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Illustration: Rachel Salazar
Illustration: Rachel Salazar

The Sunday EssayJuly 17, 2022

The Sunday Essay: At the monastery on a hill

Illustration: Rachel Salazar
Illustration: Rachel Salazar

Claire Mabey on a magical summer among the nuns of a Greek religious order.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustration by Rachel Salazar.

I attempt to put my body and as much of my mind as I can back at the Monastery of the Honourable Forerunner at the top of Mt Ossa, in Larrissa.

I am sitting on a bench with my torso draped over a long wooden table, my head rests on its warm surface. Through the gaps in my arms I can see how the short-haired Chicago boy, let’s call him Luke, sorts a pile of maroon plums into “firm” and “over ripe”. He eats every third plum and half smiles as he does it. I begin to laugh and he looks down at me and says:

“I have eaten / the plums / that were in  / the icebox // and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast // forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold”

The other American boy, with long but somehow sparse hair and an even longer beard, let’s call him Steve, who reminds me of Allen Ginsberg, says “William Carlos Williams” and I think “Bond, James Bond”.

Their voices are plump and American and sound born for this, designed to bring this poem to the table at this precise moment. “Jesus,” I think, “they’ve got all these poems in their heads. Why don’t I have poems in my head? I’m an English lit grad. I have read a lot of poems!”

At the opposite end of the table is Zoe and she’s playing a guitar that the nuns keep in the large comfortable room that is now our lounge. Her Canadian voice is sweet as she sings a Joni Mitchell song about Paris and parties in Spain and wanting to be home in California. These are the kinds of words I remember: something about the music carries them into my throat easily so I can sing along without thinking too hard.

All around us the sun glows strong and so close that the white blossoms in the orchard of apple trees flame a strange and shocking pink. From this monastery at the top of Greece you can see the curve of the Earth and the cows and the goats walk peaceably to the dairy to be milked by the German nun with a heart-shaped face who was a midwife once.

The novice nun with the long mānuka honey hair steps on to the verandah. Luke and Steve greet her warmly, with delight, just like I would greet my close friends, and she sits down with us and asks how we are. I tell her how I felt such nausea in the kitchen pitting olives that Sister Josephina sent me to shell almonds outside and sip a ludicrously strong peach liquor. And this is the cue for Steve to bring out a bottle of Jack Daniels and the sight of it is like a portal yanking us into some parallel reality where people drink Jack Daniels. I watch the face of the nun friend for any sign of consternation but she is unmoved.

The novices don’t wear the thick black habits of the proper nuns. Their hair is naked in the Greek air just like ours and they’re mostly our age. Young. It’s for these reasons that I feel braver about asking them some of my questions.

“What were you before you came here?”

Jesus Christ. I watch her face flash dark with confusion. And the kind of sneer-turned-wince that you make when you are trying to pinch a wound hurriedly back together.

“I mean – god! sorry! – but, what did you do before you became a nun?”

Everyone smiles with relief. I have managed to balm my blunder. They are all forgiveness.

“I studied English in Chicago and then came here after I graduated.”

I can’t stop myself:

“Why though? Why did you want to become a nun?”

Without hesitating she says, her hair flowing, “I wanted to learn Greek and I was looking for something deeper.”

“Like enlightenment?”

“Yes. Something like that.”

I nod away like an appeased child because this is what I wanted to hear. I have all these aimless thoughts in my head about art and religion and somehow they funnel into this moment where a girl as young as me would tell me that she studied English and is now seeking enlightenment and we are in Greece at the monastery which is now her home that is thousands and thousands of moments away from her life in Chicago.

And I’ll go to bed with a full mind and tired body, and look forward to the morning when I step out onto the cool flagstone floor and open the door and the mountains will fall to a sea emblazoned by yet another sun and I am full of loving feelings and will think that this is why I am here, to be full of loving feelings and to be entirely accepting of all things, and to pit olives and help the nuns save heritage seeds while Monsanto crushes food sovereignty in Europe and the World.

But by lunchtime the following day we are joined by a stranger. A skittish, hurt creature who doesn’t help with the dishes and suddenly I am not full of love. I am unsettled, disdainful and unforgiving.

Zoe and I have been in the vegetable gardens all morning. We sit among lush weeds trying to figure out what we are meant to be uprooting. I confess that I like weeds. The nature writer, Richard Mabey (no relation that I can discover, unfortunately), calls them shapeshifters. Weeds appeal to various and contrasting aspects of my personality. Laziness perhaps being the first: I like things that grow without needing much from me. My garden these days is an exercise in the hardiest will survive.

Sister Josephina arrives to check on our progress but soon we realise that she just wants to talk. Her face is enclosed in her charcoal habit and her facial hair is wiry and erratic. I try not to look at it too much. It had taken me a few days to forgo mascara. There was no mirror in my little room and after a day or two I gave up on trying to apply it without poking my eyes and creating a black mess. It had taken me a few more days to appreciate how radically the 50 women who lived there had rejected the ritual of considering the shapes and potential of their daily skin.

