Liturgy

for Takis

Water

– H2O –

in reverse reads

O2H,

a combination of

Jesus Christ,

the Second Person of the Trinity (O2),

and the Holy Spirit

or breath (H)

I think about this

as I cut through

the water

on this our last morning

on Ithaca

The water is so still

that the morning pollen

is visible

– golden balls of fluff

sitting on the surface –

I head for the white buoy

on the left

then the orange

followed by three yellow

and one that is neither

orange nor yellow

but both

This is my length

my 50-metre swimming pool

my daily rule

Breaststroke

– if you have been taught properly –

is a mixture of prayer

work and

faith

You stretch out your arms

and turn your hands upwards

in prayer

You rotate your hands

in order to pull back

with strength

And your feet

have no solid base

they push against nothingness

they strike

into the void

Prayer, work and faith

In this watery version

of reality

all lines become crooked

wiggly

– the masts of the yachts

reflected in the water,

the ropes of the buoys,

the ripples of the waves –

there is no such thing

as a straight line,

which makes a mockery

of our passion

for laying claim

The buoys are like jack-in-the-boxes

on their springs

each coil

an individual ripple

like the ones

I created

when I entered the sea

and made the sign of the cross

on the water’s surface

sending ripples outwards

an arc of delight

a shiver on the surface

of reality

I swim up and down

I can do no more than this

Sometimes the sea is agitated

like the last two days

troubled

seemingly it has a surfeit

of us

it does not want us

in it

I can do nothing about

these circumstances

that turn against us

except hope

and swim

(prayer, work and faith)

until I crunch my knees

– suddenly all physical –

in the vicinity of

the beach

Jonathan Dunne, 1 July 2022

Jellyfish Sting

I swam

not with Tom Cruise,

not with Anthony Hopkins,

not with Kim Kardashian

but with a cormorant

fishing

in flips and furls

seemingly oblivious of me

as I cut silently

through the water

I start the day like this

– arms outstretched,

hands upturned,

palms white,

seeking the sun

and then I draw

a long arc

like Moses

watching the Israelites

fighting the Philistines

keeping God on their side

The sea is

an altar cloth

– an antimension –

which I open

and wipe with a sponge

I begin my prayer

above the water

“Lord Jesus Christ,

have mercy on me”

After a while

my prayer descends

I no longer enunciate

the words

as my mouth goes

below water

My mouth is now

the underside of the boat

(I have learned

something of

the spiritual life)

But when I turn

the sea changes

a dark cloak

has been cast over it

with coruscating

sequins

that prevent me

seeing

below the surface

A sudden

searing pain

wraps itself

around my wrist

I thought pain

was supposed to be

a knife

a spit

something driven in

not something wrapped around

an embrace

an arm around the shoulder

and what to do

when the threat

is your milieu

– you cannot get out

of it

except by swimming

to shore

you cannot stay still

Prayer is tossed

to the four winds

safety is the priority

now

and as I head

to the shore

another hidden enemy

still has time

to give me

a parting shot

On the beach

I accost some locals

unsure as yet

what has attacked me

Jellyfish,

they say

Then how do you swim?

I ask

The old Greek lady

gazes at me

through dark tinted

glasses

I can just make out

the pearls

of her eyes

We look,

she replies

Jonathan Dunne, 28 June 2022

Polis Bay

We swam to the little beach

where the cold water

was like

petrol on the surface

or someone had

dropped a slush puppie

We decided to swim

across the opening of the bay

despite the danger of

speedboats

yachts

catamarans

Tsveta panicked

because of a jellyfish

hanging in midwater

observing us from

a floor or two

below the surface

The water where it

became dark blue

was soft and warm

like a baby’s blanket

– not at all

the feared monster –

soft rolls of water

lapping against our faces

occasionally slapping my cheek

spitting in my ear

but only when I looked around

Eyes front,

they seemed to be telling me

A catamaran had entered

the bay

a sporty speedboat

made a pretence of

doing the same

only to exit just as quickly

A tease perhaps of fate

a distraction

a nick in the skin

of faith

The fact is

not a single boat

endangered our crossing,

unusually so in a bay

where speedboats

can come and go

every two minutes

What helped us across, I think,

was the reference of the beach

– Takis’ hut,

the end of the sunbeds,

the end of the beach,

only the rocks left

that line of primitive writing

that runs all around

this island of Ithaca

where we have arrived

and left again

Familiar landmarks

were staging posts

(there is no halfway point

and, even if there were,

it would have moved

by the time you got

to it

in this fluid

version of reality)

We aimed for the rocks

– the horse (or lion),

the kiss,

the wombs with a cross

and more writing

in them –

the rocks did not move,

only the water went

from dark blue

to turquoise green

to lemony

and I realised

I felt no fear

– no fear of the deep,

so deep you could not

see the bottom,

the bottom – like stabilisers,

like a father’s steadying hand –

had been removed

and God laughed

– I heard him –

lighting for us

a row of scintillating candles

pinpricks of light

on the sea’s surface

that were mirrored

from where we had come

Jonathan Dunne, 27 June 2022

Meekness

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ This is the third of the Beatitudes that Jesus teaches his disciples in Matthew, chapter 5. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’

I have just been on the island of Thassos in the north of the Aegean in Greece. A rich and beautiful island with what is reputed to be the best marble in the world. There is an old Roman quarry in the settlement of Alyki in the south of the island. The land is fertile, pomegranates abound, as well as millenarian olive trees that produce an olive oil that is thick and tasty. Of course, being Greece, there is plenty of tourism, with attractive, isolated beaches catering to the needs of those who come here for a rest.

