Khouria Dianna flew home and I was on my own on Crete. The place where I stayed was over a mountain, down the cliff to the Libyan Sea on an incredibly scary one lane gravel road. Pictures don’t begin to do it justice. That’s a 500 foot drop-off to the left. The nearest grocery, petrol station and health care were thirty minutes away. I always liked isolated places, but was this wise at age 74? I don’t think so.
It was a very simple friendly taverna with good food, worked by grandpa and grandma and all the family. Their son spoke good English. A spotlessly clean little room with an icon on the wall and a quiet roommate – a little gecko. There were only a few people around, and for a week I had this long gorgeous beach almost to myself and my Kindle. The room cost less than $30/day, the food under $10/day. It was almost cheaper than living at home – if you don’t count the airfare! Yes, there are still places like this left in the world.
After I left I thought Take me back. Maybe. I was now getting quite uncomfortable traveling far out and away alone. But I decided so long as I was there, enjoy it and thank God, and if anything happens at least I’ll die happy. I guess that should always be the motto of everyone everywhere, especially us old people. Looking back, I’m glad I did it, because now I can’t.
Back to church
Friday September 14, Elevation of the Holy Cross: On the eve as I was here having supper outdoors in the taverna, looking way the coast I could see the lights of cars departing Vespers far off at Preveli Monastery on the cliffs to the west. Next day I went an hour into the nearest city, Rethymno on the north coast. Driving down this extremely narrow cliff road, here came at me a big wide tour-type bus picking up kids for school. Driving in Greece, you learn to react fast and move over or you’re dead. When I got home, driving seemed so dull here, and I love it.
I went to the big Church of the Four Martyrs of Crete on the Rethymno city square which was about 3/4 full. They distributed the traditional basil on the solea just before Divine Liturgy, and there were so many people that the Little Entrance had to push its way through the crowd!
Sunday September 16: I tried to find Divine Liturgy at a church in another little village where two weeks before we had seen many people coming out and Dianna suggested I try that one, so I did and it was not open. (Probably the priest had several little churches to cover.) So I hurried back to Spili where this time there were even fewer people: the church was 1/4 full, no youth. What ever has happened to the place? However, there was a young priest with a superb voice, almost a crew cut and a fashionable modern very short beard. Change in the Orthodox Church in Greece?! Apparently so.
Don’t you ever do this!
I always told people not to go hopping from one church to another – and especially not during Liturgy! – but I was a visitor and really wanted to see if attendance at all the churches was collapsing. So on Sunday September 23, my last Sunday on Crete, wickedly and intentionally ignoring my own good advice, I went from church to church to church, popping in and out of as many as I could find, lighting candles like a madman wherever I went.
All the while I kept notes so as not to forget anything. To begin with the conclusion: All the churches were crowded and felt alive. It was a totally encouraging experience! Also a lot of fun. Here was my day:
6:45 a.m. I drove up the cliff road and over the high mountain range, as soon as it was light and I could see where I was going. It was an extraordinarily clear day, the sunlight brilliant, the shadows equally dark, everything standing out in sharp relief, as you can see immediately below. I took this photo myself.
7:15 a.m.: The Diocesan headquarters in Spili, an elaborate complex which overlooks the village. I arrived just as the sun had risen. In this pretty little chapel some monks were chanting Orthros perfectly, and a respectable group of people were arriving. They even had vested altar boys. It was lovely. I was very tempted to stay. However I had places to go and things to see.
7:45 a.m.: Up to Preveli Monastery on the cliffs high above the sea, the sun bright over the water and the mountains. Another beautiful, well kept facility. Since there were only a few monks and Greece hadn’t much money to spare, I suspected it’s supported by the European Union. (From secularized western Europe, the EU gives money to preserve notable religious “cultural” institutions. That’s why there are fire plugs on Mount Athos. That can’t happen in America, one of the most religious countries in the world, because of our separation of church and state. I understand – here we have no state church, so if you support one religious group it’s only fair to support them all, and that is now very many. But how spiritually and culturally deadening and self-defeating. God is alive and well in the churches, but mostly removed from public life. “God in a box.” But I’m wandering… ) The old dark church had a very holy feel. Here, too, the monks were chanting Orthros. Others including some families with little children had arrived, and more were on the way over the steep mountain road as I was leaving. Here too I was tempted to stay.
8:15 a.m.: This one had nothing to do with church. At a crossroads something big was happening. There were five police cars, which in rural Greece are small vans, and the cops instead of uniforms and badges have black t-shirts which say POLICE – in English! (We in the new world sometimes insist on old world formalities which they have given up.) The vans’ lights were flashing. I went slowly ahead. A policeman said Pull over! I thought Oh, dear God, what have I done? He said Your bonnet (hood) isn’t shut. He then closed it, smiled and said Drive on. I thanked him / Ευχαριστώ πολύ and drove on with my heart still pounding.
8:45 a.m.: Back to the Four Martyrs Church in Rethymno which was full to overflowing. The Bishop was there singing his part of the Trisagion Hymn: “O God save thy people…” and waving his candles. There was fine chanting.
