Halfway to Heaven In mountaintop monasteries, spirit reigns

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Meteora, Greece -- From a rocky aerie in the forest of stone known as Meteora, the insistent tok-tok-tok of a wooden mallet hammering out a call to prayer seems like the most natural sound in the world. In this community of mountaintop monasteries, the spirit reigns.

As swallows dart through the twilight and the sun melts into the headwaters of the Peneios River far below this spiritual city in the sky, wandering tourists can watch the last light of day retreat through a maze of monoliths topped with precariously perched monasteries. If these stones could speak, they might utter a prayer.

The impossible landscape of Meteora -- a huddle of hundreds of blunt stone spires reaching like stubby fingers to grasp at God -- is so unearthly that it could only invoke a sense of wonderment, or inspire an act of faith.

So it seems almost natural that when wandering Christian ascetics happened upon this maze of cave-pocked pillars more than 1,000 years ago, they reckoned it to be a place halfway to heaven.

To get even nearer to a union with their God, these early ascetics renounced their earthly attachments, climbed the stones and took refuge in caves. There they sought redemption through prayer and meditation.

In time, the self-denying monks gathered for worship and the sacrament of communion. Worship became a bond of brotherhood, and the hermits began to haul stones and timbers back up the monoliths as they returned to their aeries.

Eventually they came to create a community, an assemblage of 24 monasteries perched like so many eagles' nests built atop sheer pinnacles. Today some of those monasteries look like multistoried castles, complete with bell towers, red-tiled roofs and chapels. And the monks, like wild birds of the spirit, soar above it all.

Seeing those lofty settlements atop the sheer rocks fires the imagination. How could anyone have climbed those colossi?

Theories abound. They built scaffolds, some say. Others suggest kites were used to deploy ropes over the pillars. Or maybe they climbed trees that once grew among the rocks.

The pillars present such a challenge that climbers from around the world are drawn to Meteora to attempt climbs like those made by the monks long ago.

Today this astonishing village in the sky is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Greece. The prayerful austerity of the monks' world is interrupted daily by caravans of tour buses and conga lines of tourists marching up the serpentine staircases that lead to these still vital places of spiritual retreat.

The staircases -- and the tourists -- are new. It wasn't so long ago that the few visitors to the monasteries endured a treacherous trip in a net fastened at the end of a long rope, or else climbed terrifying ladders of chain draped over the sheer walls. A few of the monasteries are reached by perilous-looking forerunners of the modern cable car, little platforms suspended from ropes spanning deep gorges. More than a few passengers have died in transit. If someone fell, it was considered God's will.

But times have changed. Now most of the monasteries have carved stairways into the stone or erected bridges to usher outsiders into their world. The income from admission fees helps the monks finance a lifestyle that might otherwise be impossible in the modern world.

So visitors are tolerated. But tourist and monk seem to exist in almost parallel worlds. The monks pass silently through the hallways and chambers of their monasteries like black-robed wraiths, while visitors gawk.

The monks are not inhospitable, but recognizing and acknowledging so many visitors would make a spiritual and monastic life impossible.

At the harder-to-reach monasteries where visitors are less commonplace, the atmosphere can be quite different. At the Holy Trinity Monastery, reached by hiking down a shallow ravine and climbing a long, steep staircase, Brother John may invite you to sit in the shade of a lilac tree to share conversation and a cup of thick Greek coffee.

He is a man full of surprises, a 40ish monk in beard and black robes who has vacationed in Hawaii, visited relatives in New York and survived a bout with cancer. He bestows upon his visitors 100 years of blessings.

John is one of only four monks at Holy Trinity. They live traditionally, subsisting in part on vegetables grown in their stony gardens and spending nearly a third of every day with their heads bowed in prayer.

The silence on the terraces outside the monastery heightens the sense of remove from the everyday world. Far below, glimpsed between knuckles of rock, lies the busy little town of Kalabaka, a stark reminder of earthly existence.

Instead of returning to that world, you might prolong your stay in this rarefied place once known as Lithopolis, the city of stone. A warren of twisting trails links most of the still-active monasteries and winds past the crumbling ruins of others. All along the way are ascetics' caves, many still walled off with rocks and rotting timbers. These ancient pathways were once the only link between the monastic communities, but now a road rambles through the forest of stone. It links all monasteries open to the public and passes some of the more intriguing ruins.

While the monasteries differ greatly in size -- from the enormous Great Meteoron, a virtual city, to the tiny but picturesquely perched convent of Roussanou -- there's a sameness about them.

Many feature museums displaying such artifacts as ancient icons and manuscripts, stylized crosses and other ritual objects.

But most enthralling, in a horrific way, are the ghoulish Grand Guignol murals decorating the narthex of nearly every chapel in Meteora. Intensely painted scenes depict the gruesome martyrdom of countless saints. Walls and ceilings writhe with images of saints being boiled, burned or broken on the wheel. Others are flayed or roasted or stoned. Still others suffer decapitation, drowning or the sting of arrows. Other scenes depict a sort of hell, with fanged, flame-belching monsters devouring hapless sinners. Many of the scenes are oddly passionless -- it is spiritual, not physical life that matters.

By these standards, the monks' self-denial seems tame. But the visceral sights of the narthex sharpen the contrast to the soothing nave, where the walls shine with beatific images of saints haloed in gold.

The best place to get a glimpse of the monastic life is at Great Meteoron. Here, where hundreds once meditated, fewer than 30 devotees remain. But smoke still rises from the ovens where bread is baked and the brick pits where meals are prepared. The call to prayer is still sounded by striking a wooden plank, a tradition traced to the biblical story of Noah, who summoned animals to the the ark by banging on a board.

Far below the chapel and the living quarters stands a charnel house, where the bones and skulls of long-dead monks line dusty shelves.

And in a move that seems an affront to those departed souls, boorish visitors queue up nearby to buy videos, postcards, chintzy-looking reproduction icons and assorted kitschy souvenirs.

To escape that potentially maddening scene, make like a monk and climb a rock. There are hundreds to choose from, and many offer spectacular panoramas of the magical-looking mountains. But take care. Meteora's spiritual magnetism may draw you in.

IF YOU GO . . .

Meteora is roughly four hours' driving time from Athens. A rental car is the best bet for exploring Meteora in depth. Parking is free and easy at most sites, and pulling off the road to better appreciate this or that vista is easy. Taxis can be hired in the nearby towns of Kalabaka or Kastrakion. Some visitors walk from monastery to monastery, but the hills are steep, the weather can be warm and distances a bit much for those who are not serious hikers.

No matter what day you go to Meteora, you're sure to be able to visit at least some of the monasteries. The still-active ones close at least one or two days a week, but they do not all close the same day. All levy a nominal admission fee.

Getting to even the most accessible monasteries requires a fair amount of walking and stair-climbing.

Dress respectfully -- wear your shorts and T-shirts somewhere else.

Hotels and guest houses abound in the two towns nearest Meteora: Kastrakion and Kalabaka. Kastrakion, at the foot of the rocks, has a more limited selection but more charm. Kastrakion's roadside taverns offer traditional, outdoor dining more pleasurable than you'll find in touristy Kalabaka.

For information, write the Greek National Tourist Organization, 645 Fifth Ave., Fifth Floor, New York, N.Y. 10022, or call (212) 421-5777.

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