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Posts Tagged 'st. john maximovitch'

I Josquin get enough: in which the author gets mistaken for a Russian priest and concludes his Californian sojourn

(Before I get started — couple of music jokes:

Q. Which famous composer carried the least amount of debt in his lifetime?

A. Berlioz.

Q. Which famous composer was only barely able to pay his bills every month?

A. Josquin.

Right, onward and upward.)

I got back from California a couple of weeks ago only to be plunged into some last-minute efforts for Bp. MARK’s pastoral visit to All Saints the very next weekend, and I’m only now really coming back up for air. I tell you, a blog is a lot harder to maintain when one actually has things going on in their life that are important to them!

Over the last five years or so, the narrative I’ve had in my head and that I’ve propagated is, more or less, “I failed as a musician because I wasn’t good enough, and the upside of this is that it enabled me to discover what I was actually good at doing.” This is part of why it was a huge shock to me to have John invite me out to California, even if he was desperate; my working assumption is that, as formally trained musicians go, everybody else is about a million times better than I am, and that the people who have me sing for them here and there do so mostly as a favor to me and because they’re short other options.

At some point while I was in California, John asked over a beer, “So, what other singing do you do besides All Saints?”

I kind of blinked, and explained that I didn’t really, save for the occasional recording studio gig in Indianapolis, and my godson Matthew‘s pickup choir that has done all of two Christmas concerts thus far (and that will be the end of its short happy life, as it works out).

“I’m surprised you’re not more involved in the scene,” he said. “A singer like you, you really should be.”

Well, there were two problems with this. First off is, frankly, what scene? There is no scene in Bloomington that isn’t strictly a product of the Jacobs School of Music, save for a large community choir that, meaning no disrespect to said community choir or its members, is not really what I would find fulfilling at this stage of the game. Some of the bigger churches do things, but I obviously don’t go to those churches, and despite efforts of mine to the contrary, All Saints just is not equipped in any way, shape, or form to be making its own contribution to “the scene,” nor are we likely to in the near future. There really isn’t anything in Indianapolis, either, at least nothing that would inspire me to want to commute on a regular basis, save for the random studio thing and miscellaneous choral performance my friend Max Murphy occasionally organizes. I suppose I could go to the choral folks at the School of Music and say, hey, I’m an alumnus, and I’m a registered fulltime grad student in the College of Arts and Sciences, any chance I might be able to have a spot in one of the chamber choirs? Realistically, however, there aren’t enough choral spots for the singers they have. So, what scene is it of which I should be part, again?

Secondly, as I explained, I quit five years ago because it was clear to me I wasn’t all that good in the first place. In context, this seemed like such a painfully obvious thing to say as to make me almost embarrassed to have to say it; John is somebody who has been making music at a very high level since he was a little kid, has had a rather rarefied musical education as a result of those — and many other — experiences, and who has been, not just a specialist, but an expert in his field from a very young age, to the extent that formal, piece-of-paper education has almost been more of a hindrance than a help. I’m, well, working class by comparison, at best.

Still, he said, “Well, you’re doing just fine with us,” and went on to say that if geography were no object, there would be a number of excellent opportunities of which I would have no problem taking advantage, in his view.

This jogged a memory for me.

Bryon Grohman is a guy I got to know a bit the two years we overlapped at IU. He was a doctoral student but we were close to the same age, and I first met him taking vocal pedagogy from him. At his encouragement, I was able to publish the paper I wrote for him in the Journal of Singing, and after the class was over, we got to be friendly, at least enough to have a beer together here and there when we had the chance. When he passed his quals, I was supposed to buy him a drink before he left town; we weren’t able to quite make the connection, but we were at least able to chat briefly. It was right when I was deciding to hang it up; I told him that, and I said that while I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next, it was just clear to me that downstage center at the Met wasn’t in my future.

“That may be,” he said. “But whatever you do, you need to not forget that you are a very well-trained musician, and that’s not something that can be taken away from you.”

I hadn’t remembered that conversation in five years before what John and I were talking about brought it to mind, and it made me think a bit.

Anyway, the concerts on the whole were a lot of fun. Ian, my cellist friend, was able to come to the Friday night performance at the Oakland cathedral, I finally got to meet his mom after years of hearing about him talking about his parents, and it looks like he may have been recruited to play in BACH’s presentation of Mozart’s Requiem this fall.

One of the good things about not really having done any performing in the last few years, and to have that downtime come on the heels of the experiences that convinced me to quit, is that my expectations regarding anything were virtually nonexistent. Any performance I can walk away from is a good one. What this means is that crashing and burning doesn’t bother me all that much; at the very least, it doesn’t raise existential dilemmas for me. It just makes me say, “Well, that can go better next time,” and that’s that. So, I can say that I enjoyed singing in all three concerts; the second two were a lot more consistent than the first for everybody, I think, but whatever wasn’t right the first night, it was still light-years ahead from some of the things I’ve done to which I might compare it. This means that I may not be the best person to ask, but it also means that if you do ask me, I’ll tell you that I had a ball with all three of them, and that it was wonderful getting to sing beautiful music with a group of good musicians in three good venues.

