Concluding Thoughts

By Matthew Milliner

Having now settled into our relatively hectic, post-Menoikeioin, reduced olive-count lives, our time on the mountain seems far away indeed.  The nuns continue in their rhythms, and we have returned to ours.  It was a successful year.  Upon our arrival we discussed the easily underestimated challenge of just being at the monastery.  We still, of course, had our difficulties this year (illness among them!), but it’s fair to say we succeeded in adjusting to the rhythms of monastic life this year more than any other.  The result, ironically enough, was a new academic momentum in our respective areas of research, which was especially reflected in our closing graduate and undergraduate meetings.

This experiment in blogging has, we hope, shed some light on life at Mount Menoikeion.  As oppose to “infiltrating” the monastery with technology, it is important to keep in mind that the nuns themselves are ahead of us in this regard, boasting their own impressive web site.

Thanks to all who participated this year either in person or by reading along, and please spread the word about this unique academic opportunity.


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Final Gathering

Our Director Nikos Bakirtzis converses with the Abbess during our “synaxis”, where we exchange gifts  with the nuns and encapsulate our time at the monastery.


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Peter and Paul

By Dawn LaValle

I spent the morning before the vigil of Sts. Peter and Paul meticulously cataloging the graffiti that centuries of pious pilgrims and casual visitors had etched on the walls of the church. Creating their own versions of saint-like figures, crosses, names, horses, birds, these unknowns had felt confidant enough to insert themselves into the row of staid frescoed saints adorning the long walls. Under the towering fresco of St. Anthony a crude graffitoed horseman galloped past the saint’s feet on his way off the wall, while further above a meticulous Greek hand had calmly written: “Saint Anthony, OUR Saint Anthony”. Their ease of possession made me jealous.

When I went back to the church that night for the evening liturgy celebrating the feast, without flashlight, camera, or tracing paper, all of these little things faded away, hidden in the shadows cast by the candles tucked around the corner in the brilliantly lit central space of the church. I was in shadows, with shadows behind me of the saints on the wall. And I was left feeling like I didn’t have a means to insert myself into the liturgy, into this experience of God, with any of the confidence felt by those 18th century graffiti writers. How could I, as a Catholic, participate in this strongly Orthodox place? The feeling of slight but persistent alienation had become normal to me by this point, especially during the liturgy. Tonight I felt disconnected as usual, trying to catch bits and pieces of the Greek, just as I was trying to catch bits and pieces of a view into the nave, a space that I have been politely excluded from as a non-Orthodox.

From the spot where I stood in the side room of the church, the only thing I could see clearly was the monastery’s beloved icon of the Deposition of Christ. After Jesus is lifted down from the cross, his mother clasps her dead child to her with such fierceness that their bodies seem to form one shape. At my oblique angle I could see the chanting nuns, who were separated from me by a thick wall, reflected in the icon glass. One my one, the faithful approached the icon to kiss Christ and his Mother, unwittingly also kissing the reflected faces of the nuns. I was jealous of their ease of possession too.

The distance I felt was particularly frustrating because I had come to church that night with a strong desire to celebrate the feast well. My special affinity for the feast had begun six years earlier while spending a summer in Rome. On June 29th, 2004, I participated in the Papal mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. It was a momentous day: the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, had come to celebrate Rome’s patronal feast with Pope John Paul II. They stood together on the altar for half of the mass, reading from the Old and New Testaments, reciting the Creed together, a sign of hope for the eventual reunion of the churches. Ever since that day, I have held the feast as a particular feast for Orthodox and Catholics, for the hope of unity. But apparently this year I wasn’t going to be allowed to enter into the feast in the way I had hoped, with happy and easy participation.

As the liturgy progressed, a slow realization grew, and a frisson ran through me as I looked up to see that I had unintentionally chosen to stand in the spot directly under the icons of Sts. Peter and Paul, the two saints facing each other and firmly supporting a model of the church between them. Gazing quietly at each other on the wall, you would never think that there had been the most heated of disagreements between these two men, now ironed and soothed in the memory of time and art. The only thing left was the necessary and mutual support they lent to the church. My shadow flickered among their shadowy figures, leaping up to join the row. Not by bold graffiti, then, nor by kisses, could I participate, but in this unbidden way, in the flickering shadow that would be gone as soon as the last candle was extinguished. It was enough, and I was grateful for it.

