Sunday, 6 May 2012

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’ ... the evening sun above the beach in Bettystown today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

We had a little taste of Heaven – perhaps a double taste of heaven – in Christ Church Cathedral this morning.

The Cathedral Choir sang Palestrina’s Missa Brevis at the Choral Eucharist. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) is one of the best-known Italian Renaissance composers of sacred music from the 16th century and he has had a lasting influence on the development of church music. His four-voiced Missa Brevis, dating from 1570, is one of the most frequently sung Masses in his oeuvre.

The title of this Mass has stirred considerable speculation as it is not particularly short – instead it is a substantial four-part work; perhaps Palestrina used the word brevis simply because no other title suggested itself.

Then, we had a further 16th century taste of heaven as the choir sang as the Communion Motet O nata lux de lumine by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585):

O nata lux de lumine,
Jesu redemptor saeculi,
Dignare clemens supplicum
Laudes precesque sumere.
Qui carne quondam contegi
Dignatus es pro perditis.
Nos membra confer effici
Tui beati corporis.

O Light of light, by love inclined,
Jesu, redeemer of mankind,
With loving-kindness deign to hear
From suppliant voices praise and prayer.
Thou who in fleshly form didst dwell
And deign to raise our souls from hell,
Vouchsafe us, when our race is run,
In thy fair Body to be one.

Tallis and Palestrina were contemporaries, and this anthem is a setting by Tallis of words from a 14th century Latin hymn at Lauds for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Tallis set only two verses from this hymn, yet he retains the mystical fervour of the feast of the Transfiguration. The very last cadence of the motet presents the most famous and pungent dissonance in all English music – one voice moves to F sharp right at the same time as a second sings F natural; the second then moves to E flat, another shocking dissonance with the bass D.

Perhaps Tallis is telling us that the mystical union with Christ’s body is not painless. But it was an appropriate motet as we were receiving the Body of Christ this morning.

After coffee in the crypt, two of us went north to Bettystown on the ‘Gold Coast’ of Co Meath for lunch in Relish. A butterfly was fluttering in the car park outside – and I thought of the chrysalis and the butterfly, metamorphosis and transfiguration, and the opening words of this morning’s Communion Motet by Tallis:

‘O Light of light, by love inclined.’

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’ ... a butterfly in the car park at Relish in Bettystown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From the windows in Relish, we enjoyed the views out towards the sea and the bright, sun-kissed beach.

This is the first summer bank holiday of the year, and after more coffee with friends who are staying in Bettystown for the weekend, we walked across the sand-dunes by the golf links on the Mornington road for a stroll on the beach.

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’ ... the sun-kissed beach in Bettystown this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As we came to the ridge of the dunes overlooking the beach, to the north we could see the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea majestically. Below us, the golden sands of the beach stretched for miles.

Despite some white clouds, there was a dominant blue in the sky and in the sea. It was 5, and the sun was still trying to burst through the clouds over to the west. And I thought again of the opening words of Tallis in this morning’s Communion motet: ‘O Light of light, by love inclined

There was still an early summer atmosphere as we left Bettystown to head back to Dublin. We stopped briefly at Gormanston, where the bank holiday weekend meant my old school was quiet and almost abandoned.

‘O Light of light, by love inclined’ ... evening light streaming through the windows of the chapel in Gormanston this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

And there was another taste of heaven as the light of the sun streamed through the modern stained glass windows of the college chapel and shattered in reflections on the polished floors of the side aisles:

‘O Light of light, by love inclined.’

A refreshing monastic retreat on ‘the balcony of Thessaloniki’

The cloisters at Vlatádon ... a quiet and undisturbed corner in the hills above Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

High in the hills above Thessaloniki, standing on the site of the acropolis of the ancient Greek city and on a rocky, sloping outcrop where the Apostle Paul first preached to the Thessalonian people, is the “Holy Royal Patriarchal and Stravropegic Monastery of the Vlatades,” better known to everyone in Greece as Vlatádon.

