Sunday, 22 March 2015

Up into the mountains

I wonder if you’ve heard of Simoen Stylites? He was a Monk of the Syria who, as part of his spiritual discipline, lived at the top of a ‘tower’. Having been sought out over many years for his spiritual wisdom, but desirous of time and space to continue to deepen his relationship with God, living atop a tower was the place for him to gain the distance he needed. It may well seem an odd existence (an indeed a quite mad one one!) to many people in our own age. Spiritual discipline that invites/requires forms of asceticism that mirror our forebears in faith is not something explored much today. If it is explored, it is seen as ‘foreign’, ‘strange’, anachronistic and ‘of another age ‘.

Even though asceticism may not be something explored by many in the way in which they practise their faith (and no, giving up chocolate doesn’t really count as asceticism!), I think it would be fair to say that for many there is an interest, a fascination even, with people whose faith does have some form of external expression of note. Priests in clerical collars may be stared at – as are Monks and Nuns in habits (I know this from personal experience as, in both my habit when I was a Nun and when wearing my clerical collar travelling in Israel and Turkey, I have had people stop me to take my photograph!) In similar fashion in which Uniforms are noted – Police, Nurse, Air Steward – people notice religious ‘dress’, and even more so the places in which people of faith reside/practise their faith.

Cathedrals, Mosques, Synagogues, Temples are all places many Tourists will visit when travelling abroad. St Paul Cathedral in London, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Temple in Neasden – as well as countless places across the globe, are visited by those who want to see, to experience, to understand something of what these places have been in the past, and are now. The wise will stand/sit/kneel/wander and simply gaze in wonder at what each place holds – of beauty and of prayer. Some may ask questions such as, Why this place? Why here? Why then? Why still now? And, of course, the question, “What can I learn?” should always be in the mix somewhere. (I say so, anyway!)

A visit to the ‘City of Meteora’ is one such place to which thousands flock – fascinated by the Monasteries that sit atop slender rocky formations. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the six Greek Orthodox Monasteries are reached by perilously winding roads that weave their way round the surrounding mountains – rising increasingly higher with each bend. The mountains used to be under the sea many, many thousands of years ago. It was a quite amazing feeling to realise that what we were looking at used to be part of an under-water world and there are structures like these under water now – ones that, perhaps, have never and will never be seen in my life time.

The views from the coach windows were breath-taking (and nausea-inducing for those of us who don’t ‘do’ heights! The sheer drops from the sides of the roads were more marked than the drive up to the Monastery of John the Forerunner as these were sheer drops with little that would have saved us. Oh my!) Across the yawning gaps between the mountains were glimpses, first far in the distance and then coming closer, of buildings seeming to stand amidst one another, only to be revealed as individual buildings each atop its own needle-like rock pointing up to the sky.
Each one is quite stunning to look at, not only for the way in which each building seems to grip to top of its needle, but also for the way in which is causes one truly to wonder at the ingenuity of the countless generations of faithful people who have, quite literally, made their home here. Beginning by making makeshift shelters, perhaps in natural caves our rocky outcrops, now each Monastery has running water and electricity. The line that has been going through my mind over these past days is, Necessity is the mother of invention. The desire and the call to be alone with God brought men and women to these amazing places of natural solitude and isolation, and here they created these place of wonder. Quite wonderful. Quite amazing. Quite stunning.

We visited two of the Monasteries: St Stephanos and Holy Trinity. After the coach ride, St Stephanos is reached via many, many steps on staircases open to the elements – apart from one small ‘corridor’ cut right through the rock. It’s was a good work out for the legs – and heart – with any need to pause and catch ones breath being met by virtue of a small ‘balcony’ in which housed a lovely ‘grotto’ on which were placed the ubiquitous coins and curios of various pilgrims (and tourists) to this place.
Continuing on up, the entrance to the Monastery was reached via a small door which opened into a ‘corridor’ in which there was a kiosk for someone to take our money to enter (3 euro). There was also the other end of the cable car system which is used by the community for transporting heavy items, as well as members of the community who are unwell. I should also mention the basket of wraps for women wearing trousers – so that they would seem to be wearing a skirt instead. (I am saying nothing…)

Moving onwards and upwards takes the visitor past the old Carpentry Shop, the Catacomb (more anon) and up to the Church, surrounded by other buildings such as the Museum and Gallery – as well as, presumably, the Community areas.