Sister Josephina sits on the warm grass with us and tells us about the nuns who planted beds of marijuana to help the soil. “It makes it healthy – happy soil!” she laughs. I think it was then that she also told us the story of the wife who grew.

“It was very strange. A young couple came to us: they had recently married and the girl, she was so young, had grown so much since their wedding that she was taller than her husband!”

“And, was that a problem?” I asked.

“Well, it was for them. He didn’t like being short and she didn’t like being tall.”

And that was it – that was the end of the story. I haven’t stopped thinking about it in ten years. Did she continue to grow? Was Sister Josephina imparting something loaded and important and I just never understood?

Sister Joesphina laughs often and readily. At times it feels that everything we do and say amuses her. Until it doesn’t.

“Girls, I have news.” We look up from pretending to weed the garden.

“There is a new visitor coming to stay. She is just arrived and will be there at lunch. Yes, she’s … not a happy person. So. Endaksi?”

All around us is a beauty so big and perfect that it feels like a mirage. I know this is something tremendous that I need to try to commit to mind and body because my time here is limited. The trees are large, old and generous with their shade. The soil is rich, and cared for and provides three meals a day. The goats, the sheep, and the cows are shimmering with health. There are raspberries at the bottom of the apple orchard, there are barrels of olives, and this is the first and only time I’ll see almond trees clustered next to a medieval monastery filled with frescoes so alive with story that I’m horrified there is no money to prevent them from crumbling.

All around us is a beauty so big and perfect that it feels like a mirage

No. I’m not super happy about the new visitor. But I keep it between me and the weeds and a few searching glaces at Zoe. But she is made of sunshine and flowers. Sister Josephina gently directs us on which plants to pull out and to leave the calendula where it is. “It makes creams, oils. Put calendula and olive oil on your face every day and have no wrinkles. A 90-year-old woman in the village with a face like a baby told me that,” she says, before she goes to sext, their midday prayers.

Our midday meal is always at 2pm. We are waited on like wise men seated at our long wooden table on the verandah overlooking the world. There are things we recognise: a pie made out of the impossibly large pumpkin that Zoe and I de-seeded; the baked fish we know was delivered by Norwegian visitors yesterday; bowls of olives we de-stoned; and bruised fruit we gathered and sorted for preserving or eating. Nobody says prayers or anything like that but the mood is one of gratitude and peace. We eat quietly and then talk, or use our allotted internet time with the monastery dongle, or we twiddle with the guitar.

But not today because here is the new visitor sitting stiffly, jerking this way and that. She reaches over people to snatch at food and speaks in rapid bullets that punch through the calm. I ask her her name. She tells me but I’ve forgotten it now. I ask her where she found the monastery and she won’t say. But she speaks, suddenly forthcoming, about a bad person that she’s hiding from and how they were living together in a community in Indonesia but now she needs to be away from that place. She shakes her brown hair down over her face and withdraws like a turtle after the telling. I explain I’m from New Zealand and she stares at me and asks “could I go there? I have always wanted to know about Māori people, to learn how to be Māori”. I don’t really know what to say. I try to be gentle and say I didn’t think it was possible to just be Māori but people would be welcoming and it’s a lovely country to travel through. I hope I haven’t done any damage but she’s twitching away already, rejected. She doesn’t help clean up at the end and scuttles away.

I don’t have patience for her. Zoe and I, and the Americans, continue on with our gentle lives. The American boys leave one day and we give them our postal addresses so they can send us their literary zines. I wait for months for the first one to arrive and it does come eventually like a relic from another life. I’ve lost it now.

It’s back among the weeds where I ask Sister Josephina about the saints. I’ve always liked the supernatural ones like St Teresa of Avila who wrote about having the ecstasy and who was seen levitating at mass; and St Francis of Assisi who also supposedly hovered above ground. I read about it on a blog on the Franciscan website: ‘Your Field Guide to Flying Saints’. I’m also interested in bilocation: the phenomenon of being in two places at once. Here on this very land in ancient times Pythagorus was supposed to have been chatting with friends in two different towns at the same time. It was a gift of witches and saints and philosophers alike. Somehow the religious, or ancient, context makes this magic more real. My devout, Catholic grandmother believed it anyway. She had ghosts and because of that I look for my own. As though it’s a genetic condition. An inheritance.

“Sister Josephina, what do you know about levitation?”

Sister Josephina’s face is glass. Unmoved.

“Oh, we don’t care about that. We are interested in helping people. Every day we read about a saint and what they did to help communities.”

I am disappointed, stripped back. All my ghostly hopes humble themselves in the back of my brain. After worrying the weeds a bit longer Zoe and I go to our wing of the monastery for lunch. And there she is again, the new visitor.

