Cave of the Apocalypse

Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian

Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian


I, John … was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice saying, ‘Write in a book what you see …’    (Rev. 1:9-11)

Patmos is one of the smaller Dodecanese Islands, a grueling 8-hour middle-of-the-night ferry ride east of Athens. It has gorgeous bays and quiet beaches, superb mountain views, charming villages and, at least not in summer’s high season, a tranquil predominance of locals over tourists. The outsiders I have met are themselves “regulars,” returning again and again because they love it. Yesterday a man from the Netherlands told me this was his 23rd straight year of month-long visits.

Patmos is also a place of pilgrimage, where St. John the Theologian (or “the Divine,” as we say in the western church), fell into a swoon and saw things which have intrigued, puzzled, disturbed and inspired readers ever since. The Book of Revelation has, regretfully, provided horrific weapons of mass destruction for hellfire preachers, but it is also the source for many sublime hymns and prayers in my own Anglican tradition.

Most scholars think that the book’s author is not the same person who wrote the Fourth Gospel. Language, style and themes are too different in the two works. But “tradition” has always preferred to link the Galilean fisherman “whom Jesus loved” with both the mystical composer of the Fourth Gospel and the visionary exiled to Patmos. It exemplifies the arc of discipleship as potentially a long, strange trip. As we sang in a hymn at my own ordination years ago, “the peace of God, it is no peace … Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died; Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified.”

So the Christian can’t come to Patmos and simply lie on the beach or relax in the taverna. The Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian beckons from the high ridge above the  port. Its dark-hued fortress of lion-colored stone makes somber contrast with the whitewashed village around it, as if to say that the ascent of this hill is serious business.

The monastery rises above the village of Chora.

The monastery rises above the village of Chora.

If you rise early, you can experience the awesome richness of the monastery’s Katholikon (main church) in solitude. The brilliant wall paintings, recently cleaned, immerse you in holy images. Along with the intricately carved iconostasis, hanging oil lamps, and numerous icons, they effect a ceaseless engagement of the eye. Some might find this distracting for prayer, but for me the sense that there is always more than I can take in – the visual inexhaustibility of Orthodox interiors – can lead to a kind of surrender, overwhelming and transcending the subjectivity of my own thoughts and perceptions. Here is Mystery. Give over to it. Lose yourself in it.

The monastery museum holds an eclectic assortment of treasures, including a 6th century gospel book, a 1499 Venetian collection of Aristophanes’ comedies, a 6th century BC bust of Dionysus (god of wine and ecstasy), the largest Orthodox collection of 5th-6th century Coptic textiles, preserved by the dryness of Egyptian tombs, and a police blotter in Arabic from the late 15th century, when Byzantine territories had fallen under Muslim control (“The Cadi [Judge] of the Palace is ordered to find three Patmians who were kidnapped by pirates.”).

Below the monastery, halfway up the hill from the sea, is the Cave of the Apocalypse. Here, according to tradition, John lay on the stone floor for several days while the vision unfolded. The cave is not large, but the insertion of a wooden iconostasis into its contours, along with icons and hanging lamps, has made it a compelling place for worship, prayer and veneration. John’s private ecstasy has been reimagined through specific features of the cave. Here is the cleft from which the Voice spoke. Here is the corner when he laid his head to rest between revelations. Here are the fissures where the Trinitarian God divided the rock into three parts with an earthquake.

Literal belief in the details of the cave’s legends is not required to make the site holy. It is holy because centuries of believers have given a particular kind of attention here to a Reality which yearns to make itself known in the innermost heart, for which a sheltering, enclosing cave is a tangible, sensory analogy.

Another mystical theologian, St. Bonaventure, said, “When you pray, gather up your whole self, enter with your Beloved into the chamber of your heart, and there remain alone with your Beloved, forgetting all exterior concerns.” The Cave, for the attentive, can mirror the chamber of the heart.

I entered it three times during my week here. The first time was the Sunday liturgy, full of incense and chanting voices. It was beautiful, but I had no revelations, or even deep feelings. God was present, but I was a bit absent. I was tired from a long, sleepless ferry ride. And I knew that whatever the Cave offered was not a tourist experience you can just walk in and collect.

So I went back a few days later. The voices I heard then were those of tour guides. Most just reeled off the legends uncritically as if they were prosaic facts. Here this and that happened, blah blah blah, now let’s go back to the bus. But one guide, a Greek woman speaking both in English and German, really got into it.

