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what i learned in greece

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Friday was our final full day in Athens and we had nothing planned. It was a great day.

One of our favorite things to do in a foreign city is to just hang out and that is what we did. After breakfast on Greek time (about 9:30), we walked up the street to a bookstore called Eleftheroudakis and found our way up to the café on the sixth floor (the store had nine stories). Along the way we stopped and browsed, picking up a couple of things. Ginger settled into her seat in the café to finish reading her book on Orthodoxy and I went back to the second floor to look at cookbooks. I returned with my treasures, got a cup of coffee for myself, and we read and talked until we decided to walk towards where we planned to eat lunch. It was a little after two o’clock when we left the bookstore.

Part of our conversation was about things we have learned while being in Greece. Here are a few of them:

— A Greek salad doesn’t have any lettuce in it and is not covered in “Greek” dressing. It is simply quartered tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, cucumbers,
Kalamata olives, feta cheese (with a little dried oregano sprinkled on top), and
olive oil.
— Feta cheese and Kalamata olives are appropriate any time you eat (and good, too).
— Ouzo tastes like a liquid Twizzler with a mean kick (and I kind of like it).
— Americans make up most of the people in the world who only speak one language. (That’s not a new lesson, but one that bothers me.)
— There is such a thing as enough. Though their standard of living is not as high as what we know in the States, the Greeks are more content. They have fewer possessions and yet more time to drink coffee and enjoy life. They build their houses in stages as they can pay for them so they don’t have to take out mortgages. One of the business people on our trip commented that the reason the Greek economy isn’t growing is because there isn’t much economic flow since people don’t borrow much money. I’ve never thought about debt helping to drive an economy.
— Once you’ve been a way from work for a week you learn a whole new level of relaxation.
— You can do a bunch of things with eggplant.
— Until they speak, it’s hard to tell the difference between Italian teenagers and
American teenagers – except that on high school trips the Italians can smoke and
drink late into the night without getting in trouble.
— Italian teenage boys love Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics (or at least those whom we’ve recently polled).
— We should all call our cable companies and demand they give us the international version of CNN rather than the cheese that passes for journalism on our cable channels; the folks over here actually get to know what is going on in the world rather than being kept informed as to the whereabouts of Tom Cruise and Jessica Simpson.
— Greek people think Ginger is one of them.

After we left the bookstore, we wandered down some streets we had been before and some we had not, ending up back in the Plaka, the market area below the Acropolis. The narrow streets separate the pastel colored row houses and apartment buildings, each one filled with shops and cafes. We were headed to Taverna Byzantino, which we had read about in one of our guidebooks, to eat lunch. By the time we meandered to our desired destination, ordered, and looked at our watches, it was six o’clock. We were right on schedule in this Mediterranean world: we would be ready for dinner about midnight. We ate and took our time walking back to the hotel. We stopped by the dining room to see who from the remnants of our tour group was there and to catch up with Duane and Robin in particular. They came in around eight thirty; we closed down the dining room and then moved up to the Olive Garden (the rooftop restaurant in the hotel, not the American chain), which is where we met the Italian teenagers. We finished out last night in Athens talking and drinking with our new friends while we looked at the Parthenon illuminated by spotlights atop the Acropolis.

I never imagined I could write such a sentence and it would be nonfiction.

Here’s another one: we are now in to Istanbul.

Growing up overseas has left me somewhat uncomfortable as an American. I like that I can find Burundi, Bulgaria, and Burkina Faso on a map and that I can feel comfortable in most any place, and I struggle, as a Third Culture Kid, to feel at home anywhere. Walking the streets of Athens, going into bathrooms and reading signs that tell you not to put the toilet paper in the toilet (they have a special trash can – the sewer system can’t take the paper), talking to the chef in the restaurant who works full time for one thousand Euros a month (and paid 300,000 Euros for a small apartment), and seeing gasoline selling for over five dollars a gallon (when we complain about it getting to three), makes me mindful of how much we consume as Americans when we are such a small part of the world population. We have gotten used to a “normal lifestyle” that is unrealistic by world standards; the planet couldn’t take it if everyone lived the way we do.

That said, I like having sewers that work and a house by the beach and many of the comforts of the culture in which I live. The creative tension between those two poles is fed in me by trips like this. Living in a global economy means more than all my sneakers are made in China and the guy who answers the computer help line seems to always be somewhere in India. If history without a face means nothing, the same is true of the present tense. As Americans, we listen to the news about Iraq because we know people who have been sent there; we miss the details on Darfur because wholesale suffering is hard to grasp.

On the first page of Zorba the Greek, my novel for the plane ride, one of the characters says, “This world’s a life sentence.” That’s one way to look at it; the other is to let Louis Armstrong provide the soundtrack: “And I think to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.’” Once again, the power is in the creative tension between the poles. We have seen beautiful and amazing things, both natural and human, from the Aegean coastline to Mount Parnassus, from the Parthenon to Philippi, and we have stopped to feed homeless people on the streets of Athens and seen the news reports of the terrorist attacks in Egypt.

