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Pilgrimage to Symi: Island of an Archangel

Around 5.30 p.m., Sunday May 13
The catamaran approaches the small island of Symi. The little port looks enchanting as the late afternoon sun illuminates the tiers of ochre and pastel-coloured houses - interspersed with the domes and belltowers of churches - climbing up the mountainous hill encircling the waterfront. After our little drama in obtaining a taxi at Patmos a week ago, we had made diligent enquiries. “Oh no, you will have no trouble at Symi.” Of course we should have known it, not a single taxi turns out to meet the catamaran.

We are told to walk round to the taxi stand on the far extremity of the waterfront. The local ladies waiting at the stand have resigned looks on their faces. We join them and contemplate the view. Time passes. It is getting more and more like Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. We must do something. The family-run hotel a Symiot friend had booked for us back in Sydney is not in the lower town of Yialos but in the upper town of Chorio. We are close to the Kali Strata, the quaint stepped “street” that climbs the hill to Chorio. The guidebook reckons there are 357 steps.

Our hotel seems to be on a level about three-quarters of the way up. But my wife has a serious problem walking and that’s more steps than I would cheerfully tackle. We are going to need a car so should we hire one now? We appeal for help to a very nice young lady – come to think of it, all Dodecanese young ladies are very nice – in a nearby tourist shop.

“It’s no good waiting for a taxi, the drivers will have gone home for their evening meal. It’s Sunday. In any case, the taxis only come out when there are tourists around.” But we are tourists! Never mind. She makes a telephone call and in a few minutes a taxi comes and rescues us. We feel guilty about the ladies. We appeal to the taxi driver to go back for them. It is a very long route round by car. As we enter the labyrinth of little streets of the old town we thank God that we didn’t hire a car. The streets are incredibly narrow and it would have been a nightmare trying to locate the hotel. But at last we are in our hotel room and open the door onto the veranda. The view down the hillside to the harbour is fantastic.
8.30ish, Monday Morning May 14

We go down to breakfast. An elderly guest is already hard at work on his boiled egg and yoghurt and honey. He tells us that he always takes his annual holiday in the Dodecanese. Symi, he assures us, is its jewel. Heritage listed, unlike Kos and Rhodes the island hasn’t been disfigured by tourist development and retains a charming architectural homogeneity. The two or three story houses are mainly nineteenth century and combine an imported classical style with local detail. They reflect the fact that Symi had in the past grown wealthy on shipbuilding and sponge diving.

With depletion of the forests, modern shipbuilding, and exhaustion of the sponges, Symi fell on very hard times in the twentieth century and the population was decimated by immigration, while houses were left derelict. During the last couple of decades, however, Symi has been reborn in the wake of a Dodecanese tourist bonanza, and many Symiots (no, not Symians), including younger people born overseas, have returned. Today most of the derelict houses have been restored.

After breakfast, we set off to catch Symi’s bus to take us down to Yialos. As we walk, our attention is caught by the melodic sound of tinkling bells, like the bells of the goats above our hotel on Patmos. We turn the corner and there is the troupe of donkeys that bring supplies up to Chorio. Perhaps we could hire a couple of donkeys instead of a car, they would be easier to park. Well, perhaps not. A car it is.

Now mobile, we set out to traverse the island. What has brought us to Symi is not primarily the charms of Symi town, but the monastery of Panormitis on the far extremity of the island. I am anxious to visit the monastery because, ever since its foundation in 1969, the Archangel Michael (Taxiarchis Michael) at Crow’s Nest in Sydney has been my parish church. Many Symiots settled on Sydney’s North Shore, so when the time came to create a parish and build a church the local Greek community decided that the church should be dedicated to the Archangel Michael of Panormitis. Although there are other major centres of devotion to the Archangel, such as Mantamados on Lesbos, Panormitis draws pilgrims from across Greece and beyond.
The Angels

Belief in angels is all but universal and there are many references to them in the Bible. Their existence is a dogma of the Church, and we affirm that belief every time we recite in the Creed, “I believe in … all things visible and invisible”, since “invisible” denotes the angels. But exactly what are angels? The Church declares angels to be “bodiless powers”. They are, however, created. The Western tradition regards them as pure spiritual intelligences. The East, while leaving their exact nature open, has tended to see them as non-corporeal but nevertheless physical beings. Thus, some Fathers speculated that they might be composed of a subtle fiery or ethereal substance.

