The Meteora are an amazing series of peaks, isolated, high, beautiful. Early monks saw them as a place of retreat, a place from which they could get closer to God, physically and spiritually. Today access to most of the remaining six monasteries is easier. Coaches can get visitors quite close, steps have replaced nets and baskets as a means of access. All this has resulted in coach-loads of visitors and amongst them, some pilgrims like us.
For the communities it must be a bit of a mixed blessing. The visitors bring necessary income – icons and candles are big business, even amongst those who may not be conventionally ‘religious’ and the shops that the nuns and monks run do a roaring trade. But the cost to the community must be a loss of the isolation that they sought, that brought them to this place.
I was glad that we had had such a wonderful experience of Greek Orthodox monastic life yesterday. Sister Theoktisti had given us a profound series of insights into this model of the religious life. It was not as easy to glimpse a serene, isolated, simple life in the Meteora.
But what we did see were amazing churches and chapels adorned with the most wonderful frescos and icons. The skill of the icon writers and fresco painters is amazing. What they produce really are windows into heaven, windows into prayer, windows into a deeper, divine reality. We visited two of the monasteries – Agios Stephanos and Agios Varlaam. The first was easily accessible, the latter we reached after climbing 159 steps. But both were wonderful in different ways.
However, one feature that they shared in common in their churches were wall paintings of the Last Judgement. The imagery was dramatic, a river of fire flowing from the throne of Christ and ending in the mouth of the beast. In the stream of flame were the damned; the saved were ascending towards heaven; the seas were full of weird and wonderful creatures; the demons were loading the scales to gain more souls for their flames.
In some paintings the redeemed climbed the ladder into heaven. We read from Matthew 25, the judgment of the sheep and the goats with that final verse
‘These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25.46)
It’s hard for modern liberal western Christians to perhaps engage fully with this aspect of the faith. The concepts of a fiery hell and a sunny heaven perhaps seem too mediaeval. But the theme of judgement is all around us in these churches. inside the dome in each church, crowning all the images, is that of Christ Pantocrator, all-powerful, the good judge, but a judge nevertheless.
St Paul in writing to the church in Corinth says
‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.’ (1 Corinthians 13.12)
Icons provide a view of truth, but for all the skill of the writer (and we visited the workshop of a skilled priest in the afternoon) it is still a dim reflection of what we will see when we come face to face with the one who will be our good judge. What I have to struggle with is whether I have been living a life that will see me fit to climb that ladder. Walter Hilton, a 14th century English Augustinian, in his book ‘The Ladder of Perfection’ wrote this
‘What is humility but truthfulness?’ (Book II, Chapter 20)
To face our Good Judge will call for both.
have mercy upon me,
forgive my sister,
forgive my brother,
and set our feet upon that ladder
which leads to you.