My first day in Greece was planned to a tee: arrive at the airport shortly after noon, make a quick exit in the rental car and get as far away from Athens as soon as possible. I planned to head north, visit the Monastery of St. Ephraim the New in Nea Makri, then make my way to the close-by island of Evvia, where I would visit the Church of St. John the Russian in Prokopi, as well as the more remote Monastery of St. David--these saints and martyrs of the Turkish yoke being of particular interest to me. As it turned out, I was ultimately able to visit only one of these three, but that turned out to be more than enough.
I was keen to visit the relics of St. Ephraim the New, martyred by the Turks about 1425. Mother Nectaria McLees' Evogleite! A Pilgrim's Guide to Greece served as an excellent guidebook. Her work is well worth a read, whether you ever travel to Greece or not. Mother Nectaria's directions to some of the sites were, however, sometimes a bit sketchy. Being relatively close to Athens, the traffic was thick around Nea Makri. The Greeks also had the effrontery to not post an English-language sign at the turn-off road. Seriously though, our American laziness when it comes to anything other than English is sometimes just incredible. My struggling waiter in Istanbul can speak 6 languages, but I cannot even take the time to brush-up on the bare basics of the Greek alphabet. Being frustrated in my attempt to find the first monastery, I decided to push on to Evvia and perhaps try for this one again later on.
The largest Greek island after Crete, Evvia is so close to the mainland that one just drives across a bridge instead of taking a ferry. Prokopi, home of the relics of St. John the Russian, is towards the upper end of the island. The Monastery of St. David was located even further away. Evvia is quite mountainous and I quickly determined that reaching, and returning from the latter would take far longer than anticipated. In the end, I did not visit St. David's.
Prokopi has a unique history. The village was settled with refugees from a Cappadocian village of the same name in the great population exchange of 1923. With what belongings they could gather, the Anatolian Christians were shipped to Greece, a country their forebears had left perhaps 2,000 years earlier. And with them, they brought the precious relics of St. John the Russian. This young man was a soldier in service to Tsar Peter I, captured by the Ottomans in the early 1700s in one of their conflicts. Sold to a wealthy Turk, John spent the rest of his life in servitude--and exemplary holiness. Many miracles are attributed to him, both in his lifetime and after his death. The old church in Cappadocia was demolished and the town's name changed to Urgup. I visited there in 2007, enjoyed a leisurely meal on the town square, all with no knowledge of its rich Orthodox history. Maybe I was determined to visit the "new" Prokopi partially to compensate a bit for my earlier ignorance.
Winding higher and higher into the steep mountains of Evvia, I was beginning to believe that the Anatolian refugees had received a poor recompense for their old homes. But the island is deceptive--the ring of mountains conceal a narrow valley in its core. And there lies Prokopi, in a region of clear-running streams, orchards, small fields and beehives--in short, a secluded haven for the old Cappadocians. The town itself is pleasant enough, a few businesses on the main road, with the main village strung out along an elongated loop to the left. At the far end lay the town's anchor, the Church of St. John the Russian, with a large plaza between. Along the outside of the loop lay small shops, taverns (tabepnas), cafes and stores of various sorts. There was no shortage of souvenir displays where one could buy their St. John the Russian coffee mugs, or St. John the Russian vases, or St. John the Russian pot-holders. Thank you, no.
I found an establishment on the main road advertising "Rooms to let, 20 euro." This seemed like just the ticket, so I locked-in my bed for the night, and made plans to explore the town a bit. I strolled up to the church and was glad to discover that Vespers had just started. A good crowd was in attendance, though this was partially due to two tour buses parked nearby. Now is as good a time as any to comment on the pilgrimage tours I witnessed in Greece and Bulgaria. At first glance, one is inclined to view it as something of a sideshow. At the popular tour sites, vendors and shops will line the road leading to the church and monastery. And a busload of fellow visitors may not be what you had imaged for your time at the monastery. My first reaction was to cringe, just a little, when I would pull up and see the buses already there. But I was wrong in my snobbish assumptions--for while they might chatter like tourists out around the buses, when these pilgrims entered the churches, they were invariably solemn and reverent. The only place I found this not to be the case was in Meteora, whose topography is dramatic enough that it attracts visitors in and of itself, regardless of the monasteries. The uncorrupted relics of St. John the Russian--a small man--are enclosed within a glass-topped case at the back left side of the nave. His face, of course, is covered. Worshippers and pilgrims would venerate his relics and icon as one first entered the nave. The church itself itself is about 50 years old, a cross-in-square design, with twin bell-towers in front. The interior was completely covered in iconography, which is not always the case in Greece.
After Vespers, I strolled back down towards my room. I stopped at a cafe for a beer, and took a table next to the street. I noticed my taverna started to fill with townspeople, all dressed a little nicer than you might expect. Others, particularly the women, just strolled up and down the street, conversing with those in the outdoor cafes as they went along. I was beginning to wonder if this was a local tradition, and by this I mean the dressing-up and public socializing on Saturday nights. Soon, all was made clear.
