Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Summer With My Uncle

A photo from a few years ago of my uncle Niko (left) and my father Panagioti (right).

Yesterday morning my father woke me up with a text message in Greek informing me that my uncle Nicholas, known to me as Theio Niko, had died in Greece. The text simply read, with my dad's characteristic spelling errors: "Γιαννη ω θιος πεθανε", which basically translates as "John your uncle died". He was 81 years old and simply died of old age, having lost his ability to walk about a month ago. I felt bad hearing this news for two reasons: first, I felt bad for my father who lost his only brother, and second, because I had not talked to my uncle since I last saw him twenty years ago in 2001. And as I began my day hearing this news, my thoughts primarily went back to the summer of 1991, which is the only time I really spent any significant time with him, and it is because of him and a few others that summer that I probably had the most formative period of my life, and it could perhaps be said that it was because of that summer that the Mystagogy Resource Center exists today.

Before I say a few things about my uncle, I will give some background information.
In the summer of 1991 I was fifteen years old, having just finished my freshman year in high school. A few months earlier my mother informed me that she was going to be taking me to Greece, just me and her and my maternal grandmother, leaving behind back in Boston my father and my two sisters. To this day I really don't know why she wanted to do this, but I saw it as an opportunity. I had not been to Greece since I was seven years old, and by this time I was forgetting to even speak Greek, having been four years out of Greek school and only able to speak in a very broken way with my family. Even more so, I saw this as an opportunity to go on an adventure that I hungered for.

At the time, my parents had a pizza place where I would work sometimes after school and on weekends. There we would get a weekly newspaper called the Hellenic Chronicle, which I was always excited to read through during my down time. The Hellenic Chronicle at that time basically was a newspaper in English for the Greek community of New England. What I especially loved about it was reading the "Question and Answer" section by Fr. Stanley Harakas of issues mainly dealing with Orthodox Christianity. It was a time in my life that I really wanted to know about Orthodoxy, but didn't know how to go about getting material on it, which sounds kind of odd today, but it was a serious crisis for me at the time. The Hellenic Chronicle was my primary source during these years for me learning about Orthodoxy, and every week I couldn't wait to see what Question Fr. Stanley would be asked. But there was another writer in this newspaper who I loved even more, and it was Dr. Constantine Cavarnos, whose articles taught me a lot about Orthodoxy on a deeper level. In his articles, as well as some others, I started noticing them mentioning certain places in Greece where significant events took place, even miracles, and it became my dream to visit these places.

So my mother tells me we are going to Greece, and I said, "Fine, but I don't want to just go and visit with family, I want to actually see things and learn things." Then I started telling her about all these places I had read about it that I would like to visit. Seeing how much I really wanted this, she allowed me to come up with a list of places to visit and we would try to go to some. That day I started on my list, and I began to be excited about this trip. But then my parents came to a horrible realization that for one reason or another they were in horrible debt at the pizza place, and my mother said that we were only going to Greece for a shorter trip, and maybe visit one or two places on my list. I was really disappointed and my excitement waned.

It was now two days before we were off to Greece, when my father came home with some great news. An avid gambler, he would play the lottery every day for years, and just two days before we were going to Greece with financial problems looming over my parents heads, he informs us that he won $100,000. We were all excited, and it was seen by all of us as some type of miracle, because for each of us it was an answer to prayer at the perfect time. My parents used half the winnings to pay off their debt, and because we saw it as a miracle, I convinced my mom for us to visit the various Orthodox shrines in Greece I wanted to visit, and at each place we would make a small donation in gratitude to God. With two days left, my mom then said we could go to most of the places on my list, and now I was excited about my trip again.

To make a long story short, my first month in Greece mainly consisted of myself with my mother and my two grandmothers and sometimes other members of my family, especially my uncle Niko, traveling throughout a significant portion of Greece and the islands, visiting various historic and sacred sites, and in various sacred places we visited we gave a significant amount of our lottery winnings as donations. Almost on a daily basis I had them on the go, fulfilling my dream of visiting all the places I read about back home, but even while in Greece I was learning about new places and this expanded our itinerary significantly. It was a very busy month. At one point my communist uncle Philip became worried about me, wondering why I as a fifteen year old preferred going to monasteries in the mountains rather than picking up girls at the beaches, and he even wanted to take me to a brothel to bring me to my senses, but eventually he came to respect what I was doing, and to this day he always asks about me when he talks to my father on the phone.

