The Less Traveled Path of Ossios Loukas

by Gerald Ring

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Thick snow blanketed the mountains and valleys in the Beotia region of Greece on February 7, 953 A.D., the day that a hermit named Loukas died in his cell on a remote mountainside. But Loukas did not die alone. In November of the previous year, he had prophesied his coming death. For weeks the peasants of the region had been arriving on foot – trudging many miles through difficult and snowbound terrain – to receive his last benedictions and healing touch.

None could have imagined then that Loukas’s humble hermitage was soon to become the great Monastery of Ossios Loukas (Blessed or Saintly Luke), a Byzantine monument comparable to the finest buildings of Constantinople, decorated with exquisite paintings, marbles, and mosaics. Almost 1000 years later, pilgrims still wind their way through the mountains to light a candle and pray for healing there.

The monastery is on the Greek mainland, almost overlooking the Gulf of Corinth and about 100 miles northwest of Athens. Until just a few years ago, a visit from Athens to the monastery required an arduous journey over a narrow, twisting, and badly potholed road. After the Greek government invested heavily in widening and improving it, there are still many twists and turns on the road, but one can comfortably reach the monastery from Athens in less than four hours.

This new road was not, however, constructed with the monastery in mind. Its destination lies ten miles beyond the turnoff to it. The pre-Christian site of Delphi, where the ancient pillars of pagan shrines and temples rise from the green hillside into the smokey-blue mountain air, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Of these modern-day pilgrims coming to pay homage to the gods of a bygone era, only a few make the short detour to the lush, fertile valley of Mount Helicon, with the Monastery of Ossios Loukas planted on its slopes.

The comparative handful that make the effort are amply rewarded by the aesthetic and artistic achievement they encounter. Here the beauty of God’s own creation and His works through human hands come together in perfect harmony. Surrounded by almond and olive groves, and shaded by oak, chestnut, and ageless spreading plane trees. Loukas could not have chosen a more delightful site to found his monastery. Its amazingly wellpreserved paintings and mosaics are a rare and valuable tribute to Byzantine art. In the whole of Greece – a land brimming with Byzantine relics – only two other eleventh century churches have preserved their decoration to a comparable degree. Of the three, Ossios Loukas is the finest.

The man in whose honor this magnificent building was erected lived a life of complete contrast to its opulence. He was born about 896, the third of seven children of Stephen and Euphrosyne, who had fled the island of Aegina to escape the Saracens. When Loukas was born, they were living in Kastri – a different name for Delphi itself. The oracle and other pagan shrines had by then crumbled or been covered by the sands of time. (The excavations which restored much of the ancient city were started only last century.) Byzantine Christianity was firmly established, and Loukas was born into an observant family.

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