The Mountain

Koryfis is a rather beautiful little mountain in Greece,  it’s not the grandest or the tallest, in fact at two thousand or so feet it may not even deserve to be called a real mountain, but nevertheless it is a jewel which rises high over the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Corinth. The journey to it’s summit begins rather unpromisingly on a worn out & distinctly potholed little slip road off the motorway a hundred or so kilometres out of Athens towards  Patra. The road upwards begins in earnest at a non-descript turning circle marked with three large communal refuse bins which huddle together at the side of the road. Battered and dented from use a swarm of flies buzz feverishly over the contents of decaying & pungent foodstuffs therein deposited by locals. A broken plastic chair and an assortment of abandoned household items lie on the roadside keeping the bins company, they all wait patiently for their final journey to the landfill, it looks as though they’ve been waiting for a very long time.  Close by a series of tin sheds echo with the despondent cackle of couped up battery hens. This then is the rather inauspicious beginning to an eight kilometre journey uphill.

 As you begin the journey upwards any signs of human life disappear quickly and plant life takes over. A patchwork of vines & olive groves stretch out in neat lines across the contours of the lower hills. As the road winds upwards the fields gradually peter out as onwards you climb. Now pine trees dot the hillsides, they are short and coarse, battered by winds, they cling precariously to the meagre soil which competes for space with scree & boulders strewn across the hillside the ground a sea of orange sandstone hues peppered with green. The road twists and turns like a snake coiling the mountain. I can’t exactly say when, as it just creeps up on you, but somewhere along that upwards path you realise you’ve entered a different realm. The sound of the motorway no longer exists, instead all you hear is wind whistling through the trees, followed closely by the scent of the pines which hits your nostrils & lungs and coats them like balm.

On you go ever upwards, the only sign of man on those eight kilometres is what appears to be an abandoned goat shed precariously built into the hillside about half way up. Corrugated sheets of rusty metal nailed to beams of wood, as you climb higher & higher the deep blue of the gulf appears below, it stretches far to the east & the west, the air grows fresher and clearer & cooler with every metre risen and if you turn your eyes back down earthwards little by little the activities of man become ever smaller, the roads & the houses and the concrete that stretch in a long ribbon for miles along the seashore grows smaller and smaller until it becomes filament thin. The houses and the buildings become dots and dashes like tiny creatures under a microscope.

And then just as you’ve become acclimatised and your head tells you it knows where you are on  the journey skywards theres one last turn around the hillside and it suddenly the road ends. There in front of you is the summit & the Monastery.

Now this is my third visit over the years to the monastery and I’ve been told the place is maintained by three Nuns though I have only ever seen the same Nun on each visit. I wonder if there is just this one guarding the place, that the other two are in their cells, having died off long ago, their bodies mummifying in the thin dry air behind closed cell doors.  The solitary nun is a tiny creature, under five feet, her frame stooped forward, head bent more so, She is covered in a black habit that reaches almost to the ground, her face only a few inches of skin peering from a white shroud. I cant help but think that perhaps this is due to decades of prayer, I wonder what and who she prays for, if she is listened to and if those prayers are ever answered. 

She races across the courtyard from one room to another, busy as a bee, doing whatever it is that nuns do, she seems to be in a terrible rush doing Gods work. As if she is running out of time.

I head up a few stone steps to a little chapel, the altar is blackened by the soot of years of candles and incense, the Icons look out from the walls, lofty gazes, melancholy eyes framed in gold leaf. A bowl of wheat grains support a dozen or so candles lit that day, to remember the lost, or as offerings for prayers of intercession. Whilst being a Godless man I nevertheless put my hand in my pocket and pull out two euros which I place in the offering box. I figure God should be ok with that as payment. I light a candle and root it in the wheat grains, placing it there for a friend back in London that passed recently. It’s more about the memory of him than as a prayer, after all I don’t do prayers, just a moment to say I remember you, I mourn your passing, sweet man that died for no good reason at all.

As I leave the chapel I notice my friend walking across the courtyard, earlier that morning I had seen him picking flowers in his garden, making up a little posey, I thought it curious at the time and only now does it make sense, how stupid of me, he walks over to a memorial stone in the corner of the little garden and places the posey. This stone is for his father, his ashes are scattered here. I watch as he stands over the memorial in silence. I am touched by the scene and the quietness of the moment. And in self reflection I am reminded that not once since my own fathers death quite some years ago have I ever considered visiting his grave.

As I watch my friend I feel a discomfort, is it jealousy or guilt or regret, it might be some combination of all three, why cant I do that?

The fifth commandment in the Christian faith is to honour thy father and mother, I think on it, of the friends who have had troubled relationships with parents, of those in one way or another  that have let down their children, of parents perhaps like my father who meant well but floundered. My own memory of my father has been of a weak man, troubled and troublesome who’s heart was in the right place, but who’s actions fell short. I have never held a great deal of respect for him, but instead just a regret that he could have been different, better.

And then I think of the wonderful experiences that I have had in life, how none of those could have happened without my parents, and how despite everything that has been good in my life still I cant find the grace to be grateful for the gift of life they gave me.

And there in that feeling deep down I recognise that it’s high time I find that thankfulness, perhaps then I might find a peace with myself, but  I’m unsure how to make it happen.

We leave the mountain shortly afterwards, the rubbish bins and the potholes and the motorway come back to life all to quickly, the traffic and the noise return and I am back in the world of men. As we head though the traffic my thoughts trail far behind, up there on the mountain candles are burning and a little old nun is saying prayers and maybe, just maybe someone is listening.

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