One interesting thing about the experience: in the last few years, outside of church, whenever I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had to sing a solo, it’s really been something I’ve hated doing. In one of Matthew’s concerts, for example, I had a little Gregorian chant incipit before a motet, and even that was horribly traumatic. I felt awful singing it in rehearsal, I dreaded the moment when I would have to sing it in the concert, and then it felt awful singing it in performance.

Well, John gave me a solo verse in the ninth ode of the Paschal canon for these concerts. I hadn’t expected or wanted him to do that, I had avoided volunteering for other solos, and I almost told him no, but it really didn’t seem to be up for discussion, so I just let it go. The first rehearsal where I sang it, it felt awkward vocally and I was self-conscious and it really was not enjoyable to do. The dress rehearsal wasn’t much different.

But then the concerts came, and much to my surprise, it felt fine, I wasn’t terrified out of my wits, and I was still alive at the end of it. It was actually, dare I say it, an enjoyable thing to do. I’m still not sure what changed.

On a totally different note (as it were)… the one thing that I told John I really wanted to make sure I did while I was in the Bay area was go to St. John Maximovitch’s cathedral. He’s one of the only saints in the United States where one has that kind of opportunity, and it was very important to me to have a chance to visit him. Absolutely, John said.

Well, as it worked out, it seemed to be a never-ending struggle finding the time to make it out that way. John’s car getting vandalized ate up one of the days that was discussed as a possibility, and that put us very much at a deficit in terms of available time. It was a lot like trying to go to the Hagia Sophia cathedral in London the first time I visited there; the ordeal in terms of just figuring out how and when to go the location reached a level where it could plausibly have been a spiritual struggle masquerading as a series of unrelated annoyances. To John’s credit, no matter how difficult as it got, he refused my offers to let him off the hook. What it amounted to nonetheless was that we got to Geary Avenue at 5:40pm on the Saturday of the last concert, needing to be in Daly City by 6:15pm — literally the last possible five minutes I would have, since I was flying out of Sacramento the next afternoon. John dropped me off, told me to put on my cassock before going in and to text him when I was done.

The cassock had an interesting effect; as I walked up to the cathedral, a woman started talking to me in Russian. “Sorry, I don’t speak Russian,” I said.

“Oh,” replied the woman in accent-free American English. “Can you tell me how to get to the freeway from here?”

Inside the cathedral, another woman came up to me, her palms cupped over each other. I again had to say I didn’t speak Russian. “Oh, sorry, Father,” she said. “Will you give me a blessing?”

Well, I thought. That’s never happened to me before. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not a priest,” I said. “I’m a, er, psalomchik.” (“You should have replied in Greek,” John chuckled when I told him the story.)

I had just enough time to be amazed by the cathedral, venerate St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, and be told at the book counter that they couldn’t sell me anything because they weren’t the regular person and didn’t know if they could take a check or not, before John texted me — We gotta go.

Yes, it would have been nice to have had an hour or two so that my experience there could have been a bit more, shall we say, meditative. It was decidedly not the same half-day of contemplating the holiness of the saint that I had at St. Nektarios’ monastery last summer. I didn’t even have time to get a picture of anything. But nonetheless, I got to go, and I got to see St. John’s incorrupt relics with my own eyes. That’s something, most definitely.

“Why did you tell me to put on the cassock?” I asked John as we drove away.

“You’re wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, and they tend to be a bit persnickety about that,” he said. “They also tend to get a bit weird about making sure you’re actually Orthodox and not a tourist. You wearing the rasso was a quick way to bypass all of those issues.” Word to the wise, I suppose.

We got back to Sacramento quite late that night, and Matins was at 8am the next morning. I stumbled through Matins, Divine Liturgy and Kneeling Vespers a bit given how tired I was, but then it was immediately off to the airport for both us — I to fly back to Indiana and John to fly to Portland for a Cappella Romana fundraiser and a mini-tour on the Oregon coast. My brief couple of weeks pretending to be a singer again was in the books; time to go home.

A couple days after I got home, Ian the cellist was coming through Bloomington again, and we talked about my time out there a bit. He really enjoyed the concert, and he had some interesting thoughts about what it really meant to be a good musician. “Thing is, being around a school like IU can distort what being a musician really is,” he said. “Here, it’s just all about being super-competitive all the time. But when you go to a gig, what it’s about is showing up and being able to do what you’re asked to do. That transcription you did, not just anybody could have done that, but you got off the plane and did it, and you were able to do it because you were trained to do it, even if it seemed like just a party trick at the time with no application. People like you and me really do come out of a place like this being able to perform at a particular level, and even if it maybe takes you a few days to shake off the rust when you haven’t done it in awhile, you’re still going to be able to do it.”

