Worship. That word has been rewinding its way through my brain all day. As I was putting my house on wheels back together again not far off in the background the Greek Orthodox service was just under way. In the village of Ambelakia, the bells rang indicating a starting time and then over loudspeakers I could hear the priest talking and chanting. Sometimes in response a whole chorus of male voices sang what sounded like alleluias. I was hoping I might be able to see and participate in just a portion of the service.
As I made my way out the door of my very comfortable hotel the clerk informed me that the service would end about 10:00 a.m. I only had 15 minutes. I carved my way up the steep exit and braked my way down the equally steep ramp to the intersection toward town. As I came to that spot I realized that I would have to ride on the jagged cobblestones up to the church. It would be rough going, the service was ending, but more importantl,y now that I was on my bike I was anticipating my own form of worship.
It was Sunday morning and I couldn’t imagine anything more delightful, joyful, and refreshing than riding to the coast on the Aegean Sea and reaching the base of Mt. Olympus. I loved hearing the sacred rhythm of the service as it was broadcast to the whole community, but I had my own sacred rhythm calling me. I turned left, carefully negotiated my way down the twelve-switchbacked road that took me to the valley floor and headed east.
As a footnote I will say that my decision to ride up the mountain on Friday night rather than on the highway to the coast was definitely the right decision. This morning the traffic was only ten percent of what it was that night, but I passed through a six kilometer section that required some attention today, but might have been disastrous on that windy, rainy evening as the sun was setting. The mountain had a rock wall and rather than blasting through another million tons of rock they just narrowed the shoulder from four feet to eighteen inches. There wasn’t much room for mistakes on my part or the part of the drivers.
But, back to worship. I consider a good worship service one that draws people to an experience of awe or joy or compassion or reflection or grief or forgiveness or wonder or any other spiritual quality. When I made the turn left rather than right in Ambelakia it occurred to me that I wasn’t choosing bike riding over worship; I was choosing one form of worship over another.
I know that I love cycling, but I am beginning to acknowledge to myself that it is much more than a hobby or a form of exercise. In the right circumstances it is prayer for me. It is meditation. That six kilometer section wasn’t conducive to meditation (although I think I was praying!), but when all the pieces are there I do fall into a wonderfully deep, relaxed meditative state. In fact, I have been known to miss a turn or two because my mind shuts off and my heart takes over.
I had some of this today. As I emerged from the canyon that took me out of the mountains I had long stretches of road in coastal rural farmland. A headwind was pounding away at me, but I didn’t feel like I was fighting it or trying to pierce my way through it. I was in a good rhythm and my eyes were soaking in the lush surroundings, the soft feel of the terrain, and the sun that had been hiding the past two days.
As I reached the coast I was stunned at how the development changed. I had been riding through quaint villages that I had only seen in National Geographic or on the covers of exotic travel magazines. Suddenly I was riding along a stretch where dozens of hotels were situated side by side. Finally, an opening between the hotels and restaurants appeared and I saw why: a turquoise blue Aegean Sea was rocking and rolling with the winds. It’s hard to believe that water can have so many different characters and this water was full of passion like the Oregon Coast, yet warm and inviting like the Indian Ocean. I dipped my feet in and promised myself that I would swim in it at least once before I left the coastline.
The treat of the day was meeting two other cyclists of the local variety. Nick and Nick were out for a good day ride and they were drinking Greek coffee when I sat down on a patio chair where I planned to drink coffee as well and gaze out over this marvelous piece of creation. There was Nick the opthomologist and Nick who had lived in Boston for ten years. Dr. Nick bought me Greek coffee. He asked me if I needed cream and sugar and I said I preferred it black. After they left I literally chewed the coffee as it was a muddy mixture that called for one part coffee bean, one part water. Next time, lots of cream and sugar!
I ate the coffee and started heading north again on my bike hoping to get to the base of Mount Olympus and find out how much of it I might be able to ride before the road ends and trails begin. Behind me I thought I heard someone call my name, but paid little attention as I have become used to hearing the friendly banter and yelling that goes on between neighbors and friends in this Mediterranean land. Finally, I heard a, “Slow Down,” and discovered that Nick and Nick were just fifty meters behind me. Fortunately, they said that just at the base of a steep incline and I knew that with my gear it wouldn’t be long before they were on my tail. But, it never happened. I continued to spread the gap between me and them.
At the top, both said, “You are strong,” to which I joked that I had a motor in my rear pannier that I called on occasionally. Dr. Nick looked puzzled and I smiled as he got it and said, “Oh, a kind of joke!” Over the next few kilometers we talked and rode and I kept a pace that would allow me to enjoy their company. But, they were right I am very strong.
I make a point of this not to draw attention to my strength or to stroke my already overly-healthy ego. I make the point in the context of my reflection on worship. It was four years ago when I embarked on my first solo trip—a week-long trek from the Central Valley of California, through Yosemite National Park, over Tioga Pass (elevation 9,143 feet) and up along the Sierras to Reno, Nevada. But, I can remember the day that I sat up on my bike with the sudden realization that God had given me a gift and that was strength and will and determination. God had blessed my body with an unusual strength and I was to celebrate it, honor it, and enjoy it.
Since that time I have thought of my strength in much the same way that a singer thinks of her voice—a gift that must be shared and enjoyed; or how a dancer expresses a deeper impulse through movement; or how an artist nurtures a discipline in order to communicate profound realities through a paintbrush, clay or wood.
When everything is just right—the terrain lends itself to meditation, my mind is clear and my body is firing on all cylinders, cycling becomes worship in its most basic form. The steady rhythm of my legs pumping, my lungs expanding and contracting, and my breath counting out a steady beat feels very much like the repetitive chanting of religious devotion or the swaying of the body as one works one’s way into an ecstatic state of prayer.
God may have given me a mind and a heart, but God also gave me a body and I am one of the fortunate ones who have been blessed with a body that continues to healthy and strong beyond my years. I cannot help but to celebrate this gift.
Tomorrow is worship. I am looking forward to this day like none other. I am staying in Litochoro, a tiny energetic village just a couple of kilometers from the sea and at the base of Mt. Olympus. The road goes up the mountain to the 3,600 foot level before narrowing to hiking trails only. I will leave my gear at the hotel and spend the morning climbing the mountain and relishing in the fast descent. I can imagine no better way to celebrate the gifts that are before me, around me and in me.