Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison. The cantors repeated the seven-syllable phrase endlessly to a medieval tune, while the priests chanted prayers and swung a chalice of incense in our direction. At just past dusk on 16 January, vespers had commenced in the monastery of Aghios Antonios, on the peak of Mount Kefalos, high over the east coast of Paros.
The monastery is usually closed, but it was a special occasion, the eve of Saint Anthony’s name day. And Anthony is an important saint in the Aegean, believed to protect fishermen when they go out to sea. The tiny old church slowly filled until it seemed the entire village of Marpissa had made the trek.
Most came in cars, crawling up the dirt road that circles around the back of the hill, but I’d walked up with a small group of women and an agori, taking the foot path that leads through a lush pine forest. The monastery gates were open, the terrace festooned with colourful flags and scented with wild sage. Heavy clouds hung overhead, but there was no rain. Lord, have mercy!
Leading the service were two priests, one elder and one younger. Both had long hair, beards and glasses and wore floor-length silk brocade robes. Over his robe, the young one wore a piece of cloth known as the stole, which represents his power.
On hand were many of the older residents of Marpissa, but also some young adults and a handful of children, including the altar boy, whose almond-shaped eyes glistened with the reflection of hundreds of candles. For me, a foreigner new to Greek Orthodoxy, attending vespers in a landmark church was a hypnotic experience.
The monastery, built in the sixteenth century, was traditionally home to a few monks and on this special weekend their residence was open for viewing. In the kitchen, a fresh bucket of water had been drawn from the well, and a mesh basket swung from a hook on the ceiling. Before electricity arrived on the island, my friend informed me, such baskets were hung in a spot exposed to the north wind, keeping fish fresh for days. These days, no one lives in the monastery year-round.
During the service, the villagers sat in wooden chairs lining the walls, paying keen attention. Occasionally someone would step forward to light a candle, then walk out again, stopping to wish a friend, “Xronia polla.” One woman sang along to a common prayer; men coughed as the pungent incense coiled in their throats. As he watched the priests, waiting for cues, the altar boy’s gaze was full of wonder, his black bangs framing a symmetrical face right out of an Italian Renaissance painting.
Toward the end of the service, the elder priest brought out the Virgin Mary, paraded around the room and then placed the icon on a table filled with round loaves of holy bread. A man with a long stick lit the seven-candle chandelier that hung near the iconostasis. When he reached the last candle, it wouldn’t light. He tried over and over, displaying faith that sooner or later it would catch. Finally, it did.
I’d moved to Paros eight days earlier, arriving for the first time not as a tourist but as a resident. I’d always heard that winter is the best time on the island — a slow, chilly season when everyone in the community gets together in the evening to see friends and catch up. I was just learning to drive a stick shift.
That weekend, winter arrived. Winds of up to 8 Beaufort brought a steady procession of clouds, and the temperature dropped to 7 Celsius at night. Days of steady rain turned the potholes to deep pools of mud. In every village, I could smell dishes of lentil and eggplant on the stoves and hear people greet each other: Xronia polla! Kali xronia! Every few days the sun would break out for a halcyon day, like early April in New York.
I’d been drawn to Greece because of its way of life, held together by its unique language and religion, its mix of mythology and military history. Mount Kefalos, on which the monastery of Aghios Antonios is perched, had caught my eye on previous visits and now I was learning how well it embodied the mix.
According to myth, the mountain got its name from Kefalos, a young man who fell in love with Io, the dawn goddess. During the years of Venetian rule, from 1204 to 1537 A.D., Kefalos was the site of one of three major castles built by the Venetians, the other two being in Paroikia and the Chora of Naxos, according to Yannos Kourayos, a former director of the Archaeological Museum in Paros.
Kefalos was the first capital of Paros and the area was home to a mix of Venetians, Franks and Germans, Kourayos said. Its castle was built by Nicholas Sommaripa, who moved the headquarters of the Venetian governor from the Kastro in Paroikia to Kefalos. Back then, the Greeks worked the land for the Venetians as serfs.
Then in August 1537, the Turkish pirate Barbarossa seized the castle and drove out the Venetians. ”Red Beard” was born on what is now the island of Lesbos and dominated the Mediterranean for decades. That summer, I’d read, he’d led a huge brigade which captured Paros, Naxos and Syros. I shuddered to think how much local blood he had spilled.
The Venetians did little to preserve the ancient monuments, instead tearing them down and selling pieces on the European art market, I’d read. The Turks were military occupiers who left no architectural legacy. Today, only fragments of the castle at Kefalos survive. If one thing has remained constant in this nabe, it’s the Greek Orthodox religion, and the turnout for Aghios Antonios was living proof.
When vespers ended, the church emptied as quickly as it had filled. At the door, the elders handed out chunks of holy bread and cups of souma, the local brew. Umbrellas and flashlights materialised and a parade of worshippers made its way siga-siga down the slippery path to the parking lot. By the grace of God, no one fell.
Listening to vespers, I knew it was an endlessly repeated ritual, one of thousands of saints’ days observed in Greece throughout the year. But for me it was a first, a spiritual break and a chance to take stock. Upon hearing the magical phrasing of “Kyrie eleison,” I focussed on the moment. The winds had brought me here to assimilate customs that have been honoured for centuries. If someone had asked how I felt, I could have truly said, “Mia xara.”