Our 4 AM wake-up call this morning seemed a bit rude. So I slid out of bed, and flipped on my TV. Got myself ready as I caught a quarter of the NBA playoffs—Cavs and Magic, game 4. Grabbed a quick breakfast and headed for the harbour. We had a chartered boat all to ourselves for the four-hour trip to Patmos, one of the smaller Greek Isles. I caught two hours of sleep on a bench before we were gathered together for a little presentation by Rob of some of the historical significance of Patmos as it pertains to the book of Revelation.
A couple simple facts stood out in my mind. One: Patmos isn’t as isolated as I thought. Yes, it’s a long way from the mainland, but one can see other islands in every directon from the peak of the Patmos. Two: John wasn’t exiled here alone. I’d always pictured him wandering a deserted island by himself. But there was a Roman settlement here in the first century, and there are numerous traditions about him teaching and baptizing residents of the island during his exile. The term “exile” is more about the fact that he was separated from the churches that he was caring for back on the mainland, as opposed to sent away to suffer and die alone.
A bus with a Greek guide met us at the harbour, and immediately we began. First stop: The Nunnery of the Annunciation. Traditions of monasticism on Patmos go back to the 800’s, with a major monastery being established here in memory of the apostle John. However, it’s always been very much for men only. The nunnery, which isn’t nearly that old, provides such a spot for women seeking to enter the monastic life or for female pilgrims to Patmos. My impressions of this place aren’t all that profound, but I must say that it is a gorgeous spot. The buildings and gardens are wonderfully peaceful and the views down on to the rest of the island are quite stunning. So even without the historical or biblical significance that other sites have provided, this stop was certainly worthwhile.
Our second stop of the day took us to the Cave of the Revelation. As suggested by the name, the biblical significance of this site was a fair bit heavier than our first stop—this is the cave where it’s believed that John was “in the Spirit” and received the shocking visions recorded in the book of Revelation. Of course, a chapel has been constructed over the site, but stairs lead down into the cave beneath, which is “made up” but not with all the gaudiness of some pilgrimage sites I’ve visited.
On the topic of pilgrim sites, let me say that I’ve never much enjoyed them. Much of what I observed in the Holy Land last year left a funny taste in my mouth. Religious tourism is a strange thing—and it doesn’t always do good things for these sites that are so revered. More than any other feeling, I’ve often found discomfort and awkwardness in these places. I recognize that many take encouragement and inspiration from visiting such places. I’d like to feel some of that myself, but most of the time, I don’t really.
I say all that to say this: There must be something special about that cave of John’s. After some brief information from our guide, we were given 20 minutes to sit or explore or shop or whatever. I sat in the cave for all of it, and I could have sat a lot longer than that. Today, for this fellow, it felt like a holy place. I’ve talked about my cynicism towards holy sites and questions about historical accuracy in an earlier post. That’s fine and good, but it was irrelevant today. A couple thoughts stick with me and I type this now several hours later.
The first is about God communicating with people. Most believers I know aren’t that comfortable with this idea, yet as Charles pointed out today, 2/3 of our Bibles came to us as the result of divine dreams or visions. (Much of that would be the prophets, but when you consider all the books, it’s certainly over half that came about through divine revelation of some sort.) So this book that we (rightly) build our faith upon is a miracle—it springs out of divine encounters. Yet such divine encounters are held by many of us to be “out there”, questionable, and unsettling. Perhaps we believe the Bible writers to have been unlike us in some fundamental way. Perhaps we believe such God-encounters no longer happen today. Perhaps we believe that our call today is simply to “follow the book”. But I’ve got to say: I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure that God gives us any reason to believe any of those three statements as true. And sitting in a cave where God met with a man and revealed Himself just as clearly as He did to Moses on Sinai… that can get a guy to wondering a few things.
The second thought was one of neediness. I preached a year ago for two months on the first three chapters of Revelation (the easy chapters!)—the letters to the seven churches. I love those passages! In them, Jesus addresses specific groups of people in specific circumstances. His words to each congregation are filled with relevance. He says more than once, “I know your deeds.” And surely he knew even more than their deeds. It was from his absolute knowledge of his people that he spoke, certain and clear about exactly the message that the hearers needed.
So sitting in a cave, staring at flames dancing on prayer candles, I wondered: What do I need to hear from Jesus? What does Shannon need to hear? What does my sweet little Emmanuelle need to hear? What does my church need to hear? And I wondered because Jesus knows us too. And he knows exactly what we need to hear and what we need to heed. And Revelation shows him to be serious about speaking such words into our lives.
