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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