Of all places in Thessaloniki, this is my favourite, with its cool, shaded courtyard, its breathtaking views, its beautiful churches and cloisters, its open hospitality and its reputation for scholarship and learning, particularly in the field of Patristic studies or the writings of the early Fathers of the Church.

The main church in Vlatádon is said to the stand on the site where the Apostle Paul preached (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery stands on a rocky slope, sometimes with apparently precarious balance. The modern city of Thessaloniki spreads below like a horseshoe curving around the Gulf of Thermaikos. The climb up is through narrow streets, cobbled alleyways, steep steps and laneways with overhanging Ottoman balconies. In the distance, on a sunny day, you can see as far as Mount Olympus. It is no wonder that this place is often called the “Balcony of Thessaloniki.”

The climb up to Vlatádon gives breath-taking views over the city of Thessaloniki and out to the Thermaic Gulf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Constant and continuous witness

Vlatádon is the only monastery in Thessaloniki with a continuous life from its foundation – around the year 1351 – until today. It has been a constant and continuous Christian witness in this region for over 650 years, reaching out in mission through the religious, spiritual, scholarly and social life of the monastic community, which has made an impact at an international level too.

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ ... a cross cut into a cornerstone in the main church in Vlatádon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery has survived the Ottoman occupation of Thessaloniki from 1430, the Greek war of independence in the 1820s, the wars that led to the incorporation of Thessaloniki into the modern Greek state in 1912, two world wars, successive fires and earthquakes that levelled much of the city in the last century, military coups, invasions and the current political and economic woes in Greece.

Over those centuries, Vlatádon has been caught between decline and prosperity, and has often damaged severely by fires. But its monastic life continued without interruption.

Byzantine imperial links

Vlatádon also hosts the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, founded in 1965 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery stands on Acropolis Street, by the gate to the ancient Acropolis of Thessaloniki and close to a tower built by the Palaiologos imperial family of Byzantium. In Byzantine times, there was a quarry on this site, so that Ossios David, a neighbouring monastery a little down the hill, is known affectionately to this day as ‘The Quarrier.’

The monastery bells calling the monks to prayer throughout the day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This is the site of the original water supply system for the city below, and two early water tanks can still be seen in the grounds, close to the katholikón or main church in the monastery. Tradition says the Apostle Paul preached on this site when he visited the city on his second missionary journey during the year 51 AD. These people received two of his epistles (1 and 2 Thessalonians), although Christianity did not take root in the city until the late third or early fourth century, before the martyrdom of the city’s patron, Saint Dimitrios, in the year 303.

In that same year, the Emperor Galerius built his triumphal arch in Thessaloniki to commemorate yet another Greek defeat of the Persian Empire. But the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Early Church, as Tertullian wrote, and the persecuted citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire eventually became the majority in this elegant city that served at times as the second city of Byzantium.

Modern buildings

Despite its ancient appearance, Vlatádon is a relatively modern monastery by Byzantine standards. It was probably established in 1351, 13 centuries after Saint Paul’s visits and just 80 years before Thessaloniki fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1430.

Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki ... a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The founders of the monastery were two brothers and monks, Dorotheos and Markos, who had the family name Vlatis or Vlattis. An inscription in the wall above the lintel of the katholikón says the monastery was established “by the founders Vlateon, men of Crete.” However, the inscription dates only from 1801, and most sources say these brother monks did not come from Crete but were born in Thessaloniki and grew up in the city.

They were firm friends of Saint Gregory Palamas by the time he had become Archbishop of Thessaloniki in 1347. Dorotheos and Markos accompanied the saintly prelate when he was called to Constantinople to explain to the Emperor and the Ecumenical Patriarch his theological views about what is now known as the “Hesychast Controversy.”

The shrine of Saint Gregory Palamas in the Metropolitan Cathedral Church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dorotheos returned with Saint Gregory to live in Thessaloniki around 1350, while Markos left Constantinople for the monastic mountain of Mount Athos, where he became a monk in the Monastery of the Great Lavra.

Then in 1351, the brothers founded their monastery in the hills looking over Thessaloniki, and dedicated it to Christ the Pantokrator and to the Transfiguration of Christ, important images of Christ for those who agreed with Saint Gregory Palamas in the hesychast controversy and his defining concepts of the uncreated light of God.

