By Father Panayiotis Papageorgiou, Ph.D.
Originally printed Oct. 9, 2011.
It was an adventure to get to the island of Patmos in Greece, but the beauty of the place made me quickly forget the travail. As we disembarked from the Flying Dolphin, the super-fast boat that ferried us across the Dodecanese islands, I could not get my eyes off the medieval castle overlooking the harbor surrounded by whitewashed homes.
That is the monastery dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and Theologian (who is credited with the fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation – the Apocalypse). It sits as a crown on this high spot of Patmos, built like a fortress to protect the monks and their treasures from the frequent raids of the Saracen pirates. It is surrounded by the small town called Chora which was started by the workers who first came here to build the monastery.
The Cave of the Apocalypse is situated about a half a mile before you reach the monastery. This is the place where it is believed that St. John received the vision of the Revelation, which his disciple Prochoros recorded and is now the last book of the New Testament.
The Cave is a popular destination for tourists and pilgrims alike. Cruise ships dock at the bottom of the mountain and their passengers are bused to the Cave and the monastery on a daily basis. The monastery, built by order of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos in 1088 A.D., along with the Cave of the Apocalypse, were recently declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
As I was standing at the dock wondering how I will get to the monastery, I heard my name being called. Abbot Antipas (the monk who heads the monastery) had sent someone to pick me up. Considering that I was the only priest coming off the boat it was obvious to him that I had to be the one he was looking for. He helped me get my luggage into the car and we quickly zipped up the windy road to the summit.
We parked the car in front of the castle-like entrance and climbed up the stone paved road through the gate. Once inside, the feeling of being in a castle was intensified by the fortress-like structures, but the view from my room was breathtaking, overlooking most of the island from the windows and the balconies. I was here to attend a conference, but my goal was to also share in the life of the monks and soak in the holiness of the place along with its natural beauty.
The morning bells started ringing at 2:30 am calling the monks to the church for the Sunday morning office and Divine Liturgy. I entered the dark church and headed for the seats reserved for visiting clergy. For the next four hours I let myself be immersed in prayer, following the psalms and chants of the monks and occasionally turning to my prayer-rope for the recitation of the Jesus Prayer. In spite of my lack of sleep, I felt quite awake and the time ran quickly.
The Divine Liturgy (which began as the dawn light started making its way shyly through the dome windows) was very inspiring; the monks sung antiphonally from the two sides of the church the ancient Byzantine chants touching the heart with words and music.
The apex of the service was the time of Holy Communion. I left my seat and entered the Holy of Holies to receive at the Holy Table with the celebrating priest. The moment was a very moving one; here I was, standing where the Liturgy has been celebrated uninterruptedly every day for the last one thousand years. Here I was standing at this Holy Table, where thousands of holy men who had given their lives to unceasing prayer had united themselves with the Risen Christ through His Body and Blood. Here I became one with them, a sanctified member of the Body of Christ.
I emerged from the church right before sunrise filled with incredible joy. I climbed up to my room and sat on the balcony waiting for the Sun to come up, enjoying the cool breeze of the morning and basking in the joy the service had brought to my heart.
But the blessings of this visit to Patmos continued on: On Sunday afternoon, armed with my digital camera, I ventured out of the monastery. The group I was expecting for the conference was not to arrive until Monday morning, so I was free to roam on my own.
The view of Skala, the town with the harbor underneath, looked stunning as the Sun was hitting it from the West maximizing the contrast of the whitewashed homes with the deep blue color to the Mediterranean waters and the red soil of the landscape behind it.
I followed the snaky road down to the Cave of the Apocalypse. It was right before the tourists began arriving. The monk who serves as guard was gracious enough to let me in before everyone else. This was the most touching moment and the highlight of my time on Patmos. Here I was at the very spot where the Heavens were opened and God revealed future events to His servant John on the Day of the Lord (Sunday), perhaps even at this same hour. In front of me, marked by a rail and a silver crown was the very spot where St. John was lying when the vision came to him. On the wall, an indentation marks the place where he held on to raise himself from the ground. A little further down is the spot where Prochoros, his disciple, stood as he wrote down the vision which John was describing. Here is the place where the book of Revelation was revealed!
I sat down on the wooden bench to soak in the moment and raised my heart in prayer: “Lord, I glorify you for this gift I received today!” I closed my eyes and let myself travel back in time 2000 years ago. How much I would have liked to have been here with St. John! How much I would have liked to know what his visions fully meant! So many things have happened since then; how much I would have liked to know what has already been fulfilled from the revelations he received! My heart warmed up with the desire to know more: What are the signs of the times we should be looking for? What things happening today are part of these signs?
My pondering was interrupted by the noise of people coming down the stairs. I opened my eyes to find that I was surrounded by people. A bus full of Americans had come off a cruise ship and were here to visit. My personal time at this holy place had come to an end.
I exited the complex where the Cave is housed and headed uphill to the monastery. My thoughts were still loaded with the questions: Will God let us know when the end is near? Will the events of the Book of Revelation be clear to us as we get closer to the end? Will we recognize the Antichrist and his forces? Is the end of time at hand or is it far off in the future?
I returned to the monastery just as the bells were ringing for the evening service. I entered the church as the monks were singing, “Let my prayer rise up like incense before the You.” I entered my usual seat lifting up my heart to God once more, hoping for wisdom and guidance on my pursuits that only a holy place like this may inspire.