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Awe, Giddiness and Privation: The Monasteries of Meteora

High above the Thessalian Plain, the monasteries of Meteora provide spiritual havens for contemplation and communion.

On my first trip through the Middle East, some years ago, I was duly impressed by the monuments of Egypt: the pyramids at Giza and the exquisite treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Yet that trip’s “Wow!” moment came not in Egypt, but in Jordan, when I visited Petra, the “rose-red city half as old as time.” Petra’s hand-hewn strictures lie in a spectacular natural setting: a miniature Grand Canyon.

I had a similar reaction when I visited the monasteries of Meteora in the Greek region of Thessaly, about 100 miles south-west of the city of Thessaloniki. I had vaguely heard of these monasteries, but I did not know what awaited me. I discovered, as I had at Petra, a spectacular natural setting: a forest of stone column, some broad, some spindly, thrusting up a thousand feet or more above the plain below. Perched incongruously and precariously on top of several dozen of these monoliths are monasteries, most of which date back to the 13th and 14th centuries. One’s first sight of them inevitably invokes a “Wow!”

The pillars of Meteora were formed on the bed of an ancient river or lake from sediment deposits that accumulated over millions of years and were then compressed into a limestone mass. As the water level dropped, the elements wore away most of the limestone, leaving monoliths projecting from what is today the Thessalian Plain.

In the early church, Syrian hermits took up residence atop pillars. St. Simeon Stylites was the most notable of these ascetics. Hundreds of years later some Byzantines did much the same; they established themselves atop these immense natural columns.

From 726 to 843 the Byzantine Empire was embroiled in a bitter iconoclastic controversy – all images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints were forbidden and destroyed by the imperial authority. Monks, who favored the creation and veneration of icons, were driven from their monasteries, their prosperous holdings seized by the government.

Many of these monks fled to obscure regions of the empire, including the limestone columns of Thessaly.

Tradition identifies the first hermit as Barnabas, an ascetic who came to the area around 960 A.D. In the 11th and 12th centuries, with the material and spiritual support of the emperors and wealthy landowners, larger monastic communities were established.

Certainly it was an effective way to flee the distractions of a turbulent society for a life of uninterrupted prayer. Yet one wonders how those ascetics ever climbed the sheer sides of these monoliths, much less built monasteries – a few of which are excellent examples of Byzantine church architecture – on their summits.

Monastic life at Meteora reached its high point in the 17th century, with 24 monasteries and a scattering of hermitages. Since then, Meteora’s monastic life has been in slow decline: today only six of the monasteries are occupied, each with a small community of Greek Orthodox monks.

Visitors are welcomed if they are willing to climb the many steps leading to the monasteries and are “soberly dressed.” The stairways cut into the sides of the cliffs are a modern concession: until the present century, the only way to reach the monasteries was by rope ladder, or by being winched aloft in a net. I was grateful for the stairs.

The monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ, towering 1,350 feet above the plain below, was founded in the 14th century by a monk from Mount Athos named Athanasius. He called the rock column upon which he built his monastery “Meteora” – Greek for “in the air” – because the monastery seemed to hang suspended between heaven and earth. Eventually the name was extended to the whole complex; the monastery of the Transfiguration is also known as “The Great Meteoro.”

The central church, or katholikon, of the monastery of the Transfiguration was built before 1382 and expanded in 1552. The frescoes adorning its dome and walls are thought to be the work of Theophanes, a well-known 16th-century icon painter from Crete who worked at Mount Athos as well as at Meteora. Many of the frescoes are well preserved. They struck my untutored eye as masterpieces of post-Byzantine art.

It is certain that Theophanes of Crete painted the frescoes in another of the monasteries of Meteora, the monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas. The monastery church dates from the 13th or 14th century; Theophanes’s paintings, from 1527. As in the church at the monastery of the Transfiguration, many of the frescoes depict scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints; the images follow the iconographic canons established by the Byzantine Church as far back as the ninth century. There are also many vivid scenes of the martyrdom of saints. I wondered if these reminders of what past saints had suffered were included as an encouragement for the monks who were undergoing the daily martyrdom of penitential lives – lives of prayer, vigils and fasting.

In his book on Meteora, Theocharis Provatakis writes, “Penitence for the monk is not a passing moment or a temporary state, but is a perpetual condition. It is a second birth that God gives after baptism, a way of return to the Father.”

The aim of monasticism is union with God. This ultimate goal can never be far from a monk’s mind: one room of the Transfiguration monastery displays the skulls of monks of prior generations – a stark reminder of one’s own mortality and equally well of one’s hopes for immortality. A monk climbs the steep steps up to the monasteries of Meteora as the first leg of an ascent to God.

The interiors of the monastery churches are filled with images that draw the viewer from this world to the next. But outside one gazes upon quite a different scene. Instead of images of heaven and martyrdom, the beauty of this earth is laid out panoramically from horizon to horizon. The same lofty heights of these monasteries, which elevate the monk from this world, also provide a spectacular view of that which he seeks to avoid, of the fertile Thessalian Plain and the small cities that dot it.

Is this natural beauty a help or hindrance to the monks in their lives of prayer? Are the fertile fields and majestic rocks an all too constant reminder of what one is striving to leave behind? Or does this natural beauty serve to lift one’s spirit to the God who created it?

Perhaps both. A description of Meteora by Nikos Stournaras says of the monks, “having forsaken the world, they hoped to see God more clearly in the thin blue air of their summits and, dwelling there in awe and giddiness and privation, to achieve Christian perfection.”

Awe and giddiness and privation: an apt characterization of what a monk must experience living “in the air” at Meteora.

George Martin, a frequent contributor to these pages, recently traveled to Greece.

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