Thoughts from two pilgrims

Two of the pilgrims who travelled with us in the steps of St Paul, Canon Edmund and Rachel Plaxton have sent me their reflections on the pilgrimage.

We stayed overnight at The Premier Inn, Gatwick, conveniently sited opposite the travelator up to Departures….Astonishing numbers of people trundling cases to and fro so early, barely light….met up with McCabe rep easily, all arriving obediently before 4.40am ! Even so, we had travel a lot easier than St Paul !!

That evening, comfortably settled in The Galaxy Hotel, we strolled along the Aegean sea-front of Kavala, where St Paul first landed [Neapolis, then], now a pretty fishing harbour, busy with men repairing nets ready for the night’s fishing. Tiredness melted away, relaxed in arm-chairs beneath an umbrella, with choc ice, beer, crisps, nuts & cool water, all for four euro ! The Greek economy was in dire straits, but tourist areas still looked lovely. Greeks want to remain in Europe, feeling a proprietary right…after all Europe is named after their goddess, Europa !

Where Paul tied his boat, where we begin our pilgrimage

Where Paul tied his boat, where we begin our pilgrimage

Next morning we were aboard the coach for Philippi, by 8.30am, rubber-necking the mosaic commemorating St Paul’s first-footing, then heading as Paul had done, for the river below Philippi, where Jews then met to worship, not having a Synagogue in the immense, prosperous, new town at that time. We held our Sunday Communion service there, beside the rushing water, in a simple little open air theatre, crossing the little bridges to the island-altar to receive bread & wine….hearing again how Paul baptised rich Lydia, seller of purple here, his first convert. French archaeologists have been excavating Philippi since 1914, uncovering the earliest 360BC settlement, around rich deposits of minerals, with timber & fertile land too. Later Philip of Macedonia gave his name to it, extending it magnificently, until 42BC, when victorious Octavian made Philippi a Roman Colony, expanding the city again to area administrative HQ….no wonder Paul chose to start his mission here !! And was pretty successful till he alienated the slave-girl’s owners by curing her of her embarrassing prophesying, so being flogged publically, thrown into prison, then rescued by an earthquake in the night…High drama ! The jailor with his entire household converted too. The city authorities begged Paul to leave, abjectly embarrassed at having flogged a Roman Citizen….

Monday morning had us coaching back to Thessalonica ….not much remaining of Paul’s time, but two fine basilicas, the White Tower and a high viewing point over the city. Paul had been chased out of Thessalonica, finding refuge in Berea, but had to escape again ahead of his enemies looking to silence him once for all. He sailed to Athens, while we toured south via the Meteora Monasteries and Delphi.

Sister Theoktisti greets us - Edmund is in the background

Sister Theoktisti greets us – Edmund is in the background

High-light for everyone was our visit to the modern, Orthodox nunnery of St John the Forerunner, high above Larissa, where nuns from all over the world joyfully devote their lives to God, farming ecologically, making everything they need, living simply and graciously welcoming visitors…and we had the place to our-selves… Their organic produce shop had us all buying gifts to take home….honey, olives, pasta, flower teas, remedies, icons, soaps, candles , all home-made….Their recommendation took us to a family restaurant down in the valley for the most delicious meal of the holiday, genuinely Greek. The Meteora landscape was astonishing, monasteries perched atop sheer rock pinnacles carved by the elements….once accessible only by basket on the end of a very long rope, dizzyingly high above the valley floor….ensuring safe retreat from the world. Two are open now to tourists, big-time, seething with coach-loads of sight-seers, come to view their mosaics and icons, and buy their very commercial gifts at inflated prices….interesting, but soulless, compared to the nuns’ above Larissa.

We found the family run Icon Factory really interesting. We saw beautiful work being painstakingly done…..They prefer to paint on recycled, aged wood, each one becoming a master-piece work of art ….Buyers were getting their chosen pieces signed by the head iconographer.

Having Dr Mark Vernon in our party was a bonus. He brought to life the Greek philosophy and culture of St Paul’s day, making our visit to Delphi revelatory. I had thought “ St Paul never went there, so why are we going, apart from satisfying curiosity while in the area?” Of course we had to go….no-one setting out on a project in its hey-day would have dreamed of NOT consulting the oracle ! [Who had spies finding out about the petitioners ’ requests ahead of consultation…only if the sacrificial goat shivered, when water was thrown at it, could the sacrifice go ahead…Goats HATE cold water, so easy to unobtrusively throw warm water, to buy time for divination!] It was up to petitioners to interpret cryptic oracles…as Socrates famously did, having heard from his friend’s consultation, “no -one is wiser”…asked politicians, poets, artisans…before realising “one thing I know for sure, I know nothing for sure”…he was cognisant of his ignorance….invaluable awareness !

