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The Less Traveled Path of Ossios Loukas

A small Greek monastery on the way to Delphi is an ancient reminder of the life of a devoted monk.

Thick snow blanketed the mountains and valleys in the Beotia region of Greece on February 7, 953 A.D., the day that a hermit named Loukas died in his cell on a remote mountainside. But Loukas did not die alone. In November of the previous year, he had prophesied his coming death. For weeks the peasants of the region had been arriving on foot – trudging many miles through difficult and snowbound terrain – to receive his last benedictions and healing touch.

None could have imagined then that Loukas’s humble hermitage was soon to become the great Monastery of Ossios Loukas (Blessed or Saintly Luke), a Byzantine monument comparable to the finest buildings of Constantinople, decorated with exquisite paintings, marbles, and mosaics. Almost 1000 years later, pilgrims still wind their way through the mountains to light a candle and pray for healing there.

The monastery is on the Greek mainland, almost overlooking the Gulf of Corinth and about 100 miles northwest of Athens. Until just a few years ago, a visit from Athens to the monastery required an arduous journey over a narrow, twisting, and badly potholed road. After the Greek government invested heavily in widening and improving it, there are still many twists and turns on the road, but one can comfortably reach the monastery from Athens in less than four hours.

This new road was not, however, constructed with the monastery in mind. Its destination lies ten miles beyond the turnoff to it. The pre-Christian site of Delphi, where the ancient pillars of pagan shrines and temples rise from the green hillside into the smokey-blue mountain air, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Of these modern-day pilgrims coming to pay homage to the gods of a bygone era, only a few make the short detour to the lush, fertile valley of Mount Helicon, with the Monastery of Ossios Loukas planted on its slopes.

The comparative handful that make the effort are amply rewarded by the aesthetic and artistic achievement they encounter. Here the beauty of God’s own creation and His works through human hands come together in perfect harmony. Surrounded by almond and olive groves, and shaded by oak, chestnut, and ageless spreading plane trees. Loukas could not have chosen a more delightful site to found his monastery. Its amazingly wellpreserved paintings and mosaics are a rare and valuable tribute to Byzantine art. In the whole of Greece – a land brimming with Byzantine relics – only two other eleventh century churches have preserved their decoration to a comparable degree. Of the three, Ossios Loukas is the finest.

The man in whose honor this magnificent building was erected lived a life of complete contrast to its opulence. He was born about 896, the third of seven children of Stephen and Euphrosyne, who had fled the island of Aegina to escape the Saracens. When Loukas was born, they were living in Kastri – a different name for Delphi itself. The oracle and other pagan shrines had by then crumbled or been covered by the sands of time. (The excavations which restored much of the ancient city were started only last century.) Byzantine Christianity was firmly established, and Loukas was born into an observant family.

Historical sources differ slightly on some details of Loukas’s life, but all agree that from an early age he had an exceptional leaning towards a life of piety and prayer. Even as a child he would often feed and clothe the poor – giving up his own food and clothing to do so. This attitude of Christian charity became a hallmark of his entire life. As a boy he used to help plough and sow in his father’s fields, but his heart’s desire was to consecrate himself to God.

His family was not pleased with the idea of him becoming a hermit. When he was about 14, two monks passing through his village persuaded his mother to allow him to accompany them to a monastery in Athens. After a few months his mother prevailed upon him to return to Kastri, but soon he left home again – this time to enter a hermitage in nearby Yannimaki, where he stayed for seven years.

The tragedies and unceasing waves of invasion befalling Greece in the tenth century drove Loukas from place to place in his search for peace. He fled Yannimaki to Corinthia to avoid barbarian invaders. While there he built a hermitage on Mount Joanittsa.

Though he lived in a hermitage, Loukas did not live a life of solitude. Holy men of his day were expected to separate themselves from the world, but Loukas’s love of humanity shone far beyond the walls of his cell. While he was in Corinthia, he began to be surnamed “Thaumaturgus,” or wonder-worker, because of the miraculous cures that God performed through him upon the many who sought him out.

He returned to Yannimaki after about ten years, but further hostilites in 939 caused him to flee again, this time to nearby Kalami. After a short time Turkish raids drove him to Stira, the small village overlooking the valley where he chose to make his final abode. His sojourn in Stira has caused him also to be known as Luke the Stiriote.

When he founded the monastery in 946, Luke was already a well-known and revered Christian figure. His humility, love of fellow humans, and the pure example of his life were combined with a Christian grace that drew other hermits to his enclave. Although completely devoted to the precepts of faith and salvation, he had a deep sense of tenderness for the works of Creation. He would meditate by the banks of a stream or talk to the deer and birds of the forest. He tended his own flower and vegetable garden, which supplied the needs of himself and his disciples.