On the rare occasions angels are actually seen this is almost certainly effected by internal interaction with the brain rather than by sensory input. The Archangel Raphael says to Tobius and his father that he only seemed to eat and drink before them, but in reality they “were seeing a vision” (see Tobit 12:19). Amongst the angels, Michael the Archangel occupies a special position. The Archangels play a crucial role as the captains of the heavenly host, but it is Michael who is their leader.

There are four Archangels mentioned by name in Scripture: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Tobit 12:15 gives the number of Archangels as seven. Names for the remaining three – Salaphiel, Jegudiel and Barachiel – are supplied from extra-biblical sources. We learn from the Old Testament that Michael was the guardian of the Jewish nation. With the Incarnation, he becomes the guardian of the Church. The Archangel is also the principal psychopomp who leads the souls of the dead to God. Iconographically, he is often depicted weighing souls at the Judgement.

The principal feast of the Archangel is that of the ‘Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the other Bodiless Powers’ on November 8. In the West, the feast is traditionally known (in English) as Michaelmas and is celebrated on September 29. Devotion to the Archangel is certainly early, but there is definite evidence of a major cultus (= devotion – don’t confuse “cultus” with “cults”!) from the fourth century on. Possibly, the cultus arose in the first century at Chonai in Phrygia.

Revelation/Apocalypse 12:7-9 tells of the mighty war in heaven at which Michael and his angels defeated the dragon/Satan and cast him and his angels down to earth. This provides a reason why so many sites associated with Michael in both East and West are on mountains, as is the case with Chonai, or on the tops of hills. These include such spectacular Western sites as Monte Gargano in Italy, Mont-Saint-Michel in France and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

But in the East the Archangel is also associated, again as at Chonai, with healing springs, and with the protection of sailors. This latter aspect of the cultus, which is particularly relevant to Panormitis, probably originated around Byzantium. But it is time to get back to our trip to the monastery.
Around 10 a.m.

An excellent newly-constructed road takes us along the mountainous spine of the island. Our first glimpse of Panormitis from the heights is spectacular. A more beautiful site would be difficult to imagine. The monastery lies strung out along the shore of an oval-shaped bay with a single narrow entrance. The narrowness of the entrance makes all the more remarkable the repeated miraculous washing up on the shore of messages placed in bottles (many preserved in the monastery) cast into the sea by sailors around the world

We drive down. The entrance to the monastery is through an arch under a spectacular Baroque-cum-Rococo bell-tower, built between 1905 and 1911. The monastery has extensive wings with cells to accommodate the hoards of pilgrims that come for the panigyris on November 8 and other major feasts, but the monastic enclosure proper is quite compact. The courtyard, with the Katholikon at its centre, is truly delightful.

Floors with black and white pebble designs are very much a feature of the Dodecanese Islands, but the pavement of this courtyard is outstanding. The design in front of the Katholikon takes the form of a pattern of waves, which, if seen from the right angle, becomes three-dimensional. I can see in my mind’s eye bottles drifting in on the waves through the Katholikon door to fetch up at the foot of the icon of the Archangel so that he can attend to any requests they contain. Legend has it that the origins of the monastery lie in the miraculous discovery of an icon of the Archangel. The existence of reused Antique columns and capitals point to an early Byzantine church or even earlier pagan temple, but little seems to be known for certain about the monastery prior to its rebuilding between 1777 and 1783.