Delphi is a honey-pot, but did not disappoint….seeing the ompholos stone, like a huge ostrich egg, grid-marked, was remarkable. In searing temperatures, and short of time, we did not quite get to the top of the site, but views were splendid…enough ruins to imagine the splendours of old, awe-inspiring still. No wonder Greek culture pervaded the Mediterranean world, so that Cynic ideas seem to have filtered into Jesus’ sayings, certainly into Paul’s teaching. The Cynics were bare-foot philosophers, taking no thought for the morrow, what to wear, or eat, where to sleep, or wash…hence their derisory name, Greek for “dog”….They had a respect for all life, knowing each part of the body, however lowly, is necessary to the whole. [very Pauline !]

Athens we’d seen before, but not the wonderful museums, so a fine browsing, and The Acropolis rises above the city, magnificently as ever. Resentment about the Elgin Marbles still being in The British Museum, runs high…even though they WERE paid for by Lord Elgin, and have been saved ravages of time and earthquakes suffered by the rest of the site …. We visited early, before the sun’s heat became intense, and ahead of the hordes… This time pausing in shade for one of our daily worships, at the Areopagus, site of Paul’s sermon, making him very close.

A last view of Corinth - the Temple of Apollo

A last view of Corinth – the Temple of Apollo

The Corinth canal had not been built in Paul’s day. However it was worth portering cargoes across the narrow neck of land, saving the long haul round the Peloponnese. Corinth had grown rich on the trade dues, so a large city for Paul’s evangelism, where he stayed, earned his keep tent-making and established a lively church. Priscilla & Aquila were principal converts here. We stopped off at The Elysian Fields, in Eleusis, superbly off the tourist track…I’d always wondered where they were. Mark Vernon told the story of Persephone’s abduction by Pluto to the Underworld, and her mother’s tireless search till she found her, gaining her daughter’s return each year for summer…even the cave Pluto in his fiery chariot was said to have burst out from, is there…. All made the Greek Gods less alien for me….Their intrigues, jealousies, selfish affairs, violent anger, and self- indulgences had had me amazed that they could have been worshiped….but I learned that there was an observant, behaviour-logic to their junketing affairs and the naming of their off-spring…It is good there was an altar to The Unknown God in Athens for St Paul to build his teaching on and that many recognised Christ as a result.

Lunch our last day was at a restaurant at the Eastern mouth of the Corinth Canal. We watched, cameras at the ready, for the road barriers either side to come down and for the road-bridge to lower to the sea bottom, so several yachts and a big ship could come through dramatically. All the diners crowded to view and wave….Satisfactory, seeing the canal in use!

'O happy band of pilgrims....'

‘O happy band of pilgrims….’

We had come to the end of our pilgrimage, so ably led by The Dean, Andrew Nunn…Friendships from Santiago de Compostela two years ago, renewed; inspiring worship times, much learned, and a fuller understanding gained of St Paul, his times, his tough journeys, his brave witness, his great achievements.



It’s time to leave Greece. This morning we had free time and many of us went to the new Acropolis Museum. Our hotel has been very conveniently situated for this wonderful new home for the statutes, reliefs and other artefacts found on the acropolis and associated with the Pantheon. Of course, you are often reminded that the ‘Elgin Marbles’ should be here and, indeed, the building was designed to house them. Instead, there are copies of all the pieces of the frieze that are in the British Museum.

But it is a wonderful museum. The sense of space and the generous way the building doesn’t compete with the displays makes it one of the best archaeological museums I have been to. Amongst the displays was a relief that our guide had talked about. When one group of invaders arrived in the city they did not destroy the panel because it was thought to be of the annunciation – a seated woman and a winged messenger – but it wasn’t depicting that at all. However, it survived.

Not the annunciation

Not the annunciation

For Paul as well the time came to leave. At the end of the account of this part of his missionary journey Acts records this.

After staying there for a considerable time, Paul said farewell to the believers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had his hair cut, for he was under a vow. (Acts 18.18)

He had been in the country a long time, made the journey that we have followed, from Neapolis to Corinth. It was a journey that helped form the church and ‘turn the world upside down’ – and for us?

'O happy band of pilgrims....'

‘O happy band of pilgrims….’

I think our relationship with Paul has changed. His letters to the churches we have visited have become very significant for all of us and when we read these chapters in Acts again we will be transported back to to the places we have been privileged to visit. As with all pilgrimage, it has been an encounter with the God who calls us to keep travelling.

God of our journey,
you have blessed our travelling;
bless us as we continue to follow
in the steps of the saints,
as disciples of Jesus Christ.

“Listen, I tell you a mystery!”

Today’s stage of the pilgrimage included a visit to the ancient site of Eleusis, by special request of Dr Mark Vernon. He explains why.

Eleusis is off the beaten track when it comes to following in the footsteps of Paul. This is, in part, good. First, its temples, porticos and ceremonial ways are not filled with other visitors. Second, the silence of the fallen marble still speaks of how it was a thin place, somewhere that countless individuals received insight and consolation in the face of the great issues of life and death. I recommend a visit.

Entering the site of Eleusis

Entering the site of Eleusis

It’s the home of the Eleusinian Mysteries and, because of its tremendous influence particularly in Roman times, is really as much a part of Christian history and experience as Paul’s teaching on the second coming in Thessalonica or the centrality of love in Corinth.

