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MONASTERIES
'HANGING IN AIR'
FAR ABOVE GREECE
AMID THE CLIFFS, A PLACE OF PEACE

FEW HISTORIC sites will so profoundly stir the emotions of saint and sinner alike as Meteora.
This incredible medieval complex takes its name from the Greek for its situation: "ta meteora monisteria," the monasteries hanging in the air. Here, high above the Thessalian plain in northwestern Greece, more than 1,000 rock pinnacles loom like petrified mystical giants, more fantastic than any Steven Spielberg phantasmagoria.

The most lively visitors fall into spellbound silence as the tour buses wind upward from the town of Kalambaka, around the unearthly cones and chimneys carved by erosion and the receding waters of an ancient lake.

These colossal stalagmites are so regular and smooth that they appear more like artifacts than natural phenomena.

Eerie clefts and bare-mouthed caves dot the gray sandstone towers. Records show that as early as the ninth century, Byzantine ascetics clawed their way into these primitive shelters seeking salvation in isolation and silence.

Farther up the four-mile circular road there appears, miraculously clinging to pinnacle tops, first one and then another of the monastic aeries constructed during the 14th and 15th centuries.

In the late Byzantine period and during the Turkish domination of Greece, these turreted and frescoed complexes became refuges from persecution for devout hermits, "living together alone."

At its zenith this Meteoritic rock forest rang with the prayers of more than 3,000 monks in 24 monasteries who, by all accounts, lived a life of rigid self-denial, renouncing possessions and vowing to "reject strange and worldly things, to study only monastic knowledge."

Women, considered to be rousers of unclean thoughts and desires, were denied any access to the pinnacled sanctuaries, which were rigorously communal with an insistence that all members must be "of one opinion, one will and struggle equally."

Access to Meteora, it is wryly said, has always been as difficult as access to paradise. The contemporary visitor must be prepared to climb steep rock stairways, only recently constructed, to reach each of the surviving six monasteries.

But the guides remind puffing climbers that ascent in earlier times involved choosing between a net-basket on a windlass-operated rope or frail ladders made of wooden slats lashed to chains.

Sister Theotekni, an Eastern Orthodox nun and historian, writes: "In the netted basket, eyes were closed and teeth were clenched in order to endure the aerial swinging, and one prayed that the rope might not break.

"The ladders also, as they creaked at every step and wavered with every breath of the wind, demanded for no less than an acrobat."

Describing such an ascent in 1896, a Russian monk relates that after nearly losing consciousness in fright, he arrived at the top and went directly to the church, where he knelt in front of the icon, "crying hot tears of gratitude for the salvation of my life, which had thus unnaturally combined with the habits of a bird."

Bishop Gerasimos in 1776 made his harrowing ascent "with bandaged eyes."

Once safely inside the monasteries, one finds tightly packed stone and brick buildings with wooden galleries and corniced rooftops, domed churches, stone-paved courtyards, small balconies overlooking spine-tingling abysses and spectacular views out across the Thessalian plain to the distant Aegean coast.

"A magnificent presumption, a monastery clinging to naked cliffs," one visitor noted. "Yet to the faithful, no presumption at all. Men accomplished miracles in their saints' names for the glory of God. They did so here."

The largest and oldest of the monasteries, the Grand Meteoran, spreads out over the broadest of the stone columns like a squat brown mushroom.

Its magnificent Church of Transfiguration, built in the shape of a Greek Cross, is richly decorated with wall paintings and holds the tombs of the two founders, who have been depicted in gold-leafed icons holding lists of rules and admonitions for pious conduct.

(There still are rules at the Meteora monasteries. Women visitors must wear skirts below the knee and their arms must be covered. Men cannot have hair below the collar.)

Adjacent to the church the original barrel-vaulted refectory houses an intriguing collection of medieval icons and manuscripts. It is clear in these lovingly painted images and written testaments that the early monks thought of their saints as beings who took a lively interest in the thoughts and works of each of them.

Here at the Grand Meteoran can also be seen the historic medieval windlass, now rusted and creaking and used only to haul up provisions.

On one of the highest and steepest rocks, up 195 steps, is the monastery of Varlaam, founded by the saintly Theophanis, who must have reached new degrees of asceticism by loading himself with chains for long periods and continuously murmuring Old and New Testament texts throughout the long days.

Varlaam's Church of All Saints, completed in just 20 days, contains some of Meteora's finest late Byzantine art. Also preserved there is the skull of St. Nicholas, a relic that achieved a certain celebrity in 1968 when it miraculously cured a nun "of great faith" of her chronic deforming arthritis.

St. Stephens has been given over to nuns, who have renovated the buildings, whitewashed the terraces and filled the courtyard with pots of flowers.

This precedent-breaking transformation of an all-male world was no doubt rationalized to the Holy Synod and government Ministry of Education by the nuns' willingness to house and care for a collection of Greek orphans. The nuns also operate a studio of Byzantine iconography.

The most notable feature of St. Stephens is the exquisitely carved wooden altar screen in St. Charalambos' church. Ten years in the making, the screen is an elaborate complex of carved plants and animals.

In a discreet concession to contemporary financial needs, patient nuns and monks staff several unobtrusive shops tucked into corners of the monasteries. Here one can purchase reproductions of many of the Meteoran icons and other art objects, illustrated books, embroidered linens and marvelously crafted copper and stained glass souvenirs.

Walking quietly, carefully on the worn rock pathways and stone corridors of the monasteries -- home now to only a handful of caretaker monastics -- one cannot but succumb to the cosmic calm.

Meteora is a deeply moving monument to an extinct way of life, a life of simplicity, austerity, faith and hard work that drew its practitioners together and strengthened "the sinews of the will to resist the dissoluteness with which worldly man and society are always falling apart."

This is a place that still speaks powerfully to sensitive spirits from a troubled 20th century world.

For information on Meteora, write to the Greek National Tourist Organization at 645 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.