My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Travelling through Greece - Holy Monastery of St John the Forerunner

We are at the Holy Monastery of St John the Forerunner. Built on the site of sixteenth century ruins of an old church dedicated to St John the Baptist, the new church, a copy, is just 15 years old. The nuns have not been allowed to use old materials because of laws requiring churches to provide sanctuary and protection from earthquakes; thus the building has involved thick poured concrete with iron reinforcement and 2m foundations! We have been welcomed into the monastery grounds by Sister Theoktisti, very delightful, very English and she is proudly showing us their new church, not yet consecrated because it is not quite finished. The painting in the altar area is still to be completed.
Coming in from the brilliant sunshine our eyes take quite a while to acclimatise within the darkened church, as we stumble in the darkness to take up positions within, some sitting or perching on the narrow choir stalls (deliberately not, we are told, built for comfort, but more like the misericords in our cathedral and church choirs - for discretely perching in long services in days gone by!) There is a wonderful painting of the six days of creation above the six icons leading to the sanctuary. 
We are told that the monastery stands at 1100 metres and therefore gets very cold in the winter and is often snowed. It is not hard to imagine how beautiful it must then look, some compensation, I feel, for the inconveniences the snow must bring.   
Dazzled by the sun as we go outside once more, we make our way to a large covered area beyond the church where we are treated to welcome refreshments and have a chance to hear more about the monastery from Sister Theoktisti. People are returning to the country from the towns, she tells us, to find quality of life again and visitors come to worship at the church from as far as Larisa. There are 20 sisters in residence, and a further eight live just outside Athens. Some have even gone to Estonia to form a community there.
These nuns are closest to the Benedictines in life style, devoting their time to work, prayer and community life. They are pretty much self sufficient, only calling on local traders where necessary to supplement their own many and varied skills. For example they may need an electrician from time to time. They have livestock - pigs, goats chickens etc - and while not eating meat themselves they sell meat for funds - there is a waiting list for their beef because it is so good, being totally organic - and they have a very kind quiet slaughter producing the very best of meat in tenderness and flavour. They have also built up a successful market for their feta cheese. They don't have pets because that may cause contention as to "ownership" - whose "baby" is it?
The nuns grow all their own fruit and vegetables and do Christian art - such as icons, mosaics, carving, stitching etc according to individual skills, (the latest novice is learning homeopathy), much of this work being sold in their shop alongside jams, chutneys and honey etc.. Twenty women living together from 12 different cultures and with 22 languages between them bring their own challenges but it is clear that this also brings an incalculable richness into the community. The philosophy is not to worry about the way things happen. No one way is the only way - but to realise God's greatness and generosity in the diversity of culture. Different branches of Christianity, she reminds us, are almost an accident of birth - the ultimate choice being in our own hearts - we are all able to choose our own route to God if we leave our inherited path. And they never let the sun go down on their anger (See Paul's advice to the Ephesians 4: 26) After saying the final office of Compline every night they have a communal truth session - all asking for forgiveness of misdoings and offering total forgiveness in return. Not a bad plan for family life also I would say.

They are financially poor, but have a richness of life which money just cannot buy.
And so we make our farewells, climb the road back up to the coach which is waiting to take us down the Kesovos mountain and on our way to the main highway and our hotel for the night at Kalambaka below the dramatic Meteora Monasteries.
Passing through the village of Dimitra we see storks on their nests on the tops of posts and chimneys, even one atop a church, looking incongruously over crowded where parents were sharing the untidy pile of twigs with their two youngsters. The storks, while revered and regarded as lucky can be a nuisance and some people put dummy storks on their chimneys to keep the real ones away! Here we also see cotton everywhere - on the verges, in the fields, as we pass close to the birthplace of Asklepios and hear the myth of Chiron - and Asklepian healing - explored in my first book Healing this Wounded Earth, indeed the main inspiration for it.

Monastery of the Holy Trinity Meteora mountains
Eventually the Meteora mountains can be seen straight ahead in the distance - It is a place beyond words - but not mentioned by any ancient Greek authors, curiously perhaps. Much more about this amazing place in the next post...

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