We speak of baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments and mysteries. We take communion, engage rites of initiation, prepare ourselves to receive God with fasting, sacred meals, festivities, pilgrimages, liturgies. They transform lives and deliver the kind of knowledge that can’t be read on a page. Such elements have many sources, but the link to the ancient mysteries is thoroughly in the mix.

It’s worth saying a word about the word “mystery” because it can be mystifying. This is a shame as it is a simple idea of which everyone has experience. The word comes from the Greek verb for “to close” (hence, myopic). Recipients of mysteries closed their eyes – that is, they were shown things that eyes alone can’t see. To put it another way, a mystery is a direct experience of truth. It’s unmediated by words, objects or rites – although words, objects and rites are the vehicles that carry the individual to the moment when the direct experience shows itself.

The Telesterion

The Telesterion

The journey of Holy Week, particularly through the Triduum or Three Days, is a good example (and is another link with Eleusis, since the ancient mysteries involved a journey of several days to and from Athens). The liturgies on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday carry the congregation to the bleak heart of the emptiness of death, and then, through Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, to an experience of the mystery and joy of resurrection. The Easter Vigil in the early hours of the morning on Easter Sunday offers a direct sense of the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not comprehend.

It seems highly likely that Paul utilizes the language of the mysteries too, not least in his letters to the Corinthians. They lived within easy reach of Eleusis and would have recognised links when he wrote things like, “Listen, I tell you a mystery!” Or, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” – because the Eleusinian mysteries were deeply linked to growth and the seasons. Or again when he cited Isaiah, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” – because the mysteries involved a swallowing up in the earth before a release into a new, richer life.

Seating carved into the rock created the feel of a theatre - for liturgy

Seating carved into the rock created the feel of a theatre – for liturgy

Personally, I think that there may even be a direct link to Paul. One of his named converts in Athens is Dionysius the Areopagite. The name was to have an enormous impact upon subsequent theology when, in the late 5th century AD, a Christian Neoplatonic philosopher adopted it. Under Dionysius’s name, he wrote works including Divine Names, Mystical Theology and Celestial Hierarchy, now referred to as authored by Pseudo-Dionysius or Pseudo-Denys. They could claim to be some of the most influential books in Christianity. And perhaps the original Dionysius was an Eleusinian initiate before he was a Christian. Perhaps this is why he was open to Paul’s teaching on resurrection when Paul arrived in Athens. And perhaps Dionysius began a school of mysticism within Christianity that came to fruition in the 5th century texts.

The former dean of St Paul’s cathedral, William Ralph Inge – Dean Inge, wrote an accessible book on mysticism, Christian Mysticism (it’s widely available online – He offers a useful summary of what happened at Eleusis in an appendix, and why it matters to Christians. He concludes: “It is plain that this is one of the cases in which Christianity conquered Hellenism by borrowing from it all its best elements; and I do not see a Christian need feel any reluctance to make this admission.” Personally, I think that this adoption of the practice and theology of the mysteries is crucial to knowing the life in all its fullness that Jesus lived and taught, and Paul so profoundly experienced and knew.

Mark Vernon

The goal of our journey

Paul’s intention, as far as we understand it, was to get to Corinth. Athens was important but Corinth was the second city to Rome, a thriving, multi-cultural, wealthy trading city standing between the Roman and Greek worlds. It was large and beautiful and there was a synagogue there and so sufficient numbers of Jews for Paul to engage with.

We set out from Athens and began the journey which would take us across the Corinth canal to the site of the ancient city. But on the way we stopped at Eleusis. Dr Mark Vernon had made a special request that we divert from the normal pilgrim route to take in this very special place.

We arrive in Eleusis

We arrive in Eleusis

It was the centre of initiation and mystery in the Greek world and when we were there we thought about how the term ‘mystery’ has resonances with the Christian understanding of God and the sacraments. Comparison was also drawn between the days of the rites and preparations that the participants in what went on there went through (and we don’t know much about that) and the structure of the Christian Holy Week.

It was a fascinating place and especially as we anticipated arriving in Corinth. We were to celebrate the Eucharist there and one of the readings we heard in that place was from Paul’s First Letter.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11.23-26)

Before the tribune in Corinth

Before the tribune in Corinth

It was incredible to be in the remains of the place where Paul had lived for a year and a half, to where he sent two significant letters from which we draw so much teaching about the life of the church, the Eucharist, Christian ethics, our understanding of resurrection, etc, etc, etc. I just love to imagine how they reacted when they first read words that to us are so familiar.