So I wondered some more… if he had something to say to me, how would he say it? As I mentioned before, I’m not at ease with any theology that suggests that he doesn’t speak personally any longer. If the Holy Spirit is about anything, he’s about dwelling in us and speaking directly to our deepest parts. To deny or minimize that is to undo perhaps the biggest thing that Jesus set out to accomplish.
Next wondering… if Jesus said what I needed to hear most, would I hear it? Do I give him my ear? Do I seek him most? Is he the chief pursuit of my life? If so, I can be confident that I am being united with him, a bond in which communication between my spirit and his will flow freely. But if not, then I stand to be missing the whole point.
When the wondering waned, I simply prayed. It felt free and real—the way prayer should always feel, but doesn’t always feel. You can blame it on the cave if you want, but I don’t believe in holy places, remember? ; )
Next stop: The Monastery of St. John. This fortress-like the structure tops the island (literally) and is home to an active monastic community. Due to personal relationship with the Abbott, Charles had arranged for a personal meeting with one of the leaders. Patmos is one stop on the Greek Isles cruise ship circuit, so each day or two, the island swells with tourists who are dropped off to explore. I couldn’t tell you how many thousand flow through the monastery each year. And we were given that standard tour: The chapel, the museum (its most interesting exhibit was a copy of Mark’s gospel, dating back to the 5th century), and the rest of the grounds. But way beyond the normal tour, we were hosted as guests for lunch. Only 100-200 people each year get that honour, and we were 20 of them today. Now monasteries aren’t known for their food, so the draw was something else… though the food was quite good too. We were given over an hour to dialogue freely with the high priest of the monastery.
Throughout the conversation, we learned that he was 38 years old and had begun at the monastery at age 14. As we asked question after question, this very humble and kind man spoke of everything ranging from prayer to seeking God to the Western church to distractions to humility to his relationship with his “spiritual father” to misconceptions about monasticism to European politics. He was fascinating, and while many of our group were hitting the wall by that time (remember the 4 AM wake-up?), I could have talked with him all day. But the day was slipping by, and we had an invitation to join their 3 PM prayer time, called Vespers.
It was held in the chapel, men and women separated. It was something like an Orthodox mass if you’ve ever seen one: Robes, incense, sung liturgy, and it was all in Greek. I confess: THIS is when I hit the wall! The prayer time lasted for an hour. One hour plus Greek language sung plus one-tonne eyelids equals Jason power-napping. I’m not sure that’s considered prayer, but it’s what I got done for a chunk of the hour. Good thing we weren’t getting marked for it!
Our bus picked us up afterwards for one final stop: The Hermitage of Elias. It’s a small chapel on one of the slightly lower peaks of the Patmos. It’s to commemorate Elijah as the prophet who was taken straight to heaven—there’s a legend about John that says something similar. (Correction here a fews later: This hermitage doesn’t attempt to connect John and Elijah in any way. It’s simply named after Elijah, who’s seen as a way-earlier forefather of the monastic movement. That’s all.) Anyway, the building was locked, but we hiked the 25 minutes up because Charles wanted to do a “What Revelation Means to Me” presentation on the top of this mountain. The hike was great, aside from being over rocky terrain on a narrow path that was surrounded in spots by the thorniest plants I’ve ever seen. Our discussion at the top was great—Charles was rolling, and my pen and paper were smoking just trying to keep up! We sang a sort song that’s been our daily prayer each day of our trip and found our way back down before the sunset put us into darkness.
Getting back to Skala, the town where we’re staying, (there are only three towns on this island of 3000 residents) we enjoyed a delicious Greek supper at a seaside restaurant and were led to our hotel.
Tomorrow morning, we’re meeting at 7:45 to depart for a beach that’s traditionally linked to John’s vision of the beast coming out of the sea. We’ll do a full-blown Revelation reading together before enjoying a swim in the Aegean Sea and returning to town for lunch. We’ve been told the afternoon is ours to do with as we wish. Some guys are renting scooters or motorcycles to explore the island. I don’t know how to drive one, or else I’d join in. No, Shannon, I won’t choose these cliff-filled, winding roads to be my training grounds. For me, it’ll be good ‘ole mountain biking or good ‘ole bus #11 (a cheesy Chinese joke for your feet). Our hotel has a beautiful pool and Skala has a decent-looking beach right in town. A free afternoon on a Greek island… I suspect I can manage something!
I’ll attempt to touch base again before we leave Patmos. The day after tomorrow will see us return to Turkey and continue our way back towards Istanbul. As of today, we’re down to one week before departing for Canada! So I’ll keep taking in all I can and begin anticipating the time to return home as well.
All the best from the Holy Isle of Patmos!