I don’t know how to respond to all the information I have about what is going on in the world and what needs to be done. I know I can’t do it all and I know the world cannot afford for me to do nothing. Though I can start by meeting the needs in front of my face, I am also called to put a face on sorrow and despair faraway from me; yet another creative tension in which to live. And we must live in it for there are too many lives in the balance.

Peace,
Milton

the things we’ve handed down

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For the first time all week, we didn’t have to catch an early morning bus; our trip to Corinth didn’t begin until 12:30, which, in Greece, does not mean after lunch – the meal times run a bit later. We left the hotel and drove along the Aegean coastline to the bottom of the Corinthian Canal, which connects the Aegean and Ionian Seas. People have been trying to figure out how to connect the two bodies of water, which are only separated by 6.2 kilometers of land, for centuries. One ruler dreamed of a canal a millennium before Christ. Another realized he didn’t have the technology for a canal, but built a stone road which allowed for ships to be pulled from the water and rolled on giant tree trunks across the land to the other side rather than make the six hundred mile journey around the Peloponnese, so Corinth became a city with two harbors. That road was used for centuries. The canal, as it stands today, was constructed in the nineteenth century and remains the third deepest canal in the world, behind Suez and Panama.

At the end of the day, we stopped for coffee at the other end of the canal; here are a couple of pictures.

Corinth has had several incarnations as a city, all of them with attitude. Edward Stourton quotes H. V. Morton’s picture of Corinth as

a city built on a narrow neck of land, with the eastern harbour full of Egyptian, Asiatic, and Phoenician galleys, while the western harbor was full of the cargo boats of Italy, Spain, and the Adriatic. Wagons must have been constantly crossing the few miles from Cenchreae with the good of Egypt, Asia Minor, and Syria for transshipment to the west at Lechaeum; and a reverse line of wagons from Lechaeum must have carried western merchandise to Cenchreae from transshipment to the Orient. No wonder that Corinth, situated between two such ports, developed a cosmopolitanism tinged with the vices of the foreign nations
whose ships lay in her harbours. (120-21)

The ruins we saw were of the Roman city built by Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. The Romans razed the city that stood before that one in 146 BCE because the Corinthians were too rebellious – and kind of nasty, too. Stourton says what really ticked the Romans off was the way “its rebellious citizens threw turds into their chariots as they passed” (120). That will get you in trouble in most any country. Besides being rebellious, the city was Vegas without the lights: a place where any appetite could be gorged without any guilt at all. What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth.

Walking the ruins here was particularly meaningful because we have a more detailed account of Paul’s feelings for and dealings with the Corinthian church than we do any other, thanks to the two letters we know as 1 and 2 Corinthians. (There were at least two more letters that we don’t have – ours, as best we know, are really 2 and 4 Corinthians.) There is also particular evidence that connects the archeological discoveries with the New Testament. Erastus was a government official mentioned in one of the lists of people Paul mentions at the end of the letter to the Romans (Romans 16:23: Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you). We saw a stone inscribed with Erastus’ name and title in the ruins that have been unearthed.

Beyond that, walking the streets of a city – the largest Roman forum in Greece – where the church had drawn such deep emotion from Paul, and such amazing writing, spoke to the heart of our faith which has come down through the centuries:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

The legacy of what has been done in the name of God over the centuries is not necessarily admirable. Many of the Acropoli in the cities we saw held the remnants of fortresses built during the Crusades when “Christian” soldiers destroyed the cities that stood in Jesus’ name, thinking God’s cause could be advanced by armies. They were wrong. The layers of civilization we have seen, stone stacked on fallen stone, demonstrate again and again that those who live by the sword will die by it as well. As obvious as that lesson is, we have yet to learn it.

The legacy of faith was passed down incarnationally, from person to person, in love. Even if Constantine had not made Christianity the official religion of the empire, or the Popes had not amassed such wealth and power, walking among the ruins and listening to the stories, I believe our faith would have still traveled the centuries to find us because of people like Paul and Phoebe (who let the Corinthian church meet in her house), down the days and dreams until the list of names would include our own. Love never ends.

Our trip to Corinth marked the last official segment of our group tour. All of us are headed in different directions from here. Ginger and I have Friday to do nothing but be together in Athens and then we head for Turkey and a whole different kind of experience. As we neared Athens last night, we sang, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.” We said goodbye to Betty, who has been amazing, and to Christos, our bus driver, and wished each other blessings as well. Our group will never be together again as we were this past week. Nothing stays the same.

And love never ends.