What is also so important to remember is that in this place Paul confronted the real church, fractious, argumentative, challenging, all those things that we know about the church only too well. They were Christians trying to live the life to which we are called with all the temptations and delights that a cosmopolitan city can provide. In his Second Letter Paul writes

We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Corinthians 4.7)

An amphora from Eleusis - but see the cracks

An amphora from Eleusis – but see the cracks

All over Greece we have seen the remains of clay jars, glued back together but showing the cracks, the signs of their fragility. With Paul’s words to this early Christian community we should not be surprised when we display the same fragility, in our local church, in our Communion, between the denominations. So we prayed for Christian unity in Corinth but knowing that as God took clay and out of it made a man into whom he breathed life, so the clay jars of which Paul speaks will always have this fragile nature. We should be more careful with each other, as if we were handling a precious artefact in an archaeological museum, rather than with the brutality and lack of charity that so often characterises the way we Christians treat one another. Our behaviour is so often little less than scandalous and our lack of charity towards one another an affront to the God who out of love created us and called us into his church.

Robert reads 1 Corinthians 13 to us

Robert reads 1 Corinthians 13 to us

Standing alongside the remains of the Temple of Apollo at the heart of the remains of this city, we heard read to us 1 Corinthians 13. It was a moving final moment of the journey, we had arrived at the goal of our journey but the true goal must be in living out that life of love, that life of charity that Paul commended to the people of Corinth and commends to us.

A last view of Corinth - the Temple of Apollo

A last view of Corinth – the Temple of Apollo

God of love,
may we love one another
as you love us;
may we care for one another
as you care for us;
may we truly be your people
for you truly are our God.

Paul the fearless

The storm clouds gathered over Athens today. We had been checking the forecast all week of course to see what weather awaited us along the journey and it had said all the time that there would be storms on Thursday. And they were right. So we began the day early, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the weather, and headed straight for the Acropolis which dominates and in many ways defines Athens.

In some sense this was the climax of the pilgrimage – though, if this is not too nonsensical, there is another climax to come in the shape of Corinth – but what I mean is that with Paul we had arrived at the capital and at the heart of Greek society and Greek thinking. As we have been travelling here from Kavala, Neapolis, we have been thinking with Mark Vernon about the philosophical context into which Paul arrived with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Mark has also been contributing to this blog and further developing his ideas about Paul’s impact.

The sheer beauty of the Parthenon

The sheer beauty of the Parthenon

Stepping from the bus and beginning to climb the huge hill which is crowned by the Parthenon is an amazing experience. This mountain is covered in temples. The acropolis of Athens (there was one in each Greek city) was not about government or fortification, it was about the worship of the gods and the goddess Athena in particular. As Paul climbed the hill, as we climbed it, he would have seen it in all its dazzling splendour and as Acts tells us it distressed him.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) (Acts 17.16-18)

He was on his own, waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. He did exactly what we did, looked around at the sights, looked at what was going on, the plethora of temples, the idols, the sacrifices, the lavishness of the place. And in the agora, the market place he heard the debates, the competing ideas, the questions and the answers. As it then says in Acts

So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. (Acts 17.19-21)

The ‘they’ were the philosophers with whom he had been arguing, debating and so they bring him to the place of audience.

The statue of Athena - or at least what it was thought to have looked like

The statue of Athena – or at least what it was thought to have looked like

As we walked around today and saw the perfection of the architecture of the Parthenon and saw the beauty of the caryatids that hold up part of the roof of the temple on the Acropolis known as the Erechtheion; as we heard about the gold and ivory statue of Athena and looked down on theatres and stadia and other temples below, I was in awe of Paul. He could easily have been persuaded into silence by the sheer power and grandeur of the place. What was he in such a setting, one man, with a word, in such an overwhelming place?

But instead, at Mars Hill, the places of the Areopagus, he speaks out and speaks boldly. This is the fearless Paul, the one who with complete conviction, with real intelligence preaches about Jesus and his resurrection and in that environment brings people to faith.

We worshipped at Mars Hill

We worshipped at Mars Hill

Again we hear that among those who gave him a careful and sympathetic hearing was a woman. She is named as Damaris. Nothing more is known of her, but to be there, to be present she must have been a woman of high status, well-educated, even perhaps a foreigner. Whoever she was, with Dionysius she is aways remembered as another of the women who heard Paul and believed in Jesus Christ.

From Mars Hill we went on a short tour of Athens and ended up in the Agora. The clouds were gathering and we could hear the rumble of thunder. Perhaps it was a reminder to us that this man accused in Thessaloniki of ‘turning the world upside down’ had unleashed a storm which would in the end result in the abandonment of the temples and the cults and the old gods. Perhaps Zeus was trying to remind us of this and trying to get a word in!

In a church called to be ‘mission-shaped’ in a context of competing truths and idols we need both the courage and the missional intelligence of St Paul because without both we won’t be given the hearing that he received.

may we be your witnesses
courageous, articulate, intelligent
and faithful
that we too may make Christ known.

Paul before the philosophers

On the day when we visited the acropolis of Athens, Dr Mark Vernon considers Paul’s impact on the philosophers who gave him a hearing.

What would the Stoics and Epicureans have made of Paul’s famous speech on the Areopagus in Athens, the capital city we’ve now arrived at on the pilgrimage? Let’s take the words Luke puts into Paul’s mouth in Acts 17 at face value, and consider them point by point. Once more, we see Paul being canny: don’t alienate your audience unnecessarily; indeed, reach out to them as far as you can.

I found an altar to an unknown god. (v23)

The altar to the unknown god has not yet been found, in spite of the best efforts of well-funded archeologists. But altars to “unknown gods” are well attested by ancient sources, so Paul has picked an arresting starting point.



Further, the philosophers would broadly have agreed with Paul on the plethora of idols that littered the agora. The Epicureans believed in gods. In fact, some Epicureans thought that Epicurus was a god and remembered him on his birthday. But they were entirely against what they took to be the superstition that characterised much city-state religiosity. Leave the gods alone as they leave us alone, they tended to say.

Stoics were different. They were actively theistic. “We are children of Zeus,” Epictetus the Stoic wrote about the same time as Luke. “Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within,” he continues. The Stoics are with Paul, ready to hear more.

The God who made the world… gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (v24-25)

Now, though, any self-respecting Epicurean would have scoffed. They believed that life is merely the fortunate assembly of atoms. It requires no intervention from outside. There is no god who made the world.

The Stoics, though, would have listened on. God, through the operation of the Logos, generates and sustains all things, they taught. As Seneca, the near contemporary of Paul, explained: “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you… a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian.”

He allotted the times of their existence… he is not far from each one of us. (v26-27)

This line would have interested the Stoics some more. They were strict determinists. Everything happened according to the divine will and purpose. Plus, they sought to know this will within their lives. Seneca again: “God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men.” In fact, Paul’s claim that God is “not far from each one of us” reads like a direct appeal to Stoic ears.

Which would explain why he next quotes two philosophers who were authorities for the Stoics (and not the Epicureans): “In him we live and move and have our being” (Epimenides). “For we too are his offspring” (Aratus). So what will he say next?

Now he commands all people everywhere to repent… v30

Having wooed them Paul, ever the rhetorician, choses this moment to turn up the heat. The themes of repentance and judgment are simply less comfortable personally, though not philosophically. Stoics practiced repentance (the Greek is metanoia – change of heart and mind). Here’s Seneca on why it’s necessary: “Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat.” Repentance can lead the individual back to God.



On the other hand, Stoic adepts, such as might have been in Paul’s audience, could well have been affronted by his audacity. OK, Paul comes from Tarsus, no mean Hellenistic city. But Tarsus is no Athens, they might have thought. Repentance for us? What will this man suggest next?

He will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed… v31

Again, judgment per se would have been tolerable to the Stoics. The philosopher Plutarch was writing about the same time as Luke. He’s a Platonist, though I think that by the first century AD, Stoicism and Platonism often intermingled. Plutarch writes: “If the soul survives, we must expect that its due in honour and in punishment is awarded after death rather than before.” Judgment, therefore, is OK. The tricky element for the Stoics would have been the notion of a man being appointed to judge. This Judge is presumably what they took to be Paul’s “foreign deity” (v18).

By raising him from the dead. v31

Now Paul comes to the crux issue: resurrection. For, the Epicureans it was simply impossible. There is no postmortem survival, Epicurus had been explicit.

For the Stoics, resurrection was tricky but… Officially, they believed that when we die the fire of life leaves the body with the last breath. That fire is not lost: it returns to the cosmos from whence it came. Then there are the Platonic additions, and an active contemplation of the immortality of the soul.

Both these visions of postmortem existence are different from personal survival and, even more, from the reconstitution of a body. But, having brought them this far, I think Paul is inviting his Stoic listeners to reconsider and be challenged. After all, it’s striking that he preaches the resurrection to the philosophers and not the cross, the thing that elsewhere he remarks is a stumbling block.

And some wanted to hear more of this ingenious man who was clearly passionate, confident and well-educated. We can take it that the Epicureans were the ones who scoffed, and the Stoics were the ones who wanted to hear Paul again (v34). There are also two named converts, Dionysius and Damaris, along with unnamed others. It was a good day for Paul at the Areopagus. He had made his mark in Athens.

Mark Vernon

The land of questions and answers

There is something about Delphi.  Our guide says it was all about ‘location, location, location’ and there is something in that. Located on a hillside looking down on huge numbers of olive trees, the land falling away towards the Aegean; the air, the vast blue sky and the towering cliffs. It is beautiful, stunning, memorable. 

People came here for two thousand years to seek the advice of the Oracle. They were seeking answers to all kinds of questions and when the time was right they got an answer, perhaps obscure, perhaps unclear, perhaps unwelcome but an an answer nevertheless. 

This all operated in a society, or in societies, in which answers to the big questions were constantly being sought. As we travelled from Kalambaka to Delphi today Dr Mark Vernon spoke to us about the Pre-Socratic philosophers and Socrates himself. It was fascinating to think of philosophy – the love of wisdom – in this land of questions and answers.  

We’re travelling in the steps of St Paul and, as far as we know, he didn’t come to Delphi. Instead Acts tells us that on leaving Beoria

Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him. (Acts 17.15 )

We assume he sailed to Athens, the capital of philosophy and a place in which teachers and their students discussed the big questions of life all the time. 

