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Emily Oren


E-mail from…Athens

The feast day of St. Elias

My shoes are hardly fit for such a climb, but I am determined to dress Greek while in Greece, and the women here all wear delicate, strappy sandals such as these, regardless of the roughness of the terrain they will be navigating. The path is steep and slippery, winding through dusty pine trees and shrubbery. The chapel is in the center of a desolate hillside, protected by law against developers even in the midst of this rapidly growing suburb of Athens. This is holy land now, blessed by the presence of its Creator, and it can't be built on.

It's St. Elias's feast day, and the tiny chapel on the hill is hosting perhaps its only public service all year. Barely big enough for a priest to turn around in without his vestments catching on the unfinished stucco, the chapel holds a few icons on each wall, as well as an image of its patron behind the half-altar in the back. A larger icon of Elias (or Elijah, as he's better known in the West) resting on an ornate wooden stand, a brass two-tiered candelabra and a small wooden table with candles, a silver blessing cross, and a prayer book have already been placed outside.

The Chapel of St. Elias is at the top of one of the highest hills in the area. In pagan times, these spots were reserved for temples to Helios, the sun god; the closer one got to the clouds, the closer one was to his presence. When Greece began to adopt Christian traditions, St. Elias naturally emerged as the completion of this originally pagan idea; his vanishing into the clouds on a chariot of fiery horses made the perfect image of a saint whose province is the sun and sky. It is one of many ways in which the Greeks have reconciled their pagan beliefs with Christian truths, not watering down the Scriptures in any sense, but using language they already understand to clarify newer spiritual convictions.

People begin to filter through the trees, and when a sizable crowd gathers, the service begins. A loose group of chanters has formed around the director, who solemnly ...

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