Peace,
Milton

PS — Today marks my 100th post, a landmark significant to me, I suppose, yet still worth marking.

then sings my soul

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We took a step away from Paul’s travels to make a sojourn to Delphi yesterday, but first, we went to Kalambaka to an iconographer’s workshop. Every souvenir stand has copies of icons, but Betty encouraged us to wait until we got to the studio to buy any of them. I’m glad we took her advice.

The bus pulled up in a rather industrial parking lot and wewalked up the wide stairs to the second floor of a warehouse building where we found the workshop. The sister of the Orthodox priest, who is the primary iconographer, showed us the woodworking room, where they cut and carve the boards; the racks where they stretch the canvas and then cover it with a mix of animal glue and mastic; and the studio, where she also showed us the stages of icon writing. The walls of that room were covered with shelves full of finished icons, so, after the presentation, many of us purchased them. This is what I have been waiting for. I bought an icon of St. Paul,, which seemed appropriate for this trip. Later, I realized how deeply moved I was by the experience: I didn’t take any pictures. Here is a picture of the icon I bought, taken in our hotel room.

From there we began the four hour trek to Delphi, which was the home of the most famous oracle of the ancient world. We climbed up and down mountains until we ended up in the foothills of Mount Parnassus and the ruins of Delphi. The first temple was built there, to Gaia, the Earth goddess, in the third millennium BCE. In the eleventh century BCE, the first temples for the oracle were built. What is left now are the layers of building and rebuilding. At the lowest level, where the shops for people to buy gifts for the gods and souvenirs for the ride home would have been, we could see the Greek layer, covered by the Roman layer, covered by Byzantine marble marked with crosses. From the shops, we zigzagged up the hill to the Treasury of Athens, the Temple of Apollo (where the oracle was housed), the amphitheater (where performances were held when the oracle was not speaking), and – at the very top – the athletic venue (even the fans would have had to be in shape).

Once a year, the oracle spoke. Both governments and individuals came from all over the Known World to ask questions and seek advice. We stood at the top of the hill, looking down over the valley that was hours drive from any significant metropolis, and would have been an incredible journey for those walking and riding from the many city-states around Greece. According to Betty, the power of the oracle lay in two things: the amount of information available and the ambiguous answers given, which called people to make their own choices. The oracle was not a carnival fortune teller, reading tea leaves or palms to say you were going to meet a dark and handsome stranger. There was a network of spies, or information gatherers that covered the Greek world and fed the information back to Delphi. When the questions were asked (should we go to war?), the answers were given (if you do, a great empire will be destroyed) and then the decision was left to the inquirer (is she talking about my empire, or my enemy’s?). The lesson we humans have had to learn down through history is our decisions have consequences; there is no magic formula.

The sheer scale of both the natural landscape and the human construction was humbling. As I walked, I wondered what ruins will be found from our lives a millennium or two from now. Shopping malls. Maybe a stadium or two. I asked the question of one of our group and he replied, “We don’t have anything that will last that long.” And people will probably still be coming to Delphi.

As we walked, we encountered people from all over the world. An Italian woman stopped Ginger to ask a question. Ginger does not speak Italian, and the woman did not speak English, but Ginger said she spoke “un poquito Espanol.” So did the Italian woman. The two of them stood among the giant columns, saying all the Spanish vocabulary words they knew, trying to connect. I ran into some American college students at lunch. When I asked where they were from, they said New York and New Jersey. When I told them I was from Boston, one of the guys said, “Oh, that part of the world.” He laughed.

So did I. “At least this far away from home we can act like friends, right?” I asked him.

Our group is made up of people from Arizona, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Connecdticut, and Rhode Island. Ginger and I are the only two that aren’t with a larger church group; We are also the least conservative theologically, by far. And everyone has worked hard to connect, rather than debate or differentiate. This trip is a pilgrimage for all of us, even though what is sacred differs from one to another. We are fellow travelers, on the road together, as Christians have done for about as long as there have been Christians.

As we left Delphi and began our descent back to Athens, which was another three hours, we sang hymns together, which seemed the most appropriate response to the grandeur of nature that cradled us as we rode.

O Lord, my God, when I, in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder –
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee –
How great thou art, how great thou art

For five thousand years people traveled that valley with a sense of awe and wonder, searching divine guidance. What they learned we felt as we rode and sang together: God speaks first through those with whom we share the journey.

Peace,
Milton

a walk in the clouds

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Yesterday, we packed up and left Thessaloniki and drove to Veroia, which is the modern version of the ancient city of Berea where Paul visited. There was a small outdoor mosaic altar where we had our morning devotional and then we all took off for the local cafes to find the bathrooms, or WCs as they call them here. Many of us came back with little snacks from the cafes as well. From there we continued our trek to Meteoria, a lovely little village at the foot of some amazing rock formations, atop of which stand six monasteries.