A shiny, new semi-truck (without the rig) moved slowly up the street, honking its horn all the way. The owner's name--J. Foptakis--was proudly displayed on a panel above the cab. A large wreath graced the front of the truck, with streamers tied to the sides as well. The passenger--a young man in a silver suit--was grinning and waving to the crowds in the cafes as they passed by. The driver made a long, slow circle around the town loop, and then to my surprise, I heard him coming up the street for the second time. And then it hit me--a wedding was in the offing! I noticed that the other customers in the cafe were beginning to finish up their frappes and cigarettes and making arrangements to pay. The crowd in the streets began to slowly move toward the church. And you did not have to tell me how many times the semi-truck would circle the town. At the end of the third loop, it stopped in front of the church I had left a while earlier. I paid my bill and ambled back up the street to see something of this "Big Fat Greek Wedding." Along with other onlookers, I staked out an observation point directly across from the church and watched the guests arrived. Some of the women looked as if they were attending a disco circa 1986, but no matter. It was all great fun. The groom stood in the doorway to the narthex grinning broadly, handsome as only a shaven-headed man can be. Ahem. The photographer snapped pictures of what I assumed to be the groom's family, while the milling crowd grew ever larger. At that point, a large black sedan, itself festooned with flowers and streamers, pulled in front of the church and started honking. No doubt what this was all about, for in the back seat was the bride, engulfed in the overflowing mound of her wedding gown. The sedan slowly circled the town three times, honking all the way. When they finally stopped, the beautiful young bride emerged to the cheers of the crowd gathered outside. Greek women seem to love henna hair coloring. Some, as this bride, take it to such an extreme that it takes on a decidedly purplish hue. She wore as much of a wedding dress as could possibly be crammed into the back seat of a Volkswagen sedan. She joined her prospective husband briefly in the door way and acknowledged the well-wishes of the guests, before entering the church for her wedding. While standing outside, I noticed a young woman, in her early 20s, riding by on her bicycle. Dressed casually, she was clearly not coming to partake in the wedding festivities. But as she passed in front of the church, I noticed that she crossed herself. This was not new to me, having seen it in spades in Georgia. From my view, this was no calculated, self-conscious show of outward piety. Rather, it was as if she would no more pass a church without crossing herself as we would change lanes without using our turn signal--instinctive and natural.
I had seen enough of the lead-up to the wedding, so I decided to walk back down to my room and get some sleep. I stopped by a small church near my room. One finds such chapels all over Greece. The church itself was locked, but there were icons on the exonarthex, along with a candle tray and stand. Someone had been before me, as several candles were already burning. I had found a perfect place of my prayers, and so I lit a couple of candles and stood outside this little chapel for a while. My simple mattress-on-the-floor (almost) sure felt good a little later on. At about 10:30, I half awakened to the air-horn and honking of the newlywed's semi-truck as it pulled out onto the main road. I suspected that they would probably be late for Liturgy tomorrow.
I was in no hurry to get up the next morning, and consequently lay in bed, wondering what time I needed to head for church. In a few minutes, the ringing of church bells alerted me to the fact that that time was right then. I quickly dressed, and made my way to St. John's. I was in time for the Hours (a fact that may justifiably astound my priest and fellow parishioners,) and a sizable crowd was already in place. The numbers grew steadily, so that by the time Liturgy was well underway, the church was packed, the narthex was full, and many were hanging about outside the entryway--and this with no input from the tour buses which only arrived after Liturgy. Loudspeakers broadcast the service into the town itself.
At the end of the Hours and the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, the lights on the chandeliers were suddenly illuminated (which I expected,) but at the same time, the bells in both towers started ringing loudly (which I did not expect.) My heart caught in my throat. It was as if the Gates of Heaven were opening before me. And of course, they were.
A line formed quickly to venerate the relics of St. John the Russian. One older Greek lady lingered long at the glass case, repeatedly kissing the glass and mouthing her prayers and supplications. No one in the line showed any sign of impatience, or of trying to push her along. We each were allowed our time there, however long that needed to me. I noticed one Greek lady in black, hobbling in with a cane and clearly old enough to have been born in Anatolia, prior to the great uprooting of 1923. But the crowd was far from dominated by little old Greek ladies. The crowd was about equally divided between men and women of all ages. For those keeping score, I do not recall seeing any headscarves. I was a bit surprised to see some in swimsuits or beach clothes and flip-flops. Those thus attired (and they were not all young people) made their way up to venerate the relics, and then clung to the back of the nave. Early in the Liturgy, I stepped out briefly for some air. While there, I noticed a Greek lady (younger than myself) coming down the street on her hands and knees. She rounded the corner and made her way up the steps into the nave before ever arising. I had heard of this, but had never seen it before. Her actions attracted no attention, her devotion being seen as perfectly commonplace and normal.
After I had received, and the service ended, I joined everyone else out on the plaza surrounding the church. The first of the tour buses for the day was just pulling up. By the time I had eaten a bite of lunch at the cafe directly across, there would be 4 buses parked around. The church would be full all afternoon.
In the U.S., we often praise certain civic institutions as being an integral "part" of their communities. We use this terminology when talking of schools, libraries, parks, and yes, churches. Make no mistake--the Church of St. John the Russian is no "part" of Prokopi. Rather, it is the very living, breathing, throbbing heart of this town. Yes, there are homes, cafes, shops and stores clustered around--but these are incidental. The church is Prokopi.
In American Orthodoxy, we bandy around terms like authentic, and organic, and un-selfconscious in our vigorous in-house dialogue addressing the evolving form of our faith in this land. If one wonders what these concepts would actually look like on the ground, Prokopi might be a good place to start.