Set free in a divine en­counter

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News - Ian Robert Smith

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.

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