As my shadow leapt over the figure of St. Paul, I decided to intentionally bring out of my memory each of my Orthodox friends one by one, and raise them before God in thanksgiving and petition. Why had God guided my life to be so closely entwined with Orthodoxy without myself being part of it? Why had I so often been required to hold up a mystery of friendship with people who thought that I was wrong and misled? Perhaps to teach me nothing more and nothing less than that friendship is meant to be a true site of ecumenism, the most immediate instantiation of the dialogue of charity. Perhaps to remind me that disagreement need not lead to the destruction of love.

I consider it a special grace to have been able to celebrate the feast of these two pillars of the Church for the last two years as a Catholic in an Orthodox monastery, surrounded by the welcoming hospitality of the sisters, while at the same time constantly reminded of the distance that still remains between us. May we be granted the grace be a faithful reflection of the icon of Peter and Paul, bearing up the Church between us, despite our differences. And may I in the meantime rest content to remain outside of the nave, my surest connection the maternal embrace of the broken body of Christ.

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Cypresses and Sorrow

By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

34054_1334166794066_1227930165_30806581_836252_n.jpgWe wake every morning to rows of cypresses, the tall Mediterranean trees that stretch like church spires against the low bushes and olive groves that sprinkle the mountain. Circles of trees embrace the monastery, spreading down to the terraced garden and around the funerary chapel. From the height of the mountain, near the caves where we hiked on Monday, the complex’s isolation became even more apparent, tucked into the folds of mountains inhabited mostly by cows, goats and stray cats. The cypresses are an entryway, marking the edges of a secluded holy space. But they also symbolize the tangled emotion that exists within the monastery’s walls, where a vibrant community must grapple daily with the memories and realities of pain, hardship, grief and death.

This sounds dramatic. But one of the most surprising aspects of our time in the monastery, at least for me, has been the way that grief and death are wrapped into the fabric of the everyday. On a previous trip to Greece, with Professor Luijendijk’s class on the Apostle Paul (also, I should note, sponsored by the Hellenic Studies program), we noticed the omnipresence of death in our museum excursions, simply because a large slice of the artifacts from antiquity were found in tombs. And death was certainly a subject of great concern for Paul and the early Christ-believers, for whom it meant the beginning of a new life.

This emphasis on mortality is no less important for the nuns, who think about their own deaths constantly. On a tour through the ossuary and funerary chapel, I was shocked to see open graves, ready to hold the next nuns to pass away. The ossuary is full of the meticulously preserved bones of thousands of monks who at one time inhabited the monastery, rendering death strangely sanitary. For the nuns, death is a fact of life. And for Western, non-monastic visitors like me, that ability to embrace the reality of both death and grief is at once disturbing and deeply honest.36680_1334170634162_1227930165_30806605_4258289_n.jpg

The cypresses are particularly striking examples of the pervasiveness of these themes. Traditionally, cypresses are trees of mourning. In Greek mythology, they were named for Cyparissus, a youth who accidentally killed his beloved stag and, heartbroken, prayed to Apollo to be allowed to grieve forever. Apollo transformed the boy into a cypress tree, so that he would always be present for others’ grief, and even today, cypresses are planted around cemeteries.

Although our visit to the ossuary was perhaps our most blatant encounter with death (it’s still hard for me to imagine the work of the nuns who, finding a disorganized ossuary full of the bones of thousands of monks, cleaned every skull with a toothbrush and organized them on shelves), the most difficult moments came in the church. The chapel of St. Nicholas, with its overwhelming mishmash of frescoes, brought me near tears twice, with two fading images of Christ, as an adult and a child. The first was a traditional eleousa, painted above the arcosolium where Eleni’s bones were buried, a simple image of baby Jesus with his face pressed close to his mother’s; the second, Christ crowned with thorns, his face twisted in deep suffering. I stood for long moments in front of both, attempting to absorb the depth of the loss and grief in both frescoes.

