The BackShop Journal

A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Christian Cyprus on the Crossroads of Space and Time

4So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus.

5And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister.

6And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus:

7Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God.

8But Elymas the sorcerer withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.

Then Saul, filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him.

10And said, O full of all subtlety and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?

11And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand.

12Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.

13Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13)

Ever since Apostle Paul's first missionary journey described above, Cyprus has been a battlefield between different nations and faiths, between God and the devil, and the site of many miracles. In the first century AD, there were Jews, Greeks, and a small but growing Christian flock. When most Greeks became Christian, the Turkish invasion started. During the next few centuries, the island of Cyprus was part of the Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, Venetian Republic and Great Britain (1878-1960), which still holds two strategic areas for their naval bases. Northern Cyprus was invaded by Turks in 1974, and they now occupy the northern third of the island. The site of Salamis, the port where St. Paul landed, later destroyed in one of the Ottoman raids, is located in this area, right beneath Cyprus's horn. Paphos, the city on the southwestern coast from which the apostle left, is today one of the top tourist destinations protected by UNESCO.

In 2004, Cyprus became a member of the European Union, and presently it does not have an appearance much different than other southern European countries, including Greece. The language spoken there is a dialect of Greek, though significantly different from the standard form. Geographically, Cyprus belongs to Asia, but culturally, at least its larger, southern part, to Europe. The thriving tourism industry is the backbone of Cypriot economy. Apart from interesting historical landmarks and diversified geography, beautiful beaches and clear Mediterranean waters, warm in the summer months, is what attracts visitors most. The majority of the tourists comes from Russia, but there are also throngs of Germans, English, Scandinavians, Western Slavs and Israelis. Located at an equal distance from three different continents, Cyprus is a gem of the colourful, diversified Mediterranean civilisation.

St. Paul never came back to Cyprus, but his disciples established a Christian stronghold in the following decades. St. Barnabas became the first bishop of Salamis, and St. Lazarus of the Four Days the first bishop of Kition (now Larnaca). The Church of Cyprus was granted autocephaly in 431. During the Ottoman rule, the archbishop became the head of the Christian majority, and it is no wonder, therefore, that Archbishop Makarios III became Cyprus's first president after the 1960 independence.

The island has about twenty larger inhabited monasteries, and most of them have a considerable monastic population. Perhaps the best known monastic communities are found on the Troodos mountains, occupying the entire southwestern quarter of the island. Its highest peak reaches almost 2000 meters above the sea level. A former abbot of one of the monasteries of Troodos mountains, Panagia Macheira, is well known to the American Orthodox public. Father Maximos from Kyriakos Markides's Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Christianity is now Metropolitan of Limassol Athanasius. Still in his fifties, he is a charismatic spiritual leader who demonstrated great integrity last year by refusing to sign the decisions of the Pan-Orthodox Council of Crete. Metropolitan Athanasius recently stated his opposition to the official visit of the Pope to Cyprus, stating that Papism is heresy in danger of scandalising the souls of pious Christians. A disciple of St. Paisios of Mount Athos and Elder Ephraim of Arizona, he possesses the ability to discern the traps for the contemporary Orthodox Church.

On my pilgrimage to the Cypriot monasteries, I did not visit Panagia Macheira, nor did I meet Metropolitan Athanasios, but I managed to see a couple of interesting spiritual centres. Monastery of St. Thekla the Healer is located about eight kilometer off the Larnaca-Nicosia motorway on the wavy slopes just outside the town of Mosphiloti. It was founded by Saint Helena of the Crosses in the 4th century. People inflicted by skin diseases come to the monastery, since the spring on which the church was built has healing powers. Pilgrims collect the mud from the grove in the cave and apply it to their skin. Numerous miraculous healings have been recorded. The entire courtyard of the beautifully ordered women's monastery is covered in vine leaves and large grapes.

The road to Troodos mountains leads through the outskirts of Nicosia. The ascent is sharp at times, but the road is well kept and not too dangerous. Located on the southern slopes of the Troodos mountain range on the altitude of around 1500 meters is the 13th century male Trooditissa Monastery. Situated among tall pine trees, it commands a picturesque spot. The present church was built in 1731 and contains a priceless silver-leaf covered icon of the Virgin Mary brought from Asia Minor. A belt dedicated to Theotokos after an 1864 miracle is taken out of the altar for childless couples to help them conceive. A sign on the gate warns the tourists they are not allowed to enter the monastery, but the sanctum is open to pious pilgrims.

Somewhat shielded from the numerous tourists and their worldly amusement needs, monks have been leading ascetic lives on these mountains in silence and contemplation for centuries. Their position as the watch-tower of Eastern Christianity has given them awareness of the fleeting nature of this world and the proximity of the end time soon to bust open.

Svetozar Postic

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