“People think that the Book of Revelation is about judgment and punishment. That is there, of course, but by the time you get to Chapter 21, you find what it is really about: a new world, a new heaven, a new earth, where we will be with God, and God with us.

“John’s message is trying to wake us up, to make us see that we are all one because God is with us and in us. Our original condition of oneness will be restored in the end. We lost that unity in the beginning because we had free will, and we chose to have our own experience, and forgot our connection with one another.

“If a bomb falls on someone in Syria, we think, ‘Thank God that didn’t happen to me.’ But what happens to others happens to all of us. John is trying to wake us up to this. And when he talks about the destruction of the earth, we have to think about how much closer we ourselves are to bringing that about today, unless we remember what we were made for and what we are a part of.”

When I thanked her afterward for her ‘preaching,’ she said, “I want to tell people what they don’t know, what they don’t hear in the schools, what the priests won’t tell you.” She was pretty sour on the institutional church. “I was baptized Greek Orthodox. I believe in Christ and the power of the sacraments, but I don’t belong to any church. I’m kind of a revolutionary.” I asked her name. “Vera,” she said. “Like veritas– the truth.”

This morning, my last on Patmos, I returned to the Cave for a third time. Two cantors and a priest were chanting the Divine Liturgy. I was the only other person present. This time, the spirit of prayer came easily, like a morning breeze. I received no visions, heard no voices except the beautiful earthly ones I stood among. But it was more than enough. When the priest handed out the holy bread at the end, I was aware of my outsider status as non-Orthodox. But the priest, who had the face of a Baroque Apostle, turned to me with a slight nod. And so I ate the bread of heaven, and departed well satisfied.

Stairway to heaven

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A modern road has made the monasteries accessible to tourists, but a pilgrim may still ascend more deliberately on the old wooded paths leading up from the lowlands. The way is peaceful and full of birdsong, and the upward views of immense cliffs and towers crowned with such fanciful habitats were continuously astonishing.

At the top, the hiker joins the throng who have arrived in bus or car, often to find a prevailing atmosphere of chatter which neglects or obscures the beauty of holiness. People wave and smile at cameras, offer the same brief glance to Christian images which they gave to Athena and Apollo in the Greek museums, enjoy the spectacular views, and head off to the next attraction. It doesn’t always feel like pilgrimage. And many of the monks themselves have long since fled to more solitary retreats.

But patience may be rewarded, and today there were fortunate lulls in the touristic turbulence, when the worship spaces emptied out and prayerful attention was possible.

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The priestly preface to a guidebook published by one of the monasteries wishes the pilgrim “a rare spiritual journey between heaven and earth, in order to “taste here newfound bliss, spiritual uplift and powerful emotions” providing release from daily routine. And I can testify to the tangible effect of a long and dramatic wilderness ascent to arrive in a room, lit only by the soft daylight falling from a few small, high windows, and there be immersed in a sepulchral interior filled with icons and hanging lanterns, where every wall is painted with frescoes of saints and biblical scenes. It feels like a space praying ceaselessly in story and image, bearing witness to the Divine Mystery until the end of time.

The images are painted in bright colors, which stand out intensely against their ink-black bakgrounds, so strikingly different from the familiar golden environments of most Byzantine iconography. This distinctive style came from Theophanes, a fifteenth-century Cretan artist who worked here as well as at Mt. Athos. To a modern viewer, for whom the gilded world of faith is no longer a given, the blackness suggests a void against which the existential cry of “let there be light” must ever be a proposal fraught with risk.

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The holy paintings of Meteora, like the Christianity that produced them, have suffered fading and wear over the centuries, and some of their meanings have grown obscure. But unless a grain of wheat should fall into the ground and die, it cannot bear any fruit.

This wondrous day ended with a visit to the oldest Byzantine cutch in the region, built not at the summit but at the foot of the Meteora rocks. It was empty of visitors when my wife Karen and I arrived at sunset. Before leaving, I asked the Greek woman who collected admissions if I could sing a Kyrie in the resonant space. I’m not sure she understood exactly what I was asking, but she seemed agreeable enough. I stepped into the nave and began. The Kyrie I chose was an ancient Greek setting. She recognized the chant and began to sing along somewhere behind me. Orthodox and Anglican, Greek and American, female and male, praying together amid the cloud of painted witnesses all around us. “She had tears in her eyes,” Karen told me later.

As we took our leave, I said the Greek acclamation for Easter: Christos anesti! Christ is risen! “Alithos anesti,” she replied with a smile. Indeed he is risen.