Updated: Jun 20, 2019
“In Veria they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
There are some experiences in life that are so rich, that they help you make sense of all of the other experiences that make up your life. What makes pilgrimages special is that they are full of such pivotal experiences.
Monday in Veria, Greece, a city which St. Paul visited twice, and in which his preaching was received with eagerness, the students of the St. Helen’s Pilgrimage had such a defining experience, or rather a series of such smaller experiences.
We touched and then mounted the steps upon which St. Paul stood while addressing a gathering of Verians in the year 50 A.D. We stumbled across a restaurant our guides had never seen before, where the food was traditional, perfect, and yet cheaper than at any other place we’d eaten so far, opening a new relationship between our guide and the restaurant owners. We visited the last and no longer functioning synagogue of Veria, whose Jewish population was wiped out during the Holocaust. There we met a young Orthodox Christian woman who has resolved to keep the memories of these Jews alive by restoring their worship space. We heard stories of how the children of Veria today are taught to love and pray for the children who were taken away to Poland, never to return. We descended to the waters of Lake Kastoria where St. Paul baptized the first Christians in this city.
Whenever we came to a busy street, a young and fierce dog--a mix between a lab and a pitbull--barged into traffic and then barked and threatened madly until traffic was stopped, so that we could cross freely. Two students asked a local about the dog and we learned that for more than a year, this dog has been stopping traffic for groups of pilgrims, but only if the group includes small children! We were amazed and thankful for this self-appointed guardian.
Perhaps none, or perhaps all, of these experiences by themselves can change someone’s life. But during a Pilgrimage like the St. Helen’s Pilgrimage of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, such moments of profound encounter may sometimes possess something even more special - a quality of grace which is best recognized in hindsight.
You see, the day before we were in Veria, our entire group had done something we’ve never done before. In my thirteenth year of planning the Pilgrimage, I finally resolved to cross the border into Albania and receive as a group the blessing of my former schoolmate, roommate, and friend from Seminary days, His Eminence Metropolitan John of Korce.
Our encounter with this prayerful Metropolitan was so full of grace, that everything that we learned and saw in Veria the next day was... suffused with light, peace, and a kind of emerging brotherly affection amongst us, that the events themselves were really not the main thing we experienced.
Through the blessing we received from the Metropolitan upon the shores of Lake Ochrid the day before, we ourselves lived a kind of sacred history, rather than merely paying respect to it.
And thus we encountered the Gospel in our own hearts: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not just coming, but is now at hand… Truly, we tasted a small piece of paradise in Veria, through the prayers of those who guide us and love us, our hierarchs. We encountered the Risen Christ in the grace of the Holy Spirit.