9 a.m.: Only one block north in the old city is Rethymno Cathedral, an even larger church almost full with many families. They also were just at the Trisagion Hymn so I heard it twice that Sunday. It’s a classic basilica style church (was it originally Venetian?) with galleries along the sides and in back, so I went up there to get a good view. Again there was excellent chanting by some young men wearing blue jeans! As I say, Greece can be less formal than we are.
9:15 a.m.: One block east was little Saint Antony Chapel. Nothing happening. I lit candles for everyone.
9:30 a.m.: Only six blocks west is Saints Constantine and Helen Church which also was full with people standing ouitside looking in. They were at the Epiklesis: “Amen. Amen. Amen.” An ancient priest with a long white beard was presiding, but it was a young congregation, again many families. It also felt very alive. Again I was tempted to stay.
Instead I drove ten minutes east looking for Armani Monastery, but couldn’t find it.
About 10 a.m. Coming back into town I saw a big church on the left, turned off the expressway and went back to it: Saint Paul’s Church with a new building (couldn’t find a picture of it), the temple completed but standing on pillars, the lower level still an open shell. Divine Liturgy was just letting out, and again many young people, many families and a kindly looking youngish priest inside talking earnestly with someone.
Brothers and sisters of the Western world: All of these big Orthodox churches (and who knows how many others I missed) in close proximity to each other, all of them filled with people. Try to imagine. In Wisconsin, Lutheran I can imagine, but Orthodox?!
After a sustaining cappucino and bougatsa in a cafe, I headed back for the south coast. Along the way near a tiny village down that narrow road, here came a hearse going very slowly, with people all in black walking behind. A funeral on Sunday? But I suppose that’s when a priest was available in such a remote place. Ahead the tiny church was open. A widow barred the door trying to explain that the funeral was over, then she smiled and let me in: A visitor! The patron of the church? Aghios Demetrios! she said. Aghios Demetrios! I replied.
It was a very encouraging Sunday. At least in the city of Rethymno the Church was flourishing – as it had been at the cathedral in the big city Heraklion a year before, and likewise at the Liturgies we’ve attended in Athens over the years, and on Paros. And Naxos, where however there was a total lack of reverence, as people chatted and drank bottled water all during Liturgy, while mothers with their babies walked back and forth in front of the priest as he gave the sermon! so let’s not count that one.
I’ve read that the Church in Greece is declining. If so, you couldn’t prove it by me. And when churches were open on weekdays, there was invariably a continual stream of people coming and going, lighting candles and offering prayers.
Now, granted I haven’t seen quite all the churches in Greece and Western Europe! but I’ve seen plenty of nearly dead ones in the West, and plenty of live ones in Greece. The Sunday we were in Granada, both the Cathedral and the church across the square from it were closed. We had noted Mass being celebrated in the Cathedral chapel the night before and so decided to return for Sunday morning Mass. There wasn’t one. In the West the few open churches we saw were chiefly of historical interest and, so far as I could see, no one was praying. OK, let’s give the West its due. Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome, is a holy place where many knelt in prayer. San Nikola Basilica in Bari had two well attended Sunday Masses. There was also one 34 years ago in Switzerland an likewise two in England back in the ’70s. Today the Church of England is rapidly closing churches. Anyway, in ancient Crete they are building new ones.
Why the difference? I don’t know. You tell me.
Heading for Home
Driving back to the airport on Tuesday I lit candles at Kalyviani Monastery again, then visited another women’s monastery back in the hills, which I had never been able to locate before. In most places on Crete roads are not marked and directional signs are few, so if you don’t already know how to get there, there’s not much use trying. Maybe now my GPS would help. Anyway the monastery wasn’t worth it: many nuns, but the place looked like nobody loved it.
Next morning at Athens airport I got to talking with a Canadian man, about 60, he and his wife elegantly dressed (as the rest of us certainly were not) and very well spoken, not your average Joe and Jane. They were later ushered onto the plane before anyone else. Who was he? a diplomat maybe? As we talked I said I’d been away from the United States for a month. He said You’re returning too soon; the election campaign is still on. I said In America the campaign is always on. He said Canada follows the British system: the campaign is limited to one month, and no one may contribute more than $2500 to any one candidate. I said I’ll move to Canada. … … But I didn’t. Besides, the “British system” doesn’t seem to be working very well right now either, does it? At least it costs less!
A novel I read on vacation had a line that struck me: “Those who never travel have no place to come home to.” I love Greece. I wish America was as Orthodox as Greece. I wish we had social services like Canada but yet a balanced budget, and their seemingly more rational politics. Some Canadian members of my former Episcopalian church referred to us affectionately as “the Excited States”.
But having been away for a month I was glad to be back. This is home. Orthodox-Church-wise I saw some really good things over there. Then I came back to find the same kind of devout, relaxed, happy, holy, community Orthodox feel at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg. Both over there and back here it was Orthodoxy – “at home in heaven” as they say.
God is good.
Next to weeks: Thirty Years Later. Reflections after being a convert to Orthodoxy in 1989: