One of the many sites we visited in Northern Cyprus was the monastery of Apostolos Andreas. This is a very important, though not much-visited religious site. It is a Greek Orthodox monastery dedicated to St. Andrew, the patron saint of sailors. Located near the very eastern tip of the Karpas peninsula, where the island narrows to a long, thin point, the monastery is effectively cut off from the rest of the island by long stretches of desolate wilderness.
Apostolos Andreas was once a flourishing monastery, and still enjoys an influx of visitors during twice-yearly pilgrimages of Orthodox faithful from Southern Cyprus and the Greek mainland, in August and November. Regular services are held here throughout the year, but the location is so remote that almost no one attends.
In 1974, when the Turkish military seized the northern third of the island, their paratroopers dropped in well to the west of Apostolos Andreas, near modern-day Girne. Apparently, by the time word of the invasion reached the middle of the Karpas peninsula, it was too late for the small Greek community of Rizokarpaso there to evacuate with the majority of their countrymen. As a result, there are still about 350 Greeks living there. It may have taken even longer for news of the events to reach the tip of the peninsula, where the monks and nuns of Apostolos Andreas were tending the monastery. Or perhaps they knew what was happening further inland but made the conscious decision to stay at their holy site rather than flee. In either case, the result was a Greek Orthodox monastery in Turkish Muslim territory, cut off from the vast majority of its faithful.
Because of the ongoing political situation in which Northern Cyprus is recognized as a sovereign nation only by Turkey, but viewed by the rest of the world as military-occupied territory, the Orthodox church cannot assign new monks or nuns to the monastery. Over the last thirty years, all of the monastics living and worshipping there have passed away, leaving one sole caretaker: a ninety-two year old nun named Sister Vespina.
Sister Vespina arrived at Apostolos Andreas fifty years ago. For the last half-century she has maintained a spartan existence there -- electrical lines finally reached the monastery a mere three months ago! Her only regular company are Turkish police officers who have installed an office in one of the rooms of the monastery. This is probably a small consolation since they cannot communicate -- she has never learned Turkish. The priest also comes to the monastery church to perform services two days a week, but for the rest of the time, Sister Vespina is alone.
We arrived at the monastery shortly after 5 pm. Because it was the 21st of December, the Winter Solstice and longest night of the year, it was already dark. Strong, cold winds accompanying one of the rare rainstorms on the island were churning up the waves along the rocky coast at the foot of the church. Sister Vespina had retired for the night, but when Alessandra knocked on her bedroom door and Ivana explained to her in Greek where we had come from and that we would really like to see the church, she came out. First she went to another room in the monastery complex and retrieved a huge, ancient key for the church door. Then she led us to the church.
Sister Vespina unlocks the door of the monastery church.
The wind was blowing very hard, and the sounds of it and the crashing waves were loud as we walked, but the moment we passed through the portal of the church, we entered into complete silence. The smell of incense from the last services held there was still strong.
Sister Vespina lit some candles, and there was enough light to see the icons hanging high up on the screen in the east end of the church. For once, we were experiencing an Orthodox church as it was meant to be experienced -- without electricity, flickering candlelight illuminating the gold leaf on the images of saints that gazed down from shadowy corners of the building. For a few minutes we stood silently contemplating the small building. Several of us dropped money onto the offering plate and lit candles.
Sister Vespina helps Zeynep, the daughter of one of our Turkish friends, light a candle in her Greek Orthodox Church. We feel that this picture is a strong statement of the potential for understanding and reconciliation.
It is difficult to explain how powerful and moving an experience it was for many of us.
As Sister Vespina blew out the candles and Ivana helped her walk back to her room, she asked repeatedly for the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church. "Tell Bartholomew he must come and visit us." She has either forgotten or prefers to ignore that fact that it is impossible for the Patriarch to visit her. As the head of all of the Orthodox faithful in the world, he cannot appear to legitimate the situation in occupied Cyprus. But Ivana assured her that we would do what we could to make him aware of her situation. Before leaving, we took up a collection of snack food from our bags and presented a grateful Sister Vespina with an offering of crackers, chocolate bars, and fruit -- small luxuries that she has limited access to in her remote location.
I think more than a few of us were introspective during our long, dark ride back down the peninsula. On that far point of the island where you are more likely to encounter, as we did, a herd of shepherdless sheep and a pack of wild donkeys than you are to see other people, the military and political problems that afflict the rest of the island seem so remote and senseless.
This brings us to our experiences on Christmas Day here in Istanbul. Some of us had talked amongst ourselves since our visit to Apostolos Andreas and decided that the best thing we could do for Sister Vespina would be to present the Patriarch with some of the pictures we took of her and of her church. We did not have time to print high-quality images, so we decided to collect photographs taken by the Fellows in digital form, and Peter burned them to a CD. Then on Christmas morning a small delegation of us (Peter and I, Ivana - who is Serbian and therefore grew up in the Orthodox Church, and our Georgian Fellow Nino) attended the Christmas liturgy at the Patriarchate, where we were going to make sure the CD made it into the hands of the Patriarch's secretary.
Note: from here on, the pictures were not taken by us. Very regrettably, we neglected to take our cameras! But we wanted to include some photos we found on the internet, to give an idea of the church and the service.
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople (New Rome) and leader of the Orthodox Church.
The service was really an amazing experience. It lasted over three hours, but we did not arrive until the last hour. Because the Patriarchate of Constantinople is the highest ranking church in the Orthodox world, attending this service was similar to attending Christmas Mass at the Vatican, with the Pope presiding. There were several hundred people there, although it did not seem overly crowded. This is in part a sad testament to the small number of Greeks left in the city of Istanbul.
The church of the Patriarchate is a relatively new building, having been built only in the 19th century. Peter and I had never attended an Orthodox service before and we were surprised by how relaxed it was. This is not to say that the liturgy itself was anything but solemn -- the rich vestments worn by the officiating clergy were gorgeous, and the singing of the monks was beautiful. But the people attending were strolling around the church, conversing with one another -- even answering cell phones! Ivana told us that this is the usual practice for Greek Orthodox churchgoers, although she said that in the Russian Orthodox church they are much more rigid and traditional. We watched the service for an hour, Peter and I from the third-level gallery where we could see everything that was going on. We were sprinkled with holy water by a deacon, and at the end of the service we lined up with hundreds of other people to receive a benediction and a piece of bread from the Patriarch, and to kiss his hand. This in itself was an amazing experience, but it is a very formal process, and everyone is moved through in a matter of seconds (or else it would take all day).
As the service was drawing to a close (but still going on!), Ivana walked us around the church and pointed out the most important relics kept there, including some of the bones of Saints John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus (two of the most important Church Fathers, who wrote in the fourth century). The most important and interesting relic in the church is the Column of the Flagellation, which is built into the wall of the South aisle. This is supposedly the column to which Christ was tied when he was beaten prior to the Crucifixion. Whether it is or is not that very column, it is one that was brought to Constantinople in the fourth century by the mother of Constantine, and has been revered by thousands upon thousands of Christians for the past 1700 years. Unlike most of the important relics in the Vatican, this column is available to be seen, touched, or kissed:
Subdeacon Maximus of the Patriarchate touching the Column of the Flagellation.
We still had our mission to accomplish, so we found a deacon and asked to see the Patriarch's secretary. We were told that he was not there, so we asked who we could leave our CD of photographs with to make sure that the Patriarch would receive it. To our surprise, the deacon told us to wait to one side until the Patriarch exited the church in procession, and that we could give it to him ourselves!
The Patriarch of Constantinople is an extremely important world figure. He is the head of all of the Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, American, etc.), and so the spiritual leader of approximately 300 million Orthodox faithful. He was included by Time magazine on their 2008 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, probably for his work to reconcile the Orthodox church with the Vatican, or for his struggle for the recognition of the history and traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church by the Turkish government. We had not really expected to be able to talk to him personally.
The Patriarch and the Pope in 2006, at the Patriarchate here in Istanbul.
We waited for awhile until the Patriarch came out with a group of deacons and monks from the behind the screen that closes off the east end of the church and began the ceremonial procession down the main aisle. We had expected Ivana to speak with him and pass the CD to him, but when he was a few steps away from us she suddenly turned to me and said, "Candace, I cannot, I cannot! I can't speak to the Patriarch! My legs are shaking! You have to do it!" It was probably best that she waited until the last moment, so I didn't have time to become nervous. I just stepped up quickly and told him who we were, where we had been, and that we had pictures of Sister Vespina for him. He nodded and said, "Oh yes, Apostolos Andreas." Then he took the CD and passed it to one of his attendants, stopped for a moment to bless the four of us and wish us Happy New Year, then continued on out of the church. It was all over in half a minute, but we will certainly remember it for a long time!
This experience definitely made for a special Christmas, and we feel good knowing that we did what little we could to bridge the sad gap, caused by divisive politics and violence, between Sister Vespina and the head of her church. Although it does not seem likely that the political situation will allow His All Holiness Patriarch Bartheolomew to visit Sister Vespina in the near future, Ivana will write her a letter now telling her that we spoke to the Patriarch about her and gave him pictures of her and her church; hopefully that will provide some comfort to her.