Agia Lavra and Mega Spileo Monastery

“EIPHNH”—Peace. “OXI PIA POLEMOI”—No more war. 

I pause, frozen, for what seems like eternity whenever I stare at these words cast in huge white letters on a quiet hillside in the Northern Peloponnese region of Greece. At the top of the hill, a large cross overlooks the city below, and a date reads 13-12-43. All serve as messages of peace and symbols of the martyrdoms that took place there.  

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On December 13, 1943, Kalavryta experienced one of the worst atrocities of World War II. On that day, Nazi soldiers locked women and children in the town’s school and set it on fire. Soldiers took over 500 males from Kalavryta and surrounding villages to that quiet hillside. German soldiers lay in wait in the surrounding brush. On command, the soldiers fired at the unarmed mass of men, killing all but 13. 

Today, a stone monument stands tall in memoriam and lists the names and ages of the dead. The first time I visited Kalavryta with my family, both my brothers wept as they stared up at the monument, seeing that the youngest person killed was just 12 years old. Pete was 14 at the time. Mikey was just 6 but he has always been highly aware of emotions. He understood the tragedy. In the town itself, a sympathetic German guard had unlocked the doors of the burning church so the women and children could all escape. These survivors claimed the bodies of their lost loved ones. I can’t even imagine the sorrow the town experienced from this one tragic day.

I always take the somber mood of Kalavryta with me to visit the two nearby historic Orthodox monasteries, Agia Lavra and Mega Spilaio. Their stories offer historic balance.

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image via Ionian Village

Since 961 A.D., the Agia Lavra monastery has experienced multiple tragedies and even greater triumphs. Different forces have attempted to destroy this holy place by fire—the Ottoman Turks in 1585 and the Nazi troops in 1943—but the monastery still rises from the ashes and stands strong today. Agia Lavra, the symbolic birthplace of the Greek Revolution in 1821, inspired Greek revolutionaries who fought for their independence against the Ottoman Empire. Centuries of Turkish rule met their match at Agia Lavra. It was here, outside the gates of the monastery, that Bishop Germanos raised a revolutionary flag and the famous Greek motto “Eleftheria I Thanatos” (freedom or death) launched the revolution. That very flag is on display in the monastery’s museum along with historic treasures from the revolt. The vestments of Bishop Germanos, the many ceremonial Christian crosses, and that original white and blue banner still make a loud and proud cry for freedom.

image provided by Ionian Village

Just a few miles away from the town of Kalavryta, Mega Spilaio, or “the Monastery of the Great Cave,” holds similar treasures that time tried to destroy. Mega Spilaio resembles a fortress, built on a steep slope and rising eight floors high. On that same dreadful day, December 13, 1943, the Nazis not only plundered precious valuables but killed the residing monks by shooting them or throwing them from the cliffs to their deaths. They set Mega Spileo on fire, and the few monks who survived hid in caves, protecting relics and icons. Through this firestorm of tragedy, an icon of the Virgin Mary remains, painted with beeswax and mastic by Saint Luke the Evangelist. Yes, Luke who wrote the Gospel of Luke. That miraculous icon has survived multiple fires and natural disasters since its discovery in 362 AD.

Image provided by Ionian Village

Greece’s spiritual and cultural history owe much to Agia Lavra and Mega Spilaio. Along with the monasteries, the mountain town of Kalavryta remains a testament to the strength of the nation and the resilience of the Greek people. Peace, they remind us all. No more war.

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