I really don’t know if this trip will wind up leading to any other musical opportunities; it might, it might not. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I came back wanting to discuss with Matthew how we might make his pickup group more of a going concern, but as I alluded to, that’s not going to be a possibility moving forward, for reasons I’ll explain later.

If nothing else, however, maybe the experience of my couple of weeks in California allows me to change the narrative a bit. Maybe I didn’t fail as a musician. Maybe it really was just that I chose otherwise, not that I didn’t have a choice by virtue of not being good enough. Maybe I can take the line of my CV that says “failed singer” and have it just say “singer.”

Two weeks well-spent, one way or the other. Many thanks to John for the opportunity, the hospitality, the friendship and encouragement (to say nothing of the helpful jabs to the ribs), Dušan Radosavljevic for being a fantastic help at several points and a great person to get to know in general, St. John Maximovitch for not smacking me down despite having to be in and out, and Andrew Chung and the rest of the Josquin Singers/Bay Area Classical Harmonies for letting me play with them in their sandbox for a bit. Hope we get to do it again at some point, guys.

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The ison cannot be the “dummy note”: in which the author gets to be a Cappella Romana groupie and gets to know the Oakland Police Department better than ever anticipated

I’ve forgotten some things about what it’s like to be a “professional musician” in the intervening years since I went into remission for it.

First of all, I’ve forgotten that there really are things about it I enjoy. I’ve had a ball the eleven days or so that I’ve been here, getting to make music with people who know what they’re doing, in a setting where getting notes and rhythms right is assumed to be the basic starting point, not something unrealistically hoped for as the entirety of the final product, and in an environment, physically, acoustically, and otherwise, that is conducive to such an effort. The rehearsals we’ve had for the Josquin Singers have all gone by really quickly; the three hours are up before I know it.

It’s also a mode of existence that tends to be nomadic, and that brings together very interesting groups of people for short periods of time.

While we were planning my trip, John mentioned that he was taking a group of Cappella Romana singers to Pepperdine University for the Ascending Voice II conference while I’d be here, and that I’d be welcome to tag along if I wanted.

We’ll just say it didn’t take me long to think about it.

So, last Thursday, after singing Matins and Divine Liturgy for the Ascension at John’s parish, John, his student Dusan, and I took the short flight to Los Angeles, and there we met up with CR singers Andrew Gorny, David Krueger, and John’s dad, John S. Boyer (whom I had met once before in 1997 for a joint concert between Cappella and the Tudor Choir in which I sang). The six of us hopped in a rental minivan and drove to the Pepperdine campus in Malibu, met up with the other member of the crew Alex Khalil, and we were able to catch about three quarters of the evening’s Chanticleer concert (the showstopping highlight of which was countertenor Cortez Mitchell’s solo in “Summertime”).

The purpose of Cappella Romana’s presence at Ascending Voice was to give a Byzantine chant demonstration lecture and a workshop on Friday, and to sing a full Matins Saturday morning. John asked if, since I was there, I wouldn’t mind holding isokratima with David Krueger; sure, no problem, I said. So, following the concert, we rehearsed the demo repertoire.

Theoretically, really strong, solid musicians would be placed on the ison. It’s there so that the singers on the melody can hear the home note of the mode, and so it needs to be steady and unwavering. It can be really difficult even for singers who know what they’re doing. My experience with the drone note in parish practice, as a practical matter, is that it tends to be the “dummy note” — that is, it tends to be where people who can’t read music or who are otherwise not the most capable musicians in the choir get stuck. The intent is usually that even if singing the melody isn’t a realistic way for these people to participate, they should at least be able to hold a single note. Unfortunately, the result is often that non-singers wind up not being able to sustain the pitch; it goes flat and they can’t hear it, they can’t hear how the moves work, and so on and so forth. The deadly case is when such a singer decides that, because it’s the ison, it needs to be woofed up as much as possible, which usually means it goes way flat instantly, losing maybe a major third in pitch within seconds. In other words, the function of the drone — to be a tonal support and foundation for those on the melody — winds up being completely defeated, and those singing the melody have to work twice as hard in order to ignore what they’re hearing from those singing the ison and still stay in tune. There tends to be not much that can be done about this; yes, as stated, you actually do need strong musicians on the drone every bit as much as you do on the melody, but there usually aren’t enough people who are sufficiently confident with both reading and singing as it is to be able to spare them to support the isokratima. So you make do.

