the post office enable us to see the unique pace of Greek life in action, slow and steady and content.  Who wouldn’t like a place where you can get frappes delivered from the cafe next door while you wait in line to mail a package?

In the spirit of happy things, I shall end my note with a haiku:

Beautiful Serres
Kormos, frappes, mbougatsa
O delicious yum.

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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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Shifting Sacred Spaces: Prodromos Monastery after the Fire

by Emily Spratt

It was impossible to be prepared for the experience of returning to the monastery after so much destruction has occurred. While I expected the atmosphere to be riddled with grief after the loss of the most community-focused buildings, entering the sacred grounds on Mount Menoikeion was as vibrant and positive as it always has been, attesting to the shared strength of the nuns whose individual personalities vivify the monastery. Event though the very places which brought the members of the spiritual and secular communities together (the reception rooms, the kitchen, the refectory, and the abbess’s quarters) no longer exist, the social life of the monastery has shifted in accommodation to the structural losses.

Now the nuns gather with congregants from Serres on the side of the Katholicon and in the museum-library spaces. Although the changed use of the social space is jarring when expectations of the former meeting places are remembered, the same feeling of community already radiates from these new places with transforming functions. Just as the monks once utilized the refectory adjacent to the main church, the new social zones may actually be beginning to mimic older patterns of use. Indeed, the nuns have been long preparing the old dining spaces for re-use and although they were planning on moving the refectory and kitchen into this area in the near future, the destruction from the fire has made the completion of these plans urgently critical.

Until the refurbished refectory is complete, the nuns are resigned to cook and eat in the bakery building, which lies just outside of the monastery’s walls. While the bakery always was in harmonic operation with the monastery, it was distinctively outside of the walls. Now that the nuns prepare and eat their meals outside of the sanctioned sacred space, this perimeter has shifted accordingly. When I lay my sleepy head down for a minute after lunch on a wall that used to be considered within a secular zone, a nun was quick to remind me that I was still at the monastery. After we discussed the question of the monastery’s borders, the nun informed me that the community wished that they could move the gate above the bakery on the mountain as the sacred precinct now fully encompassed this area. The shifting sacred borders and new functions of space at Prodromos, after the fire, attest to the adaptability of the community in the face of a disaster and the complicated life cycle of a monastery.

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Blog for 2011 “After the Fire: Assessment, Reconstruction and Continuity”

The Seventh Mount Menoikeion Summer Seminar at Hagios Ioannes Prodromos Monastery
June 25-June 30, 2011
“After the Fire: Assessment, Reconstruction, and Continuity”

Director: Nikos Bakirtzis *06 (Art and Archeology)
Coordinators: Dawn LaValle (Classics) and Jamie Greenberg (Music)
Graduate Students: Jennifer Morris (Art and Archeology), Nick Marinides (History), Alex Petkas (Classics), Emily Spratt (Art and Archeology), Jaqueline Strum (Art and Archeology)
Princeton Faculty: Dimitri Gondicas, Nino Zchomelidse, Slobodan Curcic
Greek Archaeological Service Participant: Xenophon Moniaros

Our Princeton group has returned once again to the monastery that has become so dear to many of us, but with a significant difference this time–the loss sustained by the fire on December 13th which destroyed a large part of the south wing of the monastery complex.  As observers and friends we wanted to take the opportunity of this summer’s trip to  experience the loss and begin looking toward the future of the architectural life of the monastery, at once historic and contemporary.  This blog will recount impressions of the new realities of monastic life after the fire both from returning participants and also from those who have come to Prodromos for the first time.  Thank you for following along on our journey!

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