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23 September

Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina

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Christ at the centre, in the manner of Mary



Retreat with the Marist Brothers in Greece

26/08/2009: Greece

Our Brothers have two important schools in Athens, each with nearly 2000 students, at Nea-Smyrna and at Patissia. Some years ago, the Brothers built a residence apart from the colleges, in the suburb of Palio Faliro.

From 22 to 28 July 2009, the 11 Greek Brothers were on the island of Tinos, where they have a house on the seacoast behind arid and almost desert hills. That is where they made the retreat. They were joined by Br. Marcelo De Brito, of the Province of the Southern Cross, a connoisseur of Biblical Greek.

The retreat was helped by a constant wind from the north which made the temperature very pleasant and the regular breaking of the waves which lulled to sleep at night. The timetable included an hour for bathing, from 5 to 6 in the evening. During this time, the Brothers continued their encounter with God amid the waves.

The retreat theme was: “Christ at the centre, in the manner of Mary”: to open the doors wide to him, experience his intimacy like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, to become available like Mary at the Annunciation, to become a missionary of Jesus like Mary at the Visitation, to return to the prayer of the heart like the Mother of Jesus, to share in solidarity the problems of mankind in presenting them to Christ, like Mary at Cana, and to know how to remain faithful when the cross appears in our life.

What created a climate of recollection and unity was the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. At the beginning of Lauds at 7.30 in the morning, the Sacrament was exposed and it welcomed us into the chapel right through to the hour of community adoration at night. The personal time allowed the Brothers to spend moments before the Lord.

Three other times reinforced the unity of the retreat: at the heart of the day, at noon, Mass brought us all together around the Lord. Father Nicholas, parish priest and chaplain, let his voice, similar in timbre and power to Pavarotti’s, vibrate in the very solemn Greek chant. The Marial celebrations took up the theme of the day and Vespers became a time of sharing the surprises of grace in the course of the day.

Then, for some, the retreat continued with the discovery of the beauty of the villages of Tinos: houses of white and blue, stairs going up and down, flowers at the corners, tunnels deep in shadow, leading into narrow stone-paved streets. The whiteness of the houses and the July light created surprise after surprise. And the people, at heart and in their welcome, were, like the villages, full of serenity and humanity.

The pilgrimage continued, later, in the steps of Paul, in Corinth. On the site of Gallio’s tribunal, we read Chapter 13 of the First Letter to the Corinthians: the hymn to charity.

This spiritual road led us in the end to the Orthodox monasteries of the Meteora. The river Pinios has carved out the valley of Kalambaka leaving sixty or so sugar cones dominating the valley with rocky vertical walls from 300 to 500 metres high. It is a forest of great fantastic rocks, a landscape of dreams. And the monasteries crown the summits like eagles’ nests. We were able to visit two monasteries of nuns: Aghios Stefanos et Aghia Barbara, and two of monks: Grand Meteora et Aghios Varlaam.

In the catholicon, the main chapel of the monastery of Agios Stefanos, the freshly painted icons shone in all their splendour, offering, as it were, a foretaste of the beauty of heaven. Entering the churches is like entering the family of saints: visitors are not alone, they are regarded with sympathy by the saints, by the Mother of God, the Theotokos, and by Christ the Pantocrator, who always occupies the highest place in the main dome.

We were able to speak with the nuns, often very young, and with the monks, who let themselves be photographed with the pilgrims.

After the visit to the monastery of Agios Stefanos, on Saturday evening, we found ourselves with the problem of finding a Catholic Mass for Sunday: return immediately to Athens, 350 kms away? Attend an Orthodox Mass? All was resolved for us. On a peak facing the great monastery of Varlaam, a group of young Italians coming from a parish in Perugia, had just started Mass. We joined them and there, in those wild and harsh surroundings, we were able to praise God and receive holy communion.

In all the spiritual journeying which followed the retreat, the discovery of the monasteries of the Meteora, the beauty of their icons, the museums rich in parchments, some from the 9th century, the harsh and wild aspect of the countryside, is certainly what most enriched us. We were much happier than if we had been at Delphi, also on our route. Communion with the heart of consecrated life in the Orthodox Church had quenched our thirst for God.

And how to emphasize the Greek Brothers’ art of welcome? In their attention to visitors they surpass expectations, showing a natural, abundant, and sustained generosity arousing the desire to return. To them, the most sincere thanks; in their company one understands what it is to be Brothers.

Br. Giovanni Bigotto

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