As the month was coming to a close, my mother informed me that she and my grandmother Vaso were returning to Boston, but I was going to be staying behind for another five weeks by myself to live with my paternal grandmother Anastasia in Patras. In Patras lived also my uncle Niko with his family. Even though over the past month my Greek had significantly improved, this next month would prove crucial for me in learning it a lot better, as the only way I was able to communicate now was in Greek, since no one in my family knew or even understood English. Also, as much as I loved my grandmother and was able to learn a lot from her, being a refugee from Asia Minor during the Greek population exchange of 1922, and being by far the most pious person in my family who had gone on many Orthodox pilgrimages over the years, I was still a bit bummed out by the fact that I now had to settle down after being constantly on the go for a month visiting amazing places.

But my mother realized this, so she arranged financially with my grandmother and my uncle Niko that my travels were to continue, except now it was mainly going to be the three of us. Over the next month, we continued our travels and pilgrimages, though in a less intense way, taking some time off here and there, though even then I found something to do by myself.

Now my uncle Niko was a really funny guy. He and my father were the comedians of the family that made everyone laugh, but my uncle Niko in a more significant way. He had three daughters, but always wanted a son, so he saw the time with me as time spent with a son, in a certain sense. Over the previous month he had driven us to a few places, but now I was with him almost every day, except for the last week when I spent time in Athens. He had taken significant time off work, being the owner of a construction company, in order to spend time with me. Below I will mention a few highlights.

With my uncle Niko I visited the Church of Saint Nicholas in Spata, about a half hour drive from Patras. We had gone there at his suggestion, because it was there that he witnessed a miracle, so he figured I would be interested in visiting. In this church is a miraculous icon of Saint Nicholas that is fairly large, but instead of this icon being up on a shrine where it could be venerated, it was placed on the floor, so that in order to venerate it you had to do a prostration, and while on your knees you could kiss it. But something strange would take place every now and then in this church, which my uncle had once witnessed with his own eyes some years prior. While he was in the church back then, suddenly a horse came into the church on its own accord, and walked right up to where the wonderworking icon of Saint Nicholas was. He then saw the horse bow in front of the icon and place its forehead against it, then it walked out (I actually have my uncle on video telling this story that one day I will have to upload somewhere). Another place we went at his recommendation to a place he once visited while working in the area, the historic Church of Panagia Tripiti in Aigio. This church housed another miraculous icon of the Mother of God.

One of the most interesting times of my summer began on August 15th. That night my grandmother and I were going to attend an all-night vigil to celebrate the Dormition of the Mother of God. My uncle dropped us off at the Gerokomeio Monastery on a mountain in Patras around 7:00pm and he was going to pick me up at 3:00am in order to go on another adventure. During the vigil my grandmother found a spot in the courtyard of the monastery to sit, while I either walked around or stood inside the church. When 3:00am came around, I left my grandmother there where she was going to stay a few more hours, and my uncle came and picked me up to go to his village house three hours away in Kalavryta. The reason we left at 3:00am was because my uncle had heard about a certain church in a neighboring village to his that only liturgizes once a year on the morning of August 15th for the Dormition, and he knew this would be of special interest to me.

It was during this three hour drive in complete darkness through the mountains that I not only experienced one of the most dangerous moments of my trip, but it was certainly the funniest, and it is a story still told in my family for laughs. It's hard to convey this story unless you really know my uncle, but like I said earlier, he was a really funny guy, and one of the things that made him funny was his sleeping. He loved to sleep, and slept for many hours, which is the exact opposite of me and my father, who only sleep about four hours a night. Not only does he sleep a lot, but he is also the loudest snorer I have ever heard. Being a loud snorer, he obviously had sleep apnea that was undiagnosed, which often left him tired during the day, let alone at 3:00am driving in the dark through narrow mountain roads for three hours. And there are also some funny stories of my uncle falling asleep while driving. Now almost as soon as we started on our trip, he got tired. He then pulled out a gallon of water he brought along with one specific purpose in mind: he wanted me to stay up for three hours with him after spending the night at a vigil in order to make sure he didn't fall asleep and we drive off the mountain and plunge to our deaths, and if I saw him falling asleep I was to start pouring water over his head to wake him. I was both worried inside and at the same time laughing, but I agreed. Within a half hour he was telling me to start pouring the water over him. I kept doing this every fifteen minutes to a half hour throughout the trip, with him yelling, "pour! pour!". It was a really crazy night, but to this day perhaps the funniest story my family recalls.