But what struck me this time was the abundance of animal life. On our first day, swimming off the beach of Trypiti round to a gap in the rock that leads to a small harbour, I spotted a flash of blue with a tawny underside. Could it be a kingfisher fishing by the sea? That is certainly what it seemed. I hadn’t seen one since I was a child and visited the RSPB reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk. Two days later, I saw the same flash of blue while swimming off the beach of Atspas – the same or another kingfisher. Off the same beach, we spotted dolphins, circumflex accents dipping in and out of the ocean. Cormorants stood like statues on the rocks, keeping an eye out for fish or simply gazing at the view. Others skimmed the waves in low flight, these ones certainly fishing, competing with the ferries that to and froed in the distance.

There were plenty of goats, some sheep, cats filling the gaps in balconies, dogs being taken out by their owners, there are no pavements, so they walk in the road. One night, we came across a hedgehog, all pins and needles, it curled into a ball. Later, when I went to search for it again, it had disappeared, motored off into the night at surprising speed.

One of our favourites was the donkey in the next-door garden, a beautiful animal with a grey-brown coat, a dark brown line marking the transition from its head to its body. It would serenade us in the morning and evening with a series of sharp inbreaths and loud outbursts. It had gentle eyes, oceans in themselves, ears that swivelled delightfully (and not always in the same direction) and yellow teeth it liked to bare in front of us. After several days, I got the impression it really was greeting us when we got up in the morning and returned from the beach in the late afternoon.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ I have the impression that animals know when you believe in God, they react differently, they see you no longer as a threat, but as a possible friend. They notice you, and you notice them. You view the world differently, it is no longer there for the taking, as it is so often treated, when we view ourselves as authors and draw lines. We are just passing through, after all, and we begin to delight in the simple things of life, which are the most important. It is as if the animals realize we have (finally!) come to our senses. They are waiting for us to realize. Perhaps they have never lost their spiritual sight, as we have, but they must endure whatever we might throw at them while waiting for us to repent, to change our attitude, to see things (to see them) in a different light. Then they come to us, they share with us, they communicate with us.

So, for me, ‘blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ is exactly true. When we are meek, we believe. When we are proud or stubborn, we refuse to believe and rely on science (which is only the study of God’s creation and what we have learned about it), on what we can prove. This is the problem with belief. Belief gives sight, belief changes the way you view things, but how can you believe if you haven’t seen God or had an experience? There’s the conundrum. Belief gives sight, but sight gives belief.

I always remember Apostle Peter walking on the water. While he believes, he walks towards Christ; only when he hesitates, when he doubts, does he begin to sink, to lose his equilibrium. God just wants us to believe. Nothing else. And to those who believe – to the meek – is given the whole world.

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com

Thassos: Monastery of St Michael

There is a very famous Monastery of St Michael on the island of Thassos in Greece, to which there is a reference in a document of 1287. A monk, Luke, built a church where there was a sacred spring. When the Ottomans wished to defile the spring, it dried up, only to reappear in a cave down by the sea, a walk we did today. You head down a path marked by metal poles topped by red-painted bottles to a pebble beach. This part is fairly steep. Then you clamber over rocks by the sea, through narrow passes, rock archways and over a wooden bridge, always being directed by red arrows painted on the rocks and crosses in more difficult places. To your right, the green Aegean and Mt Athos in the distance, the only spectators a pair of goats and some slender birds. After an hour and a quarter, having climbed Golgotha and gone past Scylla and Charybdis, you reach your destination, a trickling spring and in a cave you can only enter by wriggling like a worm a quiet pool of water, where we prayed for those we know under the Archangel’s watchful and merciful gaze. To humble oneself before God, wriggling like a worm, is not only appropriate, it is strangely uplifting. Orthodoxy is smell and on the way back we kept getting wafts of fragrant candle wax. A blessed experience.

View of the Aegean from below the Monastery, with Athos in the distance.
The path with metal poles topped by red-painted bottles.
The pebble beach where the path meets the sea.
Steps built going down to the beach (thank God for the workers!).
A goat watches our progress.
A rock archway you must pass through.
A wooden bridge over a gap in the rocks.
Golgotha, a climb up the rocks.
Scylla and Charybdis (every time we passed this way, I made the sign of the Cross, and we always made it across without being touched by the waves).
The approach to the sacred spring.
Water trickling down beneath the cave.
The entrance to the cave.

This article was also published on the website Orthodox Christianity.