Patmos is an extraordinarily spiritual place and it renewed within me the thirst for God that I experienced as a much younger man, not that I had ever abandoned such desire. However it was if time had stood still and I was young again full of faith and love for Christ. It was an overwhelming awareness of God that began the moment I entered the Cave of the Apocalypse. This was where the Beloved Disciple; John, received the Revelation (Apocalypse) of Jesus Christ, that God gave him to show unto his servants of things which must shortly come to pass.
But it was not only the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) that was significant. The central message of St John’s Gospel hit me with renewed power. Despite all that militates against faith in to-day’s world, it is well nigh impossible to banish the kind of faith that St John speaks of in his Gospel. He speaks about it from the heart, and in all the years of priesthood I have come to realize that the most difficult thing in the world is to speak of what is simplest and most essential. This is of course where the Gospels score over intellectual and rational thought.
The liturgy was in full progress as I entered the Cave. The priest had reached the moment when he invokes the Holy Spirit over the gifts of bread and wine that they might become the Body and Blood of Christ. I was tired, hot and sweating after the long climb up to the Cave, yet the moment I entered it, all thoughts of physical discomfort were far from my mind. I was overwhelmed by the sense of the holy. Slowly it dawned on me that I was being acted upon and taken into another dimension that interpenetrated this world yet transcended it with an all knowing wisdom…call it the kingdom of God, impossible to prove, but equally impossible to deny.
Leaving the Cave I continued up the rocky climb up to the Monastery. The Cave is only half way and so there is still a fair way to go up an even steeper gradient. Eventually I reached the Monastery, my clothes soaked with perspiration. I entered the churches associated with the monastery prior to visiting “the Great Treasury Museum.” It is probably the greatest collection of sacred art in the Aegean, and contains ancient icons, manuscripts, vestments, chalices and church plate centuries old. There was one icon above all that caught my eye. Known as the Icon of Christ “led to the Passion” it dates from the 16th century and was purchased in 1770 by a Greek traveler whilst in Venice. The icon was painted by the artist who became known as El Greco. This particular icon has pride of place in the liturgies of Holy Week. During the washing of the feet it is set up to be worshipped by the faithful. The icon is quite large and has to be carried on either side by two priests. It is two metres high and almost as wide.
Only John’s Gospel mentions that Jesus is bound. We are told that the officers of the Jews arrested him and bound him. This would have involved tying his wrists together so as he could offer no resistance…a kind of first century handcuffing. Caravaggio (1605) in his profound painting “Ecce Homo” also shows Jesus’ wrists bound together as does Ludovico Cardi Il Cigoli. (1607). These two paintings are extraordinarily moving – especially Caravaggio’s.
St John’s Gospel has always been my favourite and I have studied it extensively over the last year or so. It was also the Gospel that my year at university had to translate from the Greek. Up until my holiday in Patmos such studies had mostly been of an academic nature. Textual criticism of the Gospels is far removed from submitting oneself to the Gospel as the Word of God. It was a revelation reading John’s Gospel on Patmos.
Patmos is the place to read the Gospel as was intended by the beloved Disciple, and not merely because he was exiled there. John’s imagery is charged with light. The morning light on Patmos has a special quality. It seems to infuse everything with radiance, giving them an inner luminosity. Certain passages in the Gospel possess that same inner radiance and I found myself filled with a kind of awe that permeated my thoughts. I remember particularly one afternoon whilst sitting outside the Cave of the Apocalypse reading John’s account of our Lord’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. It was a transfiguring experience of inner light and truth.
There is a certain peril for the intellectual and rational mind of reading St John on Patmos. The surroundings, the atmosphere, the light and warmth, and most of all the people might come to convince the reader that the Beloved Disciple speaks the truth.
There is an old saying on Patmos – To kiss an icon, to cross oneself, and say “God willing, however carelessly or unthinkingly, is to strike a blow at the closed universe of the materialist. There were only one or two rare occasions when I was alone in the Cave of the Apocalypse. Invariably other worshippers would wander in, pausing to light candles, make the sign of the cross and kiss the many icons that adorned the church and cave. I soon realized that these people were rejecting the closed world of atheism and scientific rationalism which most of us live in the West to-day – certainly here in Britain.
On the last Saturday of my holiday I attended Mass again in the Church and Cave of the Apocalypse. It was unique, particularly at the close of the liturgy. After the final blessing in the Orthodox Church, the priest blesses two or three loaves of ordinary bread. Everyone then comes up and receives a small piece from him. During the liturgy I didn’t go up and take the Eucharistic elements – the body and blood of Christ, but the small portion of bread the priest gave me became Eucharist. Power just radiated from his hand as he placed the bread in mine. It was as if Christ himself took the bodily form of the priest. And who is to say that he didn’t?
It isn’t necessary to be able to prove God’s existence. We awaken to his existence through becoming aware of his energies. That particular energy manifested as Jesus Christ through the Church’s worship, celebrated in the Eucharist. This is the means by which we are taken into his presence and love.