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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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.

Prodromos2010 258.jpg

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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