So we have had a day away from Paul but as we left Delphi for Athens we began to pick up the trail again. But the theme of seeking answers to our questions is an important one. 

We don’t have a tradition of oracles. In fact when Saul seeks out the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28.3-25) he is breaking God’s law.  But we still look for answers. The church exists in a society in which so many people have questions yet don’t know where truth is to be found. So in consequence they will seek out any ‘oracle’. I believe we need to recover our confidence, the confidence that we will see Paul displaying in Athens, that Jesus Christ is God’s answer to our deepest, most profound questions.  As Peter said to Jesus

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6.68)

Lord Jesus, lead me into all truth, for you are all truth. Amen. 

Seeing heaven

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.

Anne and Chris on the Meteora

Anne and Chris on the Meteora

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.

Mara, our guide, explains the judgement scene

Mara, our guide, explains the judgement scene

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.

The ladder into heaven

The ladder into heaven

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.

Christ Pantocrator

Christ Pantocrator

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.

Righteous Judge,
have mercy upon me,
forgive my sister,
forgive my brother,
and set our feet upon that ladder
which leads to you.

Gods, philosophers and nuns

St Paul had to leave Thessalonica very quickly, chased out almost by those who had taken offence at what he had to say. We left without so much haste but followed the road that he took to Beroea. It was in this town that he found an audience willing to give him a hearing. They were welcoming, as Acts 17 tells us.

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. (Acts 17.10-15)

The bema of St Paul - the three steps below the mosaic

The bema of St Paul – the three steps below the mosaic

The people of this small town are still delighted that Paul visited them. As we drove along one of the main streets there were banners bearing the icon of the apostle announcing a festival. We headed for the ‘bema’ the oracle’s podium, the steps on which St Paul is said to have stood to deliver his address to the people, Good News about Jesus Christ that they were glad to hear.

Once again, we are told that there were women amongst them who were open to what Paul had to say. All the way along the journey so far we have been struck by the very receptive audience that he received from women. Given that Paul can have such a misogynist reputation among some groups in the west it is interesting that he was not perceived in that way by the women of his day – in fact, quite the reverse.

From that town we then headed towards the mountains, past Mount Olympus, where we thought about the pagan Gods and the cults that Paul confronted when he arrived in Greece and of which he had known before (after all he was from a culturally Greek community himself) and as we went we also thought about the great schools and traditions of philosophy.

Gay Walker rests in the sunshine after a good Greek lunch

Gay Walker rests in the sunshine after a good Greek lunch

We are fortunate on this pilgrimage to have Dr Mark Vernon with us who is helping to relate some of the philosophical traditions in Greece to the places that we are visiting. But what we gained today was the impression of a country and a people deeply concerned with the spiritual, with a sense of what lies within and beyond them, a people willing to ask and struggle with the big questions of life and a culture out of which so much of the Greek religious and monastic tradition has developed.

Sister Theoktisti greets us

Sister Theoktisti greets us

After lunch we then visited the Monastery of St John the Forerunner, the Baptist. There is a community of twenty nuns there and five novices. They have built a church close to where a former monastery stood and live a simple life, farming and writing icons, carving and doing anything that can serve and sustain their life. Sister Theoktisti met us and spent the afternoon with us. She was born in England but become an Orthodox nun and is part of this community. Her sisters come from twelve different countries, a real gathering of nations in one place.

Sister told us about their life as a community

Sister told us about their life as a community

She was remarkable, full of grace, communicating peace and holiness. We all loved her. When I asked her for a word for us who live not 1100 metres above sea level on a wooded mountain, keeping sheep and bees and worshipping in splendid isolation but are in the midst of a bustling, diverse, distracting city she told us

‘Look for God in yourself and in your neighbour – smile at someone who doesn’t expect you to smile at them and you will change their day.’

It was a privilege being allowed into their home. We left the monastery and made our way to Kalambaka at the foot of the Meterora better and moved by the experience. We will be visiting monasteries and icon workshops tomorrow. But I have already seen something of the face of Christ in Sister Theoktisti.

God of revelation,
make yourself known to us
in the people we meet
and the places through which we travel
for you are present in both.

What about the awkward teachings of St Paul?

Travelling to Thessaloniki Dr Mark Vernon reflects on some of the themes that emerge from St Paul’s writings to this early Christian community.

Reading between the lines of Paul’s letters, so as to catch a glimpse of what gripped the first generation of Christians, is always tricky. Never more so, I feel, than with the letters to the Thessalonians.

Though the first epistle is the earliest Christian text in the Bible, it could be thought of as warm but a bit bland. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their example and welcome (incidentally, in marked contrast to the account of his visit to the city in Acts: Luke tells us that a riot led to Paul making a rapid exit in the middle of the night). In the letter, Paul also appeals to the Thessalonians to remember that he speaks with divine not mortal authority, and to recall that he and his companions “worked night and day so as not to be a burden to you”.

The letters become more theologically interesting on one issue, though in relation to a subject that’s awkward for Christians living two millennia on. Paul teaches about the parousia or Second Coming. He corrects the Thessalonians for worrying that some of the brethren are dying before Christ has returned. Everyone will share in the resurrection, he writes, and be “caught up in the clouds”. Outside of American Rapture circles, does anyone believe that now?

