When Rob and I were planning our honeymoon in Greece, we knew we wanted to stay on the mainland. We would be traveling in winter, and many of the islands shut down in the off season. But in terms of specifics, Rob gave me free rein to plan the trip. He had only one requirement: we have to visit St. Ephraim’s monastery in Nea Makri.
If you haven’t met my husband or me, that would seem like a weird way for a couple to spend their honeymoon. But it makes sense for us, and most especially for my Aspiring-Orthodox-Priest husband, who credits St. Ephraim with saving his life.
Quick backstory on Rob’s connection to St. Ephraim: while Rob was working as a pastoral assistant in Raleigh, he was cleaning out an office drawer and discovered a locket. Inside, there was a relic (a piece of cloth) glued to a picture of a saint, and on the other side was a photo of a nun. Rob had no idea who either of these people were, but this locket seemed holy and important, so he did the only reasonable thing and left it where it was without thinking about it for two years.
Then one day at work, Rob was reading about a miraculous event taking place in the Midwest because of a 14th century Greek saint, and when he saw the icon of the saint, he realized this was the same one he’d seen inside the locket (along with the nun who discovered him). He did the math, and it turned out he found the locket only days before a miraculous, life-saving event occurred in his own life. Thus, he (and I) believe that through the prayers of St. Ephraim, Rob is alive and on the track he is today.*
*For the full story, please see Rob.
Therefore, we created a honeymoon itinerary based on getting to Nea Makri, a small town an hour northeast of Athens, while also visiting the opposite side of the country (I have to give a shout out to Juniper Tours, who did a stellar job in helping us). Our plan: fly into Thessaloniki and spend a couple of days there, walking along the promenade enjoying the best bougatsa in the land; drive down to Kalambaka and hike to the clifftop monasteries of Meteora; spend a week in the picturesque mountain villages of Pelion, where centaurs are said to have roamed; then drive through Nea Makri en route to Athens, stopping for a couple of hours at the monastery, before concluding our trip in the capital.
It was the perfect plan.
Our itinerary played out marvelously. The first nine days were full of our favorite things, namely eating Greek food, drinking warm drinks, walking city streets, hiking mountain trails–including a snow-covered ridge–visiting churches, and even attending liturgy in Makrinitsa, “the balcony of Mt. Pelion.” On the 10th day, a Thursday, we left our spa hotel in Portaria to drive to Athens. The internet said the monastery was open from 4pm-6pm, so we timed it so that we’d arrive at St. Ephraim’s monastery at 4pm, allowing us plenty of time to light a candle, pay our respects to the saint, and attend an evening Vespers service. We drove along happily, singing Greek songs and listening to podcast sermons.
A hush fell within our car as we neared the monastery. We ascended the winding mountain roads until the pavement turned to dirt. We drove slowly until we found ourselves in front of a large gate. It was tightly closed, with a giant chain and padlock holding the doors together. Beside the gate was a sign: open Saturdays 10am-12pm; Sundays 10am-2pm. There were no weekday hours, perhaps because it was winter or because of COVID. We had planned our trip entirely around visiting this monastery, and Google had led us astray. We would not be able to return during our honeymoon because our return flight left Athens on Saturday at 7am.
Rob spirit deflated, the heaviness of his heart palpable between us. He had traveled 6,000 miles for one moment with the saint whose prayers saved his life, and now he was stuck outside the doors with no possibility of getting in. To the right of the gate was a small mosaic of St. Ephraim, and Rob stood quietly in front of it for some time. Then he turned around and got in the car. I prayed a quick prayer, and said aloud half-jokingly, “Well, maybe our flight on Saturday will be cancelled and we can come back!”
“Don’t say that,” Rob said. “The last thing I need is to lose my job. I have to work on Sunday.”
And with that, we drove silently to Athens.
We spent our last day in Greece making the most of it: we discovered incredible hot chocolate, bought souvenirs in the market, walked around the city, and I may or may not have gotten a third (and final) tattoo. Rob made peace with our circumstances, and we resolved to visit Nea Makri next time. “We just have to return to Greece,” said Rob, which is music to my ears.
Early on Saturday morning, while it was still dark outside, our taxi dropped us off at the Athens airport. As we approached the British Airways counter, I saw that the line wound back and forth, extending far beyond the snaking ropes. We took our spot at the back, where we remained unmoving, until I flagged down someone who was fleeing the line and asked him what was going on. “Their computers are down worldwide and all flights are cancelled,” he said. “They can’t even rebook you right now. They’re just giving out vouchers for hotels.”
I panicked on behalf of Rob, since he needed to be at work the next morning, and we got on my phone to look at other airlines, other possibilities. We called my dad, who had not yet gone to bed in New Mexico, who got on his computer to aid the search. The only option we found required an extra $2,000, and we wouldn’t arrive in Orlando until 8am on Sunday (the same time Rob needed to be at church), thus missing the entire point. “I think the best option is to wait until British Airways reschedules us,” I said. “Let’s just get the voucher.”
With a heavy sigh, Rob acquiesced. He texted his boss.
A few minutes later, a light dawned. “Maybe we can visit St. Ephraim?” he said.
That hadn’t occurred to me, but yes. “THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT THIS MEANS!” I exclaimed.
From that moment forward, I was bound and determined to get Rob to the monastery.