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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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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