The Katholikon is bright with notable restored iconography dating from the late eighteenth century. Dozens of hanging oil lamps, the offerings of Symiots from around the world, adorn the space. The iconostasis, as intricately carved as any I have seen, also dates to the late eighteenth century. But it is the large miracle-working icon of the Archangel that seems to fill the Katholikon with its presence. This is one icon that proves impossible to photograph; the camera seemingly overwhelmed by the contrast between the dazzling gilded cover and the underlying paint. Although the eye can handle what the camera cannot, there is really no way through which I can convey the force of the pure energy that emanates from this icon, which is at once majestic and awesome, and gentle and compassionate.

It is indeed an icon through which miracles are to be anticipated. One of the most remarkable is that the restoration of sight of a six year old blind boy from Leros on the feast of the Archangel, November 8, 1960. A young Symiot, while sleeping after attending the Vigil, had a dream in which the Archangel instructed him to go into the church where he would find a blind child. He was to take him into his arms and lift him up to the level of the Archangel’s face on the icon. He did so and the boy’s sight was miraculously restored.

The monastery boasts two small museums, one ecclesiastical, the other of folk art. Do we go round the museums now or after we have rustled up a spot of lunch? Lunch wins. Fatal mistake. By the time we have finished our picnic the monastery has sunk into the peaceful oblivion of the siesta. We have already resolved to return for Vespers tomorrow; perhaps the museums will be open then (they weren’t).
Mid-Afternoon, Tuesday May 15

Much of our morning has been spent finalising complicated travel arrangements as tomorrow evening we fly from Rhodes back to London. An early lunch and the indulgence of a monastic siesta to prepare us for the rigours of tomorrow and at last we are on the road to Panormitis for Vespers. There are many very small settlements and monasteries scattered over the island, signs to which we pass on our way. In all, there are nine monastic churches dedicated to the Archangel Michael and it is these that, the Symiots maintain, secure the stability of the island.

Shortly, we are back at Panormitis, but the monastery has yet to rouse itself from the siesta. We mosey around a bit and then settle ourselves in the shade of a tree and watch activity on the waterfront. Almost time for Vespers, so we go back to the courtyard, only to discover we have been told the wrong time and have another hour to wait. Eventually, a few people come in and join us, but I am beginning to doze off.

Suddenly a hearty “Christos Anesti” in my left ear jerks me back into consciousness. A lone priest has arrived to celebrate Vespers. Unlike Patmos, there is no community of monks at Panormitis today and a lay committee runs the monastery. It is the Eve of the Apodosis of Pascha. “Apodosis” is usually translated “leave-taking” but literally means “return”. Following major feasts there is a period known as the “afterfeast”. On the final day of the afterfeast (they vary in length) most of the service for the feast day itself is repeated, hence it is called the “return” of the feast. So Vespers this evening will be very special as once again the sublime chants of Pascha will be heard.

What can I say of the service? As the philosopher Wittgenstein observed, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But what a wondrous doxology for the last evening of our excursion. Filled with Paschal joy, we leave this beautiful, numinous place where so many pilgrims have come down the centuries to seek the aid of the Archangel or to receive his blessing.

8 a.m., Wednesday May 16, the Apodosis of Pascha

Our last breakfast. After, we chat to our friendly host and hostess who lived in Sydney for many years, still have family there and return frequently. We finish packing, return the car and wait for the catamaran. Here it comes, dead on time at the stroke of 10. But where are our tickets? They won’t let us on without them and the boat has a turn around time of just five minutes. It seems we have no option but to open our case at the top of the gangway, clothes flying everywhere. No luck. But now the gangway has been raised behind us and the catamaran is moving. Surely they won’t throw us overboard? An officer reluctantly lets us into the saloon. We collapse onto a couple of seats and continue the search. Eventually we find the tickets.

With a start like that, what awaits us at our destination? Surprisingly, everything goes like clockwork in Rhodes; but it is a different story when we get to London. By the time we get clear of Gatwick airport it is dark, pelting with rain and, yes, we can’t find our hotel. But you don’t want to hear about that.

Dr. Guy Freeland
Teaches hermeneutics and liturgical studies at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College.

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