Patriarchal protection

The White Tower is a symbol of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The new monastery was supported by the widowed Empress Anna Palaiologos, who retired to Thessaloniki in 1351 and gave the monastery its royal status. When the Patriarch Neilos placed his patriarchal cross here, he gave the monastery its “stavropegic” status, placing it directly under the authority and protection of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Saint Gregory Palamas died in 1359, and the co-founder of Vlatádon, Saint Dorotheos, eventually succeeded him as Metropolitan or Archbishop of Thessaloniki (1371-1376).

The Turks first occupied Thessaloniki in 1387-1403 and set up a garrison in the old city or acropolis. A unit of Turkish troops was billeted in Vlatádon and the main church was sequestered as a mosque for the citadel garrison. A niche facing Mecca was hollowed out in the centre of the sanctuary, and the interior walls were hammered roughly and plastered over, destroying the original Byzantine frescoes and icons. However, the monastic community remained together, and the “royal,” “patriarchal” and “stravropegic” statuses were reaffirmed in 1401, saving the monastery for future generations.

When the Ottoman Turks returned and captured the city for a second and more lasting time in 1430, Vlatádon was left unmolested and continued to work as a monastery through the generations that followed.

When the newly-arrived Turks made a mosque of the cathedral or metropolitan Church of Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki – modelled on the great church in Constantinople – the relics of Saint Gregory Palamas were transferred for safekeeping to the monastery founded by his friends. Later, when a new cathedral was built and named after the city’s two great patrons, Saint Dimitrios and Saint Gregory, the relics were moved there from Vlatádon.

Recovery and restructure

The old and the new come together in harmony in Vlatádon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the past, Vlatádon had a number of dependent churches and convents in Thessaloniki and the surrounding area, including the Church of Saint Nicholas Orphanos, the Church of the Mother of God Laodigítria (“Guide of the People”) and the Church of Saint Athanasios in central Thessaloniki. Saint Athanasios, which was associated with the monastery from at least the 15th century, once included a complex with a wine shop, a bakery, and candle-makers’ and coppersmiths’ workshops.

Vlatádon once had a number of dependent churches and convents in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Over time, with the support of successive Patriarchs in Constantinople, the monks of Vlatádon tried to recover and to restructure their possessions and property throughout Thessaloniki. But their moves were hampered when Vlatádon lost its sovereignty briefly and was made subject to the Monastery of Ivrion on Mount Athos for 15 years. As the Ottoman rulers tightened their grip, the monastery came under the increasing influence of lay figures. The decay continued until the Patriarchate eventually intervened, ordering the restoration of canonical order and the regular election of abbots.

Despite this intervention, the first newly-elected abbot, Nieforos Demetriades, found it impossible to recover monastic property in Thessaloniki, including the Church of Saint Athanasios. Much of the monastery – apart from the central church – was destroyed by a fire in 1869, a year before his death.

His successor, Abbot Kallinikos Theoloides (1870-1892), saw the income from monastic landholdings transferred by the Patriarch to the Theological School in Halki. By then, the monastery buildings were in decay and in urgent need of repair. Yet another fire caused further damage in 1896 during the time of the next abbot, Abbot Kallinikos Georgiades (1892-1923).

Thessaloniki was liberated in 1912 and incorporated in the modern Greek state, bringing new hope to the monks of Vlatádon, and new housing for the abbot and new chapels were built. However, as Greek-speaking refugees poured in from Anatolia, monastic lands were appropriated for housing homeless and landless people. The monastery lands eventually shrank down to three acres as the surrounding area in Ano Polis, the old city, and the monastic lands in nearby Kalamariá, near Thessaloniki, appropriated by Ottoman refugees from 1892 onwards, and then by Greek refugees fleeing Anatolia and the Asia Minor catastrophe from 1922 on.

