Fr. Nicholas Samaras, of Ss. Constantine and Helen Church in West Nyack, New York, told me when he found out I was going to Greece, “You need to go to an island called Aegina. St. Nectarios is there.”
When you buy tickets online to go to an island, you’re e-mailed a confirmation number. This is not a ticket, as the e-mail rather forcefully reminds you; you have to redeem the confirmation number for your ticket at the boating line’s office no later than an hour and a half before the boat pushes off. As my boat was leaving at 8:50am, this meant needing to pick up my ticket no later than 7:20am; furthermore, this meant needing to be at the Ethniki Amyna metro station by roughly 6:30am, which, the 404 bus being what it is on the weekends, meant waiting for it starting around 6am, which meant being up by 5-5:30am.
(Of course, the Halandri metro station reopens shortly after I leave. Sigh. I’m going to have to come back just to develop an impression of the public transportation system when a good chunk of it isn’t closed.)
So anyway, last Saturday I stumbled, still half-asleep, out of the Piraeus train station at a little past 7am. To say the least, it was a bit of a zoo; this is the time of year when everybody in Athens flees for the islands. Hellenic Seaways was where I needed to pick up my ticket, and I realized I didn’t know where that was. I headed for the nearest big sign that said “Hellenic Seaways,” which actually led me into the office of a travel line bearing a different name.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t think this is the right spot, but where do I need to go to pick up tickets for Hellenic Seaways?”
“Here,” they told me, and gave me my ticket. Um, okay.
Now, your ticket bears a gate number and the name of your boat. You would think, as I did, going off of the system in use in most airports, that gate numbers would be unique to individual boats. So, I merrily headed for gate E-8, thinking it would be obvious as soon as I got there where I needed to go.
So, the reality is, there are something like 10-20 boats per gate. It is good that I realized this, because I was sitting at a café being robbed blind sipping a mediocre at best double espresso for which I had paid 5 Euros at gate E-8 (word to the wise: don’t bother with the gate café, just get something at one of the many other cafés around the harbor) until 8:30, wondering why the heck I wasn’t seeing the 8:50 boat for Aegina anywhere. I realized, getting up and looking around some, that gate E-8 stretched quite far away from where I was sitting. Jogging over to the far side of gate E-8, there were multiple signs, kiosks, and offices telling me I was in Hellenic Seaways country, and while it hadn’t arrived yet, they showed the Flying Dolphin XV as being on their schedule to depart for Aegina at 8:50. It arrived shortly thereafter, and off we went. It’s only about 40 minutes there (Aegina is the closest island to Athens, I believe) — no time at all.
The marina in the town of Aegina is very charming; pistachio nut stands are everywhere (these evidently being one of the island’s big exports), there is no shortage of restaurants and cafés on the water, and plenty of bakeries and shops and so on and so forth.
There’s also a butcher shop right on the water that shows you exactly what you’re buying. From left to right, I believe we have a rabbit, a lamb, and a chicken:
Plus an outdoor public market:
I’ve mentioned before, I think, that Greeks are excellent at the hard sell; there were a couple of examples of that in particular I ran into on Aegina. One involved me going into a bakery where they had nothing posted on any of the pastries to tell you what they were; I would ask what a certain item was, and the game the person behind the counter played was that he would tell me, I repeated to make sure I understood, and he would take that as an order. It took me a tiropita and a zambontiropita before I realized what he was doing, at which point I stopped asking. Well, okay, to be honest, there was another factor at work here that I may have misunderstood, but I really don’t think so. I’ll explain what I mean in another post.
The other example I’ll get to shortly.
There’s also a beautiful church along the water, the Cathedral of the Dormition (also called Panagitsa). It evidently dates from 1806; one very distinctive characteristic of this church is that, in addition to the 2+ centuries of incense permeating the walls, there is a very strong smell of honey as you walk in from the beeswax candles. Like many churches here, there is an ambo, but curiously enough they have removed the steps leading up to it, leaving only the pulpit portion in what is a clear state of disuse.
On the other hand, this is what’s called a chandelier:
I walked around the harbor for a good couple of hours, simply taking things in (and unsuccessfully trying to engage an old man in a backgammon game). At that point, it seemed like a good plan to try to find St. Nectarios.
By the way, it is difficult to overstate the level of local devotion there is to St. Nectarios on Aegina; he is everywhere. Icons of him, to say nothing of other memorabilia, are in virtually every shop (as well as prominently displayed in the churches). The island of Aegina is very insistent that you know that it is St. Nectarios’ home. But you don’t know the half of it until you see the monastery.
I had originally looked at a map of the island and thought to myself, “Oh, the island isn’t all that wide; I can probably walk it.” It is an extremely good thing that I disposed of that folly and got on a bus. It was hot, it’s a lot farther than it looks, and the terrain is not exactly even. As it was, the bus was almost too hot.
