One of the many things I love about Greece are its ancient monasteries, still very much active, run by the Orthodox monks and nuns who live in them and care for the surrounding lands. Although I was not raised in any organized religion, I especially love visiting these monasteries because they are often set in remote, stunning landscapes and are repositories of rich, Byzantine art and iconography, with accompanying fantastical tales of miracles and visions. The 16th Century Monastery of Panagia Spilaiotissa or Our Lady of the Cave as it is known, is perfect example. It is nestled at the bottom of one of the most breathtaking valleys on the Ionian island of Zakynthos, just above the lovely little mountain village of Orthonies. I will never forget the first time I discovered it, making my way around the island, about two years ago in the winter. I drove down into what felt like a magical, lost kingdom and arrived at a collection of what appeared to be abandoned stone buildings, faded a mustard yellow. Sadly, it was locked, with no sign of anyone around. If it weren’t for my car and the electrical wires above, it looked as if time had stood still for centuries.
It was a grey, overcast day and I walked through the fields up over a hill to a spectacular, gauzy view of the entire northeast coastline of the island. Across a field was a large, stone windmill, standing stoic like a forgotten relic in the wet, green landscape.
I knew I would return, and when I heard that a group of nuns had recently moved in to restore the monastery, I was excited to learn more. Two friends visiting from Athens, Rana and Olympia joined me, eager to explore. Like me, they loved any chance to uncover a strain of feminism or feminine narrative buried in the largely male Orthodox tradition of the Greek church.
Driving down into the valley we see the monastery has a fresh coat of yellow paint, and when we enter the stone arches, we are first greeted by a no-nonsense, athletic looking nun in trainers and a digital watch. She said she was Russian and didn’t speak any Greek or English, so she went to get Sister Antonia, a tall nun with bright, slate blue eyes and a tender smile. We chat with her a bit, and she tells us that there are now five nuns living with her there. She takes us through a well-swept courtyard past a few potted plants growing out of those terrifically huge Cretan clay pots, and on into the “katholikon,” or main Church to see the famous icon.
According to an old website for the monastery the Panagia Spilaiotissa was found by a shepherd in the late 14th century in a cave about two kilometers from the Monastery, but Sister Antonia tell me “no one really knows how old it is” It could even be as old as the 6th or 7th century. The cave was actually the site of the first monastery, built to honour this discovery, carved right into the mountain, in 1650. Although much of the riches of the monastery, its manuscripts, books and paintings were either destroyed by the big earthquake in 1952 or later spirited away by some Italians who lived on the island, (some texts about the monastery were later found at St. Mark’s library in Venice), the icon thankfully remained. I stare at the Madonna, her face so dark I can barely see it behind its silver protective casing. Could it be one of the infamous “Black Madonnas” said to have appeared between the 12th and 15th centuries, imbued with mystical, pagan-like powers?
Interestingly, the first notable study of the origin and meaning of the so-called Black Madonnas in English appears to have been presented by Leonard Moss at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Dec. 28, 1952, the same year as the devastating earthquake in Zakynthos. While some believe these Madonnas get their darkness from years of smoke from burning candles in unventilated churches, others believe their appearance is related to a deeper feminine energy, connected with the earth-goddess or earlier Greek and Roman goddesses such as Artemis or Demeter.
Sister Antonia describes their daily routine, morning Vespers, followed by chores, a communal meal, more prayers and study, and by nine p.m. they go into communal silence, those final hours after sunset reserved as a special time for personal reflection. I smile, thinking how nice it would be to be surrounded by nothing but women and silence, but then I notice a few strapping young male monks digging a large hole outside the monastery walls, and even though its one of those hot, dry windless Zakynthos summer days, they still wear their full black traditional robes. A teen-age boy assists them, having put his large headphones and smartphone aside on a stone wall. The scene is like a tableau of past and present, fused into one. Sister Antonia tells me that for the harder labor, they get outside help. And of course, the monks and priests from nearby St. George’s Monastery are the ones who perform the holy sacraments every Sunday.
Still, the place has a distinctly feminine feel to me, and as if to prove it, a sly tabby cat slinks up to Rana and parks herself at her feet, stretches out and waits for a rub. We ask how far the hike to the cave is, and Sister Antonia shrugs, “about twenty minutes.” We decide to brave the heat and make the trek to the cave. I slather on sunscreen, and we head out across the once-verdant, now brittle brown field, past the stone windmill towards the path to the cave. Within ten minutes we are deep inside a pine forest, winding our way down a steep slope to a gorge, then back up through brush and a labyrinth of switch-back turns. As I swat with a stick at giant spider webs blocking the path, this begins to feel like no ordinary walk in the park, and we realize we are well passed the twenty-minute mark.
Olympia remarks she feels something, and so do I, a kind of hush and awe settles over us and we stop making that kind of small talk you do on a hike to pass the time, partly because it starts to get strenuous and partly because, well, we feel something. Maybe it was the presence of Holy Mary, but we also have been struck by the spirit of Mary Magdalen on this island, who apparently arrived on Zakynthos together with yet another biblical Mary, Mary Clopas sister to the Holy Mary, in 12 A.D. On their way to Rome, their boat was blown off course and they had to take refuge in the nearby village of Maries, named after them. A small church, Agia Maria, still stands in this village, and the villagers celebrate the Mary Magdalene feast day every year on July 22.
Whatever Mary’s presence we are feeling doesn’t really matter, but we carry on in silence, as the sun rises ever higher and hotter in the sky. Just when we are about to run out of water, we see it: a stone archway carved into a hill, the entrance to the cave. Oddly out of time and place, there is a little metal ladder beckoning us to climb inside, and then we arrive.
It’s at least ten degrees cooler inside, womb-like and immediately calming. I look around and see the remnants of the old church, the altar and domed prothesis, where pilgrims before us have left small offerings: a rosary, a small candle, some coins. There is also an old candelabra and the inevitable goat or sheep droppings on the stone floor. I close my eyes and think of the monks and their attendants who lived here all those centuries ago, or even the worshippers, what did they believe and how were they moved by this miraculous, dark-faced Mary? How did she help them cope with the harsh winters and the rawness of a life lived so remote, so basic?
Zakynthos still has this torn-apart feeling, as if it never grew out of a bygone era, many of it’s local villagers still tending sheep, harvesting olives and kissing icons with their sun-cracked lips the way they have done for millennia. I suddenly get a spurt of energy and climb further up inside a smaller cave and look out across the forest towards the “newer” (built in the late 1600’s) monastery from where we hiked. The cicadas are so loud they seem to be cheering us for having made it, and I feel powerful, protected. I sit for a while inside this mystery-cave like a contented, small child, my knees to my chest, as a feeling of utter calm descends.
Back at the monastery I ask Sister Antonia what she likes about living here. She tells me it is the mountain air, the view and the quiet, and the pleasure of living in community with the other nuns. She says she wants to develop the place to have ecclesiastical workshops and to welcome more visitors. I prod her for more information about the icon, what do the locals feel when they see her? She smiles, takes her time. “You know, no one knows, we just don’t know a lot about her, the Spiliotissa, but people feel her here, you know, they love her.” And for this new initiate, one more “lady of the cave,” I can’t agree more.