Spending another week on Patmos has been a great joy. It has occurred to me that I have not given you much of a detailed look at what it’s like to spend a day here, though. We walk up to the monastery after we park our car about 400 yards downhill. We’re all dressed in black (including long sleeve shirts) to honor the monks, even though it can get quite warm here. We enter the courtyard and receive stares from dozens of pairs of eyes belonging to faces from all over the world. (People wonder if we are priests. Two folks from an internationally known institution pontificated while we were a few feet away that we must be priests from a different sect, not knowing that we spoke English. We made the gentle correction.) We then enter the subterranean library to do our work. There we will be from 9.30 am until 1 pm.
The electricity is not particularly reliable and it’s very easy to trip the circuits. We cannot plug all of our computers and cameras into sockets, so we must bring batteries to backup at least one of the cameras. After breaking the circuits multiple times from minor infractions, we finally realized that we had to pull the plug to get the work done.
At about 9.45 am, the assistant librarian tells us that coffee is served. We go to the foyer and enjoy a cup of Greek coffee (non-filtered, with all the grounds in the bottom of the cup). Fifteen minutes later we’re back at the job. At 1 pm, we pack up for the day and exit the library. But our time at the monastery is not yet over.
Every day just before 1 pm, a priest rings the monastery bell, signaling that lunch is served in the dining room. Although there may be over 100 people visiting the monastery at that time, only a few are invited to the meal. This week has been especially busy with extra guests: two paleographers from Italy, and two more from Thessaloniki, have eaten with the monks, along with the four of us from CSNTM. The exact number of places are set. Only men are allowed in the dining room. We all file in and stand behind our chairs, standing in silence. The priests and monks (about half a dozen) meander in and stand behind their chairs. Finally, the abbot comes in, rings a small table bell, and prays over the meal. Then we all sit and eat while another priest reads ancient letters from the desert fathers. (Last year, he read from St. Chrysostom.) About 12-15 minutes into the meal, the abbot pounds his cane on the floor twice, signaling that the reading may cease and the priest may join those who are dining.
On normal days, the abbot will chime the table bell several minutes later, signaling the end of the meal. But on Fridays, things are different. Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days in the Orthodox world (a tradition that goes back to the Didache), and this means that meat and milk products are not allowed, as well as dessert (except for fruit) and wine. Wine is served with every lunch, so to not have it is a bit unusual. However, the wine carafes are still placed on the table. On Wednesday, those who are sensitive to Orthodox traditions will not drink the wine, even though they have the opportunity to do so.
On Fridays, things are a little different. A few minutes later, the abbot chimes the table bell once again. This signals that the fast is over: the priests start pouring the wine, which signals that the guests may do the same. A few minutes after that, the abbot chimes the bell one more time, then all the priests and then the guests rise to their feet. The abbot prays a concluding prayer, and the priests all file out. The abbot and one other priest stand at the door while the rest of the priests and monks walk out of the room, with head bowed. Then the guests walk out, also with head bowed (or they should be!). It does not matter how much one has eaten, the meal is over when the abbot rings the final chime. (However, last year the abbot told us that we may stay to eat more and were not required to leave with the rest. We said that we wished to honor the monastery and not be singled out for special privileges, so we have always exited the dining room with the monks and priests.)
Very interesting meal time! And not one for idle chit-chat (or any chit-chat, for that matter). We are there to be nourished in body and soul by the healthful meals and the reading of saints of old.
After our time at the monastery, we spent a few hours wrestling with where to go next since we finished our work here sooner than we had budgeted for. We decided to go to the island of Lesbos. There are eight monasteries there that have New Testament manuscripts. Please pray for travel mercies and open doors as we try to get into the monasteries to at least look at the manuscripts and, we hope, photograph them as well. We are all a bit weary from hauling all our luggage around, but we have two more weeks of work to do. Already the expedition has been a great success, and the rest of our time is up to us to use wisely. We are hoping to get into several sites in Greece before returning to the States. Pray for open doors!