The buses, by the way, are easy to find on the harbor and cheap — about a Euro and a half each way — and they take you right to the doorstep of the monastery. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll be standing on the bus, thinking to yourself that you wonder how you’ll know when you’ve reached the monastery, and then suddenly the bus is right in front of this:
And then you’re thinking to yourself, Oh. Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?
You can go to my Flickr page and peruse the pictures all you want; one of the main things I want to point out is that they’ve built two levels of galleries in the church, and the church is already freaking huge — as in, bigger than Holy Trinity in Indianapolis huge. This suggests that on 9 November, St. Nectarios’ feast day, they expect it to be packed to the rafters.
The other thing I want to point about the interior has to do with the chapel off to the south end of the nave, where some of the relics are. Particularly, the iconography — for example, here at the dome of the apse in the chapel (and I would look at the pictures of other frescoes in the chapel, too — time and space simply do not allow for a full discussion here). Does that look familiar? It should. The point is, here’s a holy man who died less than a century ago — for all I know, there is still a living memory of him somewhere. Despite being contemporary, he is still “discussed” iconographically in the same language as saints of antiquity. I suppose what I’m getting at is something I’ve said before — saints do not belong to a fixed time period. Someone is, or able to be, no more or less holy based on when they lived. In fact, we desperately need contemporary saints and to have such people in living memory presented to us in this way. It is one of the ways we are reminded of how to be Christlike, to have these models of holiness in our midst and thought of us as in continuity with (or in the tradition of, if you prefer) all of our other saints. It tells us that miracles still happen, that the Holy Spirit still moves among us, that Christ is still in our midst. Our saints need not, in fact must not, be limited to accounts from antiquity which we’re starting to talk ourselves out of believing. And local veneration is incredibly powerful — to look at an icon and to realize, “Hey, I’m standing right where that happened and where those people lived and breathed and did what they did,” is humbling beyond belief.
Speaking of humbling beyond belief, I will now tell you of the second hard sell I encountered.
I spent probably an hour or so in the church. After leaving, I started walking up the hill to the monastery proper. An old woman in what looked like a nun’s habit appeared out of nowhere, walked right towards me, and thrust an icon of St. Nectarios in my hands. “You need this,” she said in Greek. “You need St. Nectarios’ prayers for you. Fifty Euros.”
I had absolutely no idea what to do. This woman had two teeth. She had lines in her face like the Grand Canyon. Her voice had been sanded down with a lot of age. Worst yet, and what I never know how to deal with in such situations, was that there was an edge of desperation to her entire presentation that would slice through cement. I started to hand it back to her, saying gently in Greek, “Thank you, mother, but I need to think about it.”
She pushed it back towards me. “What’s there to think about?” she said. “The money doesn’t matter! What matters is that you have the prayers of this holy man blessing you and your life!” She made the Sign of the Cross in my direction, and then threw a prayer rope on top of the icon. “There, take that too.”
“No, really,” I said. “I should think about it.”
She tossed an icon of St. Marina and another prayer rope on top. “I’m telling you, the money doesn’t matter! What’s money when you have the prayers of these holy people in your life?” She hesitated a half-second, and then said, “Thirty Euros.”
“Thirty Euros?” I repeated.
I gave in. It was clearly very, very important to her that I take these icons off her hands, and ultimately the thought which I couldn’t escape was, “What’s thirty Euros to me compared with what it would be to her?” I gave her the money, thanked her, and as I walked away I muttered to myself, “I just got hustled by a nun.”
Only about half of the monastery proper is open to the public; this includes two (much) smaller churches, the chapel where St. Nectarios’ body is , two bookstores, and then his cell is open as an exhibit. The main thing I want to talk about here is seeing the veneration of his body, and (to some extent) participating in it myself; this is something that up to this point was rather foreign to me as an Orthodox Christian in the United States, given that, of the three analogous examples I can think of, only two are actual glorified saints (Ss. Herman of Alaska and John Maximovitch) and all are in California or Alaska (the third is Fr. Seraphim Rose), meaning that they’re rather remote for somebody whose Orthodox Christian life has been spent in the Midwest thus far.
People knelt and prayed at the casket which held his bones; I saw pilgrims weeping; and strangest of all, I saw people pressing their ears to the reliquary, as though they were listening for some sound from within. I really didn’t know exactly where to put myself in all of this, to be honest; I lit a candle, and I prayed at the reliquary, but my emotional response wasn’t quite that demonstrative — which isn’t to say that I didn’t have one, I did, it was just rather internalized — and since I didn’t know what was going on with the listening thing, I didn’t do it.
I went into the bookstore and asked the woman behind the counter, “I’m Orthodox, but I’m American, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. Why do people listen at the body?” She wasn’t sure how to answer; she said that it was a way of honoring St. Nectarios with another sense, but she couldn’t quite articulate exactly how.
All told, I spent about four hours at the monastery; I had originally hoped to be able to stay for Vespers, but my boat back to Athens was leaving at 8pm, and the bus schedule didn’t quite line up to make things work. That’s okay; as I’ve had to tell myself a number of times, this won’t be the only time I come to this part of the world.