All things gathered into Christ - but when?

All things gathered into Christ – but when?

But reading between the lines reveals more and, further, helps us relate to such themes. It helps to see Paul not only as a Jew but as an educated Hellenistic Jew. That can cast a different light on things.

For example, the detail about not being a burden has been interpreted by some scholars as a sign of how Paul was influenced by Stoicism. It seems to be the kind of attitude towards hospitality that a Stoic sage would commend, as opposed to, say, a travelling rabbi.

The Stoic teacher prided himself on living an integrated life. His or her knowledge of cosmic and divine matters did not mean that they didn’t care about the humdrum. In fact, they abhorred people who were so heavenly minded as to be no earthly use, because accurate self-perception was the crucial first step on the path to deep wisdom. As Socrates had insisted, Know Thyself! Paul too seems to be saying to the Thessalonians, I manifested such an integrated life, and that’s important for my authority.

The pastoral content of the letters develops the issue. Paul’s moral instructions about not fornicating, living quietly, and minding your own affairs exemplifies what scholars call paraenesis. It’s a type of unshowy morality that emerged from Stoicism, and other Hellenistic philosophy schools, and was regarded as exemplifying the veracity of your beliefs to others. Paul makes this kind of model behaviour his own, and frequently commends it to others.

Why might this be of interest? Well, seeing Paul in this light can help with a common difficulty felt in modern liberal circles: his awkward conservatism. Take a particularly tricky example, the passage in Colossians 3 about wives submitting to their husbands and slaves obeying their masters. And now think of it as standard first century exemplary morality. I think that these injunctions would have been taken as self-evident cases of best behaviour at the time. Self-evident cases of best behaviour will inevitably be different now – wives and husbands sharing things, and masters freeing their slaves, say. In other words, such passages shouldn’t be read as timeless truths without context, as they are in contemporary debates about “male headship”.

Paul’s Stoicism can help with understanding his convictions on the Second Coming as well because Stoics too had an eschatology. Many argued that there would be a cosmic conflagration that would bring all things to glorious completion. The good Stoic should wait out the current times, behaving well, and so keep his soul ready for the fiery finale.

St Paul preaching to the Stoic philosophers

St Paul preaching to the Stoic philosophers

This is not at all to say that Paul was a fully signed-up Stoic. His eschatology is distinctive, involving the return of the Lord. But it is to say that such a belief would have resonated with other ideas current at the time, perhaps especially in a Greek city like Thessalonica. As with women obeying their husbands, and slaves their masters, placing Paul in his times – as a pilgrimage can so usefully do – helps us to distinguish the timeless revelation about which he was so passionate from the time-bound assumptions he also made.

Mark Vernon

What did Paul preach in Philippi?

Dr Mark Vernon, one of the leadership team for our pilgrimage, reflects on the day we have spent and on Paul’s ministry and teaching here.

Paul sets foot on European soil for the first time, probably in the winter of 49AD. But what did he find at the port of Neapoli, modern day Kavala? What religious scene greeted him?

It would have been an important question for him too. Paul tells us he tailored his message to connect with his listeners. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. So what word would have struck a chord in Macedonia? The letter to the Philippians, though written years after his first arrival, provides evidence.

It seems his usual strategy was, first, to contact fellow diaspora Jews and/or those who reverenced Judaism, the so-called “god-fearers”, who were widespread throughout the Roman empire. They would understand the language of the Christ, the Messiah, even if they rejected it.

When he got to Philippi, just up the road from Neapoli, he found no synagogue but, Acts tells us, he went to a place of prayer by the river. There he met a group of women including Lydia, whose heart opened to what Paul said. She was baptised.

St Lydia

St Lydia

However, Paul was not only interested in engaging fellow Jews. His next encounter in Philippi, according to Acts, was with another woman, only this one had a “spirit of Python”. She was probably a prophetess from the Delphic Oracle, which is to say, a significant religious figure. No wonder the city was in uproar after Paul became annoyed with her and quashed her spirit.

It sounds like the story of a new religion casting out the old. But it’s more interesting that. Why, for example, did Paul became so annoyed by the prophetess? She was proclaiming correctly that he was from the “Most High God”. I suspect the incident reveals another side to Paul’s ability to connect and persuade: he himself had spiritual abilities that deeply impressed.

The historian Ramsay MacMullen paints a vivid picture of the pagan milieu into which Paul had landed. “[People’s] senses were assaulted by messages directing their attention to religion; shouts and singing in public places to an accompaniment as loud as ancient instruments could sound; applause for highly ornate prose paeans; enactment of scenes from the gods’ stories performed in theaters and amphitheaters; the god-possessed swirl of worshippers coming down the street to the noise of rattles and drums.”

