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BALKAN SPRING 2000

Part 1

by Stephen Hayes

I was invited to teach missiology in the Orthodox Seminary in Albania for the Pascha term, 2000, and spent nearly 2 months in Greece and Albania. My wife Val had leave from work, and was with me for the first three weeks. Here is a kind of travelogue, for anyone who is interested.

There were four parts -

    Holy Week and Pascha in Athens with our daughter Bridget

    A holiday tour of western Greece

    Teaching in the seminary in Albania

    A pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos)

HOLY WEEK & PASCHA

Val and I left for Greece on Monday in Holy Week (April 24), and spent Holy Week and Pascha in Athens, going to services mainly at Holy Trinity Church in central Athens, and at the Monastery of St John the Forerunner in Kareas. We stayed with our daughter Bridget, who is studying theology at Athens University.

After the Good Friday service we visited various churches, mainly in the Plaka district of Athens, to venerate the Epitaphios (burial shroud) and climbed halfway up the Acropolis hill, from where we could hear the church bells tolling from various parts of the city.

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TOURING IN WESTERN GREECE

Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora
We hired a car for four days (and got such good service from the car hire firm, Swift Car rental, that we have no hesitation in recommending them). On Easter Monday, which was also May Day, we headed north to Thessaly. We found ourselves on the freeway by mistake, and turned off it at Thiva (Thebes), to try to get to the road we had originally planned to travel on. We saw a sign pointing to the Monastery of the Holy Cross, and Bridget said she had heard there was a South African nun there, so we turned off to visit it. We were treated with true monastic hospitality, and given lunch, but it turned out that the South African had gone with some other sisters to found a new monastery in Mexico. The monastery had about 40 sisters, of several different nationalities.

We continued our journey to Kastraki, and spent the evening and the following morning visiting the monasteries at Meteora. The setting was quite spectacular - the monasteries perched on fantastic pillars or rock rising at the edge of the plain. But the desert they were not - they were overlooked by a constant stream of tour buses passing by outside. During the winter, when there are fewer tourists, perhaps the monks get more peace, and more of the visitors might be genuine pilgrims.

Vikos Gorge, Epiros, Greece
We crossed the Pindos mountains from Thessaly to Epiros, and as we neared the top spring became winter again, and there was still snow on some of the mountain tops. We called at the town of Metsovo, which was reminiscent of Veliko Turnovo in Bulgaria, with the houses on a steep hillside and a winding river valley below. We spent the night in Monodendri, one of the Zagori villages, where the houses were all built of beige stone - walls, roofs and everything.

The following morning we looked at the Vikos gorge, and on the way passed natural rock formations that looked just like the houses in the villages. They looked like the ruins of some fabled lost city. The place had a wild beauty similar to the Blyde River Canyon in South Africa. We also visited a monastery at another village, Ano Pedion, which had been restarted by some of the sisters from Thebes at the request of the Bishop of Ioannina.

We went south, stopping for lunch in Ioannina, and a little further on at a waxworks museum showing the history of the Epiros region, a fascinating and sometimes gory recreation of scenes from the past. One of the exhibits showed St Kosmas the Aetolian, who was an itinerant evangelist and teacher in the Balkans in the 18th century. His ministry was very similar to that of John Wesley in Britain in the same period. Most educated Western Christians have heard of John Wesley, though very few have heard of St Kosmas, and most Orthodox Christians know of St Kosmas, though few have heard of Wesley. It's a sign of how little Eastern and Western Christians know of each other or of each other's history and traditions.

For the bus to come, light up a Camel
We spent the night at a small seaside village called Mytikas, and the following day crossed on the ferry to the Peleponnese. We got lost in Patra, a city that serves as a port for ferries to Italy, and spent quite a long time trying to find the road out. We were amused by an advertisement for Camel cigarettes at one of the bus stops - it's actually one of a series. And no, we don't smoke, Camel or any other brand - nor are we being paid to put this picture here!

We took another winding mountain road to Kalavryta, where the scenrey was almost as beautiful as in Epiros. We visited the Mega Spelion monastery on the road back to the coast, and returned to Athens.

Fr Luke Veronis, the dean of the seminary in Albania was in Athens with his family for a conference on "Orthodoxy 2000" where he read a paper on Orthodox mission, and we listened to some of the other papers as well.

One of the most interesting speakers was Dr Tarek Mitri of the Patriarchate of Antioch, who spoke on Orthodoxy and other religions. He said that the many conspiratorial interpretations of the role of other religions blur the role of Orthodoxy. These interpretations were based on the conservatism of survival, and aggravated fears of seeing Orthodoxy marginalised. Globalisation meant that there was pressure for uniformity. National government structures are less able to make decisions. Orthodoxy and Eastern culture are regarded as archaisms in the West -- there is talk of "ancestral hatred", but it is not "ancestral hatred" that is the cause of war, it is war that is the cause of "ancestral hatred". If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another past can be constructed.

The more people look alike, the more they wish to preserve their differences, and the smaller the differences, the more important they become. We are caught between the voices of homogenisation and those who advocate religion as a marker of nationalism and ethnic identity. He suggested some preliminaries for a theological consideration of these things: (1) respect for other religions; (2) listen and learn; (3) give thanks for manifestations of the Logos in other religious traditions; (4) Pray over insurmountable differences.

The mystery of the Trinity as the answer for those who think that the Father has no Son, and those who think that the Son inevitably kills the Father. Orthodox Christians and Muslims need to seek ways of preventing the use of religious symbols in support of conflicts. Human rights: despite emphasis on their universality, they can be applied selectively. Human rights abuses are emphasised when the victims of our own communities, but ignored when others are victims. The contemporary discourse about religion drawing bloody borders between people is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which Orthodox Christians must resist.

Continued in Part 2

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Created: 15 July 2000
Updated: 18 June 2013