Wednesday, May 25, 2011

(2) Pantocrator

I read once that "synchronicity" might be connected with the
depth that one puts into the mulling over of a subject, and thus a
corresponding event occurs to highlight the topic or relate to it in
a nearly mystical manner. It happens this way for me upon occasion.

Here I was, concerned about such subjects as universality, about the
Christian Pantocrator, about the Stoic Logos, all started because of
an iconography seminar focusing on Byzantium and the Hellenistic
World. So what happens? I see a Benedictine advertisement in a
magazine about a trip, "Following in the Footsteps of St. Paul." It
provided an opportunity to go to Greece, to its beautiful islands, and
to Turkey as well.

I signed-up. Then the Benedictines sponsoring this trip sent me a
brochure. It became obvious that we weren't going to follow "exactly"
all those saintly footsteps, but there were enough available to become
familiar. These kind of tours ultimately are dependent on the tour
agency arranging the trip. So, beyond St. Paul's few footsteps, we
would also be visiting places that belonged more realistically to the
ancient Gentiles. Actually, I couldn't have been happier about the
arrangements. I had reached a point where I felt I needed a small,
but finer understanding of the ancient Hellenistic world in which
St. Paul traveled and preached. It's about the audience as well as
the content.

Flying into Athens was memorable. Looking out upon the rising
morning sun, the Aegean spread out before us. Bathed in a purplish-
pink mist, one could see strings of islands catching the glint of the sun.
It was simply a gorgeous sight. After Athens and the Acropolis, where
we paid homage to the Temple of Pallas Athene, we went to see the
ruins of ancient Corinth. Then we hopped on a Greek ship and
took off for a batch of islands, like Crete and Patmos. At Patmos,
we visited an Orthodox monastery where the monks were called to
worship by the gong of a wooden bell.

The high points for me, however, were in Turkey. I was astounded
by the excavation work done at Ephesus. The whole ancient city
seemed nearly spread out before us. I especially liked standing
atop the theatre there, being able to hear even whispers said down
on the stage. Even some two millennia back these people knew
a thing or two about acoustics. I believe Saint Paul preached in
this theatre, and years later I watched a TV concert by "Sting"
presented at this very same theatre. Amazing!

I hated leaving Ephesus, but we had to set sail for Istanbul.
Cruising overnight, I awoke in the morning to see outside my
porthole that we had entered the Golden Horn. And there in the
distance was Istanbul (once known as Constantinople) and,
clearly in sight, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.

After the original Hagia Sophia was destroyed by an earthquake,
the Roman Emperor Justinian rebuilt the present-day Hagia Sophia
during the 6th century c.e. Built as a basilica, the Hagia Sophia has
a larger dome than that at St. Peter's in the Vatican. Once a church,
later a mosque, the Hagia Sophia is now a museum. It is really a
stupendous place, just nearly overwhelming!

Confused, I was expecting to encounter the great Pantocrator in
the dome of the Hagia Sophia. It's not there, having been plastered
over centuries ago. Today the building is a strange mix of Muslim
writing and Christian icons. However, at last I found Hagia Sophia's
Pantocrator. It stood atop the Emperor's special entrance--and I fell
in love with it.

Hagia Sophia's Pantocrator is a great study in brown and blue, and
the face is surprisingly gentle. It takes a lot of artistic skill to create
a gentleness interlaced with a majestic strength. At long last, I had
found *my* Pantocrator, if you will.

But it was time to return to Athens and onward towards home.
Sailing back, in open waters, it happened to be Orthodox Easter.
Our ship's captain presided over a midnight vigil service on deck.
Not knowing beforehand, but at the stroke of midnight all the ships
at sea shot-up fireworks. It was an incredible sight, watching this
vast celebration lighting the Aegean sky--as far as one could see.
I thought of my Pantocrator, thinking that all this celebration was in
his honor. It was a very, very special occasion.