Travelogue and Final Reflections
From May 22–June 10, Fr. John Behr and I led a group of St. Vladimir's students on a trip to Turkey, Greece, and Mt. Athos. Traveling with us were Fr. Marcus Burch (M.Div. 1997), chancellor of the Diocese of the South (OCA), and Fr. John's son Rufus. This trip afforded us the opportunity to visit the great centers of Hellenic Orthodoxy: Constantinople, Thessalonika, Mt. Athos, and Athens. All along the way we enjoyed warm hospitality, an opportunity for pilgrimage, the fellowship of each other, and the enormous fun of sightseeing and travel. Students were able to take part in this trip at a low monetary cost due to the generous benefactions of two anonymous donors who are great friends of the Ecumenical Patriarch and wished to help make possible this trip. Needless to say, the Seminary—and all of us who went on this trip—thank these two donors for their generosity.
When Fr. John and I first conceived of this trip, we had in mind the importance that travel had in our formation. As is well known, travel broadens horizons and allows for the appreciation of different perspectives, and is an essential part of any formation. First and foremost then we wanted to give our students similar opportunities to experience first–hand some of the places where Orthodox Christianity has found itself, both in history and the modern world. Along with these goals, we wanted the students to develop further bonds of fellowship to carry and sustain them throughout their lives.
We asked Fr. Marcus if he would be interested in coming on the trip because we felt the students would benefit from meeting and spending time with a senior priest and diocesan chancellor. In turn, he could become acquainted better with the seminarians. Father Marcus' participation in the trip was all that we could hope for. He was always ready for good conversation, to make a trip to a nearby or faraway monastery, to sit down for a coffee, to offer a pastoral word or insight, or to grab a quick snack, all the while being solicitous of the students.
We began our trip in modern day Istanbul, where we were able to visit the sites that are so important to the history of the Church. Of course, we visited the Hagia Sophia and the Kariye Camii, places where most people who travel to Constantinople go, but we also visited the Hagia Eirene and the ruins of the Studion monastery. In fact, our tour guide was able to talk with residents of apartments abutting the ruins of Studion; they allowed us to go through their property to be as close as possible to the ruins.
While we were there, we met a Syrian Orthodox Christian who saw us poking around the ruins and came over to see who we were and where we were from. Current and former students of the present author can easily imagine the thrill I had touching the walls of the monastery of Studion, knowing the immense influence it had on the liturgy of the Church.
During our time in Istanbul, we stayed at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity on the island of Halki—modern day Heybiliada—where we were hosted warmly by His Eminence Metropolitan Elpidophoros and the monastic brotherhood. On Sunday, May 26, His Eminence allowed our group to celebrate the Divine Liturgy as we do at St. Vladimir's. The seminarians sang under the direction of Harrison Russin (M.Div. 2013) and Fr. John, Fr. Marcus, and I concelebrated with the newly ordained Dn. Nicholas Roth. Hieromonk Samuil Efes of the monastery also concelebrated with us. What a great blessing this was to celebrate the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in English in sight of the very city where he was bishop. All the members of our group were thankful that Metropolitan Elpidophoros gave us the blessing to celebrate the Divine Liturgy at his monastery.
After Great Vespers and dinner the previous evening, Saturday, May 25, His Eminence met and talked with us about the re–opening of Halki as a theological school. Since the early 1970s when the Turkish government closed the school, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has worked diligently to garner support for its re–opening. The Metropolitan informed us of the various plans and needs for Halki; without a doubt, the importance of this institution and its re–emergence within world Orthodoxy cannot be overstated. As a school of Orthodox theology, it boasts a long and storied history of excellent professors and generations of graduates who went on to serve the Church as patriarchs, bishops, priests, deacons, and educated faithful.
Even more, in our own age in which we experience the deleterious effects of religious intolerance and fundamentalism, the potential of a school of Orthodox theology in Turkey and the Middle East is vital. The re–opening of Halki Seminary would contribute to a peaceful coexistence of multiple cultures in areas of the world where differences in culture or religion are often used as excuses for destructive activities. It is worth noting that in the Middle East, the historical cradle of Christianity and Christian learning, there is currently only one other Orthodox school of theology, the very fine St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. We remain especially hopeful that our visit showed our support for the re–opening of Halki and helped forge ties between it and St. Vladimir's.
From Istanbul, our group traveled to the great city of Thessalonika, Greece, for a too brief visit to the city's churches. In Thessalonika, we naturally found our way to the basilica of St. Dimitrios, where a Paraklesis to St. Dimitrios was being served. After books, vestments, cassocks, a few other sundries had been purchased, we made our way to a fantastic dinner with Fr. Peter Heers, an American priest studying and ministering in Greece.
The next morning, Tuesday, May 28, we left Thessalonika for our twelve-day stay on Mt. Athos. For the entire time we were on the Holy Mountain, our home base was the Monastery of St. Paul's, on the southwestern corner of the peninsula. Pilgrims are not usually allowed to stay on the Holy Mountain for twelve days. We were able to stay at St. Paul's for this length thanks to the permission of the Abbot of the Monatery, Fr. Parthenios, and elders of the monastery, including Fr. John's brother, Fr. Evdokimos, who has been a monk at St. Paul's for some twenty years. All of us on the trip are grateful to the abbot and the monastic brothers and to Fr. Evdokimos for this permission and for their hospitality that we experienced for the duration of our stay.
