Sunday, 3 December 2017

Behind the first window in this year's St Michael & All Angels' advent calendar - a Sara Grønmark re-creation

That was copied from a mosaic... the Hosias Loukas Monastery, in Boetia, which my wife visited during a ten-day pilgrimage to Greece in October. She and over thirty others were following in the footsteps of St Paul, and the trip included visits to Thessaloniki, Kavala (formerly Neapolis), Philippi, Lydia, Berea, Kalambaka, the Meteora monasteries, Delphi, Thermopylae, Corinth and Athens.
Phew! My only involvement was to drop off my wife and two of her companions on the trip at the church, where everyone boarded a coach in the early hours of the morning. But I was able to follow the pilgrims' progress via photographs posted every day on Twitter by Fr Edward, and was able to enjoy my wife's own photos when she got back. Here - interspersed with a selection of her photos and Fr Edward's - is a brief account she wrote for the St Peter's, Acton Green newsletter:

This October I joined a party of pilgrims to Greece, following the route that Paul took on his second missionary trip;  the group, made up from several different church communities, was led by Fr Kevin Morris of St Michael’s and Canon Nicola Stanley from Bristol Cathedral.
I’d been concerned that travelling solo might be awkward, but mixing together - sharing meals, journeys and experiences and travelling together in the coach, listening to our excellent guide, Mara - it wasn’t long before a strong sense of fellowship developed amongst the pilgrims.
The packed itinerary had looked daunting on paper but the journey was well-paced - even the oldest couple in the group, in their 80s, managed to keep up.  Most days began with prayers on the coach and ended with a short Mass in the hotel where we were staying. (The hotels were comfortable and the food at the roadside stops good, although I might have had enough Greek Salad for a lifetime.)
There were dozens of outstanding experiences as we traced Paul’s route from Kavala in the north, where he first arrived in Greece, to Athens, where he addressed the Athenians from the Areogapagus on the slopes below the Acropolis.  We saw stunning Byzantine mosaics in ancient churches, archaic votive offerings and marble statuary in museums, and visited sites - place-names vaguely remembered from the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s epistles: Thessaloniki, Philippi and Corinth were suddenly not just history but reality,  a living connection to the past. Sometimes we found ourselves in isolated ruins surrounded by olive groves and cypresses, but at other times we saw sites that still survive, preserved, in the middle of modern, bustling Greek towns.
On two memorable occasions we held open-air Masses.  Near Delphi we stopped to hold a morning Mass at the countryside stream where Paul baptised his first convert, Lydia, and later in the trip another, under the trees, amongst the ruins of ancient Corinth. These were very special events and it felt a privilege to be there together, outside in the sunshine, surrounded by birdsong.
Another highlight was a visit to the ancient monasteries improbably perched on the high rock formations at Meteora.  Now reached by vertiginous steps, traditionally the only access to one of the monasteries was by being hauled up by rope in a basket - until it was used for a sequence in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, when the film-makers installed, and left behind, a small cable car to shift their camera equipment (which, one imagines, the monks are grateful for today).
At an Icon workshop we learnt about the processes needed to ‘write’ beautiful icons, and observed the prayerful way they were painted by a priest.
Another roadside stop was a visit to the memorial to Leonidas, King of Sparta, celebrating the battle between the Greeks and Persians at Thermopylae.
Our last days in Athens were spent visiting the Acropolis and Mars Hill, where St. Paul addressed the locals about their altar to ‘the unknown god’.  (It was something of a culture shock to be back in a busy city again.)
This trip wasn't meant to be a holiday, and the central purpose of discovering the travels of St Paul was well supported with study and readings. But I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more. It’s a special feeling, in a country where the Orthodox Church is still a viable part of the community, to be in the company of people who can appreciate a church as a place of worship and not just as a historic tourist attraction.


  1. Well done, both of you, for undertaking what seems to have been a full, and possibly tiring, itinerary.
    A few years ago, when staying with my sister and her husband in Corfu, we hopped over on the ferry and drove to Meteora. It is an amazing place. However, it was a more than usually hot day and, on arrival, we looked at the stream of pilgrims queueing to climb up a great number of steps and came simultaneously to the same decision: lunch and a cold drink instead.
    My late husband used to know someone who went to Meteora every year for about three months, just to do any odd jobs the monks had for him. One day he took exception to a German visitor who he felt was showing a lack of respect and punched him good and hard. Sadly, the monks had to bar him from the monastery from then on.
    Sara's Ikon is lovely. She is very talented.

    1. What a pity he had to be barred from the monastery - what a splendid thing to do! Muscular Christianity has its place, I think. I was appalled when I visited Brussels Cathedral about ten years ago by the behaviour of mainly Southern European tourists - all gabbling away at the top of their voices and walking around with their arms slung over girl-friends' shoulders and constantly snapping pictures - grossly disrespectful.

      Unfortunately I wasn't on the Grecian pilgrimage - which may partly explain why my wife enjoyed it so much! I'd have been the feeble party-pooper who has to stay in the coach at each stop (there's always one).

      Sara thanks you for your kind comments (with which, needless to say, I concur).

  2. I was in St Michael's for the first time last Saturday. It was for the Mozart choral concert. You're lucky to have such a beautiful church.