David Krueger, let it be said, does not have this problem. The guy is a freakin’ rock, and he’s got low notes that shake the floorboards. The rehearsal was a tremendously educational experience, and was great until the Southern Appalachian Chamber Singers came down around midnight and told us we were keeping them up. (“That probably wasn’t exactly successful evangelism,” John Boyer père quipped later.)

By the way, the very first thing I discovered Friday morning was that somebody was asleep at the switch in terms of finding a location for Pepperdine University. I mean, come on. What were they thinking? Terrible. Just terrible.

Both the demo and the workshop were fun; the lecture was largely the same as what John said at All Saints, but with live musical examples instead of recordings. Among other things, the examples included Ps. 102 and the Beatitudes (as heard on the Lycourgos Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy recording), the Polyeleos, and a setting of the Cherubic hymn, all off of Byzantine notation. The workshop involved teaching the participants music from the Divine Liturgy in English off of Western notation scores.

Matins on Saturday was quite an experience; we set it up with antiphonal choirs, we were all in cassocks, and we did the canons for the day in their entirety. I mostly held isokratima for the left choir, but lampadarios Alex Khalil was nice enough to let me sing a handful of troparia in the canons.

The priest who served was Fr. George Taweel of St. Nicholas, the Antiochian Cathedral in Los Angeles. Finding a priest was a bit of a challenge; John had called virtually every Greek priest in the area with no luck, but Alex knew Fr. Michael Najim, the Cathedral’s dean, and he was able to send Fr. George. Fr. George’s daughter Diana actually went to IU, and I knew her a bit from her time there. It was nice to meet him; we had lunch with him afterward, and he was a terrifically knowledgeable man and very interesting person with whom to have a conversation.

After lunch, it was back to the airport, back to Sacramento, just making it back to Annunciation for Vespers. It was a trip, short and guerilla-style as it was, that was great for which to be a fly on the wall; Alex Khalil in particular was a great person to meet. He’s an ethnomusicologist who just completed his PhD, and his dissertation is something that I think will have applicability for what I’m doing. Short version is that in his research, he applied a historical context to an ethnographic study of Byzantine chant; what I’m thinking about is sort of the reverse, where I’m interested in seeing if I can give an ethnomusicological context to a historical study of liturgy. I hope I get more of a chance to talk to him down the road.

I had hoped that friend-of-this-blog and Pepperdine employee David Dickens and I would have a chance to meet; we set up a lunch on Friday, but we managed to miss each other and he wound up being caught up by work anyway. Alas. Better luck next time.

After church on Sunday it was back on the road, heading first to Ascension Cathedral in Oakland for another Byzantine chant demonstration at their Greek festival. It was largely the same repertoire as what we did at Pepperdine, again off of Byzantine notation; I had assumed that I was holding ison again, but John pulled me over and had me follow along with the melody as best as I could. (This was, in general, a more successful effort on the slower pieces.) In the audience was my friend Ian Jones, a cellist who was the very first person I ever met as a student at IU, and for whom Oakland is home. He will hopefully be able to make the Friday concert at the Cathedral; in any event, it was great to see him on his own turf.

After that it was time to head to rehearsal, and as we had rehearsal again in the Bay area Monday night, John and I stayed overnight in Oakland at his friend and fellow Josquin Singer Andrew Chung‘s condo overlooking Lake Merritt rather than drive back to Sacramento.

In theory this was a smart move; we hopefully were going to have much of Monday to hang out in the San Francisco area, with seeing St. John Maximovitch’s cathedral being on the agenda. Unfortunately, John’s car got broken into during the night, leaving him minus a driver’s side window (although nothing got stolen, thank God), and we ended up  having to spend the day dealing with that. It took close to two hours just to file a police report; the form took all of two minutes to fill out, but then waiting in line to actually turn the piece of paper in to get a case number took upwards of an hour and a half. It then took another couple of hours to actually get the window replaced, and then — hey, look at that! It’s time to go to rehearsal.

Oh well. It happens.

Anyway, today has been the “day off,” which has consisted of pretty much just enjoying being in one place for the day on my part, and John furiously putting together the program for this weekend’s concerts. I don’t know how the guy does it; he’s got these concerts, his normal church duties, students, the Pepperdine thing last week, and then next week he has Cappella commitments in Oregon. He runs around a heck of a lot more than I ever did as a singer, vocally he’s always giving everything he’s got, and I know that if I were trying to do all of that, I wouldn’t last a week. He’s got to have vocal folds made of steel, that’s all I can say.

Tomorrow is the dress rehearsal, then the concerts are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; after Liturgy on Sunday it will be off to the airport and I’ll be on my way home. It seems odd that I’m almost to the last stage of the trip, but there we are. More a bit later.

Listening at the reliquary and taking Pentecostals by surprise: in which the author visits the island of Aegina

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.

“Thirty Euros.”

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.


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