19 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (30) Monastery

The Monastery of Arkadi, near Rethymnon, is the best-known monastery in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

During my two weeks in Crete this month, I visited a number of monasteries, including the Monastery of Arkadia, about 25 km from Rethymnon, and the Monastery of Preveli, on the south coast of Crete, about 35 km south of Rethymnon, above the Palm Beach of Preveli.

On the way to Preveli, I also stopped briefly below the small monastic Church of Saint Paisios in Damnoni, where an icon of Saint Paisios the Athonite is said to be streaming myrrh since May. For the last four months, this miracle has been attracting pilgrims in large numbers, and they say the small church is filled with a sweet fragrance.

The word monastery, to describe a place where men or women live in common in search of religious seclusion, came into the English language ca 1400 as monasterie, from the Old French monastere.

But this word, in turn, comes through the Late Latin monasterium, and from the Ecclesiastical Greek μοναστήριον (monastērion), ‘a monastery,’ μονάζειν (monazein), to live alone, and from μόνος (monos), ‘alone.’ The suffix ‘-terion denotes a ‘place for doing something.’

In English, the word monastery is generally used for the buildings of a community of monks. But, as the original Greek words imply, the first monks lived alone as hermits. In Eastern Christianity, a very small monastic community can be called a skete (σκήτη), and a very large or important monastery can be given the dignity of a lavra (λαύρα).

Communal life in a monastery is called cenobitic, as opposed to the anchoretic life of an anchorite and the eremitic life of a hermit. Under the Turkish occupation of Greece, an ‘idiorrhythmic’ lifestyle also developed, where monks come together but own things individually and are not obliged to work for the common good.

Both Arkadia and Preveli were filled with tourists and pilgrims last week as the monasteries celebrated the feast of the Exaltation of the True Cross. In Preveli, one of the monks blessed visitors with a cross said to hold a relic of the true cross, and in Arkadia a gilded icon was on display in the main church showing Saint Helena and her son the Emperor Constantine, holding the True Cross.

If monasteries are seen as places where monks can find seclusion from the world, the outside world found its way in large numbers to these monasteries in the mountains of Crete last week.

Pilgrims and tourists venerating the relic of the True Cross in Preveli last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Yesterday: Muse

Tomorrow: Olympian

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