By the time we got to town, it was lunch, so we had yet another amazing meal and then began working our way up the switchback road to the first monastery where we could take pictures. The decision to build at the top of these giant rock pillars began with hermits settling in the caves above the town, the first of whom was Barnabas in 985 CE. Later, in the fourteenth century, a monk named Neilos decided to build a small church. In 1382, another monk, Athanasios, built the first monastery at the top of one of the rocks. How they ever got up there in the first place, I don’t know, but they soon rigged a net that allowed them to hoist both people and supplies from the valley below. By the time construction was finished, there were twenty-four high altitude monasteries, none of which was accessible by any other means than the nets.

The Ottoman Occupation sent the monasteries into disrepair because the monks had to flee and no one did anything to them for four hundred years and by the nineteenth century they were in ruins. When the Greeks ran the Ottomans out, the monasgteries were reestablished on a smaller basis; today only six exist: four for priests and two for nuns. Stairs were added in the 1920s. The largest has about fifteen monks; the smallest has one. In the sixties, when the Greek government realized tourism could help them keep the monasteries in shape, they built roads so folks like us could get there without relying on a rope hoist. We went inside two of them, Holy Triinity and Varlaam.

The wall paintings in the churches of both were amazing. Betty our guide, did an incredible job of explaining the logic behind the way the iconographic images were painted on the walls. The narthex was covered with paintings of saints being martyred. There were images of them being beheaded, beaten, stoned, and even skinned. The images were to remind worshippers of the price paid for faith. “They show the two most important things for a Christian,” Betty said, “to be patient and to be faithful.” The icons were done by iconographers from the Cretan school. The colors were dark and subdued; the images were stern and, well, not very handsome.

“The Greek art always shows youth,” Betty said. “The ancient Greeks thought the most important things were to be young, rich, and beautiful. The icons were meant to show that those things did not matter. These are not young people, or rich, and of course they are not beautiful. Look at them.” She smiled. “The icons are painted so you will look at the eyes, so you will see the spirit. They show the beauty of the spirit.”

Inside the church she showed us how the architecture and the icons worked together, giving us a cosmological lesson of the universe: earth and sky. The dome at the top of the church was an icon of Christ Pantocrator (creator of all), flanked by angels, and supported on each of four columns by the four gospel writers. Below them – between earth and sky – were scenes, beginning with the Annunciation to Mary and ending with the Ascension, which showed the life of Christ. (We were not allowed to take pictures in either church, other than the one I took before I read the sign.)

“One of the main reasons these scenes were painted over and over in many churches,” Betty said, “was so the people could learn the stories. They could not read, but they could learn from the icons.”

We came out of the churches and out on to balconies that hung over the valley far, far below. Creation was telling the same story; the rocks were crying out. Even as we walked the forest trail from the road above to the second monastery, I could swear I heard the trees clap their hands. It is spring here and the trees are almost fully leafed. The ground is covered with wildflowers and the air full of bird calls. The one I recognized was the mourning dove. I love that Betty took the time for a walk in the woods in the middle of our tour.

I started reading Paul: A Visionary Life by Edward Stourton as we drove. The author is a journalist with the BBC and does a wonderful job bringing fresh eyes to look at Paul and what we make of what we know about him. He has given me new insights in several places, or at least challenged my presuppositions. Paul was a passionate, brilliant, sometimes arrogant, compassionate, tenacious, belligerent, complicated human being. And he, more than any other one person, is the reason Christianity is a world wide religion and not a small historical sect. Stourton paints a picture of a man who was deeply committed and passionate in his faith, administratively adept, politically astute, and relationally opportunistic. He paints the picture without one ounce of cynicism. He admires Paul and doesn’t let his admiration get in the way of the picture of who the man really is. Like the iconographers, Stourton paints a picture that allows us to see the beauty of the spirit.

The hermits climbed into the cave; the monks found a way to live our their calling on the top of the mountain; Paul traveled over twelve thousand miles on his missionary journeys trying to live out his faith; and we wound our way up and down the hills, rubbing up against them all, on a pilgrimage of our own. I don’t understand how the monks live their lives in seclusion and Paul is sometimes hard for me to grasp, yet we all help to tell the story of faith, which winds like a mountain road to the most unexpected places.

Peace,
Milton

what history looks like

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Just three days in, our mornings are beginning to take on a regular routine: up at 6:30, breakfast at 7:00, on the bus at 8:00. Most of our group was moving slowly yesterday, but we still pulled away from the hotel by about 8:10. We wound our way out of Thessaloniki and on to the modern day Ignatia Way, which runs closely to the Roman Via Ignatia, which was a highway that ran from Constantinople to Rome (when it got to Italy it was called the Appian Way.) We drove on a four lane highway; Paul walked on a stone pathway about twenty feet wide. We drove about three hours to the ruins of the ancient city of Phillipi, where Paul helped start a church.