His healing works and his prophetic abilities caused his reputation to spread far beyond the cloisters of his hermitage. His accurate prediction of momentous events, such as the Bulgarian invasion, earned him the admiration of the region’s governing authorities. Generals, government officials, and other admirers gave him the economic help to start building the small church of Saint Barbara. He did not live to see it completed. This church now adjoins the main, larger church of Ossios Loukas, which was built in 1011 by the Abbot Philotheos and his disciples.

The magnificent large church building was made possible by generous donations after his death, when his fame extended further than during his lifetime. Invalids continued to record miraculous cures at his tomb, which sprouted myrrh. When his prophecy of the liberation of Crete from the Arabs came to pass in 962, the Emperor Romanos II became a great benefactor. A wall painting in the Emperor’s honor has been uncovered in the refectory during recent restoration work.

The complex suffered much damage over the centuries, both from earthquakes and invasions. Although it remains resplendent with fine treasures today, many were lost, especially during the thirteenth century Frankish invasion. As recently as 1943, during World War II, bombardments damaged parts of the building.

Today only peace and quiet fill the air – perhaps a little too much quiet, as there are no longer any monks in residence. The old monastic cells, built in two- and three-storey sections with low, arched roofs and wooden doors, now house eight priests. Their chief function is to minister to the needs of pilgrims. Native Greeks come here in small but significant numbers to pray and to learn more about their heritage. For the older priests, it is a peaceful yet inspiring place of retirement.

Ossios Loukas inspires because this is not simply another dead monastery, another symbol of a passing lifestyle. True enough, the empty cells cause one to reflect on the reasons why the simple monastic ideal has in general lost its appeal, even to the most pious Christians. But its vibrant architecture and the care and devotion with which it is maintained clearly reveal the life still left in the distinguished old building. One step inside the main church only serves to enhance this conviction.

The main church is octagonal with an enormous dome, nine yards in diameter. The Pantocrator looks benevolently down, surrounded by the Virgin, John the Baptist, and four archangels. Forming an outer circle around them are the sixteen prophets between arched windows. On the Templo (iconostasis) are four icons by the famous sixteenth century Cretan painter, Michael Damaskenos.

The mosaic of the Platytera Madonna in the apse is particularly splendid with a shimmering background of gold. Other works worthy of special note are the mosaics in the narthex.

The numerous decorations tell the story of the Bible, in Byzantine tradition, through these fascinating frescoes and mosaics. Frescoes of the saints adorn every available niche and arch, while richly colored marble slabs cover any remaining wall space. Rays of light – symbolizing truth and salvation – filter through the numerous small, round panes of glass in the windows around the church. They gently illuminate the tone and texture of these fine works of art.

The smaller, original church, dedicated to the Virgin (Panagiya), is less adorned, much of its wealth not having survived past disasters. It is, nevertheless, architecturally beautiful, with a fine exterior and interesting marble inlays on the floor. It is to this chapel that the faithful come to pray and light a candle, and where services are still held.

The cruciform crypt below the main church is covered with superb wall paintings, contemporary with the mosaics in the large church. Eleven scenes from the Gospels, the twelve apostles, and 28 saints are commemorated on the walls, ceilings, and cross vaults. The tomb of Ossios Loukas is within, but his relics have long since been removed to the Vatican.

These beautiful buildings and their treasures not only inspire a deep sense of reverence in the beholder. The serenity that belies the battle-scarred past imparts something of the character of Blessed Luke himself. Although he was probably illiterate and left no writings, his Christian walk was indeed so humble, so loving, so Christ-like, that he was able to touch the hearts of such unlikely persons as the Emperor Basil, known as “the Bulgar Slayer.”

Resting in the courtyard after drinking some cool, mountain-fresh water from the Byzantine fountain, one can ponder what Loukas has to say to us today. Perhaps more important is what he has to say to the hundreds of thousands who pass by on their way to Delphi.

To the believer, of course, his message is a reminder of how God chooses the simple of the world and raises high the humble. It is also a needful restatement of what the Lord requires of us: to be witnesses to the Word even more than hearers of the Word.

But what message can Loukas offer to persuade the zealous seekers of Delphi’s oracle to turn from the broad road which leads to the pagan shrine and make their way along the narrower route to the Monastery of Blessed Luke? Surely it cannot be simply that the monastery is an extraordinary building containing great and ancient works of art. Yet this factor is indeed the one lure that does draw some busloads down to the valley of Mount Helicon.

Sad though it may be, most of humanity finds the broad way leading to the pagan places more attractive than the narrow Christian road chosen by the likes of Blessed Luke and devoted pilgrims.

Gerald Ring, a writer and photographer living in Jerusalem, is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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