20 June 2018

A small island chapel
offers a place of prayer
to visitors every day

Nimble walkers pick their away across the rocky breakwater in Georgioupoli to the Chapel of Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Although I have woken to beautiful sunrises in Georgioupoli each morning for the past week, dark clouds have moved in from the north by noon for the past three or four days, and there have been heavy thunderstorms throughout the afternoons.

The rain and the thunderstorms have failed to put a damper on this holiday, and have been beautiful to watch from the safety of the balcony in my hotel room.

But they may have come as a disappointment to many holidaymakers and tourists. The beaches and hotel pools have emptied quickly, the sunbeds by the shore have been tossed about and covered in both rain and waves, and in one place much of the sand has been washed away.

The traders selling stretch-canvas copies of paintings and the tattoo artists along the seafront have had to wrap up everything each time a shower descends, and business must have been a disaster for them for the past week.

The little tourist trains that run trips around the area have had to cancel some of their schedules, and people who have rented cars must feel that they have got little value for the money.

Perhaps the only people who have benefitted from the heavy rains are the tavernas and restaurants as people scurry for cover and decide to buy a drink and then – as the rains show no signs of easing – decide to buy a meal.

But the bars and tavernas are already busy with trade because of people watching the World Cup matches, so they already have a bonus attraction this season.

Saint Nicholas … everyone’s image of ‘blue and white’ picture postcard Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

And so, I am amazed, despite the heavy rains, to still see people picking their way along the rocky, narrow breakwater between the harbour and the beach that leads out to the small islet with the tiny Chapel of Saint Nicholas.

This is a venture that is guaranteed to end in a wet soaking these days, and even has its risks as the rocks become wet and slippery in the rain.

But still they go, in twos and threes or more, like ants in a line, nimbly picking their way across the volcanic rock to see the white-washed chapel. It is everyone’s ‘blue and white’ image of Greece in summer sunshine, and has become the symbol of Georgioupoli and the most photographed scene in this area.

Inside the chapel of Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The chapel remains open, day and night, and it is so small that only three or four people can stand inside at any one time. Yet it has an iconostasis or icon screen, and there are invitations to light a candle in the porch and to say a prayer.

As I watch them, warily if not perilously, pick their way back across the rocks from the chapel in the rain, I wonder what prayers they have to say – apart from those for their own safety.

An invitation to light a candle and say a prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Few of these tourists step inside the two main churches in Georgioupoli – Analipsi (the Resurrection) near the main square and Saint Barbara, by the harbour – but it is interesting that a small chapel like Saint Nicholas has its attractions even for tourists who I imagine have no engagement with church life at home.

But tourists too need to connect with the sacred, and benefit from their spiritual life being met in the places they visit.

Even in the thunderstorms, people know that there is something special about this place. Most light a candle, many sign the visitors’ book, all feel welcome and everyone goes away with a feeling that this is a special and sacred place. And it is in this that this chapel is a place of mission for the Church in Crete.

Looking back to the resort from the porch of the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

I wonder, as I look across at this chapel from breakfast this morning why we cannot leave our churches open all day and every day in Ireland. The risks are minor, but the benefits of being a place of prayer and welcome that offers visitors a moment to connect with the sacred and the spiritual are immeasurable.

Sunrise on a beautiful morning in Georgioupoli (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)