Bones Before Bodies

By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Reading on a bench under a bank of jasmine in the courtyard a few days ago, I watched one of the nuns beat mattresses while others greeted delivery men, chatted with tourists, and walked up and down the cascading stone steps with baskets of laundry. Threads of female voices filtered through the kitchen windows, mixing with the smell of simmering okra. I kept looking up from my book to talk or to check the time; after an early-morning breakfast, I was starving. I talked to the nun beating the mattresses about Texas, her birthplace, and we discussed the bow on my sun hat (the hats they wear in the garden, she explained, would never have such decoration). Except for in the kitchen after dinner, where for the past few nights I have been helping dry the scads of dishes that emerge after every meal, I felt closer to the center of the monastery’s daily life than ever before. I was content to sit, to read, and write a few pages in my journal. It was easy to belong.

Later that day, I learned that the spot where I had chosen to read had more significance than I realized. Surrounded by a confident, compelling community of women, it’s hard to imagine the monastery’s all-male past in any concrete way. Unlike the frescoes in the church, where layers of history are fully visible, I need to be given tangible reminders of what this past means, or its deeply gendered roots can easily evaporate. The bench brought me squarely back to earth, when Nikos, our program director, mentioned that in the early twentieth century, this was as far into the monastery as women could go. They could speak with the monks, and even ask them for spiritual advice, but they couldn’t enter the monastery’s holy center – they weren’t allowed near the church, or the parts of the monastery where the monks lived and prayed. In the monastery’s typikon, women, except for royalty who are permitted to enter the monastery to worship and then leave, are expressly banned. It was striking to realize that the bench where I had so comfortably sunned myself would until only recently have represented the marginality of my relationship to the monastery’s core.

DSCN1331.JPGThis doesn’t mean, though, that women are absent from the most sacred spaces. Indeed, the bodies of a few women are permanently ensconced within the church’s walls. After clambering up to the second-floor chapel (a serious feat in a floor-length dress), I was overwhelmed by the intensely frescoed walls, depicting everything from four terrifying Blake-esque winged beings to an elaborate tableau of Christ’s birth, complete with a disconsolate Joseph in the bottom corner (more about this chapel to come). In the midst of this sensory overload, it was easy to overlook an alcove fresco of Mary and Christ, until we learned that the alcove was in fact an arcosolium, containing the bones a woman and her two daughters. The woman was Eleni, the sister of the despot from Serres who had died during the plague; her body had first been buried and then her bones exhumed and placed in the chapel’s walls. It’s hard for us to know whether Eleni was one of the few women who were allowed in the monastery during this period, but her presence was a reminder of a crucial element of what must have been a tenuous relationship: women were monastic patrons, too.

The constant presence of Mary, gazing down from domes and walls, is another complication. Can the veneration of Christ’s mother redeem a history of gendered exclusion? Or does it simply, as some Roman Catholic scholars of Mariology have pointed out, reinforce essentializing the visions of motherhood and womanhood that helped marginalize women in the first place? What does it mean for the nuns to cover their bodies, to request that we dress modestly, and to remove mirrors from the monastery? And how should I feel about the fact that women are far more welcome than men in the monastery’s kitchen?

These are hard questions, with no definite answers. And certainly, confronted with this living monastery, it’s impossible to apply theoretical principles only seem absolute on paper. Does it matter that the nuns can’t perform a liturgy without a male priest to lead them? Absolutely. Can their community still represent an empowered group of women who have performed an incredible feat in bringing this monastery back to life? Of course. Devotional women embody many contradictions that do not fit neatly into the paradigms created by mainstream, secular feminism, but that’s why communities like these can be such a crucial site for learning – they challenge the patterns and predispositions into which we fall so easily.

For now, I’m left to struggle with this fact: women’s bones were part of the walls of the monastery’s church long before their living bodies.

But today, that fact is very hard to tell.