The first place we stopped was just outside the ancient city where Paul is supposed to have baptized Lydia, the first European convert to Christianity. We had a devotional time there. Mike, one of the pastors, invited us to remember our baptismal vows as I sang,

I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear a starry crown, O Lord, show me the way
O, sister, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down
O, sister, let’s go down, let’s go down to the river to pray

As we gathered, we could hear the priest chanting in the baptismal services taking place in the church just above us. The “name day,” or baptism day, is very important in Orthodoxy. Two girls were baptized while we were there: Emma and Natalia. We even talked to one proud grandfather and a couple of folks on our bus came back with snacks from the reception after the baptism, to which they were spontaneously invited. I loved thinking about the gospel coming to Europe through a woman and a weaver of purple cloth.

One of the points Bettty made several times was Paul’s visit to Phillipi marked the coming of Christianity to Europe. When he crossed over from Asia Minor and landed at Neapolis and then came inland to Phillipi he was making history even he did not understand. He had a dream where a man asked for him to come to Macedonia and help, so he went and, in doing so, introduced Europe to the burgeoning faith. Though Peter gets credit for having the keys to the Kingdom and being the first Pope, Paul is the reason there are churches all across Europe.

Phillipi is nothing but ruins. We stood in the agora and the market place, and among the ruins of two huge churches, but there is nothing more than fragments of stones bearing fragments of Latin inscriptions laying all across what once was a vibrant and essential city. The primary reason for its abandonment was bad timing. An earthquake all but destroyed the city not too long before the Ottomans invaded; they saw no need to rebuild the city and focused instead on nearby Karvalla, which is still an active city. In almost every place we have visited, Betty has pointed out things that were destroyed by earthquakes. This is a very seismically active region, even today. When Ginger asked Betty when the last earthquake was, she said, “Oh, a couple of months ago we had one about 4.9 just outside of Athens.” She talked about it like we talk about a Nor’easter: it’s bad, but it’s one of those things that comes with living in New England.

One of the places we saw in the Philippian ruins that was quite well defined was the Vema, which is the place Paul would have argued his case when he was brought before the magistrate. According to Luke, we stood at the place where Paul told them he was a Roman citizen and could not be beaten without a trial. He and Silas were imprisoned and then set free – by an earthquake, though Paul refused to leave until he got an apology.

Paul loved the Philippian church. They brought him great joy. Ginger said at one point today, “The way Paul felt about the Philippians makes me think of the folks in Marshfield and the ways they are so kind and loving to me.” That may have been the best connection of the day for me. The other was the sense of calm I felt walking among the ruins. Betty did a great job restoring the scene with a verbal picture of what had once stood where we saw only pieces of pillars and stacks of stones. She showed us the excavation of an athletic venue underneath the church, which had been partly unearthed. No one has even come close to uncovering all that lies in the dirt there. Yet, no one is digging any more in Philippi. They have moved on to other places; they have other priorities. What they have uncovered has given us a brief glimpse of what once was and a chance to brush up against those who had come before us. I’m not sure why that’s so calming, but it is.

Centering may be a better word. I’m a little over six months away marking my first half a century on the planet and walked today where Paul walked forty of my lifetimes ago, as he walked over ruins of those who had been there six or eight lifetimes before that. Two thousand years feels like a close connection when I think of it as forty lifetimes. We have accumulated more than two thousand years of living just by adding up the ages of the people riding on our bus. Stretched out over centuries it is a long time; imagined as a connected web of human existence it is not so far away.

We wound our way down to the Aegean Sea and ate lunch in the port city of Neapolis, where Paul landed. We had another great meal – fish today, freshly caught – and then traveled back down the Ignatia Way (this time in the same direction Paul went) to Thessaloniki. On the way home, we stopped at the same roadside restaurant for coffee as we had on the morning trip. When I stepped up to the counter, the server said, “Hallo, Milton!” He read my name on the tag around my neck. His name was George and he makes a damn good cup of coffee – kaffe magala: coffee with milk. “Effaristo,” I said. Thank you.

After dinner, a group of us decided we would walk down to the harbor to see where Paul landed on one of his later journeys. The Greeks eat dinner between nine and eleven most nights, so when we stepped out of the hotel at 9:30, we walked right into the bustle of a Greek spring evening. We did find the harbor, but we were more taken by the life that swirled around us as we strolled. As we waited on one corner, a guy on a scooter smiled, honked, and shouted, “Hallo, tourists!” as he passed.

In The Sheltering Sky, one of the characters makes the distinction between a tourist and a traveler. A tourist is one who goes to a foreign place and spends most of the time trying to make it feel familiar; a traveler sinks himself or herself into the culture at hand, hoping to be changed. Yes, I am one of those on a big bus riding around with my name tag hanging around my neck, and I came to see more than places and to do more than fill up the memory card on my camera or check off the countries I’ve been to.

The stones continue to speak because I can imagine a time when people moved about in the buildings that once stood; the stories of Paul come to life because I can stack up the years in lifetimes; I will remember people more than things from these days, from baristas to fellow bus riders. History without a face never changed anyone.