During this time, we all walked and travelled around to other monasteries, sketes, and various kellia. While some of us visited Vatopaidi on the northeast side of the peninsula, others made it down to the Lavra and Prodromou and walked around the southern tip back up to St. Paul's. Father Marcus led a group of seminarians on an overnight stay to a number of monasteries, while others found their way on their own. Both groups eventually found their way to the Great Lavra, where they made a visit to the Cave of St. Athanasios of Athos and to the Romanian Skete of Prodromou.
Ian Abodeely, currently a St. Vladimir's seminarian, formerly a student at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston, journeyed to the monastery of Xenophontos to meet up with students from Holy Cross who were there making their annual trip to the area. Three of the seminarians, Harrison Russin, Tor Svane, and Joshua Trant climbed up Mt. Athos itself. Immediately to the south of St. Paul's are the communities of Nea Skete and St. Anne's. Along the way to these communities is the former residence of the Elder Sophrony, the disciple of St. Silouan, and founder of the monastery of St. John the Forerunner in Essex, England. His cave/residence was a frequent destination for many of us on the trip. I took a memorable walk there with two of our seminarians, Bavly Kost and Meena Andrews.
While at St. Paul's, the seminarians threw themselves into life of the monastery. Frequently, I would find them chatting with one or another monk or fellow pilgrim, helping out in the kitchen and the refectory. Vividly, I can recall that within hours of arriving at the monastery, I spied one of our seminarians, Tristan Gall, sitting on a crate, prepping artichokes for the kitchen with a handful of other monks.
All of us spent much of our time in the monastery Church. The first bell rang at 2:15 a.m. in order to wake the monks so that they could do their prayer rule in their cells. I can testify that the Athonite father who resided above me woke up every morning with this bell for his prayers and numerous prostrations. At around 3:45 am, the cycle of services began with Morning Prayers, Midnight Office, Matins, 1st, 3rd, 6th Hours, and then the Divine Liturgy. In the evening, we would come back for 9th Hour and Vespers, and again after dinner for Little Compline. Shortly after Compline, it was time for bed.
The services on Athos are long and done in all their completeness. Periods of great intensity, fantastic chanting, censing with smoke and sparks flying out of the censer, all kinds of activity, are immediately followed by long periods of psalmic recitation. I admit with all humility that even though I've been present in the altar with my father as a child, am a professor of liturgics and an ordained priest of many years, I found myself lost once or twice when a light was lit in the monastery, a folding lectern placed in the middle of the Church, and an elderly monk made his way to the lectern and started reading a text. What is he doing? we would all wonder.
The highlight of the liturgical schedule was, without doubt, June 2. We spent at least eleven hours in Church that day between the services for Sunday morning and the Vigil for the Feast of Ss. Constantine and Helena. The memory of the two elderly monks who chanted in the main for the service will remain with me for a long time. At the same time, hearing Brad Vien, Harrison Russin, Gregory Tucker, and Ian Abodeely sing the Cherubikon at one of the liturgies or hearing young Rufus Behr read the Lord's Prayer during a liturgy, are blessed memories.
Some of our most pleasant times involved doing a whole lot of nothing. Many evenings we found ourselves outside the Church, or right outside the little gift shop the monastery runs, or out on a balcony just sitting and talking, enjoying each other's company.
After our time on Athos, we made our way to Athens. A good part of my motivation for this trip was to expose these seminarians to the Greek Orthodox world. In Constantinople, we experienced an important aspect. On Mt. Athos, we experienced another. I wanted to make sure, however, that the seminarians also experienced what a typical parish in Greece would be like on any given Sunday. After an evening becoming settled in Athens, on Sunday, June 9 we made our way out to a northeast suburb of Athens, Chalandri, where we attended the Divine Liturgy at the parish Church of St. George.
One of the priests at St. George's is Fr. Stephanos Alexopoulos, who spoke at St. Vladimir's in 2009 at a Liturgical Symposium around the time of our annual Fr. Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture. Father Marcus and I concelebrated the liturgy that morning with Fr. Stephanos and the other priests attached to St. George's. There were probably 650-700 faithful at services. Again Harrison Russin led our seminarians in singing hymns during services.
After services, over coffee and cake, Fr. Stephanos spoke to us about the state of the Church in modern Greece, parochial life in Athens, and also about his own scholarly work. That evening, Fr. Stephanos joined our group for a final dinner at a restaurant near his Church in Chalandri. It was great to see my good friend, Fr. Stephanos, and I especially appreciated that he took time off from his busy schedule to talk with and come with us for dinner that night.
From start to finish, the trip was excellent. I love all of the places we visited and would visit them again in a heartbeat, and am happy that Fr. John and I were able to take our seminarians to these places. I hope that having been there, they themselves will go back and eventually lead others to the same places. I have to comment also on the high caliber of our students. From start to finish, they served as wonderful ambassadors for the seminary, carrying books that we passed out as presents along the way, working at the monastery, or singing at the different services. Above all, the respect they showed to one another and to the people that we met along the way was rivaled only by their appropriate demeanor as pilgrims at the holy sites. I certainly look forward to future trips with St. Vladimir's students.