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A Greek American in Greece

By Vasiliki Anagnostopoulos

Prodromosinterior2.jpgOver the last couple of days I have experienced a whirlwind of excitement—liturgies, meals, hikes, lectures, and of course, “tech lab” time. We began learning about the history and customs of the monastery through enlightening lectures given by the more experienced graduate
students. As most of us have been accustomed to learning in a classroom, this experience is truly unique and stimulates both our minds and well as our bodily senses. As we learn about the history of the monastery, we are able to immerse ourselves in this holy atmosphere and see, touch, taste, smell, and hear things that we would never be able to experience otherwise. Nebojsa, one of the graduate students, revealed his knowledge about the world of narthexes as we stood in the very areas he was discussing. Physically being in the area being discussed allowed for a deeper understanding of the material being studied. As Nebojsa explained how the narthexes could have been arranged and their possible purposes, we were able to observe the evidence and follow the logic behind his conclusions.

As a Greek-American, I am more familiar with the customs, food, and language than most of the other students, which to my surprise has led me to have a different experience than I had imagined. Attending Greek Orthodox liturgies, eating Greek food, and speaking Greek have all been part of my life since I was born and many of the activities I encountered here were familiar to me. However, interacting with other students of diverse backgrounds in this environment was a treat because it led to some fascinating realizations.


Prodromoschapelmountain.jpgYesterday, for example, a group of us trekked across mountains and even encountered a snake while attempting to reach a small church in the rocks just a couple of miles away from the monastery.  Upon arriving at this church, my first instinct was to cross myself before entering the sacred space. As we all investigated the inside, a student asked if he could enter the space behind the templon to take some pictures. Without hesitation I reminded them that this was not allowed. My understanding of the customs associated with the church have enabled me to reinforce our leaders’ directives to be respectful of sacred places – namely the sanctuary space behind the iconostasis – where only select people are allowed to go.  As the days pass by, I am discovering more and more about myself that I never noticed before and I, as well as my fellow classmates, are coming to a better understanding of the history and reasoning behind the customs of the Greek Orthodox Church that we were previously unaware.

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Image of Eden

By Kate Hope Kennedy

These first few days, as we have adjusted to Greek time and monastic rhythms, we have met in various locations inside and outside the monastic complex for walking seminars combining cultural history, art history, contemporary religious practice, liturgical studies, etc. It has been one of the few truly interdisciplinary scholarly experiences I have had. With experts and inquirers on hand at all times, the line between seminar, frappe hour, dinner and casual discussion is blurred. One of our first activities together as a seminar was a hike to Lakos, a deserted village a couple miles north of Prodromos. The contrasts between this village and the monastery were striking. Finally abandoned in the 1970s, Lakos bears the marks of Ottoman rule and intense attack during the Balkan wars. In contrast, Prodromos’ exceptional status during both of these periods is apparent by its very existence, not to mention the original frescos, the dome which was forbidden for Orthodox churches during the Ottoman Empire, and its reception of important political figures during times of turmoil.

Prodromos2010 149.jpgWhen we returned to through the gates the monastic complex, it struck me that we entered an image of the Garden of Eden. The lush green of the trees and flowers planted around the complex, the bright white-washed walls of the courtyard, the brilliant blues of the frescos on the chapel and the stones gathered together for walkways, walls and seating areas bring order and beauty to the chaos of the wilderness just outside these walls. The arrangement of the complex does not follow the kind of unified form we might expect, but rather it grew organically from the center of monastic life, the church — expanding into the landscape and building on top of existing layers to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the community. One of the questions we have been asking for the last few days is how to maintain this organic unity in the process of restoration. How can the interests of scholars be united with the needs of the working community here? Despite our retreat to the Byzantine “ivy tower,” the fortress where we hold seminars which was recently restored without any modern conveniences, the nuns constantly remind us that these spaces serve practical and spiritual purposes that sometimes conflict with historical interests.