Her manner is still tense, scattered. I ask her how she is and she replies something like “I talked to the sister – I might stay here a long time.” I’d like to say my reaction to this was accepting, encouraging, but I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t. My outrageous sense of possession of the place rears up into indignation which I’m sure has played out on my face: What? You!? Live here? No! Mine!

After lunch Sister J comes to talk to Zoe and I and helps us do the dishes. The new visitor disappears, I guess to speak to the Gerondissa, try to find some peace. As we wash and dry plates and platters and put leftovers in the fridge, Sister J tells us that she and few of the others will be spending time with a couple that afternoon: “She has cancer, she is dying so we help them talk to each other.”

The kindness is relentless. It emerges like the sound of soft shoes upon a wooden floor. Everyone is welcome in this place and every woman here looks at you with a bald curiosity so uninterrupted, so endless, that it allows you to find your feet without searching for the ground. The foundation of their religion is an infinite hospitality.

But I’m not sure I knew all that then. I was trying to take something else.

While the sisters are busy soothing the cancer couple, Zoe and I decide to walk to the hermitage of the monastery’s founding father. The sky is dark and the air close as we pick our way down the pathway towards the holy spot. The track is surprisingly treacherous, overgrown with thick vines and trees, more jungle than hillside scrub. When we arrive we spend all of five minutes exploring the dank cave where the monastery’s intrepid, founding monk had made his holy bed. It scares the shit out of me. I expected to sense something: to feel some kind of celestial vibe of radical purpose. All I sense is a bajillion spiders and the smell of no sunlight.

I am disappointed.

A few days earlier I had gone on a short roadie with a few of the nuns. One of them was an older Australian novice. She had curly hair that reminded me of Janet Frame. And her accent was round and hard and drew me towards her, and perhaps her to me. We bumped along in the back of their white Ford truck, speeding over the dirt road that spiralled down the mountain, and talked.

“Why did you come here?” She asked me.

“Um, I just thought it looked really beautiful and I was curious about Greece?”

The Australian nun smiled: “You know something in you made you come here, to this monastery – it’s not just the farm – you could have gone anywhere in Europe for that.”

I was speechless. Even embarrassed. They had this way, the nuns, of speaking to you with such transparency that it sliced right through your bullshit. She was right, of course, I was looking for something. I just had no idea what it was. All I knew was that I was full of ghosts: dead family and Catholic shadows and a love of magic and inexplicable things.

And there it is. The magic I had been waiting for.

Zoe and I start on the journey back from the Hermitage as the light falls from the sky. We look at each other, exhilarated by the bombastic clouds that have appeared in all directions. Everything is illuminated by blue lightning. We start to sprint. Thunder bashes at our ears and rolls around us with a violence that I have never experienced before or since. We find ourselves very much off the beaten track, exposed, at the top of the mountain in a clearing without any trees for cover.

I stop to spin around, invite it in, and Zoe stops too and we laugh at each other. In the eye of the biggest storm. The clouds burst right on top of us: they have us pinned and they know it. Fat, hard, warm rain fall on our heads, down our inadequately dressed bodies, as powerful as a waterfall.

About 20 nuns are waiting for us when we get back. Sister J is wringing her hands, her face carved of worry. Apparently there had been cases of lightning strikes before on storms such as this. We are immediately sorry but I have my fingers crossed behind my back. The storm happened to us for a reason. I’m certain of it. And I’m satisfied.

On the day of our departure I don’t know what to say to anyone except to repeat an irritating chorus of thank you, S’ efharisto, na se kala, s’ efharisto, thank you so much, so much. The anxious visitor isn’t anywhere to be seen and doesn’t haunt our last meal.

Zoe and I are travelling onwards together. We are not ready to leave each other. We are going to the island called Skiathos because the Gerondissa, who used to be a tourist guide, told us that it was the most beautiful of all the islands in Greece. (I don’t think it was. Later on I’d travel to a different island and find it so beautiful that I am still half stuck there.) Sister J and the one who used to be a midwife offer to drive us down the mountain to the train station in the white Ford.

At the threshold of the Monastery of St John the Forerunner, before we climb into the truck, the Gerondissa comes out to say goodbye. She holds me by the shoulders and I can see how all the features of her face are both amused and, perhaps, concerned.

“Thank you for having me,” I tell her as earnestly as I can.

“Clara, we have this idea here. When you come close to people your aura, our aura mix. Your atoms mix with my atoms and so we change each other.”

And there it is. The magic I had been waiting for.

She really was the mother superior, the Eldress. And funny too. She had jokes about young nuns still bad at their Greek announcing to the church fathers that they were St John come to fetch the fathers for supper.

Now when I look at the photo of myself, and Zoe, and the American boys bathed in all that monastic sun on the porch overlooking the whole of Greece, I think “my atoms are floating somewhere there”. I’ve got a shade of Pythogarus’s bilocation in me. Bits there, bits here. And those wise sisters form clouds about me and the thunder sends a tremor through my body.

Keep going!