Diary of a Pilgrimage: Constantinople and Mt. Athos
22 May–10 June • Off Campus
Follow the Byzantine journey!
A few days after Commencement, eleven students from St. Vladimir's Seminary accompanied by SVOTS alumnus and Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America's Diocese of the South The Very Rev. Marcus Burch, SVOTS Dean and Professor of Patristics The Very Rev. Dr. John Behr and his son Rufus, and The Very Rev. Alexander Rentel, assistant professor of Canon Law and Byzantine Studies and The John and Paraskeva Skvir Lecturer in Practical Theology, boarded a plane in New York for a pilgrimage to the historic Byzantine sites of Constantinople and Mt. Athos.
The trip, made possible by two generous benefactors from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, "has as its core the visit to the Holy Mountain and the study of Athonite monasticism, while a second goal is that the students would experience the broader range of the Greek Orthodox world," explained Fr. Alexander prior to the trip. "Hence, we are starting the trip in Istanbul—ancient Constantinople—so that the students can be exposed to the historic context of the Byzantine spiritual tradition." From there, the group will travel to the "second city" of the Byzantine Empire, Thessalonika, a Christian center since the Apostolic Era that retains its Orthodox character in a vibrant modern setting. From Thessalonika, the class will travel to St. Paul's Monastery (Agiou Pavlou) on the Holy Mountain, where they will attend the full cycle of services, dine with the monks, fulfill obediences assigned by the monastery, and attend lectures and roundtable discussions.
The trip will conclude with a brief visit to Athens for a presentation on Athenian Christianity and the modern Greek Orthodox Church.
"No one can deny the importance of Mt. Athos within the contemporary Orthodox world, " noted Fr. Alexander. "For over a thousand years, the Holy Mountain has been a center of spirituality and liturgical practice, a training ground for leaders in the Church, and occasionally a source of controversy. Through this trip, we hope to help students place Mt. Athos within a larger historical and cultural context. Furthermore," Fr. Alexander continued, "we will introduce students to the institutions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and today's Greek Orthodox Church. Seminarians from St. Vladimir's who will live and work in North America will face the challenge of fostering unity, and key to this unity is understanding the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Sacred Synod of Constantinople."
Throughout the trip, student diarists Gregory Tucker (see entries below, to be updated regularly) and Ian Abodeely are recording the group's adventures through photographs and journal entries. New photos and dispatches can also be found on St. Vladimir's Seminary's Facebook page.
Thursday, May 23
The breathtaking sight of the Great Church (Agia Sophia) perched above the waters greeted a band of weary pilgrims at the end of a long day of travel from New York to Istanbul. As we sailed down the Bosphorus and out into the Sea of Marmara, the golden Mediterranean sun glanced off the sapphire waves. Seminarians discussed the marvel of the city which stood at the centre of the Christian world for so many centuries.
A great treat awaited us at the end of our boat journey—the beautiful island of Heybeliada, crowned by the seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Halki), which is our home for the first leg of our pilgrimage. We ascended the peak in a fleet of horse–drawn carriages to be greeted by our gracious hosts. The beautiful seminary buildings are set in majestic grounds with views of the sea and beyond to the city. Peacocks roam the gardens, pens of goats stand alongside chicken runs and beehives, and nestled at the heart of the complex of buildings is a jewel–box chapel, reminding us that at the centre of our life, and our pilgrimage over the coming weeks, is the mystery of Jesus Christ.
Friday, May 24
What better way to begin a splendid day in the city which once stood at the heart of the Christian Empire, than by approaching on water (albeit pretty choppy!), as have generations of pilgrims and pillagers before us? Our morning was occupied by touring the Patriarchal Church of Hagia Irene (Holy Peace), with its graceful arches, enormous windows shedding brilliant light on the spacious interior, and classical synthronon where once bishops and presbyters sat in theological disputation or to preside at the Liturgy.
A hearty lunch at a nearby restaurant preceded the highlight of the day—a visit to the Great Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). It is almost impossible to describe the impact of one's first glimpse through the narthex and into the nave. The vast central dome soars above and one can only wonder at the grandeur of the place where so many significant events of our Orthodox past took place. Seminarians meandered their way through the huge crowd, surging inside what is now a museum. Some paused to consider how many Emperors stood on the famous porphyry circle or speculated about the altar furnishings; some discussed what exactly it was that the legates of Prince Vladimir saw on their tour; others were moved by the timeless mercy of Christ and fervent supplication of the Theotokos and the Forerunner depicted in the faces of the famous Deisis mosaic; still others listened to Fr Alex's longings for precise floor markings in our own Three Hierarchs Chapel to further refine our liturgical practices!
The late afternoon afforded time to haggle down the price of a fez or a coffee pot in the Grand Bazaar, before we embarked once again on the (somewhat calmer!) waters of the Golden Horn, sailing across to Halki as the sun set over the domes of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, concluding our day with supper and a glass of the local Raki on the pleasantly cool waterfront.
Saturday, May 25
Our third day proved to be as busy as the previous ones, though the effects of jet lag meant that more than one of us took a brief afternoon nap on the bus! After a pleasant early morning walk down from the seminary to the harbour, we sailed once more for the city. We visited first the beautifully restored mosque known as "Little Aya Sophia"—formerly the imperial —and then drove on a little further to the now–ruinous remains of the once–great Stoudios Monastery near the limits of the ancient city.
