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

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Travelling Through Greece - Icons

We have feasted our eyes and spirits on the amazing views and monasteries of the Meteora mountains and now we head south in the coach to Trikala - the far mountains in their purple and blue haze contrasting with the orange roofs, green sweet corn crops and golden straw drying in the fierce sun in the nearer lowlands. 
Everywhere pylons and telegraph poles and wires criss-cross the landscape making photography difficult. We pass by big marble yards - there are several grains of marble to work with for different purposes - small grain are for delicate sculptures etc, large grains are for working tops and cemeteries - there is sadly a big market in the roadside shrines.
We are going to visit one of the most important iconographers in Greece - to an icon workshop - where the skill has been passed down through the generations and it is still very much family run. Now those who want to follow the art have to go to art school and obtain a licence to produce them. Traditionally the artist prayed as he painted - now those fresh from Icon art school are less likely to be so religious. In amongst the shops selling lighting and cars - a Mercedes Benz showroom, with servicing and elf petrol, a most unprepossessing entrance gives no clue to what we will find inside. 
We go through a nondescript entrance door to climb a cool wide marble staircase and so into the showroom where we are offered Greek Delight (like Turkish Delight but better, we are told!) - and plentiful freshly brewed coffee and water - all most welcome. It is very hot in the workshop where we are led - but the demonstration of how the icons are prepared ready for painting is fascinating.
Local wood is seasoned over 3 years - cedar, pine, walnut - olive (hardest of all) and beech. We saw how cotton is stretched on the frame with a glue mix to fasten layers - then to kiln - and finally smoothed with sandpaper for painting.
Then we go into the part of the shop where the icons are displayed, and there are three people sitting at easels painting them - and signing the backs of those we purchased - Who could not resist at least one - these seem very superior to those we have already purchased along the way. They are all truly beautiful - all shapes and sizes and saints - and we are allowed to take photos. I buy one as a present - on the basis of my father's maxim that the best presents are those you would like to receive yourself. 

What is an icon? Thomas Merton explains the icon as an act of witness: "What one sees in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation..."

And different colours have different significance. Thus white represents eternal life and purity, blue is for celestial beings, God's dwelling place, the sky, red symbolizes activity, martyrdom, fire, the Last Judgment and so on...
This workshop is run by Father Bethkis (Greek for pine tree) and three generations of his family are working there - here is definitely worth a visit should you be anywhere nearby.

We are the first coach to arrive back at our hotel so those of us who feel the 195 steps to the Varlaam monastery were not exercise enough head straight for the pool - surprisingly few of us - the rest slink back to rooms for siestas. After my swim I head out along the main street to the centre of the town to explore. It's 4.30 and 34 degrees and there are few shops or coffee shops open yet. But I am after a coffee and cake and soon find myself seated without realising it at what is described on Tripadviser as the very best cafĂ© in town for coffee and cocktails. A cappuchino suits me well and it really is superb and served with such finesse by the lad who comes out to the pavement for my order. 
I write up my notes enjoying this and the cooling breeze which is just pleasant. It's a shame about the local youngsters whizzing around on smelly 2-stroke mopeds and the musak coming from somewhere to assault my senses. I look across to the central square which looks very sad and run down - with many closed shops and a dry fountain. Perhaps later in the season this will all come alive. I do hope so. There seems no shortage of coach parties who doubtless have money to spend here given the chance.
One thing still continually strikes me here - and I know I keep talking about this, but I feel very strongly about it. Yes there is litter, but nothing like that in the UK or Georgia. One has to ask why. Culture? Education? Less "fast food" and "food to go"? Provision of litter bins and labour to empty them? Perhaps a mix of all these things and more.

We again finish the day with Compline in a hotel room - before we are off to bed for an early start. We face a long drive to Athens tomorrow - but via Delphi which we are told is quite special.

We are being well looked after by our coach driver and his smart white coach with red livery from "Andy's Tours". Our tables in the restaurant here have been identified by cards saying "Andy's". Reference to the coach company or over familiarity with our Dean!?

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