When choosing divinely inspired real estate, few can outclass monks. To maximize their peace, solitude, and proximity to God, monks have proven time and again their penchant for property that dances between the mundane and the ethereal.
Chief among these fortresses of solitude is Meteora in northern Greece…a place, even by its own name, that reinforces our Aristotelian notion that God, somehow, is located “up.”
Meteora looks like something out of Middle Earth (or Westeros…as it was the inspiration for the Eyrie in the TV series Game of Thrones). Great pillars of rock, dark and smooth after eons of erosion and earthquakes, jut out of the landscape, creating a skyline that manages to be both awesome and eerie. It is likely because of this geography that Meteora has come to be a center of Greek Orthodoxy second only to Mt. Athos.
A collection of active monasteries cling to these rocks, seemingly ready to slough off despite their age and sturdy construction. Today, the halls teem with tourists, shuttled to the heights by fleets of buses to witness the modern iteration of an ancient faith.
Although most of the monks and nuns that I saw were selling icons at the gift shops rather than chanting or tending bees (as every stereotype tells me monks do on a daily basis), I certainly felt a profound spiritual zeal pulsing through the communities.
A spirituality, though, vaguely tinged with Greek nationalism.
Housed within the Great Meteoron Monastery is the “Folklore Museum,” a dim, vaulted room which, despite its name, is a political museum that details the monks’ struggles over the past few centuries from the Greek war of independence to World War 2.
Military uniforms, machine guns, and cavalry sabers adorned the stone walls juxtaposed strangely beside icon niches of the saints and Christ. The image of a steely-eyed monk, gripping a sword in one hand and a crucifix in the other, glared down at me from the wall while placards around me related tales of heroism and success on the battlefield.
I found myself caught between Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:52 (For all who take the sword will perish by the sword) and acknowledging the indisputable courage that these revolutionaries showed to repel foreign invaders. As militant as the room was, though, how could I criticize it when, by and large, the antagonists in the room were the Nazis? Can we conflate religion and war when the enemy is evil enough? What role should religious leaders and clergy play in war and peace?
Obviously there is little I can contribute to topics as weighty as these, but at the very least, the Great Meteoron Monastery illustrates how church and state may mingle even in the most sacred halls.