Greece is one of my favorite places. Some of the most important developments in Western Civilization took place there, and the natural beauty of the region rivals that of anywhere I’ve seen. I spent a week there in the Spring of 2009, and I just got back from my second trip a few weeks ago. The focus of this trip was St. Paul, and it was led by a Scripture professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University here in Rome, where I attend classes. (Actually, we spent about equal time learning about St. Paul, the Greek Orthodox Church, and ancient Greek culture.) We spent three nights in Thessalonica, and then four nights at a Jesuit retreat house outside of Athens. Here’s a recap of the week’s events.
Sunday—From Rome to Thessalonica
We arrived in Thessalonica on Sunday evening, after first celebrating Easter Sunday Mass at the College in Rome. The Eastern Church (and, in the interests of ecumenism, all Roman Catholics living in the East) observes Easter according to the Julian Calendar, which was a week later this year. So in addition to adjusting to the time change, we also adjusted to the Liturgical Season change from Easter back to Lent, and observed Holy Week again. After dinner a few of us explored the city briefly before calling it a night.
The first site we visited was Philippi, which was founded by King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, in 356 BC. It was later given privileged status within the Roman Empire for siding with Octavian (Augustus) in the civil war against the Republican conspirators who sought refuge there. We saw the ancient city and the cell where St. Paul was imprisoned, as well as the stream where he baptized Lydia (Acts 16:12-15). We had intended to celebrate Mass by the riverside, near the baptistery that was built on the site of Lydia’s baptism, but the weather wasn’t cooperating, so we ended up having it in the seating area of the café on the site. Afterwards we briefly visited the town of Kavala (ancient Neapolis) and ate lunch there before returning to Thessalonica to visit a few Orthodox parishes.
We traveled past Mount Olympus to the mountains of Meteora, where several medieval monasteries still function today. The landscape was spectacular, and some of the monasteries are built in impressively remote spots, as shown in the picture below.
We visited several monasteries during the course of the trip, and I bought plenty of icons from them. (The spirituality of the Eastern Church is very much tied into the veneration—not worship!—of icons. More on that another time.) Obviously there are many similarities between the Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: the same Gospel is proclaimed, and all the same Sacraments are celebrated. But one is also struck by the differences in architecture and practice. As I mentioned, icons are heavily emphasized in the Eastern Church, and every parish and monastery chapel I visited was full of them, in frescoes and mosaics on the walls, and in particular on the screen in front of the sanctuary, called the iconostasis. In addition to these, there were also special icons placed on freestanding supports for the purpose of veneration (it is customary to kiss these icons). One thing I witnessed that really stuck with me was a father with his young son who, after venerating one such icon, began to walk away. Then he realized that the boy was still standing by the icon (he was too short to reach it), so he lifted him up so that he could kiss it as well.
Wednesday—From Thessalonica to Athens; Eleusina
We packed up early and flew to Athens in the morning. On our way from the airport to the retreat center, we stopped at Eleusina, which is pronounced “El-ef-SEE-nuh” in modern Greek. Here were the Elysian Fields, said to have been the final resting place of the souls of the just. It was also a very important site for the cult of Demeter and Persephone, an ancient mystery religion that was very influential in Greek life from the pre-Archaic period (roughly 900 BC or earlier) well into the third or fourth century AD. We saw the ancient Roman temple ruins—the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC—built on top of the earlier Greek temples there, as well as a nice museum detailing the importance of the place.
We arrived at the retreat center in the early afternoon, and once we unloaded our luggage and settled in, most of the group set out for Porto Germeno, which is a local beach. I decided to stay behind, since I’m not much of a beach guy. But plans changed once the bus left, and in addition to the beach, the group went up to a nearby monastery as well. But fortunately for me, the Jesuit priest running the retreat center had planned to go meet them there, so he took me along with him. And the bus ended up being a little late in arriving, which gave me a special opportunity to pick his brain about East-West relations. (He’s got a particularly good perspective on that sort of thing, since his mother is Catholic and his father is Orthodox.) Perhaps I’ll write more about that later.