Peace,
Milton

what the stones say

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Yesterday was a long travel day. We left Athens at eight in the morning and got to Thessaloniki about six in the evening. Since our time here is short, Betty had some things she wanted us to see in the city, so we started at the Acropolis (which, in Thessaloniki, is the remnant of a medieval fortification) and then worked our way down the hill, stopping at the churches of St. George, St. Demetrius, and the Agios Sophia, until the bus met us again to take us to the hotel. We were in true Greek form, finally sitting down to dinner at nine. I dozed in and out of most of the bus trip, since our Easter celebration kept me up late, so I didn’t mind the long ride.

We made a couple of stops along the way. The first was Thermopylae, where there was not much more than a monument to the battlefield. The story of the Lacedemonians was interesting and tragic, and, walking up the small hill that had been at the center of the battle, Ginger and I talked about how different war must have been when you had to look the person you were trying to kill in the eye, or hear his voice. Edith Hamillton talks about the lack of sentimentality the Greeks has when it came to war. Dying was not an heroic act to them.

“We, to whom poetry, all art, is only a superficial decoration of life, make a refuge from a world that is too hard for us to face by sentimentalizing it. The Greeks looked straight at it. They were completely unsentimental. It was a Roman who said it was sweet to die for one’s country. The Greeks never said it was sweet to die for anything. They had no vital ties.

“Completely in line with this spirit is the often quoted epitaph on the Lacedemonians who fell at Thermopylae. Everyone of them fell, as they knew beforehand they would. They fought their battle to the death with no hope to help them and by so dying the saved Greece, but all the great poets who wrote their epitaph found it fitting to say for them was:

“’O passer-by, tell the Lacedemonians that we lie here in obedience to their laws.’

“We rebel; something more than that, we feel, is due such heroism. But the Greeks did not. Facts were facts and deeds spoke for themselves. They did not need ornament.” (The Greek Way 81-82)

The Greeks Hamilton spoke of were the Greeks of antiquity, centuries before Jesus walked the earth and several incarnations of Greek humanity ago. We are in a land that marks time in centuries, not years or even decades. Cities have been built and rebuilt, alliances made and lost, power shifted back and forth and back again, all the while the Greeks finding a way to maintain an identity. We stood under mosaics today that were four hundred years old in Jesus’ day, and then we walked out of the building and into a 24-hour Internet Café to use the restrooms. I saw some amazing icons today in the different churches we visited and also listened as Betty described how most of the icons do not date any farther back than the ninth century because of the Iconoclast controversy in the church that took a century to decide if images were going to be a part of worship. No one who started the controversy was there to see how it was resolved.

What came to mind was hearing George Bush try to silence his critics a few weeks ago by saying history would tell if his actions were justified. Standing under archways and in churches that have been around a thousand times longer than he has been president, I thought history is not even going to remember him or his delusions of adequacy. Though we see ourselves as The World Power, our two hundred years as a nation hardly qualifies us for consideration. That’s what the stones seem to say.

The stones stacked as churches had their own words.

Everyone in our group is from some Protestant denomination: Lutheran, Baptist (a couple of flavors), Presbyterian, and UCC (just Ginger and me). Our churches are young, compared to Orthodoxy. While the Iconoclast Controversy was going on in the ninth century, the Reformation was more than a half a millennium away. When we got to the Agios Sophia, we were the only ones in the building, which was beautiful. The icons and mosaics shone, even in the dim light; the acoustic resonance of the building seemed to echo the centuries of faithful voices that had filled it. Betty suggested we have our devotional at that time, but somehow we flinched; no one seemed to know how to step into the moment. We missed an amazing opportunity. We went from there down into the catacombs near the church to see the underground rooms where persecuted Christians had met when they were not allowed churches. As the stone rooms cleared, Ginger called me back and said, “This is too good down here; sing something.” What came to mind was:

Over the mountains and the sea, you’re river runs with love for me
And I will open up my heart and let the Healer set me free
I’m happy to be in the truth and I will daily lift my hands
And I will sing about the day your love came down
I will sing of your love forever
I will sing of your love forever

We came up out of the tombs as the Easter sun was setting, different than when we had gone in. The bus picked us up and brought us to the hotel. Even with all we had seen, heard, and felt, history gave way to the aches and pains of twelve hours on the bus, leaving some of us more testy than thankful. How can we stand in the midst of all that is around us and let our aches and pains have the last word? I can’t do it. I was not twelve hours on just any bus. I rode out of Athens, along the Agean coast, past Mount Olympus, into Thessaloniki, a city once second only to Constantinople, a place where Paul walked his own share of dusty miles, and found my place in time.

