Megisti Lavra monastery

Here it’s the early morning of March 30. Two clocks hang in the entry hall, 5:10am (local Greek time) and 9:55am (Byzantine time, based on sunrise). I’m in a place that scares me and I’m in awe of it. I’m not sure — no, I know I’ve never been in a situation like this, and yet there are moments that feel familiar. A waiting, a fear, a self-consciousness. The monks. Figures cut in black. They’re moving about in their robes, legs and feet not visible, so they seem to hover. This is partly why they’re scary, but it’s the whole persona — beard, hat, costume, eyes, ritual. Totally intimidating. I don’t know how to interact with them so I don’t.

I attend Vespers. What to do when approaching the icons and relics. I feared this, but decided suddenly to embrace it. Decided this was a moment of interaction. Of engagement. It’s my opportunity to embrace and connect with a privileged thing. In Rome the relics were behind glass, or not visible at all. Here, I’m watched as I kiss the relic. To kiss it, to study it, not to study it, because it’s so quick, but to engage. A fleeting contact point with the holy relics. I copy what the other pilgrims are doing: bow down, kiss, look, cross. What did I see — encrusted boxes, black figures, tiny jeweled chambers, encasing — what? Fragments, memories. Skin, bone, hair. Do this is in memory of me.

Philotheou monastery

Megisti Lavra monastery

It feels as though my entire life has been leading up to this, and yet I am so completely outside of the systems at work here. I am not of them, but I am here and I have reason to be here and to engage. No time to question right now, best to act, engage, observe, suspend everything. Because this is a suspended place, way beyond most other systems.

What do I admire? The ability of a culture to survive and continue and exist despite the world. No women. Very few animals. Many deaths, but no birth. The modern structures are few but very specific — helicopter (transport), generator (power), cell phones (communication). All strategic. What else? Not much else.

Megisti Lavra monastery

The dining hall at Megistis Lavras is a dream space. Somehow it really caught me, threw open an inner door. A giant hall that seats 100 for meals. A central aisle. The booths are stone, with thick slabs of grey marble, very smooth with worn areas, in use since the 10th century. Covering the walls — every square inch of every surface — 16th century painted murals of icons, full-body saints, angels. Colorful, but faded colors. Clear depictions, but the effect was like a haze, like dining in a cloud. This is where I traveled through time. The papas were seated first, and we ate rice, spinach, bread, olives and oranges in silence while one of them recited.

Men who take care of each other, who come together to worship the father, the mother, devotion of such intensity that it defines a life. Severe doctrine, extreme consistency. It defines every aspect of life. An extraordinary thing. Unbelievable, but here I am.

Philotheou monastery

Everything is defined on their terms. Geography, time, gender, worship, relations, food. Life without compromise.

Philotheou monastery

A suspended place without compromise. A fantasy really. I am supposed to be one of them, that’s the feeling inside the church. That I am supposed to belong, that they have accepted me, briefly, to share in something. I feel like a fake (the big “X.O.” beside my name, accurate only on paper), but I accept their systems. I’m acting it out. I’m working it. A system that I’ve rejected earlier, that I can question later, but at this moment I am present with this place and their ways. Worship this, kiss this, pray now, engage here, look there, cross now, kneel, bend, cross, don’t look, fold, write, kiss hand, leave. Challenge it later, work with it now. Let it take over to see what’s there. What I might find.

Megisti Lavra monastery

These men are workers. They live and work without distraction, at least to my eyes. I’m not seeing much, I realize that. I’m only getting the ceremonial. What’s happening outside of the pilgrim’s view? What I love — the simplicity, the silence, the connection to the land, sea and sky. A purity to life, simple means, end goals that I don’t understand but maybe I do. A ringing bell wakes me up, then the haunting drumming of the samandron. The 3:30am Orthros prayer service that I didn’t attend has been going on for almost 2.5 hours. The sky is just barely glowing, 5:50am. Maybe they’re coming out soon. It’s cold but there’s a freshness to it, the air coming in directly from the sea. Now I can make out clouds. Sunrise is about to happen. 1,044 years.

North Aegean

6:45pm. A long day of riding in buses and walking, I realize now how I’ve totally given myself over to something. I feel so outside. Totally. Throw myself in, pretend, try to absorb, then completely remove myself. It’s exhausting. Sun starting to get low, I have no idea what’s happening here, reading the Philokalia. An intense, disturbing, painful text to read. Writing in silence. I hear footsteps, snoring, muffled conversations.

Megisti Lavra monastery

The sudden change of feelings. 6:35am, or 10:35am here at Philotheou. I’ve started to lose track of the date, without constant contact, email and web. No news, no idea. Yesterday as I sat writing I heard the papa in the office, got up and told him we’re here, and he escorted me to the dining hall just below us. I was late but managed to eat — a bowl of vegetable mush, bread, olives and a small plate of preserves. Lukewarm mountain tea.

Boat house at Iviron monastery

Birds singing now, wild. Hyper-excited, happy song birds totally free to do their thing, without distraction. Total silence, and these singers. Today is Tuesday, it must be 12 April, although here it’s 30 March. Spitting in the bathroom, muffled chatter. After 2 days of speaking Greek the language barrier came down, sitting in the salon with Papa Lukas last night. I felt an intense connection to this old man and I was able to take in his slow, careful language. He told a story about slicing a watermelon, each slice releasing water, collecting below, slicing again and again until the melon is gone but the water remains.

Philotheou monastery

I attend the 6am service. The church is lit with a few oil lamps. Dark figures on the walls and hovering black shapes moving around me. I’m within something that remains unchanged, I stand here and participate, not understanding, with the hope that I can establish something. A clue, a code, an idea, a connection.

Photographing the monks and the interiors was strictly forbidden. I’m afraid these pretty exterior shots barely portray the place.



  1. Terri Soulellis

    You’ll be pondering this experience for a long time, Paul. The vegetable mush and lukewarm tea made me giggle. That might have been when I decided it’s time to go. Love you…..

  2. It’s amazing that you reached a place so ‘other’ that even reading about it is fairly transporting.

  3. Steve Soulellis

    I admire you Paul,you are so special,and am very proud of what are you doin and expireancing,its once in a life time.i cant wait to c u in Athens.

    Love you Dad.

Leave a Comment