Wednesday, October 1 Thessaloniki Discovery Day
(written two days after Rumi’s 807th birthday–Sept 30)
I am following a trail of emotional bread crumbs this morning. I am not sure exactly where they are going and what they are about, but the crumbs that are right in front of me are about sadness and the crumbs just ahead are inviting me to some tears. I need to write my way through this and where this blog post ends I don’t yet know.
My friends, I am not coming back. Don’t get scared! Of course, I am going to physically return. In the next two to four weeks I’ll be boarding a plane that will land in Portland. What I mean is that I will never be able to return to the world I left four weeks ago. I can feel that Thessaloniki is that threshold. I need to either book a flight out of here now and pick up where I left off or turn those wheels one more time and let them carry me into a new world that mirrors my own internal spiritual, psychological reality.
I think I know where this happened that I knew I was walking through a door that was going to close behind me. I was in the museum of the Roman Forum exploring the archeological findings and the evolving history of it in Thessaloniki. I came across a few panels that described some of the cultural values of the Hellenistic culture.
I came across the statue of a male nude, well-formed physically, strong, beautiful, proud. The panel described a people who honored and held up the virtue of physical beauty, agility, strength as well as sensuality and the erotic. Remember they worshiped the gods of Eros, Apollos and Aphrodite. They described the place of the gymnasium in Hellenistic culture (“gymnos” means nude in Greek) as a community gathering spot for taking care of the body, nurturing it, bathing, and engaging in intellectual discussions.
Here is what happened for me. In a flash I suddenly felt known and understood. I have attempted to describe this feeling I get with my cycling, but never quite feeling like I can say it in a way others will go “I get it!”. When I read about the place of the gymnasium and the love of the human body in Greek culture I recognized myself. In America I feel like exercise is directed toward living as long as possible and keeping our health care costs down. But, it is not a virtue unto itself! I want to say that again. In America the honoring of the body is not a virtue unto itself. It is always a means to an end.
Okay, the bread crumbs are leading somewhere. I cycle and do yoga and hike and swim and walk and play ping pong not because I might live longer or be less depressed. I do all those things because I feel like I am participating in some pre-ordained expression of beauty. To feel the miracle of the body in motion is like driving that red Corvette sports car along the Pacific Ocean. You don’t do it to achieve some future end. You do it because it makes you feel alive down to the very bones in your spine.
There is a whole thesis here that I can’t go into today. But, why the sadness? I think it has to do with my inherited Christian tradition. Today I will explore more of this world where the apostle Paul had some early impact. Actually, he didn’t receive a warm welcome here, but whatever he started got blessed by Constantine centuries later and became a global movement. But, let’s be honest. The apostle Paul wasn’t real keen on honoring and nurturing the pleasures and the beauty of the human body. Paul believed that one needed to tame the world of the flesh in order to gain a peek into the world of the spirit. A whole tradition of beating back the flames of physical passion emerged that has included fasting and even scourging oneself with barbed nails in order to keep the wild beasts of flesh in their cages.
Okay, where are these bread crumbs going? The answer is I found another way that is more in line with the Hellenistic thinking of the gods of Apollos and Eros. I suffer too on my bike, not by taming the flesh but by employing it and engaging it and training it into a discipline that seems to lead me into a deeply soulful, passionate and vital place. Three years ago I wept as I stood at the top of Trail Ridge Road in Colorado (12,183 feet) and it took every ounce of pulsating, screaming, and gloriously alive flesh to propel me up into that thin rarefied air. Flesh and spirit are married in my life. Body and soul are dance partners at Life’s wedding banquet.
Why the sadness? Where are these bread crumbs leading me? I am sad because I don’t want to fight anymore. There will be some who will read this post who will argue with me that I am misreading Paul and misrepresenting his voice. Maybe they are right, but show me the church where the body is truly honored and adored. And I am sad because some will want to know whether I now believe in the “pagan gods” of Hellenistic culture. I have no answer except to say that yesterday I felt known and understood for the first time with regard for the love of the body. A culture got me. An ancient mythology mirrored my internal psychic mythology.
If it were just that one brief meeting with the Greek gods I might be able to let it pass. But, those Greek gods are still alive here. Maybe not by name, but it is in the culture. I can feel it. Last night I sat at ataverna, drank another Greek beer, and enjoyed an assortment of Greek appetizers. The place was slowly filling up and at about 10:00 p.m. a trio of musicians—guitarist, autoharpist and fiddler—took over the place. It was Greek music, but unlike the music I heard in Litochoro—loud, joyful and boisterous—this music had a clear Middle Eastern influence.
What intrigued me about it is how much it is meant to wake up the soul through a deep, repetitive rhythm that is part joy, part sorrow. As the evening wore on the taverna was transformed into what I can only describe as part religious meditation and part sensual orgy. The point being is that we were transported to the place of soul not by denying the sensual pleasures of the evening, but by employing them and allowing them to have room to take flight. Yes, there was some drink involved as well. But, that is the point. Music, drink, conversation, good food, laughter, and hugs were the recipe for an ecstatic night that I am beginning to see is part of normal living here.
More to come, I am sure, as I round the bend to follow the bread crumbs a little further. I was attracted to Rumi and the ecstatic dances of the whirling dervishes. I have a feeling that Thessaloniki is just the appetizer. There is no turning back now.
One other note: I met three other men who were on journeys and pilgrimages of their own. A German who flew to Thessaloniki and who will now make his way back to Germany through eastern Europe. A Frenchmen, Benjamin, who started in Istanbul and will make his way back to France through Greece and Italy. And Steve, who is on a walking pilgrimage from Rome to Istanbul, much like me. I was especially intrigued by him as he has already done the more famous Camino de Santiago and was looking for a unique route and came up with something similar to me. I look forward to following him at www.backcountryderelict.net.
It will be interesting sending this post today as I imagine some of the bread crumbs that will show up on the path will be in the form of the responses and non-responses of my community. Don’t ask me if I believe in God anymore. I know what I know and somehow in the character of the many gods we have fashioned in our cultures is the one God who is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega for me. And I am quite sure she is strong and beautiful!