I came home from Patmos with a great tan which must have been a miracle, because my last post implied that I spent all my time there in church – yes? No.
Afternoons I found this little beach ‘way away from town – usually had it to myself – and I read. My spiritual project on Patmos was to ponder John’s writings, especially the book of Revelation, his Apocalypse, to see if I could understand it any better on Patmos where he had been held in exile around the year 90, and where they say he wrote Revelation. I once did a series of teachings on Revelation and wished I had never started. I can see why the Church in the east was very slow to accept the book; though we Orthodox now consider it canonical, to this day we never read it in church.
My questions: How could the same John who wrote his Gospel and Epistles in such refined Greek then write Revelation in such inelegant Greek? John is the “apostle of love” – “God so loved the world…”, “love one another… greater love has no man… if you don’t love your brother whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen?”. So how in the book of Revelation could he write so enthusiastically about the wrath of God? For these reasons, many modern scholars say the Apocalypse must have been written by a different John. Is the Revelation a vision or did John write in symbols? Or both? And how does Revelation apply to the 21st century?
So on my little beach I read and pondered the Apocalypse. Here are my conclusions, which are of course opinions, no more:
1) Who wrote Revelation and why in such poor Greek? To begin, earliest tradition is that John the apostle wrote it, and over the years I’ve come to trust early traditions more than the speculations of scholars 2000 years later. I visited the cave of the Apocalypse, where the Patmians are absolutely sure John dictated his Revelation to his scribe Prochoros. I came up with an idea. The cave is just a little hole in the cliff as you can see here. It would be dank and cold in winter.
I can imagine John in old age with arthritis, unable to write. There probably weren’t many scribes on such a small island, and maybe Prochoros didn’t write good Greek, so John dictated and Prochoros wrote the best he could which wasn’t very. That’s a possibility.
2) As for the bombastic content of Revelation, I recalled that Jesus had nicknamed the young apostles James and John “boanerges”, “sons of thunder” and chastized them because they wanted to bring down fire and destroy a Samaritan village. Over the years John became the “apostle of love” – but maybe not entirely. In his latter years our Deacon John at Saint Nicholas was also filled with love and still had his old fiery spirit. The two can be combined. There’s the story from Polycarp that when John entered the bathhouse in Ephesus and found the heretic Cerinthos there, he cried “Let’s get out of here before the walls fall down.”
3) Was Revelation a vision? I had thought so, but Patmos changed my mind. Well, maybe some of it was, especially the vision of Christ in chapter 1. But I tried to imagine the beautiful blue waters of the Aegean turning to blood, and the stars falling out of that gorgeous sparkling night sky, and God pouring out his wrath upon that sweet island – and I didn’t even want to think about it. I can’t imagine anywhere I’d sooner be exiled than Patmos. I now suspect Revelation was written in code to encourage the early Christians but so the imperial authorities wouldn’t catch on. I believe Revelation was written for its own time, that it refers to events which first century people knew about, but most of which are now long forgotten. It predicted accurately that God and the Church would triumph over imperial persecution.
4) What does the Apocalypse prophesy for the 21st century? My guess is Nothing. Or maybe Everything, because it tells us where all history is headed, that God will finally triumph, that evil will be destroyed and God’s Kingdom, the New Jerusalem, will come. I wish we Orthodox read this in church, from Revelation 21: Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order has passed away.'” Yes, “Come, Lord Jesus.” We’ve waited too long, too long. But then again, if he had come in apostolic times, then I and all the people I love wouldn’t exist, so… on the other hand, thank you, Lord for waiting.
I agree with an early bishop (I forget who) whose people were getting all a-twitter, as my mother used to say, over the specifics of the book of Revelation, just as many others have over the centuries. He told them (this is a very loose translation): “Cool it. Nobody has ever understood it; nobody will till the Second Coming. Till then it will only confuse you.”
Saint Nektarios does it again – the time on Patmos!