Photographs of the interior of the Church are not allowed, alas. This is no bad thing though as not being able to take photographs means a) the crowd move a bit faster and, more importantly, b) you have to take more care in looking in order to really ‘see’. Although it was relatively dark inside the main body of the Church, the images of the life of Jesus and the depictions of the Saints on the walls could be seen quite clearly, and the gold which adorned each of them created delightful adornment to what was already a spiritual and artistic feast to the eye. The Church was crowded, but there was a hush amidst us all. Our Guide explained the various painting we could see, and the importance of the way in which they were configured – with Christ Pantocrator above all, moving on to the Angels in all their Orders, the Saints, Creation, perhaps… and the inclusion of a form of Doom Painting was there too – with the ‘beast’ of temptation drawing souls away from Christ and into the fiery furnace. There was much graphic detail in the torture and deaths of many Saints in the Narthex, and the vividness of representation continued on into the main body of the Church. The faithful, the curious, the artist, the tourist – all are gathered together with necks craned upwards, surrounded by serried ranks of angels, Saints, sinners. Some of these were just like us, we mirror one another – with the hope and promise of redemption held out to us all.

Following the visit to the Church there was time to explore the Monastery a little further: there were rooms filed with illuminated manuscripts and papers from many, many centuries ago. There were vestments with beautiful embroidery – and also, quite bizarrely, a Gallery of Propaganda Art relating to the Second World War. And then there was the Catacomb.
To those who follow his Rule, St Benedict offers the injunction, Keep death daily before your eyes. Well, here in the Monastery, they don’t follow the Rule of St Benedict, but they could easly have lifted this injunction from it. Stored in a room for all to see as they pass by, are the skulls (and other bones, I think) of all the members of the Community from across the centuries. It feels more than just a bit weird to see them lined up on shelves, I have to say but, as the Monasteries are high up on the rock formations, no burials are ever going to possible. The bodies of the deceased are placed into a safe place until the flesh has gone, and then the bones are placed into the Ossuary/Catacomb. They are there, waiting for Jesus to come again and for their body’s to be restored.
We moved on to the second Monastery – dedicated to the Holy Trinity. This is a Monastery for women, and the Sisters were in greater evidence than the monks at St Stephens. (I think I saw the back of one Monk in the distance at St Stephanos.) Again, the Church is a place of beauty. Again, there was the hush of the Pilgrim and Tourist alike as we gazed in wonder at the beauty that surrounded us, and wondered too at how it was possible to even begin to imagine living in such a place. How did the first Monks exist out here? How were the materials for the first dwellings found here, or transported here? When did the first women come here and were they welcomed and accepted? How is electricity brought here? How do those who live here now cope with the sheer volume of visitors and maintain a life of prayer and spiritual discipline? How do these independent Monasteries develop their life of prayer alongside one another, work alongside one another, learn alongside one another, offer the ministry of hospitality alongside one another? So many questions but, alas, no opportunity to ask them as we had no opportunity to speak with anyone from any of the Communities. I can understand this – given the number of people who visit each and every day (even in the snow flurries which we enjoyed!) Speaking to the visitors who come would be more than a full time task and would impinge terribly on the life of solitude that is sought. Some of the questions we might have wished to ask (such as those above) are not the important ones though. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, so finding ways to overcome electricity, the transport of building materials etc. etc. is not the important stuff of this existence – it is more to do with: What do you doing here? What difference do you make by being here? Why do you want to be here, stay here, pray here? What is God revealing to you in this place, in this time, in this now? These are the questions I was asking as I journeyed round these places, and they seem good ones to ask of myself as I end this entry, and begin the next part of the journey.

What are you doing here?
What difference do you make by being here?
Why do you want to be here, stay here, pray here?
What is God revealing to you in this place, in this time, in this now?

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