Excerpt from As Large as Your Spirit
As Large as Your Spirit
Of Monks & Men
Kalambaka, Central Greece
Early March 2020
I’d never seen an actual monk, let alone one repairing a TV set. Yet there he sat in full Orthodox vestments, silently hunched over an array of circuitry on the large wooden desk, soldering tool in hand.
He seemed unaware of my presence, despite my breathless gasping from the several hundred stairs I’d climbed to reach the monastery entrance. I lingered at the threshold, and my shadow stretched long into the chamber, warped across the worn flagstones. The room was eerily quiet, and apart from the gentle hiss of the soldering iron on the circuit board, there was no other sound.
I didn’t want to disturb his task, but I was curious to actually meet a monk. A wooden alms box rested on a pedestal near the doorway, and I dropped a few euros in for the suggested donation. The coins thunked hollowly on its base. Looking up, the monk greeted me with a gentle smile as if he had been expecting me. He was surprisingly young for my image of a monk. A full, black, wiry beard graced his strong jawline, and his eyes wore only the faintest smile lines.
“I hope I didn’t disturb you,” I said.
He carefully set aside his tools in pin-straight order beside his work. “No, no. Welcome. Come in,” he said in good English, folding his hands casually on the desk and giving me his full attention.
“It’s not every day I see a monk repairing a television,” I commented, gesturing at the dismantled set.
“Well, it’s not every day I need to repair one, either,” he laughed. “But I do what I can to serve the community.”
“Is that what you do, besides pray?” I questioned. I was unsure what the job description of a monk would be. Still, I was pretty confident praying would be high up on the list of responsibilities.
“I’ve been teaching myself some basic electronics,” he pointed to a shelf nearby that housed an assortment of half-deconstructed gadgetry. “I guess you could say it’s a meditative practice for me, a way to help repair the world. Literally.” Apart from the priestly garb, he seemed so ordinary, so… down-to-earth.
I drifted further into the room, noticing that the space pulled multi-purpose duty as an office, reception, gift store, and workshop. A rack of wilted postcards hung on one wall above stacks of dusty picture books in various languages. Piles of papers and office paraphernalia were tucked into cabinets on the opposite wall. A spinning display of rosary beads for sale sagged on a glass display cabinet of hand-painted icons.
“You seem quite young for a monk,” I ventured. “In my mind, monks are always old and gray.” I wanted to add “stern and serious,” but I thought it best to hold my tongue.
“I am the youngest monk in this monastery,” he said. “But that’s not saying much. There are only two of us here.” He smiled meekly and pointed to his vestments, “I’m new. It’s why I still have the novice robes.” At this, he pulled off his hat and fumbled with it in his hands. His hair was full and thick, wavy Greek locks that extended back into a loose ponytail. Were it not for the robes, I might mistake him for a member of a motorcycle gang.
“Oh? How long have you been a monk?”
“I’m entering my second year here at Saint Nikolaus.”
“Were you in a different monastery before?”
“Oh, no. I used to work for the National Coast Guard before this.”
It seemed an odd career change from naval office to priestly office. “Really? What made you change your career?”
“Jesus did.” It would have felt oddly charismatic — borderline proselytizing — were it not for the absolute sincerity of the reply. No beatific smile or pamphlet-handing salesmanship, just a straight-laced, point-blank honest response. “Do you have faith?” he asked.
“Yes.” My reply was reflexive and hollow, like the sound of my coins in the empty coffer. “I mean,” I back-pedaled, “I was raised in the church. But not one like this.” I gestured to the images of saints emblazoned on icons and votive candle holders.
He nodded. “Yes, the forms of faith may seem different, but the experience of God — that endless love and wonder — remains the same.”
I hovered awkwardly, my fingers absently caressing the carousel of rosary beads. It had been a long day on the trail, alone with my thoughts, and I was happy for the conversation, no matter how stilted.
“How did you experience…” I couldn’t bring myself to say “God,” even in the presence of a monk. “…you know, the Divine?” I spoke to him but found my gaze drifting around the room, thirsty for any detail that might quench my curiosity about a lifestyle choice so different from my own. “I mean, how did you end up here at Saint Nikolaos?”