I’ve told you how, on each trip to Aegina, Nektarios did something to surprise me. (If you’re new here, check Blog posts 7, 12, 19 and 24.) This time it was on Patmos. I had been alone out at the little beach, miles away from anyone. No one had been around all day except for a Greek fisherman at noon. For safety so that nothing could be lost, in my backpack I had carried 3 plastic bags, each packed very carefully and sealed – one with food, one with water, one with keys. I checked everything carefully, climbed up to the car, and went through my bags. No car key. I searched all the bags again: No car key! I looked a third time: NO CAR KEY! I began to panic and without forethought, not even saying “please”, I blurted out, “Nektarios, my key!” I then reached into the back pack and instantly pulled out the key. It was right on top. I am sure, absolutely positive it had not been there a moment before. So Nektarios did it again! The spiritual step forward this time was that, without thinking about it, I knew automatically where to turn. Looking back, he had been leading me on for years, so that 6 years later, in a situation much more dire, I would know without hesitation exactly where to turn for help. Thank God. Keep reading.
I left Patmos on a 2 a.m. ferry. For some reason all ships seem to arrive and depart in the middle of the night. On the dock was a coterie of Greek widows joking and laughing uproariously about something. I decided I must learn more Greek so on future trips I could find out what was so funny. Or maybe it was better not to know. Maybe it was about me! The phenomenon of the ship’s lights rising out of the undifferentiated blackness of the night sea and the night sky, out of the nothingness, was surreal. The lights of the Monastery of Saint John atop Patmos were the last to sink into the blackness. Next morning we were in Athens.
As always I visited Aegina and Saint Nektarios. I told him that I’d had enough for one visit. No more little “signs”, please, just a happy visit, and that’s what I got. I told you before that I first visited Nektarios because some years before my parishioners Tony and Chris Wood had come back trying to tell me what it was like there. I could tell their words couldn’t express it, so I went to find out for myself. Whatever time of year, whatever time of day, there is a sense of light and peace and joy and happiness at the place. I always cried sweet tears. It’s “heavenly”. When Tony was dying I told him, “Hang onto what you felt at Saint Nektarios. That’s where you’re going.” I will try to do that when my time comes.
As pilgrims came and went I offered up the names of the 562 people my parishioners asked me to pray for. (The number goes up every year… but who’s counting?) The little widow took the list again, so the nuns could pray for them. Then I had time to pray the Jesus Prayer for about half an hour. It felt like only a few minutes. The feeling of Saint Nektarios would hang over me for days. Even after I got home, I was still a little weepy in a very happy way.
As I got onto the bus for the Athens airport next morning, I saw the bus driver was wearing a prayer rope. Along the way I looked up and saw someone going into a church to pray. Later I looked up again and saw someone coming out of another church. At the airport right over from McDonald’s where they served (no kidding) Chicken Mythos! there was the airport’s Orthodox chapel. The icons were not so good, but they were there. Orthodoxy in Greece, integrated with life. Why does Christianity in the West (even in America where we have lots of religion) seem so disconnected, so fragmented, so cut off from life?
I told you not long ago that on the BBC I heard a debate over whether God exists, between Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant atheist conservative * with whom I disagreed about almost everything and an unfocused Dean of something or other. The atheist easily won. But it wouldn’t have made any difference if the Christian had won.
* He has since died. He had been badly hurt in life. I think he was a good man, just very confused. I hope God has received him. Pray for him.
The answer is not in intellectual argument. The answer is in the living of it. There is more true religion in lighting a candle and saying a prayer, or in venerating an icon, or in hugging someone, or in giving money to the poor, or in working for justice, or in my experiences with Saint Nektarios, than there is in all the debates in the world. Right theology is essential, but true religion is found not in words but in life. Orthodoxy is not a doctrine; it is a way of living.
So I came back to what seems to me to be our ever more unfocused, disoriented, disintegrated American society, renewed again, rejuvenated in Orthodox life. God knows Greece and Orthodoxy in Greece are far from perfect. Nevertheless Greece and Saint Nektarios came through again. And coming back to American Orthodoxy and to my people at Saint Nicholas, Cedarbug was a joy, because what I saw in Greece is also to some extent here, for Orthodoxy is here, not just being believed but being lived. Orthodoxy and its people are my rock. If I didn’t have this I honestly don’t know what I’d do.
Next Week: Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation and “Justification by Faith”