The morning concluded with the magnificent Church of St. Saviour in Chora. Though unremarkable in its external form, the interior of this famous church is a feast for the eyes. Three of the four main spaces—the parekklesion, narthex, and exo-narthex—are richly adorned with frescoes and mosaics, covered for centuries during the building's use as a mosque. Our pilgrims strained their necks to identify their patrons amidst choirs of saints, recalled seminary classes on iconology and liturgy and Scripture in order to appreciate the depth of the iconographic program, and stood enthralled before the famous apse fresco of Christ's triumphal victory over death. It is impossible not to be moved by this place, whose evangelical message still speaks so powerfully to us today.
After a terrace–top lunch overlooking the Golden Horn, we wound our way through the streets, briefly pausing at the Fatih Mosque, to the Pammakaristos Church, which preserves yet more shimmering Byzantine mosaics in its parekklesion, and was at one time the seat of the Patriarchate.
We returned to Halki in time for Vespers, sung jointly by the small monastic brotherhood and SVOTS seminarians. Dinner was hosted most graciously by Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa, abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity which houses the seminary. Over coffee served in the ceremonial hall, His Eminence spoke to us of the vision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the future of the seminary as a monastery, school, and conference centre. Father John Behr remarked at the many similarities between the Metropolitan's plans and the past and future of St. Vladimir's, and presented His Eminence and the Halki Seminary library with complete sets of the Popular Patristics Series published by SVS Press. The Metropolitan graciously extended the hand of welcome to future generations of SVOTS students, which greatly pleased those of us who have been blessed to visit.
Sunday, May 26
Sunday began with the priests (Fr. John, Fr. Alex, and Fr. Marcus) and deacon (Dn. Nicholas) in our party concelebrating the Divine Liturgy with Fr. Samuel of the Holy Trinity Brotherhood at Halki, in the presence of Metropolitan . The Liturgy was served in English—perhaps for the first time in the seminary's distinguished history—and sung by a choir formed from our group. Additionally, Fr. John and Fr. Alex presented the Metropolitan with a complete set of the Popular Patristics series from SVS Press.
On another gloriously sunny day, we took the boat once more across the Sea of Marmara to the city for an afternoon at our own leisure.
Wednesday, May 29
Our band of pilgrims took a photo today with Fr. Evdokimos, Fr. John Behr's brother, who is one of the senior monks of the monastery and the one who arranged our visit. We're so very blessed!
Father John Behr noted after our first service on Mt. Athos that "our seminarians sang the cherubicon at Liturgy this morning at St. Paul's. It was a great honor indeed!"
Saturday, June 8
Our time on the Holy Mountain has now come to an end—this correspondent took a break from the internet and emails during our 12 days on the peninsula, in order to enter more fully into the monastic experience.
These past days have been incredibly rich for all of us. The unusually long duration of our stay allowed us time both to bed down at our host monastery, Agios Pavlos, and participate in the common life of that community, and to explore the numerous other monasteries and sketes of the Holy Mountain. Our party received a very warm welcome at St. Paul's, not only from Fr. John's brother, Hieromonk Evdokimos, but also from the other thirty–or–so brethren who make up one of the oldest brotherhoods in existence on Mount Athos. Over the course of our time, we participated daily in the lengthy early–morning service (combining Midnight Office, Orthros, the Hours, and Divine Liturgy), Vespers, and Compline, and served the community by assisting in the refectory after meals, clearing up after the monks and many pilgrims.
Many of us grew close to the monks whose obedience is to serve in the refectory, Frs. Antonio, Gabriel, and Ignatius (an American), and they were keen to spend time speaking with us over tea or bread and cheese. In the services we were immersed in the Athonite liturgical tradition with its precise rubrics and beautifully sung Byzantine chant. On a number of occasions, a small group, formed of half of the members of this past year's Octet, was invited to sing the Cherubic Hymn and hymn to the Theotokos during the Anaphora—the first of these occasions was in fact the first time English had been sung during a Liturgy in the monastery's Katholikon in the more than 1,000 year history of St. Paul's!
At various points, members of the group ventured out of St Paul's to nearby churches, sketes or other monasteries for the day or overnight. Many of us enjoyed visiting Fr. Paisios at New Skete with Fr. Evdokimos. Some members of the group travelled to the opposite end of the peninsula to the monastery of Xenophontos (during our time, members of Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, MA were also staying there—the Orthodox world is very small, it seems!), passed through the capital of the monastic republic, Karyes, and visited monasteries on the northern shore: Stavronikita, Iviron, Prodromou, and Megisti Lavra. Many of us were enraptured by the natural beauty of the Holy Mountain and enjoyed walking and hiking around the monasteries, travelling through the so–called "desert" at the south–east tip of the peninsula, and a small, brave group (Harrison, Tor, and Joshua) made the long trip up to the summit of Mount Athos, some 6,000 feet above sea level!
We have been blessed to meet many inspiring people along this leg of the journey, both monks and pilgrims, who have made their way to this place out of love for Christ. We have both seen and been joined to a way of life which at first seems so strange, but soon reveals its beauty and capacity to transform. One thing which has struck several of our group is the sense that many of the men we have met in this unusual place are really "ordinary" people who have chosen to live an extraordinary way of life in order that they might work out their salvation in Christ. To all of us, married or single, lay or ordained, the Holy Mountain—and most especially our friends at St. Paul's—has given many gifts, challenges, things to ponder, and most importantly refreshment and rejuvenation as we continue on our own paths towards Christ.
IMAGES OF ATHOS (Photos: Seminarian Ian Abodeely)