Peace,
Milton

it happened one night

3

Today is Easter for Orthodox Christians. The big Easter services begin on Saturday night and proclaim the Resurrection at midnight with candles, bells, and fireworks. Athens has Orthodox churches like Boston has Dunkin’ Donuts: they are on every corner. Several of our group decided we would go to church about 11:30 and be a part of the local Easter celebration.

After dinner, Ginger and I sat with Duane and Robin, a couple from Cincinnati whom we are getting to know and talked until the servers asked us to leave about 9:00 so they could get to their own Easter services. We went up to the rooftop restaurant, which has a view of the Acropolis, to get drinks and continue our conversation. They were open because they were expecting a crowd beginning about 12:15. The restaurant was empty except for us at 9:30, but the host told me he had forty-five reservations between 12:15 and 1:00 am; they were going to be open until three. The four of us ordered our libations and began to tell our stories. Duane is a former chaplain turned real estate broker. Robin is a first grade teacher ready for a change. Even though our lives had not intersected until now, we find many ways to connect with one another as we shared our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We talked until about 11:15 and then met the others in the lobby.

This trip is already filled with meaningful incidental contact. Cybil was Ginger’s traveling companion; she was a kindergarten teacher from Hannover, Germany. She was very gentle and kind and had great red hair. She told us half of her children were immigrants, many of them from Arab countries; she starts teaching them English at age 3 (when they start to school). She was in the States because she has family in Boston and comes over once a year.

I sat next to a man whose name I never learned, nor he mine. He was a Peace Corps physician in Tunisia in the sixties and then had a career as a radiologist on the Cape, where he is now retired. His son has lived in Germany for sixteen years and is married to a German woman. His grandchildren are bilingual because the dad only speaks English to them. He spoke proudly of all of them.

The moments were meaningful not because we found some reason to believe we are going to keep up with each other for the rest of our lives, but because we were present with each other in the time we had. I thought about those incidental connections as we stepped into the church tonight. The building was beautiful, covered with murals and then dotted with icons, both hanging and standing in wonderful wooden canopies. The ornate doors to the altar were open and the priest moved around like a bear in his red and gold robe, chanting as he moved around. The chants sounded like those Chris plays when I’m at icon class, except his are in English. Ginger and I stood at the back of the church, which was filled with people, each one holding an unlighted candle. The crowd was both serious and expectant. We had no other connection than we were there in that moment.

About ten till twelve, the priest went behind the doors and all the lights went out. Then he emerged with a big candle — a torch, really — and those closest clammored to light their candles from his and then began to move through the rest of the congregation. When all the candles were lighted, we all began to file out into the square in front of the church. The priest followed, chanting the whole time, until midnight came. He cried out in a loud voice, the bells rang, and fireworks went off in the street behind us. Everyone began to turn to one another:

“Christos anisti!”
“Alithos anisti!”

The translations are (according to the guy at the hotel):

“Christ is risen!”
“He has really done it!”
(I kept imagining a Greek teenager translating that: “He is so resurrected!”)

The crowd soon began to disperse to wherever they were going to eat and Duane, Robin, Ginger, and I started our walk back to the hotel with our candles still aflame. No one had brought a camera this time; sacred moments never survive on film, only in memory. We talked about what we had seen and heard, and some of our conversation drifted back to things we had said earlier in the evening. We got back to the hotel, all of us so tired we could hardly stand, yet we came close to going up to the restaurant ourselves, despite our promised six o’clock wake up call.

For one night in our lives we four happened to be in Athens and it happened to be Easter and there happened to be a church around the corner and we went to the service together after talking most of the evening. Whatever happens next, or next year, that moment will never happen again any more than Ginger will find herself sitting next to Cybil on a plane ever again. But tonight did happen and the four of us are inextricably bound together in the evening we shared, eating, drinking, and carrying our candles down an Athens street.

Peace,
Milton

a walking song

3

“We need to walk to know sacred places, those around us and within. We need to walk to remember the songs.” (Joseph Bruchac)

Today we have walked till we are knee deep in melodies and memories.

We woke to a fabulous “Greek breakfast,” which included, among many other things, feta cheese, kalamata olives, fresh pastries, Greek sausage, and a Greek version of Tater-Tots. We then heard a short lecture on Paul from Brian van Deventer, an American pastor who has lived here in Athens for fourteen years working on a number of projects. My favorite line from his talk was comparing Paul’s conversion from persecutor to pastor as imagining something so significant happening as to turn Osama bin Laden into Billy Graham.