We began the day at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, where some of the greatest treasures of ancient Greek civilization are currently housed. I had already been there once, so instead of making an effort to see everything, I concentrated on the Archaic (800-500 BC) and Classical (500-300) Periods. But I also paid a brief visit to the Mycenaean (1600-1100 BC) exhibit, which houses, among other things, the funerary mask of Agamemnon (of which I have a replica hanging in my bedroom at home).
After the museum, we visited the Agora of Athens, where St. Paul evangelized the Athenians by pointing out their temple to an unknown god, and proclaiming this to be the one True God: the God of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:19-34). He won at least a few converts there, including Dionysius the Aereopagite, who may have been the first bishop of that city.
Then I finally mounted the Acropolis in triumph to see the Parthenon, which I had intended to do on my last trip, but was unable because the workers were on strike at the time. Later we went to the Acropolis Museum, which was fascinating in its own right, but not before going down to see the Agora (the ancient marketplace), where Socrates was known to frequent and pose difficult questions about justice to the ancient Athenians. While I was down there, I snuck off into the nearby shopping district to enjoy a gyro and a Mythos beer, thus achieving one of my chief objectives of the trip.
This was probably my favorite part of my first Greece trip, and though the weather was not nearly as nice this time, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Delphi was at one time the center of Hellenic unity, as it was the site of an Oracle of Apollo, where many leaders came seeking advice (but usually got very ambiguous answers). The Athenian general Themistocles famously received the prophecy there that Athens would survive behind her wooden walls. Some took that literally, and though the held out for some time, the city was ultimately sacked. But Themistocles interpreted it as a directive to build a fleet of ships—technically within the bounds of the prophecy, since the ships were made of wood—and successfully defeated the Persians at Salamis. Thus the Athenian navy was born.
Delphi was also the site of the Pythian Games, held every four years, and second in importance only to the Olympic Games. These pan-Hellenic games, in which every Greek polis of any significance competed, fostered unity on the basis of seeking excellence in competition among equals, and led to the conception of seeking excellence for its own sake. This came to characterize the Greek ethos, in contrast to the so-called barbarians, who sought only victory and dominance, which are the external goods that are usually (but not necessarily) the result of excellence.
While we were in the area, we visited the monastery of Hosios Loukas, which I had also visited on my previous trip. As with all the other monasteries we visited, it was built on a beautiful mountainside. But what set this one apart from the other monasteries we saw is that there were two very large and very old chapels built there, from around the 10th Century, I believe. Not much else to say here, except that I bought a CD of the chant they use in their liturgies.
Our first stop was the Corinth Canal. All sorts of interesting things to say here, but this post is getting awfully long, so I’ll just link to its Wikipedia page and move on.
Then we climbed Acrocorinth, which is a hill above the ancient city, and was once the site of a temple to Aphrodite, as well as a military fortress from prehistoric times that was occupied in relatively more recent times by the Ottoman Empire.
Next we went down to the second ancient city of Corinth. I say the second ancient city because this was rebuilt by the Romans in 44 BC after completely desolating the ancient Greek city in 146 BC because of their resistance to the Roman conquest. St. Paul spent about a year and a half preaching the Gospel in Corinth. It was there, in the ancient Forum, where he likely first proclaimed his discourse on love (1 Cor 13). Incidentally, this is also the site where he was accused of violating the law by a faction of the local Jewish community and found innocent by the proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:12-17).
Finally we visited the ancient port of Cenchreae, on the Saronic Gulf, where St. Paul left Corinth for Ephesus on his second missionary journey. And with that, we headed back to the retreat house to pack for our own journey back to Rome.
Looking to the Future
I look forward to returning to Greece some day, but probably to see some of the more out-of-the-way attractions. I’m told there’s not much to see in Sparta, but I’d like to go anyway. And I’m toying with the idea of climbing Mount Olympus and/or walking from Marathon to Athens. We’ll see if I actually go through with either of those, or if I can talk anyone into going with me.