He folded his hands on the desk and leaned in. “I used to live on Samos,” he explained. “It’s an island in the Aegean Sea. My job involved patrolling the waters between Turkey and the Greek islands, collecting lifeboats of refugees in distress, and taking them for processing at the reception and identification center on the island.”
He paused, leaning back in his chair, navigating his memories. “I remember the children. That was the hardest part. Mothers with their crying kids, dirty and underfed. It was heartbreaking to see the despair in their eyes when our boat would circle alongside theirs and pull them to shore.”
I could only picture the scene in my imagination, pieced together from passing memories of 10-second newsreel clips. The rubber lifeboats, weighed down by dozens of terrified humans, floundering on the waves, clinging to what few possessions they could carry. And police boats with spotlights, circling like sharks in the water.
“The smugglers were the worst.” Here, a fire lit in his eyes. “Human traffickers who would dump a carload of people at some remote corner of the Turkish shoreline with tattered life vests, point to the dinghy, and drive off with their fee. Upwards of $3,000 per person, most times. And those poor folks would essentially end up imprisoned as an asylum-seeker, robbed of their money, caught in an unjust system.”
His story knocked something off the shelf of my mind and into the cavity of my heart. I had heard stories of the poor and needy before, but now I was privy to a first-hand account of a man who witnessed human suffering that I was only familiar with on the level of television advertisements and mailbox flyers. I leaned onto the display case, my elbows wiping clean streaks through the fine film of dust.
“I couldn’t bear to be part of that system, however necessary it might be. Unfortunately, border guards and refugee camps are a part of this world’s system, whether we like it or not. But one night, I had a dream. Like the story in the Bible, I saw Jesus walking on the water, calling me to follow him through the wind and the waves. When I stepped out of the boat towards him, the sea around me grew calm. That’s when he called me to be a man of peace. The next morning, I quit my job to become a monk. I left the island and have been here ever since, offering prayers on behalf of the poor and oppressed and helping the local community in whatever way I can.” At this, he gestured to the dismantled TV set.
I was speechless. I glanced down and noticed my fist had balled tightly around a string of rosary beads. I loosened my grip to reveal a tiny wooden crucifix, its form imprinted into the soft pad of my palm. Gingerly, I returned it to the carousel, the beads clacking gently in the quiet of the room.
A moment of silence passed, and a second monk appeared in the doorway and rapped gently on the post. The only other monk in the monastery, I presumed. There was a brief exchange in Greek, and the other monk retreated into some inner sanctuary of the compound through a wooden door on the far side of the room.
“You must excuse me now,” my priestly storyteller informed me. “It’s nearing time for our meal and prayers, and I must lock up for the evening.” He withdrew a large ring of keys from the desk drawer and stood up. “What is your name?” he asked, “So I may include you in our prayers for this evening.”
“Joel,” I replied, and thanked him for sharing his story. I was still full of awe and questions, but it seemed I wouldn’t have time to ask them.
“I’m Fodious.” He pulled a curled postcard from the rack beside him and slid it across the table to me. It was an image of one of the frescoes in the chapel. “Jonah and the whale,” he informed. “It is one of our most famous paintings in the monastery. And it’s my personal favorite. I guess because it depicts a rescue from the sea.”
I picked up the card casually and suddenly remembered a detail from his story. “I’m traveling to Samos Island next week,” I explained. “But I’m going by plane, not by boat or fish,” I laughed, offering the card back to him.
“Keep it, as a reminder that God will take you wherever you are needed.”
I stared thoughtfully at the card, turning it over in my hands. It depicted a haloed saint carrying a written scroll, emerging from the mouth of a scaled sea beast. “It’s kind of you to share with me, Fodious.”
“Our small monastery doesn’t receive as many visitors as the larger ones up the hill,” he said. “And fewer still have the curiosity and openness of heart to hear from God as I sense in you.”
He ushered me towards the door, preparing to lock up behind me.
“May God guide your wanderings, Joel, even as was done for Jonah.” He shook my hand, and I stepped across the doorjamb to descend the stone stairwell. But as the door clicked shut behind me, I remained still, staring at the image of Jonah and the whale with a profound sense of having just met an oracle.