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.

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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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Space for Thought

By Natalie Scholl

When trying to determine what to write about I wondered how on earth was I to narrow down our first 24 hours to just a few paragraphs? That is of course an absurd task to set oneself, so I must be content with sharing just a snippet. In reflection of my own response to the monastery, this snippet will revolve around senses and the soul.

We arrived at the monastery in the early evening, right at the time when the sun has started to sink beneath the hills and the first tinges of red appear against the landscape. Walking cautiously down the stone steps, we were immediately greeted with wonderful warmth by a couple of the nuns as we passed through the gates into the courtyard. For most of us it was our first experience, and Dawn and Jamie expressed a little envy at our virgin eyes devouring our first sight of the monastery.

The first moments through those gates were lovely. The scent of numerous flowers- roses, gardenias, geraniums, honeysuckle and many more- softly filled the air and mouth, and the sound of Vespers over the speakers combined with the rushing water from the stone fountains and an orchestra of summer insects. My first impression of the interior of the monastery was a compilation of smiling nuns, blossoming plants, frescoes, stone, and over all these the beautiful green slopes in the sunset.

During the first few hours in the monastery Psalm 23 kept coming to my mind:

The Lord is my Shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me,
In the presence of mine enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The bit of this that really was vivid to me was the line, “He restores my soul.” I realized that while entering the monastery is an incredible sensory experience, it is more than that. It is, for me at least, the rejuvenation of the soul. Passing through the gates is a passing into a peaceful oasis, and any worries or troubles cannot fit into these walls. At least, that is how I felt, and feel even now as I write this. The sense of stability contributes to such an atmosphere of tranquility. The jagged hole left by the fire, instead of drawing my attention towards fragility and the possibility of destruction, has done the exact opposite. It reminds me of tenacity, and strengthens the permanence of this place. To me, a visitor, there is a continuous calm. Even the structure of the compound, built on a rocky incline, necessitates a certain deliberation. The rest of the world feels as if it is rushing about in a mad frenzy in comparison. And of course the old question emerges of where exactly is it rushing?

Similar questions arose in my mind throughout the next day, and I contemplated these as I walked into the celebration of the Saints Peter and Paul that evening. While the service was very structured, I did not feel at all constrained, as people slowly filtered in throughout the night and everyone was free to move around- though of course the non-Orthodox among us could not enter the naos or receive communion. The singing, prayers, rotations of the chandelier with its candlelight glinting off the gold of the implements and icons, fragrance of the incense, and unhurried movements of the nuns and the priest all combined to create a rhythm. As the service progressed I could feel my entire body slow to match the gentle beat. There was no need to hasten.

Taking a rest, slowing the heartbeat of the Princeton lifestyle can be quite difficult, I’ve found. While so often I find myself and others at Princeton focusing on the challenges of multi-tasking and ultimate efficiency, it is in many ways more challenging to decrease our speed and do a task thoroughly and continuously but unhurriedly. It reminds me of Pascal and his perspective on how humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to be alone with his thoughts, and so he seeks to be constantly occupied. The monastery setting is ideal for meditation and reflection, and it is very curious to see what exactly my mind produces when all the dust settles.

I am very grateful for the opportunity this seminar presents, not only on an academic or interpersonal level, but also internally; the opportunity to close the windows to the outside world and simply settle our minds and spirits and examine what we find there.

And now for a Greek coffee and one of the nun’s homemade loukoumaki!

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