The church we were driving to was high up on a mountain. As the story goes, according to my uncle, Nazi soldiers marched through a village on this mountain, and destroyed the entire village, which became abandoned. They then took an icon of the Virgin Mary known for being miraculous and brought it with them further up the mountain, where they mocked the icon and gouged out its eyes with a knife. As soon as they did this, that soldier and a few others with him were blown off the mountain and plummeted to their deaths. The icon was left on the ground, and nearby villagers built a small church where they found the icon in a remote area on the mountain on a cliff. There the icon can still be venerated, but only once a year, on the morning of August 15th.

We arrived at the mountain and were able to drive most of the way up, but at a certain point you have to walk the rest of the way, which took about a half hour. As we walked, we passed the village that was destroyed by the Nazis, and walked for a bit amongst its ruins, and I even went into the church where everything was left as it was in the 1940s, just completely destroyed on the inside. Liturgical books were ripped open on the floor and I even found a few icons under some rubble that I put in an appropriate place. Being so remote, no one had even bothered to come and clean things up anywhere, it was just all the same, abandoned, like it was after the German occupation. We finally made it to the church around 7:00am for the last half hour of the liturgy. After all was said and done, I was exhausted, having never even shut my eyes for many hours.

While in Kalavryta my uncle also took me to two significant and historic monasteries, Mega Spelaion and Agia Lavra. We also had dinner in the remote mountain village where my maternal grandmother grew up. One day we also climbed a mountain across the street from his village home where there was a church at its peak, which took us a few hours to climb. Because the church was locked, we had to wait for an old lady of about 90 years of age who lived in a house a few football fields away to come and open it for us. Seeing a 90 year old woman walk up and down the hills as if they were nothing was quite a sight to see. We also visited another village nearby where there was a man building a chapel to Saint Nicholas. This man had been taken prisoner by the Germans during the German occupation with two others and thrown into prison. All three of these men knew they were going to be executed the next day, so they prayed that night to Saint Nicholas to help them, and vowed that in return they would build a chapel dedicated to him. Suddenly a way was made for their escape, and they all survived. However, as the years passed, and two of them died, the vow continued to be unfulfilled. The man we visited that day was the last survivor, and we found him in the middle of building the church (I also have a video of this man telling his story which I will have to upload one day), in an attempt to finally fulfill his vow he made over 50 years earlier.

It wasn't until I was older that I realized how generous my uncle Niko was with his time and energy to please me that summer by taking me to all these places. He wasn't even particularly religious, but he had some great stories and knowledge of places and people that really added to my experiences that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. Like my father also he knew how their mother was, and they revered her for it, and my grandmother was also happy that there was finally a family member who was following in her footsteps. Because my uncle was raised with a holy mother and an abusive father, with my great-grandmother also living with them from Asia Minor who was truly a holy woman, I was respected to pursue what spiritually and intellectually stimulated me, without being questioned about it. The older I get, the more I appreciate it, because during those years I was all alone in my searching and trying to find my way. And the summer of 1991 played a key role in my life, half of which could not have taken place without my uncle Niko. Unfortunately today is his funeral in Patras and I can't attend it, but my father will be going for his forty day memorial. May his memory be eternal.

To quickly add, I thought it was interesting my uncle Niko's funeral is in a church dedicated to Saint George with a special history for my family. When my father was a young boy, he had a problem urinating in his sleep every night, which lasted for many years till he was around twelve. It ended on the night my grandmother prayed to Saint George to perform a miracle to help him with this issue. In return for the miracle, my grandmother made a vow that my father would go to the Church of Saint George nearby and spend the day cleaning it. So when the miracle happened, my father went and cleaned the whole church one day. And when my father got a little bit older, and learned my grandfather's trade of being an electrician, the church contacted him to bring some electricity to the church, so my father went and brought electricity to the church, and because he remembered the miracle that took place when he was a child, he didn't charge the church anything for his labor.