Liturgical Spaces, A fragment from memory

Eucharistic Vigil of St Charalambos, Karakallou Monastery, Athos, Greece. Spring 2001.1

Leaving my room in the guest wing of the monastery, which was built into its external walls, I crossed the cobblestone courtyard and entered the dark church nestled in the centre of the monastery’s walls, leaving the cool night behind me.

Within, a warm glow spread from the few oil lamps burning in front of   several mounted icons, the  oil’s yellow light glinting off the gold frames. Beeswax candles burned in brass candlesticks, the metal gleaming faintly in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I could see the resident black-robed monks standing at their places around the walls of the church. Pilgrims interspersed themselves at available places, shifting in the darkness.  Peering out from above them were the frescoed likenesses of various saints, seeming to move forward to join our prayers, emerging from lapis backgrounds receding into shadows beyond the lamplight.

The small space kept the incense from diffusing too quickly, and the scent of myrrh and resin mingled with the warm scent of beeswax. As the vigil began, the chants of the monks reverberated throughout the church and within my body. In the centre of the  church a small table was placed, and on that, the reliquary containing the saint’s relics was set. We were a series of Chinese boxes, one inside the other: Athos surrounded by the world, Karakallou by Athos, the Katholikon (main church) by the walls of the monastery, the relics by the monks and pilgrims of that monastery.  The small church with its relics and community of monks was a microcosm of the whole Church, and that entire Church was present with us.

Space at this vigil was not simply physical; it moved imperceptibly into time, collapsing the distance between the martyr’ Charalambos’ death at the hands of Roman authorities, the lives of countless medieval monks who prayed in this monastery (despite the vicissitudes of the actual building), those of us gathered at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the saint’s glorification in the eternal Day amid God’s uncreated light. The icons in the walls reminded us that we were in the antechamber of heaven, although we could perceive that light only dimly in the darkened chamber, as if looking into a polished metal mirror. The relics in the centre of the Church brought to our awareness that here were the physical remains of one who had become a “god on earth” by the action of the Holy Spirit, and attested to both his physical and spiritual presence with us. We, who were also seeking to follow that path of grace, were all oriented towards the grace-filled remains and towards the life-bestowing gifts of the altar. As we began the Eucharist, all of us together, on earth and in heaven, celebrated the transcendence of time and space through the cross, Christ’s victory over death by death and resurrection.

1 has images of Karakallou, albeit without photos of the interior of the church.


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