Monastic treasures

A sign pointing to the abbot’s quarters, built by Abbot Ioakeim in 1926 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Abbot Ioakeim of Ivrion (1923-1940) built a new chapel, a new sacristy, new quarters for the abbot and other new buildings. In the mid-20th century, the monastery became a meeting place for scholars and academics, and the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies was formed in 1965 as a centre for scholarly research.

The building housing the new museum, sacristy, reception hall and bookshop was completed twenty years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The institute organises annual conferences on the history of Byzantine Thessaloniki, and publishes the periodical Klernomia and the series Analekta Vlatádon. The institute works closely with the Aristotelean University of Thessaloniki and is involved cataloguing the manuscripts of the monasteries on Mount Athos.

Following a devastating earthquake in Thessaloniki in 1978, restoration and conservation work uncovered hidden frescoes from the final phase of the Palaiologan era.

The hostel was built for theology students studying at Patristic Institute and the University of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The treasures in the monastery’s sacristy and museum include relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus), what are said to be relics of the cups used at the Last Supper, including “the goblet from which Christ drank,” and icons over 600 years old.

The library holds over 500 ancient books, almost 100 codices, and ancient manuscripts, including 10th-12th century copies of works by Saint John of Damascus, Saint John Chrysostom and an early copy of The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Klimakos.

The peacocks in Vlatádon ... bred by the monks as a sign of the Resurrection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastery courtyard is known for its friendly peacocks, bred by the monks because the peacock was seen as in classical and Byzantine times as a symbol of the resurrection. In recent years, Vlatádon has been renovated and expanded, and has lost much of its old feeling. But the charming, inner, tree-shaded courtyard is a cool and refreshing place to rest and contemplate, and to think on things eternal. I left the monastery encouraged by Saint Paul’s words to the early Christians in this city: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before God our Father because of you?” (I Thessalonians 3: 9).

Sunset on the Gulf of Thermaikos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in May 2012 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory).

Watching a Greek tragedy unfold

Patrick Comerford

Over Easter, I watched and re-watched Eternity and A Day (1998), a film by the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who died tragically earlier this year while filming in Athens.

Thinking about the tragedies and political uncertainty that may face Greece after today’s election, I sat down last night to watch for the fourth or fifth time The Weeping Meadow (Το Λιβάδι που δακρύζει), a beautiful and devastating meditation by Angelopoulos on war, history and loss.

The Weeping Meadow (2004), the first in a projected trilogy by Angelopoulos, tells the story of modern Greece from the close of World War I to the aftermath of World War II through the sufferings of one family.

The story starts in 1919 with Greek refugees arriving from Odessa near Thessaloniki. They include two small children, Alexis and Eleni, an orphan who is taken care of by Alexis’ parents, Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos) and Danae (Thalia Argirioua).

This three-hour film opens with the refugees arriving, laden with suitcases and trunks. They walk from a sea the shore to the river bank. At the head of the group is their spokesman, Spyros and his wife Danae, with their five-year-old son Alexis and their three-year-old adopted daughter Eleni.

Spyros explains they are Greek refugees who have escaped the Bolshevik revolution in Odessa. After being quarantined in Thessaloniki, they have been allowed to settle in the land they have been given on the banks of the river estuary. The refugees build a small village near the river, and there these two children grow up and fall in love. But difficult times of dictatorship, war and civil war are ahead.

About 12 or 14 years later, we are back in the village, now called New Odessa. Danae and Eleni return by boat to the village after Eleni (Alexandra Aidini) has secretly given birth to twin boys and has given them up for adoption. She is escorted to Spyros; house, the largest in the village. The twins; father is Spyros’ son, Alexis, the boy who walked next to Eleni when they arrived as refugees.

When Danare dies, Eleni is married off to Spyros. But after the wedding ceremony in church, she runs away with Alexis, escaping to Thessaloniki on the back of a truck carrying the musicians who were to play at the wedding.

The leader of the musicians, Nikos (Giorgos Armenis), a violinist, becomes a father figure to Alexis, taking the runaway couple under his protection. In Thessaloniki, Nikos spirits Eleni and Alexis away to a large theatre that serves as a shelter for refugees from Smyrna and other parts of Anatolia, with families living in the boxes and stalls.

