Speaking from the grave

My idea of a holiday is not having to make decisions. I quite like the idea of tossing a coin and letting fate decide where I go and what I do. Another option is to travel with someone who does know what they want to do and where they want to go; someone hovering on the same frequency. I had no strong opinions as to what we should spend our final hours on Aegina doing. It was too hot to think so I was more than happy to accompany Ms G to the church of Agios Nektarios and the monastery of Agia Triada.

IMG_3695 (800x600)There was a crowd of people milling around the bus station. The bus we wanted should have left ten minutes earlier but was running late. The lady at the ticket desk told us it was full and the next one wouldn’t be for two hours. But that would be too late. Not the end of the world – simply more beach time and a longer, lazier lunch. But then she said she’d check with the driver to see if he’d take us anyway. We got the last two places – standing places – in the stairwell.

IMG_3719 (600x800)The 6km journey up hill and down vale was quite reminiscent of Malta. Little chapels and random grottoes dotted the roadside. Pistachio farms attached themselves to olive groves. Stone farmhouses stood stoically, oases of cool in the  heat of the day. It’s the stuff that spontaneity is made for. I’m sure that many a life-altering fantasy was conjured up along this road as those who had come to Greece to escape a ratraced reality dreamt of stopping the world and simply getting off. Maybe turning their hand to olives or pistachios and converting the farmhouse into a B&B.

First off the bus at Kondos, we went straight to the church of Agio Nektarios (St Nectarios). He was born in 1846 and died in 1920, so as far as saints go, he’s relatively new,  yet he’s one of the best known of the Greek Orthodox saints. This was my first stumbling block – I didn’t know the first thing about that religion and was confusing it with Greek Catholics. Now I know that Greek Orthodox are members of the Orthodox Church. Greek Catholics are members of communities which were once Orthodox, but entered into communion with the See of Rome and accepted the Pope’s authority — i.e., they are part of the Catholic Church. Greek Orthodox believe that Christ is the head of their church – not the pope. As for Greek Orthodox vs Roman Catholics… that’s a whole other missive.

St Nectarious’s crypt is in the church itself and each month, thousands come to beg favours and seek his blessing. Apparently he was a great miracle worker in his day, a prolific writer, moralist, philosopher, theologist, poet, and mystic. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, he established the monastery next door – the Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) – a monastery for nuns where apparently 14 still live.

IMG_3709 (800x600)I wish that they would take the time to translate something about what they do and what we saw. But that’s selfish of me. I should have read up on it before I went and prepared myself. It was quite a shock to read the sign at the monastery entrance; wondering what constituted half-naked and why they should be so against trouser-clad women diverted my attention for a while.

IMG_3711 (800x600)IMG_3710 (600x800)There were two small chapels – one with the old marble tomb in which the saint was first buried. Those filing inside stopped briefly to put their ear to the tomb and it was only later I realised that the faithful believe that if they listen hard enough, they will hear him blessing them. Were a Martian to pop into mass in any Catholic church, he’d have cause to wonder at the veneration of a man nailed to a cross and perhaps have a hard time getting his head around the transubstantiation of the Eucharist… and I could feel his pain. I was completely lost as to what was going on and what I was supposed to do, or not do. But at least I wasn’t half-naked.

IMG_3726 (800x600)My religion is one of order and routine. We stand, sit, and kneel on cue. The Greek Orthodox seems random – lots of signs of the cross, lots of kissing of icons, lots and lots of candle lighting, not to mention the chanting and the constant movement. It would have been so nice to have it all explained to me but from what I could see, we were the only ones without a clue. Everyone else seemed quite at home. [A complete aside: Did you know that Greek Orthodox is very big in America?]

It was all a little frustrating and so very complicated – it seemed in marked contrast to the simplicity of everything else I’d seen since coming to the island. But then again, I’m not Greek.

I did have have my three wishes though as I have the luxury of believing that there’s only the one God – no matter what we choose to call Him or where we choose to house Him. And that belief works for me.





No women allowed

With donkeys and goats competing for space with plastic bags and rubbish of all sorts, the Judean desert isn’t what you’d call pristine. Actually, what I’ve seen of Palestine so far leaves a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness. There’s rubbish everywhere. People nonchalantly toss plastic bottles out of cars as if they were apple cores that would magically biodegrade. It’s hard to imagine why, in a region so dependent on tourism, that some bright spark in the Ministry of Tourism doesn’t do something about it.

Driving deep into the desert, where the only things growing are olive trees and scrub, what fences there are have trapped flying plastic and empty beer cans. Miles from anywhere, evidence of human carelessness abounds. It was putting me in a bad mood.

IMG_7687 (800x600)IMG_7724 (600x800)When we switched to a smaller bus to navigate the windy roads to the Mar-Saba monastery, I could feel my blood pressure rising with the temperature. Closer to the ground, I was closer to the detritus. And then, when we got there and were told that only men were allowed inside, I was fit to be tied. It’s the twenty-first century, people.

Saba himself, the chap who may or may not have founded the places in the fifth century AD, came from Cappadocia. He lived in  cave near the present site of the monastery for about 10 years and, when he was 45, he established what’s known as a Laura – a cluster of caves or cells of hermits residing around the central monastery. (Even his mother wasn’t allowed inside…) A second account by one James Kean, says that it may have been founded by Saba’s teacher –  St Euthymius. Seems like the region is awash with either/ors, mights and maybes.

IMG_7715 (800x600)IMG_7693 (800x600)So when the men go inside to see the heads of old monks, and the body of Saba himself, and God only knows what else, the women content themselves by writing out petitions which they hand in to a monk (Greek Orthodox) on duty at the entrance and in return receive some oil and a postcard. I’m all for tradition and I know I’m on record as saying that the feminist streak in me is small enough to go unnoticeable, but for some reason, this upset me hugely.

IMG_7721 (800x600)IMG_7723 (600x800)IMG_7732 (580x800)That said, it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. Reputedly one of the oldest monasteries in which monks still live, it’s about half way between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, overlooking the Kidron valley. With tour buses disgorging passengers every 30 minutes or so, the place was awash with people from all over the world. Folk groups brought their guitars and sang from the cliff side. One female choir pitched up outside the doors and sang the same tune over and over and over again. Perhaps that was their sweet revenge!

IMG_7714 (800x600)No matter what I might think of it being so exclusive, the place itself is nonetheless impressive, standing as it does in the middle of nowhere. It’s been around for eons and despite repeated invasions, it’s stood the test of time.IMG_7710 (800x600)