Patmos rests quietly in the beautiful Aegean Sea, midway between Samos and Kos. The 15-square-mile island engages craggy and expansive bays, and the mystical quality of the sunlight effects an ambience of unreality. The highlight of a visit is a pilgrimage to both the Monastery of St. John the Evangelist, perched dramatically atop the island’s highest peak in Chora, and the Cave of St. John, also identified as the Grotto of the Apocalypse, a short distance down the mountain from the monastery.
St. John was exiled to Patmos at the age of 93, in the year A.D. 95, when the Roman Emperor Domition ruled. Along with his young companion, St. Prochorus, one of the first seven deacons of the Church, the Apostle took shelter in a cave on the mountainside and lived there for three years. In that cave, St. John received and prompted Prochorus to record the uniquely magnificent and terrifying vision of the apocalypse. After the death of the emperor, St. John returned to the city of Ephesus, located on what is presently mainland Turkey. He never returned to Patmos.
Today, access to the holy places is possible either by bus or taxi. Of course, the more athletically inclined traveler can hike the steep road that snakes its way up to Chora. But for most visitors, the local bus from Skala serves as the fastest and cheapest means of transportation.
The monastery was constructed in the latter part of the 11th century by St. Christodoulos, who had torn down a pagan Greek temple dedicated to Artemis. The building resembles more faithfully a fortress than a house of prayer, which enables the visitor to understand how history’s invaders, both Normans and Turks, were successfully repelled by the monastery’s defenders. At its height, the monastery was home to 250 monks, but currently, only a few men in black remain in residence. On the other hand, the monks are highly visible, and one of them, should he speak English, will happily guide the visitor through the main church (which, they insist, possesses a relic of St. John) and other sections.
Two of the great treasures of the monastery are the fourth-century Codex Porphyseus, a manuscript of the Gospel of St. Mark (the name of Jesus inscribed in gold), and an eighth-century copy of the Book of Job. Last but not least, the monks piously protect what they believe to be pieces of the True Cross.
The Greek Orthodox Church administers both the monastery and the cave, but all Christians are welcome. Our guide — a young cleric with a full brown beard and disheveled hair and rimless spectacles — looked, ironically, as though he, too, had seen visions, a kind of modern St. John. Despite his somewhat threatening appearance, he proved to be a gentle man, kindly and soft-spoken, whose gestures and body language had been fashioned by monastic life.
As he spoke, I examined the strange world that enclosed me, sensing that within those walls a person might be separated not only from the blustery Aegean wind but from the activity of contemporary life, and I pondered the way men had come to that place of isolation and even exile. The primitive monastic cells and community kitchen, no longer active, reminded me of the severe lives the monks of old had once lived, and though only the shade of the monastery walls tempered the Aegean heat, I imagined how uncomfortable it could be on the mountaintop in winter — how only the abiding love of Christ could have given men the fortitude to endure the hardships on that forlorn outpost.
To reach the cave, one passes through a darkened chapel, distinctly Orthodox, with icons, hanging vigil lamps and candles. To one side sat a black-robed priest, accompanied by a young boy, a scene that, for a wonderful moment, again recalled St. John and young St. Prochorus. The youth attended to the candles and prayer cards.
An unfamiliar atmosphere, otherworldliness impossible to describe, charged the Grotto of the Apocalypse, and I sensed that something extraordinary had occurred there more than 1,900 years ago. At the center of the cave, a delicately wrought stand supported long, thin candles that burned and cast their glow upon the walls. Near the center of the grotto, a recess in the rock close to the ground reputedly commemorates the spot where St. John once rested his head, while nearby another recess in the rock, though higher up, supposedly supported his hands as he prayed. Silver bands, one inch thick, encircle the recesses so that they resemble strange, faceless, even ghostly, icons.
A level place in the rock, it is believed, was employed as a desk by St. Prochorus. But the great fissure extending across the upper part of the enclosure from east to west, dividing the rock into three parts, is by far the most intriguing feature of the cave. It has been suggested that the three-fold division symbolized the Trinitarian nature of God. The fissure — through which, tradition teaches, the voice of God spoke to St. John — represents the physical manifestation of the supernatural encounter.
A Still, Small Voice
Before departing, I sat to rest beneath the great fissure and breathlessly perused the fabric of the dark stone walls (photography is forbidden). I considered what God had revealed and what man had recorded in that place. And I remembered an insightful comment that British art historian Kenneth Clark (himself a convert) had once uttered — that perhaps a great idea had never been conceived in a large room. The same might be true of large caves.
After several hours on the mountain, I prepared to make the winding descent to Skala. The afternoon had been filled with the blessed fragments of St. John of Patmos — in the face of the young monk, with the presence of the priest and his young companion, from the mighty fissure in the cave’s ceiling — epiphanic moments, revelations in themselves, since the nature of revelation can be different for everyone.
I recall that the sun was shining, the late afternoon wind whipping across the undulating landscape, with the little white village below, glowing peacefully beside the blue Aegean. There wasn’t a village when St. John sought shelter on the island, but the sunlight, the wind and the sea were there. And I suddenly realized that the voice which spoke to St. John in that cave still speaks to the human heart, if only we listen to hear it.
Thomas Lombardi writes from