36005_1333398894869_1227930165_30805356_2889725_n.jpgDuring our seminar on the liturgy, Jamie highlighted for us the organic growth of the liturgy throughout church history, extending to incorporate new prayers and hymns in response to the needs of the people. Like the complex of Prodromos too, the liturgy establishes order amidst the chaos of life. In monastic tradition, each day is ordered by the Divine Office and Liturgy: morning, noon and night. Each week is ordered by the rememberence of Christ’s death and resurrection. Each year turns through the life of Christ and his saints from birth to death. And today we walked through the places ordering the various stages of life – from birth in baptism in the narthex, through nourishment by the Eucharist, and finally to rest in the ossuary. These rituals establish a sacred order to life, time and ultimately to history, investing every aspect of life with theological significance. It is a privilege to observe this alternative temporality for a short time.

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The Other Internet

By Matthew Milliner

Around midnight in the moon-lit cobblestone courtyard of the Prodromos Monastery at Mount Menoikeion, a student and I were sitting outside taking advantage of the wifi signal that we’ve managed, somewhat ambivalently, to install.  A solitary nun walked by with her prayer beads, and gently asked what we were doing.  After explaining what we were up to, she smiled and said in a light Greek accent, while gesturing to the sky, "I’m trying to access the other internet."

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The Team (so far)

The mountain green  was so vivid that we had to take our first team photo.  Emily, Jenn, the Professors and Dimitri and Carol are still en route.  Anna, to the far right, is a local from Serres who has joined us for our seminars.  37366_405249097465_510177465_4805811_890908_n.jpg

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Choosing to Stand

By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I worshiped this morning with my knees, my calves, and the balls of my feet. Standing at the back of the church, I watched the women in high heels and dared myself to match their (somewhat inexplicable) fortitude. I should be able to do it: my shoes, cheap cloth mary janes, were still not the four-inch wedges sported by a woman holding a baby. I saw her ankles wobble a few times, and watched another woman’s calf muscles tense and strain as she shifted her weight from one foot to another, invoking the intimate bond with the space that I was surprised to feel: I was uncomfortable. And although other churchgoers’ muscles may have been more inured than mine to the sensation of standing on hard stone for an hour and a half, I suspect that they were too.

There is a peculiar unity to the knowledge that your physical engagement with a space is happening in the same way as the stranger standing ahead of you. Your knees have the same dull ache; your noses breathe in the same incense; your ears absorb the same chanting. This happens, of course, dozens of times on any given day, and I’ve never felt a particular connection to the peo830847412_640c7a1df9_m.jpgple next to me on the elliptical machine, just because we’re exercising the same muscles, or the other people walking through a garden, by virtue of a shared smell. But there was something about the combination of all of this shared physicality – and the fact that it involved some physical discomfort – that transformed the liturgy this morning into something larger than my individual experience.

This may also be due to the non-participatory nature of the liturgy itself; although there is near-constant music, the congregation does not sing, nor are there responsive readings, or any of the staples of a Roman Catholic or Protestant service. The most holy moment of the ritual takes place behind a curtain. And although the worshipers’ interactions with the icons allowed for more movement throughout the course of the service (the children who ran in and out of the church, tugging on their parents’ clothes and giggling to themselves, helped too), the engagement that I feel in other services through singing or kneeling or exchanging signs of peace was happening, literally, inside my calves.

This is all to say: I understood for the first time why the faithful (and, of course, those who are able) choose to stand during Orthodox services, even in high heels. Constant reminders of our physical embodiment are crucial to worship and to human unity in general, in part because of their intense inexpressibility. As Virginia Woolf once observed, far more articulately than I ever could: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or the headache…The merest schoolgirl as she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”

The (very slight) pain that I felt this morning, though, was of the healing kind. It reminded me of the vulnerability of my body, but also of its strength. And, more importantly, it bonded me to the bodies of everyone standing around me, without sharing a language, a culture, or even fundamental religious beliefs. Later that morning, I helped the nuns clear away the scads of tiny cups strewn across the tables by the congregation, who stayed to chat and eat bread and drink the strong Greek coffee, and felt the same connection that comes with collective physical labor. I think there will be no lack of these intimate connections during these two weeks.

