Essay | From Past to Present, From West to East

GREECE & TURKEY, Student Essays


Amid icons and organs, chanting and mosaics, divine liturgy and evangelical exhortations, the Institute of Sacred Music lived up to its interdisciplinary mission during this spring’s study trip to Greece and Turkey.   During the last two years of study, I have sometimes found that it is a challenge to explain to people outside of the ISM community exactly what it is that the ISM does, and yet this study tour provided the experience of living into the intersection of sacred music, sacred art, and liturgy that is at the heart of the ISM mission.

Traveling from the Acropolis in Athens, where the ancients built their temple to the goddess Athena, to the mountaintop monasteries clinging to the rocks at Meteora, where Christians sought God among the clouds, to the floating dome of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, this year’s tour provided a richness of visual experience that was only equaled by the amazing sounds of the tour.  Yale’s Schola Cantorum’s concert at St. George’s Parish in Athens provided the community at Halandri with an experience of western sacred music that was the perfect counterpoint to the gift that we received listening to the chanting of Byzantine choirs singing in small spaces with high domed ceilings.  I close my eyes and I can still see the richly decorated churches, hear the deep tones of the chanting with its constant drone, smell the spices in the market.  I know each student came away with a unique set of impressions that will live in our memories for years to come.

A Search for God over the Millennia

As I reflect back on the Institute of Sacred Music’s study tour to Greece and Turkey, I can clearly see a thread that carried us from our first experiences in Athens atop the Acropolis all the way through to our introduction to Sema, the art of the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul, and that thread is the search for God.

At the Acropolis, I was struck by the grandeur of the buildings erected in the fifth century B.C.E, all dedicated to the goddess Athena.  That the ancients, who lived and breathed in this part of the world almost 2,500 years ago, were searching for a way to honor their gods is evident in the timeless buildings they managed to erect without the aid of the heavy equipment that we take for granted today.  Standing next to the Parthenon at the highest point in Athens, I felt a closeness to God myself as I surveyed the city sprawling out in all directions below.  While it seems evident that Pericles sought to display the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire with his renovation of this building complex, it is still obvious, at least to me, that he chose to demonstrate that power with this magnificent tribute to the goddess that he understood to be the protector and patron of his city-state.

Evidence of a search for God continued as we visited four of the original twenty-four monasteries at Meteora, in a valley north of Athens, a valley dotted with majestic rock pinnacles that soar upward of 1300 feet in the air.  As we climbed nearly two thousand steps to visit these secluded monasteries, I could feel the devotion of those fifteenth and sixteenth century monks who hauled all the building material up to the peaks that seem completely inaccessible except by God.  Constructing a worship space that uses its own creation as the pathway to communion with God, these monastic communities chose to seek out God in the heights while in Italy their contemporaries were ushering in the arts and ideas of the Renaissance.  Looking out over the valley with the community of Kalambaka nestled far below, I experienced an awestruck wonder, one that joined my search for God with that of over six hundred years of pilgrims who made their way to the tops of these peaks.

I found the search for God among the Greek Orthodox over the centuries to be manifest in both sight and sound.  The iconographic programs in each church that we visited demonstrated the use of mosaics and fresco to tell Bible stories to congregations who often could not read. These Byzantine images provided the means for worshippers to become familiar with the lessons of the Christian faith, providing them with a pathway to know and be known by God.  Equally important in the search for God was the singing of scripture by the deep male voices of the traditional Greek Orthodox choir.  Accompanied by a constant drone, these eastern hymns are themselves a thread that extends from the second century.  As we listened to the choir sing a vespers service at Megalo Meteoro monastery, I know that I was participating in a liturgical experience that began centuries ago and still goes on everyday today.

We continued to follow this thread in our journey to Istanbul, where we had the opportunity to witness the mystical journey of the Sema ceremony.  Searching for God in the midst of spinning, the Whirling Dervishes provided me with the perfect ending point in this journey.  I could not help but imagine myself spinning with them, feeling the disconnection from one realm of reality in order to become more aware of another, more transcendent reality that is God.  The Whirling Dervishes are part of an old Islamic tradition, yet as a Christian, I felt one with them, as they whirled in their spiritual quest.

As a Master of Divinity student, I have spent the last two years in a search for God in classes, in music, in worship, and in conversation with other students.  From the ancients to the dervishes, this journey to Greece and Turkey provided all of us with a profound experience of others’ searches for God through the ages.