When Spyros seeks revenge and arrives in the theatre, the fugitive pair escape to yet another shelter. In the musicians’ own hiding place, the musicians serenade Alexis and Eleni. Nikos recognises the gift Alexis has as an accordionist.

After the military coup in 1936, Alexis has an audition with Markos, a famous musician planning to assemble a band to go to America in Greek emigrant communities. Markos, promises Alexis that he will be part of this group.

Meanwhile, Eleni’s twins, Yannis and Yorgis, now about 12, are reunited with their mother.

The musicians align themselves with the resistance to the regime, and play in an old beer hall for trade unionists on the run from the police. Spyros arrives at the dance, dances with Eleni, and then collapses and dies a heart attack.

Spyros’ Venetian-like funeral on the water is one of great eerie yet lyrical dramatics scenes created by Angelopoulos. After the funeral, Alexis returns to his father’s house in New Odessa with Eleni and their children. There, they find Spyros’ sheep slaughtered by the villagers and hanging from a tree by the house, the blood dripping from their slit necks in pools on the ground below.

The family moves into the house, but the unforgiving villager stone the house and break the windows. During the night, the village is flooded and is abandoned by the villagers. At dawn, they row their boats among the submerged houses to higher ground, bringing with them their icons and their meagre possessions.

Alexis and his impoverished family return to Thessaloniki, to find trade unionists, musicians and members of the resistance are rounded up, tortured, and executed.

In a field of white sheets hanging out to dry in the wind, a scattered and disparate group of musicians are playing near the seashore. Shots ring out, the musicians disperse, and Alexis and Eleni seek refuge in a nearby house. From the window, they see Nikos, mortally wounded, stumbling through the field of sheets before he gestures goodbye, clutches his stomach, collapses and dies.

By the rainy, gray morning, a small crowd of well-wishers has assembled on the seafront in Thessaloniki to send off Markos and his musicians as they leave for America. Alexis joins them, leaving behind Eleni and their twin sons. She has knitted him a red sweater, and Alexis grabs a thread as he boards the small boat to embark the liner. Eventually, the thread breaks off.

Alexis writes to Eleni from New York about his disappointments. But will he ever make his way through the American labyrinth to return to his Ariadne?

In the night, Eleni is arrested by the fascists, taken to prison and tortured. When she is freed, she returns to find her house and her neighbourhood in Thessaloniki have been burned down. In America, Alexis joins the army so he can become a US citizen and bring Eleni and their children to America.

After the end of World War II, Eleni is jailed again for sheltering a wounded partisan during the Greek Civil War. She leaves jail in Thessaloniki in 1949, to find out that Alexis died four years earlier in Okinawa.

Eleni sets out to find the body of her son, Yannis, a government soldier who has been killed in the civil war. Two old women from her old village comfort her and express their remorse for the way they treated Eleni and her family years earlier.

One of the old women (Toula Stathopoulos) tells Eleni that her other son, Yorgis has also been killed in the civil war, fighting as a partisan. She takes Eleni to the spot where these brothers were reunited and embraced for the last time.

The old lady tells Eleni that Yorgi still lies where he fell – in Spyros’ old house, now almost totally drowned in the waters in the middle of the lake.

Eleni rows out to the house, and collapses, weeping, on her son’s body. She rises, screaming in heart-wrenching calls of grief. Now she is now alone in the world.

Throughout this movie, Eleni and Alexis constantly finds themselves on the wrong side of the tracks and left out to dry. This heart-breaking story draws on themes from myth, epic and tragedy, and the film is a stately procession of enigmatic, starkly beautiful images that seem to gesture towards an outside mythological world.

The haunting score by Eleni Karaindrou – much of it performed by the travelling musicians – is interspersed with sparse dialogue and , separated by long stretches of silence.

Running time: 185 minutes.


Alexandra Aidini (Eleni)
Nikos Poursanidis (Young Man)
Giorgos Armenis (Nikos the Fiddler)
Vassilis Kolovos (Spyros),
Eva Kotamanidou (Cassandra)
Toula Stathopoulou (Woman in Coffee House)