In the second, Christ’s face melts with grief. Tucked into a corner of the sanctuary, his closed eyes and emaciated chest are illuminated by a shaft of light from the window, which reflects off the shards of gold in his faded halo. Looking at this image, it’s impossible to avoid what is so extraordinary about Christ’s life and death: that God came to earth in human form, and not only preached but suffered, embracing all of the joy and sorrow that comes with mortal embodiment. Christ’s vulnerable, suffering body allows us to look straight at grief; I saw myself in the pale fresco, hidden among the copious images of saints and angels that vied for space in the main sanctuary.

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The other image, placed discreetly above the arcosolium that holds Eleni and her daughters, was no less heartbreaking. Mary and Christ embrace, their hands wrapped around each other’s bodies, their faces cheek to cheek. The tiny Christ, with his strange, adult face, looks up into his mother’s eyes, but it’s Mary’s expression that holds the viewer, drawing us into the grief that is to come. Her tragic visage foreshadows yet another image that transfixed me: the icon displayed in the sanctuary of the main church, depicting the deposition of Christ. Here, Mary caresses his dead body, her face dissolving with anguish. In the fresco in the upstairs chapel, Christ, held tightly in his mother’s embrace, is still alive, but the truth echoes through Mary’s face: she has already lost him. Painted in a time when death was a likely outcome from childbirth, above the bones of a woman and her daughters, the pain in Mary’s face strikes more deeply than a photograph. Her suffering could be any mother’s, and Christ could be any child.

Talking later with Isabelle, who was moved to tears by the icon in the sanctuary, we were both struck by one of Matt’s characteristically insightful connections between the image and a letter that Nikos had just described to us. Around the turn of the century, violence was erupting in the nearby village of Lakos, which was later devastated and abandoned. A visitor to the monastery recalled his revulsion at the sight of bodies after the conflict; returning to the church, he wrote of his admiration for the icon, noting the exquisite rendering of Mary’s anguished face. To see this icon of suffering after the real horror of war, Matt pointed out, is to recognize the universality of images and stories like these. Standing in the church, or among the tall rows of cypresses, or inside the ossuary and funerary chapel, we can’t evade the realities of grief in our own lives.

But strangely enough, amid all of these seemingly morbid thoughts and images, the nuns are able, daily, to extend extraordinary generosity to strangers. By recognizing the imperfectability of the world, they can allow these thoughts to inhabit but not consume them. I’m grateful, thus, for yet another surprisingly illuminating gift from my time in this space: observing the nuns’ ability to love unconditionally, combined with their honest gaze into the frightening and the uncertain, has given me a new way to look at sorrow.

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Identifying a Focal Point

By Reginald Galloway

Prodromos2010 006.jpgIn anthropology, the term “focal point” refers to “a central location place in the fieldsite where ideas, artifacts, or people converge" (p. 501).  As a student entering this culture from an "etic," or outsider’s, perspective it has been challenging to identify the monastery’s focal point. At first glance, I believed that the institution’s church served as its focal point. This would be an appropriate focal point as the majority of the monastery’s rituals occur within the church’s sanctuary. Additionally, the church houses the majority of the monastery’s material culture, which the nuns, priests, and visitors utilize on a daily basis in order to worship. An example of this practice occurs every Sunday as families enter the church and venerate the saints in the form of icons.

This past Sunday, I was privileged to witness the baptism of a newborn baby boy in the church. The baptism began at outside of the church in the portico and progressed inside to the structure’s center where the baby was dipped into the baptismal pool thrice (one time for each person of the Holy Trinity). Following the baby’s initiation, the baptismal audience, which included the baby’sProdromos2010 053.jpg immediate and extended families, return to the portico for a brief reception. This event is evidence of the church’s role as a focal point within the monastery; however, it also exemplifies the monastery’s role as a focal point – a central point of convergence for Serres’ religious community. The Hagios Ioannis Prodromos Monastery is an essential element of many individuals’ religious narratives as they were baptized inside the church, come to the liturgy each Sunday, and receive spiritual guidance from the Abbess. Case in point, I observed a good amount of socialization amongst the monastery’s various visitors before, during, and after the Abbess’ “name day.” In Orthodox culture, a community celebrates an individual’s “name day” which is the feast day of the given saint for which he or she was named. After the abbess’ name day liturgy, the monastery’s hundreds of guests socialized with one another and were treated to snacks and meals by the nuns.

