The island of Patmos is not just a great Greek getaway. This powerful place, where the Book of Revelation was written, exposes you to the truth that there is always more – if you are willing to follow the clues.
The inspiration to go to Patmos came to me in the bath. Actually, the place had been calling me for weeks, but I had not heard the messages. They included a dream (‘go to Patmos’ – what could be clearer?) and a book about hermits by British author Peter France that a friend lent me one rainy weekend. I noted from the introduction that Peter lived on Patmos (‘that’s funny – Patmos again!’) but still the penny didn’t drop. My sights were fixed on other exotic travel-writing destinations, you see.
It was only when the last of my elaborate options lay in ruins that I cast my eyes to the bathroom ceiling and cried through the steam, ‘help! Where should I go? Please give me a revelation.’ I’m almost sure I heard the travel agent angels heave a sigh of relief as that word ignited my mind. Revelation: Patmos. Of course.
In 1996, while on assignment in Greece, photographer Christiaan and I had a life-altering encounter with a man who, among other things, urged us to visit the monastery on Patmos. We didn’t get there on that trip but here was another opportunity presenting itself. Christiaan was accompanying me on this assignment too; it was he who had given me Peter France’s book and it was none other that Peter who turned out to be our guide on the island.
Mind you, he tried his level best to deter us. ‘Don’t come in August,’ he said on the telephone. ‘It’s the height of the tourist season and it’s hell.’ But deadlines don’t wait, and after all, we seemed to have heaven on our side. We went anyway.
The only way to reach the island is by ferry, bouncing over the blue, blue sea. In the tiny harbour at Skala, the island’s main settlement, elegant yachts sway on the swell. Bloated cruise liners squeeze into the bay spilling fun-and sun-seekers with lots of dollars but few hours to spend. Visitors need picturesque Patmos and the Patmians need the revenue they bring. A little boat transporting an upright figure in widow’s black, weaving among the floating palaces, is a reminder that, while summer blazes, parallel realities intersect.
Skala’s main street is so close to the water that you can fall off the boat and into a café, where you could sit all day watching the comings and goings of bronzed bodies on scooters. That’s exactly what some of the local men appear to be doing. Resting at small tables, their chairs tipped against rough stone walls shaded by torrents of purple bougainvillea, they are as much a fixture of the landscape as flame-coloured geraniums, dutiful donkeys, whitewashed walls, and insolent cats posing for postcards in deep, blue-trimmed doorways.
Patmos has all the attractions you would expect: a corrugated coastline of lazy beaches under untroubled skies; pulsing pavement cafes, the aroma of good food, little domed chapels and a particular combination of blue and white that you don’t find anywhere else in the world.
But there’s more.
To understand the pull of the place, lift your eyes to the fortress-like Monastery of Saint John the Evangelist that crowns the hill above Skala. It was founded in 1088 by the mystic and hermit known as the blessed saint Christodoulos, who raised it out of the ruins of a fourth century basilica, which in turn was built on the site of an early temple to Artemis. The island has an ancient tradition of spiritual significance, with an accumulation of power that is almost tangible.
Of all the monks and hermits that have walked the hills of Patmos, it’s the presence of St John that is all-pervasive, even though he lived here for no more than two years after having been exiled from Ephesus in AD 95. In a spacious but low-roofed cave, now converted into a richly atmospheric church that is the island’s most sacred spot, he received the mysterious, apocalyptic visions that still inflame the minds of theologians and thinkers. ‘I am alpha and omega, the first and the last,’ a great voice boomed. ‘What you see, write in a book …’
Some dismiss the Book of Revelation as outdated; others see it as an approaching date with destiny. Interpretations of the text vary from the literal to the symbolic, from planetary annihilation to an explanation of mankind’s internal journey of discovery. One view spells doom, the other deliverance.
It was psychic Edgar Cayce’s view that this is not a description of the end of the world but of the forces we must face for a new state of consciousness to unfold on earth. Dragons and demons represent the negative attitudes and emotions that must be transmuted into light. But first, they must be exposed, and that’s the hard part. It’s not an easy process to explore our shadows and slay our dragons, but the spiritual rewards are great.
In the birthplace of this perplexing prophecy, religion is so interwoven with daily life that that even people who are not particularly pious live by the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church and observe its festivals. Patmos is only 34 square kilometers in extent, yet it is said that there is a church for every day of the year. In fact, there are more than 400. Many of them were the retreats of hermits and monks, for whom the island was originally developed, but there is also a local custom of building and maintaining chapels that are passed on as family inheritances.
The Greek Orthodox Church has a continuing tradition of spiritual fathers who guide individuals in their search for the depth and meaning of life. Peter France, who worked as a religious reporter for the BBC before settling into an idyllic life on Patmos with his artist wife, embraced Orthodoxy partly as a result of his association with a priest who conveyed his faith, not by preaching, but by living with and loving his neighbours.
‘My childhood taught me that all that exists is material,’ he explains, ‘but that closed world is not the real one. I learned from this man not only that the spiritual does exist but that it is the most important part of life.’
That’s the message that radiates from the monastery on the hill. We take our scooter as far as we can, up to the old town of Hora that was developed to house the workers who toiled for five years to on the mammoth construction. We walk the rest of the way through crooked white alleys that prickle with whispers of the island’s history. It’s been attacked by pirates, sacked by Venetians, annexed by Italians and occupied by Nazis. Looking down from the safety of the massive stone walls, it’s hard to imagine strife touching this peaceful bump in a sapphire sea. Terraced hillsides toast in the sun as they’ve always done. Goats (of who knows what generation) clamber among the stones, and the warm air rings with the tinny, clonking tunes of their bells.
Black-robed, bushy-bearded monks, with long hair twisted into neat buns below flat-topped pepper-pot hats, stroll through the monastery’s cool inner courtyard. We meet Simeon, whose day starts with a 3am service. By 8am he is at work in the shadowy library, where he paints icons and presides over a priceless collection of books and manuscripts.
People need help in this time of crisis, he says, ‘but to give out light, you must have light, and a heart that has been cleaned through prayer and good works. God speaks to everyone, not only to Christians. What is needed is practical application of the Word through example rather than doctrine.’
Although the monks come together for regular worship, the order is no longer strictly unified. Monks stride through Skala with cell phones and shopping bags; they may teach or farm or spend time in quiet contemplation in hermitages dotted all over the island. Today, true hermits are hard to find but the ascetic life continues in a thriving community of nuns at Evangelismos – the Convent of the Annunciation – which attracts educated young women from around the world. In a sublimely peaceful, picture-book setting, the nuns tend vegetable and flower gardens, keep bees, paint icons and work at the embroidery for which Patmos is renowned.
Whether you are spinning along an open road, playing backgammon and sipping sludgy Greek coffee, or bobbing like a happy cork in the tepid sea, there’s more to Patmos than meets the eye. I could tell you I had a word with St John one hot still night, but you might say it was just my imagination and you might be right. I know I exposed a few shadows and fought a few dragons and you might too, depending on how far you are willing to follow the clues.
Peter France had his moment of clarity when a man selling vegetables called out ‘Elate na thite!’ ‘Come and see!’ Those three words rang true for him, opening his eyes to life’s great invitation. And that is still the invitation of Patmos: come and see.
Published in Chi Magazine, 1999