Greek Orthodox Easter on Patmos, 1989

The following description of an Easter eve service on Patmos comes from a journal entry I made on Easter Sunday, April 30, 1989.  Happy Greek Orthodox Easter 2016!

Spent a cool morning washing clothes and reading bits & pieces of Merton’s A Vow of Conversation.  Sleepy Easter morning after a late night of celebration.  Met Petros [Lax] & his two young friends—Eva from Switzerland and Gary from New York—and after a series of tête-à-têtes and a dinner of beans & bread, then pasta and finally lamb entrails in an avgolemono soup broth, all shared round and consumed with draughts of conversation about the place of eggs in religion and history and plenty of laughter, we set out into the unexpectedly cold night to attend an Easter service.  At first we couldn’t get a taxi so we tried the service at St. John’s in Skala.  I was itching to go up to the cave or monastery, though, and finally Gary indicated a similar wish, so he, Eva & I (Petros was not in a mood to wander far from home) tried the taxi stand again, finding a car this time and speeding to the top of the hill where cars were already lining both sides of the street.

We went in and found ourselves at the end of a large crowd on the steps just inside the monastery door.  Around us children with sleepy eyes clutched candles while their elders leaned against the whitewashed walls, waiting.  For what?  20 minutes, 30 minutes.  We could just barely hear the chanting of the monks.  We lit our candles from those around us and waited, too.  Then, at midnight, the bells began to ring and voices began to sound all at the same time as the people around us smiled broad smiles and hugged and kissed each other with cries of “Christ is Risen” in Greek.  Then the exodus began.  Those within the church and in the courtyard began to file out—gush out, actually.  They pushed and pushed, swelling from one to two and then three across, pressing us up against the walls and making it difficult for the children caught in the press to find space to breathe.  I moved to the top of the stairs and could just see into the courtyard where candlelight lit a hundred faces.

Along a stone gallery above, candles and faces alternated, solemn sentinels keeping the vigil.  We waited as the crowd continued to pour out; then there was release, we were in the courtyard and the blackened murals beneath the arches of the church were before us.  We moved to the church doorway, into the antechamber where we held our candles up with the others and watched the monks in their black robes and round, pill-box hats or gold and white embroidered garments, each with a medallion with the face of Christ on it placed between the shoulder blades.  Gushing gray beards, the soft faces with their few strands of black of the young.  Solemn islanders who broke into smiles as they filed forward and kissed first the silver-gilded book and then the ring of the abbot or patriarch, exchanging warm smiles and greetings with him.  As Eva said, there seemed to be a genuineness to their interactions.

More people filed out and we were within the church, standing in a corner near the altar screen beneath the great silver lamps that hung everywhere from the ceiling, beautifully clean and white against the black from centuries of candles.  Beneath a red & white Tiffany-style lamp to my left an old priest in gold and a young monk in black combined their voices with that of a young boy in suit and tie, trading chants with a balancing trio on the other side.  To my right an almost obscured ikon—St. John?—wore a silver halo built out from the flat surface of the painting.  The monks went in and out of the innermost chamber and by positioning myself in a doorway beside the ikon I could see inside it.  They chanted alternately before an altar, behind which languished a figure of Christ painted on a wooden cross with John and Mary kneeling on either side.  On the altar stood a chalice with a silver-threaded Greek-cross-shaped cloth covering.

Back out in the sanctuary a young monk brought in a tray on which a large, 30-foot-diameter loaf of bread had been placed.  It was prayed over and removed and a folding support with a cloth draped over it was brought out.  A monk appeared from behind the screen and after walking back and forth a couple of times, put down the book he had been carrying—a book covered in silver with images of saints or the trinity on its cover—and began to read—actually, chant—what I took to be the gospel.  While he was reading, the oldest monk on either side tapped a bronze bowl with a metal rod, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly.  Earlier, one of the younger monks had gone out into the courtyard and tapped a long piece of rough-hewn wood with two wood mallets.  This was the calling of the people of the world to Christ, using a replica of the piece of wood tradition holds was used by Noah to call the animals to salvation on the Ark.  The reading finished, the incenser appeared once more and was waved at the bowing, crossing few still left within the church.

All the senses but one had been involved—then the chalice appeared.  Bread was handed around and people began to push forward to the center entry through the altar screen where a priest stood with a long-handled, ornamented spoon and served bits of bread soaked in heavy wine to the supplicants while another priest held the end of a red cloth below each chin, wiping it after the giving of the sacrament, sure to let nothing fall to the ground.  A basket of plainer, dryer bread was held out by a young monk at the corner of the church.  I ate it first and then the sweeter, ginger-and-anise-flavored bread I had received earlier.  I went back out into the antechamber and left my candle in front of the ikon of St. John, a postcard of which I had taped up behind my computer at home.

It was after 2 a.m. when we began to make our way down the hill, a thousand stars and a wayward cloud or two above and the lights of the city petering out into the dark, distant sea below.  For some reason we spoke of the oppression of the Palestinians and in South Africa.  Our conversation was somber, but undergirded with hope, too, for we had each, in his or her own way, been touched by the gentle, loving finger of God.