To make an impression, which he clearly did, Paul had to be able to outclass the tumult with his own displays of supernormal power. It apparently came easily to him. In Acts, we read time and time again of how he healed and exorcised, prophesied and even seemingly caused earthquakes. Paul could channel quite a show. As he told the Corinthians, he did not have to use persuasive words of wisdom. He was a spiritual adept.

But if spectacle was part of what helped Paul connect with the Greeks, there was a further side to his appeal. This was more subtle, and perhaps longer lasting. It was Paul’s authority as a mystic, which is to say, he could communicate a profoundly felt experience of the divine.

Mysticism, too, was integral to the ancient religious scene. At Philippi, the grave of Euephenes has been excavated. He was probably an initiate into the cult of the Kabeiroi. The heroon of Euephenes was discovered in tact because it had been incorporated into subsequent Christian buildings.

The mosaic in the floor of the church where Euephenes is buried

The mosaic in the floor of the church where Euephenes is buried

This respect suggests to me that Paul must have been recognised as the representative of a mystery religion too. There are echoes of this dynamic in the letter to the Philippians as well. Paul writes of having “the same mind as Christ”; of “overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight”. It’s here we find the mystical hymn of Christ emptying himself and “taking the form of a servant”. He also hopes to “know the resurrection and make it his own”.

Paul’s message must have been rich. He had wisdom that could speak to the Jews; power that could persuade the pagans; and an ability to manifest the mystical side of life. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks in such a way that his arrival still speaks two millennia on.

Mark Vernon

What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus?

Dr Mark Vernon, in preparing for our forthcoming pilgrimage to Greece, reflects on conversion, Paul’s (Saul’s) and ours.

It’s become one of the most famous moments in history. A Damascene conversion is a sudden and complete change in one’s beliefs. Blinding lights. Tumbling horses. About turns.

The drama of conversion

The drama of conversion

Or was it so sudden? I think the answer to that must be yes and no.

Yes, there was a moment in history that radically changed Paul – though just what happened in that moment is also lost to history. Luke gives us three accounts in Acts that differ amongst themselves. And they differ again from Paul’s own markedly brief references to it in his letters.

That speaks to me of the truth of the experience. I suspect that if you had been with Paul on the Damascus Road, it wouldn’t have been clear what was going on. It seems that it wasn’t entirely clear to him. In the letter to the Galatians, he writes of spending time in Arabia working things through, as it were.

So I suspect it also wasn’t so sudden. Think of the time before, when Paul regarded himself as a regular Jew, not one of these new Jews who followed Jesus called Messiah. If the story of him watching the stoning of Stephen is anything to go by, he must have been bubbling with righteous rage, pious hatred, anxious orthodoxy. It was waiting to explode.

The great psychologist of religion, William James, was fascinated by conversion experiences. He understood them as upsurges from places deep within ourselves that may have been gestating for some time. They are precipitative eruptions that re-orientate us around a new axis. “I no longer live but Christ lives in me,” Paul told the Galatians after his return from Arabia. What an insight to have gained.

A group of ancient Greek philosophers can help us understand the experience further. They are the Stoics, the most successful of the ancient schools. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. As was the tutor of Nero, Seneca. The Stoics were also very influential in 1st century Judaism: the mystic Philo of Alexandria drew deeply from their insights. And when John wrote the famous introduction to his gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos (Word)”, he was utilising Stoic ideas to unpack this most tremendous truth about the cosmos.

Whether or not Paul directly read any of the Stoics is unclear. But Stoicism was in the air. And they argued that the great task in life is to re-orientate yourself into alignment with the Logos. Their understanding of the Logos was crucially different to the emerging Christian revelation, as we’ll discover when we meet Paul talking to the philosophers in Athens. But for now, think about the way Stoics understood conversion.

The scholar Troels Engberg-Pedersen proposes a model of Stoic conversion. It begins with the individual dominated by their own perspective on things. They live their life according to their own intuitions, identity and desires. However, they are also vaguely aware that something is not quite right, “Our consciousness of our weakness,” as Epictetus the Stoic put it.

That readies the individual for a second unpredictable stage, when they are struck by an authority from outside themselves. They are dislodged. The old axis of perception is rocked, sways, and tumbles. It may well feel like a breakdown or disaster. But it enables something invaluable: the discernment of a different perception of life. It is now known as coming from a new vantage that is rooted elsewhere – in the soul, filled with spirit, offering an energy that is gentle and unquenchable. The Logos is making its presence felt.

This leads to a third stage in which a new way of life gradually emerges. Hence Paul could also write about the centrality of “dying every day”. If there was a pivotal moment in his life, there is also the on-going task of re-orientating his life with the truth of that experience. Nothing worthwhile is sudden.

A less dramatic interpretation

A less dramatic interpretation

This is what pilgrimages can be like too. There is the sudden thrill of arriving in a thin place like Athens or Delphi; the excitement of breathing the same air and feeling the same sun as Paul; a quiet revelation that surges up from within us, blessed by the Logos.

But the pilgrimage experience must also be woven into our ordinary life. It must become part of who we are, which is to say that we must change – must die – in accordance with it. The joy is that the new life, the new axis can then be known every day.

Mark Vernon

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