One Christian in Crete, in an illuminated cave, was greater than all the treasures of antiquity.
Minos, maze, Minotaur: so my imagination dreamed of Crete and on the island imagination is found in the stones of Minoan culture. On this ancient island, mother of one of the oldest Mediterranean cultures, Plato’s Athenian Stranger created mythical Magnesia as an ideal city, since the greatest god, Zeus, was born there. The ruins of ancient, pagan Crete are powerful and the images, even if sometimes artlessly restored, are so deep in the basement of the Mediterranean mind that seeing them provoked the images more than words. Athen’s Parthenon is new compared to ancient Crete.
Yet I felt, as we finished our tour, a bit cheated. The island was Greek and Orthodox Christian and had been for millennia. Too often archeological sites blasted through Greek churches or villages that would have been some of the most ancient in Great Britain to reach the pagan past. Where was Christian Crete?
Art, culture, a past still present and alive in the island’s residents was ignored on the tour. Christian Crete had preserved the greatness of the pagan past, was proud to do so, but had created much of the future of Western lands by going forward where the pagans could never go.
Why couldn’t we see Christian Crete?
Hope and I rebelled and wandered away from where we were supposed to be to find a cab to take us where we wanted to be. We found a man resting in his vehicle and explained (in a strange blend of Greek and English) that we were Orthodox Christians and would love to see a Church. He came to life, pushed us into the cab, and took off for his community. This was away, much further away, then we had time to go, but for some reason (the grace God gives the hapless?)we were never worried, but full of joy! He pulled into his village and we got to say hello to his mother. His father was playing checkers with some men and we did not disturb the game. We pulled up toward the town Church, but did not go into the fine structure, because our new friend asked if we wished to go to the real church.
And of course we did.
Some priest in a moment of civic pride had built the new temple, but (according to our drive) the folks still liked the church of Saint Anastasia found in a cave like structure nearby. He said, as best I could tell, that the icon to the Saint kept being moved to the new structure, but that the saint refused to stay. As the old men say in West Virginia, he told this to us as true. He had the keys to the Church and we went in and prayed together. The ceiling was black from smoke from the years of candles and the impact of the gold icons in the lamp light was moving. I touched the ceiling and commented on the beauty. Our guide and friend immediately picked up some implement from nearby and, to my horror, struck off a piece of the ceiling and gave it to me. It set in front of me right now as I write.
I can clench that piece of stone and return to Crete and prayer.
The cave was illuminated by his kindness and thick with the prayers of living saints for centuries. The great pagan ruins had been a call back, a mighty echo, but this was living history. Nothing Crete was lost in that cave, the old myths were there, but there was a future. Saint Anastasia, a saint of the resurrection, pointed to what was, is, and will be. I felt the redemption of all the good that was in the great Greek orthodoxy that is and always will be.
We were very late, yet our driver and guide knew some short cuts through the hills, and so we made our group in plenty of time. The drive was lively.
We had been shown ancient sites: foundational stones, but dead stones. In Crete, with one Greek, we found living stones that make up the Church. We did not find something preserved, or merely influential, that was in the temple and city of Minos. Instead, in real Crete, living Crete, we found history alive: taking forward the good, truth, and beauty of all ages and living well, in truth, and beautifully.
This was history as lived liturgy experience at high speeds in cab. Imagination gave way to reality in that illuminated cave. We saw what always is in the icon of a community.
God help us create such communities.