After the talk we boarded our bus for a short driving tour of the city and ended up at the Acropolis: Mars Hill, the Parthenon (the parts Lord Elgin couldn’t get in his suitcase to take to Britain), the Temple of Nike (nothing to do with sneakers), and lots of ruins. We climbed the marble stone path to the top of the hill and listened as Betty, our guide, spewed out more names and dates and wars than I can come close to remembering. After her talk, we had time to walk around the ruins, visit the museum, and enjoy the panoramic views of the city, which completely encircles the hill. In her book, The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton says,

Greek architecture of the great age is the expression of men who were, firstof all, intellectual artists, kept firmly within the visible world by their mind, but, only second to that, lovers of the human world. The Greek temple is the perfect expression of the pure intellect illuminated by the spirit. No other buildings anywhere approach its simplicity. In the Parthenon straight columns rise to plain capitals; a pediment in sculptured in bold relief; there is nothing more. And yet – here is the Greek miracle – this absolute simplicity of structure is alone in majesty of beauty among all the temples and cathedrals and palaces of the world. Majestic but human, truly Greek. (50)


We were looking at the remnants of a building erected four centuries before Jesus walked the earth, a building that captures the essence of a group of people who influenced who we are as Westerners more than any other group. It was a sacred space. When we came down off the big hill we had a chance to climb Mars Hill, where Paul debated the Athenians. At the lecture, Brian talked about Paul’s enduring contribution to Christianity being his revolutionary personal ethic. He was less interested in putting forth some sort of theological explanation or treatise and more for talking about how we live out our faith. The mystery of who Jesus was becomes incarnate once more in us: we have to live out our faith in our daily relationships. Mystery and human, truly Paul.

If he could talk there, I could certainly blog there – or at least look like I was (no WIFI hotspot up there).

From there we walked down the hill into a neighborhood called La Plaka, where we had lunch in an outdoor café (moussaka for me). After the meal, Ginger and I broke off from the group and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the city without a map, following our hearts and our noses as we looked for the perfect sidewalk café and a great cup of coffee. We ended up at the Café Metro, which sits on the plaza at the entrance to the Athens Flea Market. There was an Andean band playing on the square, several African vendors hawking bootleg DVDs of every movie currently playing in the theater, all kinds of children and parents crossing back and forth, a rather varied collection of tourists from all over the globe, and lots of dogs.

Athens is full of stray dogs. All of them have been given their shots and have been neutered. The Athenians would rather let the dogs stay in the street (where people in the neighborhoods feed and care for them) than to send them to shelters, according to Betty, where they might be put to sleep or used for experiments. The people of the city see the dogs as theirs and take care of them. My kind of town.

As we walked home, shops were beginning to close down, even though it was only about four, since tonight is Easter night. The Orthodox tradition is to celebrate the Resurrection on Saturday night. The services begin about ten with a vigil until midnight and then the Resurrection service lasts until sunrise. Tomorrow, according to Betty, everyone stays home and eats roast lamb (done on a spit in the front yard) and all kinds of other good stuff. Their Easter service sounds like our Christmas Eve service at 11:00 pm. We want to be awake when Christmas first arrives. I guess they don’t see any need to wait to declare, “Christ is risen!” We may try to go for part of the vigil tonight, if we can stay awake.

Tomorrow morning we begin a road trip that will take us north to Thessaloniki and Phillipi; in a couple of days we will circle south to Corinth and then back here to Athens, where Ginger and I will leave the group and take off for Turkey on our own. Already the first phase of the trip is over and I hardly feel like we’ve gotten off the plane. This is going to go by quickly; I must pay attention.

“All things are at odds when God lets a thinker loose on the planet,” Hamilton quotes (31). I’d like to offer a revision, with Bruchac’s help: all things are sacred melody when God lets walkers loose in the city. We walked on marble and dust, up hills and down narrow lanes, past churches and shops, street merchants and stray dogs, enjoying the city and being together: a song worth singing indeed.

Peace,
Milton

touching down in athens

5

Greetings from Athens!

We left Boston about 4:40 Eastern Daylight Time, crossed the Atlantic, landed in Frankfurt long enough to change planes, and arrived in Athens at 1:00 (13:00 as they say here), which was 6:00 am to Ginger and me. We got to our hotel about 2:00, checked in, and then had to make a choice of which time zone to honor. We chose to go by Athens time since today is our sixteenth wedding anniversary and we had some celebrating to do.

Sixteen years ago we got engaged at the Hard Rock Cafe in Dallas and have done our darndest since to be in a Hard Rock somewhere to celebrate our anniversary. This year was no exception. Athens has a Hard Rock and we got there about an hour before the entire city closed down for Good Friday (according to the Orthodox calendar). We also had some time to walk around the city and feel its vibrancy. This is one cool place.

We came back to the hotel and, still determined not to fall asleep, went up to the restaurant on the top floor to get coffee. The restaurant, The Olive Garden (not the chain, thank God!), has an outdoor terrace with a view of the Acropolis. We sipped and talked until it was time to meet our group for dinner (we didn’t eat much). We came back to the room and I wrestled with the Internet access until I finally got connected (thanks to some help from a guy in India on the other end of the toll free line) so I could post a few words and pictures.

Tomorrow we are headed to the Acropolis and some more wandering on our own. I can’t believe we are really getting to do this.

Peace,
Milton