Finding Orthodoxy in the Heritage Greece Experience
Photo: The author visiting the Chapel of St. George in Athens, Greece
During the past two weeks, I had the pleasure of participating in the Heritage Greece program. The program is akin to “birthright Israel”, in that Greek-Americans (between the ages of 18 and 26) are given the opportunity to travel to Greece and learn about their Greek heritage.
I knew that not everyone on the trip would be Orthodox, and the focus of the trip rested on ancient history, mythology, language, and good food. I had a fabulous time learning about the culture and history of Greece. I especially loved all of the archeological sites we got to see including the Acropolis, the temple of Poseidon, Olympia, and the behind-the-scene tour of the Ancient Agora with Professor John Camp, Ph.D., who has worked there since 1966.
The culture and language classes were also amazing. I started the trip not being able to speak a word of Greek, and by the end I learned how to introduce myself, talk about my studies, share where I was from, and order coffee. Only the most important things! We also saw some religious relics in the museums, making a nice Orthodox surprise for me! Despite all of this fun and excitement, I began to feel something was missing by the time the second week rolled around.
That’s when it happened—my birthday. On my birthday we had a few hours of free time between our Greek language class and our host family dinner. Some of my new Greek-American friends suggested that we go to visit St. George’s, a church that sits on a hill higher than even the Acropolis. I happily joined them and we embarked there by cab. The church was small but so beautiful, and I couldn’t think of any place I would rather be on my birthday than on this holy hilltop overlooking all of Athens.
In the distance the Acropolis could be seen, as well as the Aegean Sea behind it. It was breathtaking, and I highly recommend it to any and all who plan to travel to Greece. As the second week continued, the opportunity to visit a monastery presented itself. As a group we were scheduled to go to the Island of Aegina, but the trip was canceled due to poor weather conditions.
We were all very disappointed, as we had all been looking forward to that trip. To make it up to us, the coordinators offered a trip to the monastery, St. John of the Hunter, near where we were staying in Athens. It is called St. John of the Hunter because the patron’s last name was Hunter, and he really liked St. John the Baptist.
We had to be ready to go by 5 a.m. to make it to Orthros, but it was so worth it. The chanting by the nuns was spiritually moving. The monastery was very old—the iconography was from the 14th century! The nuns were very gracious to us and even gave us “loukoumi” snacks before we left. I could have stayed there all day because it was so peaceful, and there was so much more left unexplored. But we had other scheduled plans.
The next part of the day included a shopping trip to Glyfada. Glyfada is one of the nicer shopping areas in Athens. My cousin, who was also on the trip, and I split from our group to go shopping in one of the jewelry shops. After making our purchases, we walked around outside and reconvened with our group outside of a church in the main square. The church was Sts. Constantine and Helen, and it was quite a bit larger than the other churches I had visited previously on this trip.
The bells for vespers began to ring, and my cousin and I expressed a desire to go inside to look around. Together, we entered the church and were completely taken back by what we saw. It was breathtaking! The walls and ceiling were completely covered in lavish iconography. The walls were so covered it seemed that every saint must have been depicted there. My cousin pulled out her phone to snapchat the experience. I took a 360 video that by no means captures the church’s full beauty. We stayed a few minutes longer but eventually we had to leave in order to make it back to our bus in time.
Heritage Greece is all about learning about your roots and the culture of Greece. It is not designed to further connect you to the church, as you do not have to be Orthodox to be Greek. Despite this, my faith still managed to seep into my experiences in Greece, enriching it for the better. The three big church visits that I experienced were not a part of the original program, and yet they found their way to me anyway. If we had gone to Aegina as planned, I would not have been able to visit the monastery or Sts. Constantine & Helen Church in Glyfada. I also would not have been able to visit St. George’s on my birthday had we not had extra free time to do what we liked.
At the start of the trip I was worried I would not be able to find Orthodoxy in my Grecian experience. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when Orthodoxy found me. And so one could say: you can take the Greek out of Orthodoxy, but you can’t take Orthodoxy out of the Greek.
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