Thessaloniki- Gateway to Grace

View from the White Tower, Thessaloniki
View from the White Tower, Thessaloniki

What astounds me about Thessaloniki is its prominence in the history of Christianity. There is two whole chapters of the Bible dedicated to the letters of St. Paul to the Thessalonians. It kinda blows my mind. It is the reason I love the Mediterranean region so much. The history we learn about, the history from school and from church is here in the foundation of cities, of religions, and lifestyles. We Americans are products of that history. We like to pretend we were created in the vacuum and sterility of the American frontier, but in fact so much of what we believe and how we structure our lives in work and culturally is influenced by what happened in this amazing region, the Mediterranean. It is this continuity of history and the application thereof that makes me a devotee of Orthodoxy. Services are not created willy-nilly. Great thought and understanding of the history and teachings from the life of Christ, from the Acts of the Apostles, and from the enlightenment and writings of the Saints come together to form a rich foundation for the Orthodox faith. Multiple services, daily hymns, Feasts of Saints, and more are created to aid believers in their pilgrimage to imitate Christ.

With this pilgrimage in mind, let us turn our attention back to Thessaloniki.   We arrived by a a plane from Santorini (which by the way was 3 hours late leaving that beautiful yet chaotic island). My husband found the only hotel right on the boardwalk, Macedonian Palace. Apparently a Greek/Russian paid his way to the land rights and built this beautiful hotel. It isn’t much from the outside, but the rooms are upgraded and wonderfully air-conditioned which was a relief during the hot, humid days of June. Despite the objectionable manner in which the hotel was built, it was a great option for us. It was easy to get in and out via car or by foot. And the breakfast was excellent. But we weren’t here to be relaxing all day in the hotel so off we went to find the sites of city. Close by was the White Tower. A cylindrical tower, not at all white, which was part of a greater network of walls that surrounded and protected the city. This wall did little to protect Thessaloniki against the Ottomans who invaded and controlled the area from the 15th century until 1912.

From the White Tower, I dragged my poor husband through the streets of Thessaloniki to find the Agios St. Demetrius. St. Demetrius is the patron saint of the city and his remains are entombed at the church of his namesake. He is also known as the Myrrh-bearer because his remains dripped and continue to miraculously drip myrrh. We taxi’d it back to the hotel. It was too hot!

The kids of Faros tou Kosmos playing a song for us
The kids of Faros tou Kosmos playing a song for us

We spent the evening our friend George, Fr. Athenagoras and the kids of Faros Tou Kosmos. They live in, what is considered, the ghetto of Thessaloniki. But there Fr. Athenagoras, with help from another priest and volunteers, are completing the neglected (and strangely huge for the area) church, helping the neighborhood including the home for boys that have no where to go, Faros Tou Kosmos. There is too much to say to encapsulate all that is amazing, humbling, and inspiring about the boys, Fr. Athenagoras, and the volunteers. We are just happy to be part of their world.

After spending most of the evening with the kids, it was time for dinner…like at 11 pm. I have been in the Middle East and lots of parts of Europe. They all eat later than the American habit of 7 o’clock. But I have never been anywhere that eats as late as Greece. The streets in Ladadika, a neighborhood of cafes and hotels, were crammed with people. We ate at an amazing Creten restaurant, Athivoli and didn’t finish until close to 1 am. George tried to convince us to see some more sites after dinner. But we couldn’t hang with the Greek time We had to sleep.

We toured more of the city with Fr. Athenagoras and George the next day. Driving with a priest in an Orthodox city is almost equivalent to traveling with a police officer in the States. You basically can park anywhere and sometimes you get free stuff. We visited the catacombs at Agios St. Demetrios since they weren’t open when we went the day before, the Rotunda/St. George, and the church in the old city where St. Paul delivered his first sermon to the Thessalonians.

The Rotunda, St. George: Thessaloniki
The Rotunda, St. George: Thessaloniki

Beyond Thessaloniki, my husband and I visited the Monastery of St. Kyriaki. A group of nuns from Syria have taken refuge there since their homeland is in chaos right now. Then with a group of friends we visited the grave of St. Paisios in Souroti. From there they girls split off and stayed at Ormylia. 120 nuns reside at the Monastery of the Annunciation in Ormylia, Greece. They have a huge area of land that they take care of, and every nun has her job that contributes to the workings of the monastery and the community. As visitors, sometimes you feel like you are guests at the monastery. But here, they just throw you in and send you to work with the nuns. You really feel like part of the monastery even if you are only there a few days.

The Church of the Annunciation, Ormylia
The Church of the Annunciation, Ormylia

The men headed off to Mt. Athos and visited three of the 20 monasteries, Gregorio, Great Lavra, and Vatopedi. Each a different experience of relics, holy monks and maybe not-so-holy monks. It isn’t a world of perfection, but it is a sanctuary for those looking to explore and deepen their faith.

The guys at Vatopedi
The guys at Vatopedi

Again and again on this pilgrimage, we prayed to the saints, blessed our prayer bracelets on relics, and asked the same question, “Should we have kids again?” Giving it up to God, we waited for answers. And the answer was always, “Why not?” If there was nothing specifically wrong with us, then why not try again? Well, there is a whole lot of reasons not to try. But after a year and a half of grieving and missing our baby, Jordan, we have become strong enough (we hope) to take a risk.  Because at my age and with our history, it will be a risk. But that’s life, right? If we don’t try, I think we will regret it. So that answers the question, doesn’t it?

Icon that mysteriously appeared on the steps of Fr. Athenagoras' church, St. Nectarios, on its feast day.
Icon that mysteriously appeared on the steps of Fr. Athenagoras’ church, St. Nectarios, on its feast day.

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