As I have identified the church and monastery itself as focal points, I am compelled to suggest one other possible focal point: The Hagios Ioannis Prodromos community. I believe that the abbess, nuns, workers, worshippers, and other visitors who compose the monastery’s community are in fact a living focal point. It is the community that has restored, utilized, and maintained this space for years. Furthermore, the community holds the monastery’s institutional knowledge and oral history which will be transmitted to future generations. It has never occurred to me that people could serve as focal points – but this type of enlightenment is what makes this experience so unique.

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Rainbow Arrival

Our professors literally arrived to a rainbow over Mount Menoikeion, and our seminar moved into its workshop phase, featuring faculty lectures.

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Cave Quest

By Isabelle Puckette

In the 13th century, Ioannikios, nobleman of Serres turned monk of Mount Athos, received a letter, communicating that his two year old nephew, Ioannes, had been orphaned. With the adopted responsibility of caring for the child came Ioannikios’ decision to become an ascetic in a cave on Mount Menoikeion. The cave that Ioannikios and Ioannes inhabited together overlooks a series of additional caves, including the Metamorphosis Cave, where monk and child temporarily moved to before descending further and establishing Prodromos Monastery in the 1270’s. These caves are visible from the monastery– as we have been studying here this past week, their entrances have lured us, beckoning us to try and reach.

We had initially hoped to hike up to the founder’s cave, a challenge dubbed The Megahike, but road conditions and the abbess’ warning encouraged us to revise our plan. Instead, we set our eyes on cliff.jpgthe Metamorphosis Cave. After breakfast this morning, a group of us began the ascent.

Up we climbed, a bit dangerous at times, making our way through thorned bushes that scratched our clothes and skin, trying our best to avoid the avalanching rocks and slipping dirt. It became clear very quickly that "path" was too optimistic a label for our passage up. Instead, we constantly searched for the easiest way to continue in the direction we believed to be correct. We came upon three snakes on our way.

Finally, we reached where we believed we would find the Metamorphosis Cave. Emily, who happens to have intensive training in back country hiking, scouted for us. Up she climbed, investigating the mountain side hidden behind tall bushes. There was nothing there but a looming slab of rock.

Our group collapsed on the rocks nested in the mountain side, beginning to worry about how in the world we would get back down. One of us had fallen twice, caught from tumbling down the mountain by the thorned bushes, and that was on the ascent. But as we commiserated, Nebojsa, analyzing the terrain, offered his theory on the location of the cave. Matt scouted ahead in the direction indicated by Nebojsa and indeed found a cave. Not the Metamorphosis Cave it turned out, but we were getting close.

cave.JPGAfter exploring the cave Matt had sighted, whose floor had many large skittering black insects, we continued onward, helping each other along the rocks of the mountain side until we reached Bat Cave (so named for its current inhabitants). It was an ominous and dark opening. Some of us ventured in for a bit, finding goat bones lying in the bat guano.

And then further around a bend, we finally reached the Metamorphosis Cave. Professor Luijendijk commented that the cave looks like a church. The walls climb upward to form a high ceiling, a serene chapel hidden inside the mountain. We found the remains of frescos along the sides of the cave, and outside, we saw the crevice where ascetics would light candles at night which could be seen from by the monks of Prodromos. Amelia turned to me and said, "I think I’ll stay here and become an ascetic. That way I won’t have to make the hike back down."

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PBS in Philippi

As we listened to Professor Raboteau at the Baptistry of Lydia in Philippi, our group was interviewed by PBS for an upcoming documentary on the Pauline missionary journeys.36911_1335731193175_1227930165_30810224_7956054_n.jpg

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