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First Impressions

By Sarah Lynch

We arrived on Mount Menoikeion to the sound of prayer.  Struggling down the hill with luggage and backpacks, there was a pause, a moment of disorientation as the motor of the bus died in the distance and the Greek chants echoed off the stone walls.  For those of us here for the first time, there was a moment of wonder, and apprehension, of being so far from the familiar – language, custom, habits, and manners.


In reality we are merely a fifteen minute drive from Serres, a small city in Northern Greece, but the Prodromos Monastery seems more distant in both time and space.  Going up the mountain is truly a trip into a sacred, and other, space.  But the nuns are gracious, and greet us wish smiles, genuine affection, and even English.  The fundamentals of being human are, it turns out, universal, and with a generosity of spirit that is apparent in every interaction, the sisters of Mount Menoikeion welcome us into their community.  To make us feel more at home, our first meal is ‘comfort food’ for Americans, that is spaghetti, and afterwards some of us help with the dishes.

In the courtyard after dinner, we stay talking until late, getting to know each other, and trying to get a feel for the monastic life.  A thunderstorm is only soothing noise, and waking the next morning at the call to prayer seems natural.  In observing the liturgy, and more remarkably, the activity of the church (my first Orthodox service ever), I am even a bit overwhelmed by the sense of community that pervades this space.  There are numerous young families, and the Greek tolerance for other activities during the liturgy, such as candle lighting, private prayer, and venerating icons, seems better suited to the active young children in the congregation than the usual western model, and it only seems to add to the beauty of the singing rather than distract from it.

My impressions thus far have been sketchy and preliminary, as this environment and way of life are entirely new to me.  I have admired the scenery, observed solemn ritual, eaten unbelievably well, and rested.  I hope what the coming days will bring me is a better understanding of the life here, and a better relationship with the remarkable women who make up the Prodromos monastery.

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mixed feelings about the internet

internet The team has settled in and is getting along famously.  We stayed up late last night talking with the nuns, and fell asleep to the rumble of a distant mountain thunderstorm.    For the first time in the history of our Seminar, we have internet access on Mount Menoikeion (not to mention bathrooms in the same building where we sleep).  The news of a successful wireless connection spread through our team with excitement, but we’re not sure how we feel about this.   It will (and already has) helped us with our research.  Dawn just emailed an Arabic graffito to a friend for help with translation.  In addition, we now won’t have to travel to Serres as often.  On the other hand, will this lead to a new level of distraction?  We’re going to do our best to ensure it does not.

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Researchers and Reliquaries Bound for Greece

3758729188_1f4ccb7941_b.jpgBy Matthew Milliner

As we in Princeton pack our bags to head to Mount Menoikeion for the 2010 Seminar, which starts in less than a week, a piece of Mount Menoikeion is itself being packed up in Princeton to head back to Greece as well.  For the last several months, Princeton has hosted the Architecture as Icon exhibition, where the first piece on display was a beautiful reliquary (kivotion) in the form of a domed church.  The reliquary dates to 1613, and is in the form of the main dome of the katholikon of the Prodromos Monastery (depicted to the left).  The dome we saw as part of an exhibition will soon be right outside our bedroom windows!

As the catalog explains, this reliquary (on loan from the Benaki Museum in Athens) was made by a nobleman named Demetrios in 1613, who both donated sacred vessels to the monastery, and sponsored the construction of a monastery infirmary.  But this level of involvement was not sufficient for Demetrios, and he soon withdrew to Mount Menoikeion to become a monk himself, taking the monastic name David. 

Perhaps there is a distant similarity between Demetrios’ seventeenth century experience at Menoikeion and our own in the twenty-first century. Demetrios went from an initial involvement (financial gifts) to a deeper engagement (taking up residence at the monastery).  We are, of course, researchers, not monks or nuns.  But like Demetrios, we too are going from initial involvement (seeing a depiction of the monastery in an exhibition) to a deeper engagement (inhabiting the monastery itself). 

Stay tuned for live updates from the Mount Menoikeion!


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