Set free in a divine encounter
OUTSIDE the Cave of the Apocalypse, on the Greek island of Patmos, I witness an exorcism. A man writhes on the ground, moaning like Linda Blair in that 1970s shocker. While people struggle to hold him, the exorcist, a dark little fellow wearing a baseball cap and dinner jacket, wields a crucifix and commands the demons to depart. A woman films the action with a video camera. From the sidelines, a crowd of sycophants chants.
This is weird stuff, but the funniest thing is how it ends: a fellow arrives from the car park, presumably to say that the bus is leaving, whereupon the demons obligingly depart. The victim climbs shakily to his feet and is dusted off by his erstwhile retainers. The exorcist receives a congratulatory massage from the woman with the video camera. Then they march off.
The cave has seen its share of the unusual. It was here in the last years of the 1st century that the apostle John, exiled to Patmos by the Roman emperor Domitian, experienced the vision that would result in Revelations, easily the most controversial and misunderstood book in the New Testament.
Aside from its theological connotations, the event put Patmos on the map, transforming it from just another beautiful Greek island to a site of pilgrimage, the Jerusalem of the Aegean. Every year thousands of pilgrims and sightseers descend upon the cave and the medieval Monastery of St John, which rises like a fortress above the hilltop village of Hora.
Constantinos’s face darkens as I relate the story of the exorcism. ‘‘ And I thought I’d seen everything,’’ he laments. Constantinos runs the gift shop in the monastery museum. Born and raised in the US, of Greek descent, he decided to become a monk after helping build an Orthodox monastery in the Colorado mountains.
He speaks with the accent of a New York taxi driver; his round cheeks, intense brown eyes and bushy black beard would get him a start with Hezbollah. I ask him about St John’s Day. He tells me about Kynops, the pagan wizard John turned to stone in a duel-in-the-sun type scenario down at the harbour. ‘‘ Kynops was a real bad dude, man,’’ Constantinos says, ‘‘ but John sorted him.’’
One day Constantinos invites me to evening vespers. It is, apparently, the feast of St Simeon Stylites and the anniversary of the second finding of the head of St John the Baptist. A lapsed Catholic, I amout of my depth as bells toll and a young monk with an enormous beard bangs the wooden semantron.
Orthodox rites are less a service than a magical invocation. Inside the candlelit church, amid whorls of incense, I hide in a wooden stall while black-robed monks perform a liturgy that has remained unchanged for nearly 2000 years.
Afterwards, in the courtyard, Constantinos beams. ‘‘ Man, you gotta meet the abbot. He’s from Sydney.’’ A small, round, gentle man shakes my hand, confirms that, yes, he was born in Balmain, and mumbles a few words I don’t understand before drifting away.
‘‘ You see, he likes you,’’ says Constantinos. Apparently I have been invited to lunch.
Next afternoon the abbot doesn’t appear, but in the massive, barrelvaulted refectory, beneath frescocovered walls, I sit at an antique marble bench with the monks, some nervous pilgrims and a group of schoolboys, who scandalise their young teacher by giggling throughout the meal.
The food — stuffed peppers, tomatoes and vine leaves — is abundant and tasty. But my venal eye catches the wine, which glints ruby red in glass decanters and proves, upon closer acquaintance, delicious. By the time lunch ends, I am speaking in tongues.