Let’s say that there was a lot about the monastery that was spiritually overwhelming, even if I didn’t necessarily understand everything I saw. Part of why I spent so much time there is that I kept returning to the body and to the other reliquaries — there was something pulling me back to them, something that I was supposed to learn from being there. I’m still figuring out exactly what that is.
From the monastery, I took the bus to to the Temple of Aphaia which, as I noted earlier, is said to form an equilateral triangle with the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio. There really is something very cool about being able to walk around structures from antiquity like this; that said, I think I would have rather come here first and then gone to the monastery. My head was simply too occupied by what I had witnessed there to really be able to appreciate what all I was seeing at the ruin. The Temple of Aphaia is certainly fascinating intellectually, but I was very much someplace else spiritually, so it left me a little cold.
Even if that was the case, however, I have to say that there were some really beautiful views from the top of the hill. It is nice being someplace where one can see water and hills and mountains, I can’t deny that.
Something that was really bizarre: there was a father and son walking around the ruin, and I heard them speaking German. I addressed them in German, and we talked a bit. They were just in Greece for the weekend(!), and I found out that the boy would be going to high school in Boston. No, that’s not the weird part. The weird part was that I started sentences in German but kept finishing them in Greek. My mouth really, really, really wanted to default to Greek, and I had very real trouble staying in German. I kept having to apologize — luckily, they just laughed and took it in stride.
Anyway — I didn’t spent four hours at the Temple. More like one and a half.
I got on the bus back to the harbor. I had a Frappé (I am going to have to get a handheld mixer when I get back to the States so I can make these blasted things myself), and then settled down for a grilled fish dinner at Inomagirion, one of the waterfront restaurants. The fish was very good, as a local resident assured me (pictured left), and I had to agree with him, although he kept wanting to verify that it really was as good as he remembered. Being thankful for his help, I obliged a reasonable amount. (Best meal he’s had in weeks, I would have to guess.)
I tried to go to Vespers at Panagitsa before taking the boat back to Athens, but as it started at 7pm and was combined with 9th Hour, so I had to duck out at 7:30, when they had just begun “Lord I have cried…” Alas.
On the boat back to Athens, I became aware that the young (mid-20s, maybe) couple sitting next to me was American. Their names were Erin and Jeremy. We got to talking, and it turned out that they were Pentecostals of the Assemblies of God variety. Erin has been working for some time in the Dominican Republic for a ministry that deals with troubled youth called New Horizons; “If you’ve heard of us, it’s probably from bad publicity,” she said. “We get that a lot.” Well, there came a point in the conversation where I was asked point blank what I was, and I was obliged to tell them I was Orthodox (“Greek Orthodox,” I said, for purposes of convenience) — not that I had been hiding it, mind you. I brought up the St. Innocent Academy after she talked about New Horizons, for example.
Anyway, the point is, after I told them I was Orthodox, she got a funny look on her face. “Really?” she said. “I’m sorry — from the way you were talking, I would have thought you were Christian.”
Let’s not even go into what my inner monologue was doing at this stage of the game. I just smiled and said, “I am.”
“Really? I thought Greek Orthodox were like Catholics. Well, okay, so Greek Orthodox think of themselves as Christians?”
“Yes, we do.”
The funny look became an intensely puzzled look. “Like, do you guys have a personal relationship with Christ and all of that?”
“Absolutely,” I said, although the inner monologue continued without me — just not exactly in the same way you mean that…
“Well, okay, then what’s a basic summary of what you guys believe?”
“That’s the easiest question you could have possibly asked me,” I said. “It’s very simple, and it goes like this: ‘I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…'” and I proceeded to recite the entire Creed for her.
The puzzled look got even moreso. “Okay, so then what’s the difference between Greek Orthodox and Pentecostal?”
Keep in mind we only had a forty minute boat ride.
I chose to explain, broadly, that we see a continuity, rather than a disconnection, of Christian history over the last 2,000 years, placing ourselves in line with that, and as such believe we are in continuity with the Church of the Apostles. And just today, I saw one of the latest heroes in that history, I thought to myself.
“Huh,” she said. It was clear she had never heard anybody talk this way before.
I don’t know what they will do with that, if anything; I spent a little bit more time with them after we got off the boat, helping them find a bus stop that would get them back to their hotel. (Boy, I sure hope it did. Some of the streets around Piraeus at night are a little sketchy.) They were nice folks, even if it still amazes me that… well, maybe it shouldn’t.
By the way, I asked Fr. Samaras about the whole business of pilgrams listening at St. Nectarios’ body. He said this:
People have reported, for years now, that they’ve heard the Saint tapping back, or have heard some kind of music, or the sound of a Bishop’s staff knocking. So, people continue to listen. […] This tradition only happens with Saint Nektarios, the people listening. It doesn’t happen anywhere else.
So, there you have it. Next time I’ll be preapred.