October 19, 2012

On the edge of the wide and expansive Plain of Thessaly, the Pindus Mountains rise up dramatically, rugged and hazy green. In their shadow sit several tall sandstone pillars, atop which balance six Eastern Orthodox monasteries, spire tops, their stone walls blending nearly seamlessly with the rock beneath. The monasteries are known as the Metéora, translating to “suspended in the air,” and they are certainly a sight to see. Ascetic monks have been living in the caves of these airy spires since the ninth century, moving ever higher as their need for isolation increased. The first monastery was built in 1356, with the building materials hauled up hundreds of feet in nets and the only way for human ascension a rickety 1200-foot wooden ladder.

The monasteries continue to be inhabited by monks and nuns, but they are now open to visitors, with stone stairs either added to the cliff’s face or hewn into the rock itself. I visited two today — the Great Meteoron and the Monastery of Saint Stephanos — and the views were breathtaking. If I were seeking a life of religious solitude, this would definitely be my ideal setting (it feels quite literally closer to the heavens than all of the “earthly” cloisters I have visited). The inside of the monasteries were very modest, cool rough stone passages leading to open courtyards. The churches were small and ornate and frescoed, lit only by the natural light coming in from small windows and the occasional candle. Gold leaf, dark wood, golden chandeliers, low and multi-vaulted ceilings, artwork in blue and red and green and gold.

The Greek Orthodox Church is exactly how the Roman Catholic Church was — and would be now — if not for the Great Schism of 1054, which divided the church into eastern and western institutions. The two religions are nearly identical, with the differences lying primarily in dogma: the Roman Catholic Church believes the Holy Spirit flows from God into Christ, whereas the Greek Orthodox Church believes the Holy Spirit flows solely into God, with Christ being its earthly messenger. Another main difference is that the Greek Orthodox Church neither recognizes the Pope as the leader of the Church, nor believes in his infallibility.

Anyway, after spending the morning and afternoon visiting the monasteries, I took the long bus ride back to Athens. The length was OK, though — it was nice to look out the window and see the valleys and mountains and plains, and also to get some much-needed sleep. This cold has settled firmly in my head, so I am stuffed up and sneezy, and it was nice to get to relax for a bit.

When I got back to Eleni’s it felt like coming home. We ordered in dinner and chatted and laughed until bedtime.