Sitting in a cave in Meteora Greece, a few days after Fierce Light has screened at the Thessaloniki Film Festival. A soft rain has driven me off the purple, yellow white flower speckled mountain trail. Like Mount Athos, Meteora is a land of towering ancient greek orthodox monasteries. Unlike Athos, women are allowed here, and there is even a convent, named St. Stefanos.
Although I am not a Christian (I was raised a Baha'i, used to call myself a sufi buddhist baha'i punk rocker, but now I simply say I'm a divine human, being), I have a deep sense of respect for all things holy, and the impetus behind the religious calling. I make a point of trying to cut through the dogma, to the deep devotion that often resonates profoundly in places of worship. I seek the true mystics, the ones who's hearts are on fire, who have transcended the rigidity of structures to that place beyond concepts where the source of all that is sizzles.
But always, irony abounds-for example, the orthodox religion were the ones who invented the word dogma (not to mention the word Orthodox). And of course, for them, the word has a positive connotation: it means to be faithful, and to follow the precise pathway to God -just so. Dogma is seen as a divine security blanket that keeps us from falling astray.
It is ten years since my previous visit to Athos. At that time I was wide eyed and innocent, in many ways, a naïve pilgrim embarking on a new journey of discovery. It was far from the beginning of my spiritual search, but the beginning of my first hand investigation of the worlds holy places, seeking a path, a system, a doorway into divinity, as I circled the planet, visiting everywhere from the Avebury Stone Circle, Lourdes, Athos, Konya, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya, holy native sites in North America-a wide journey into the heartland of many of the worlds beliefs systems. In each of these places, I took time to really steep myself in their wisdom, spending time in spiritual retreats inspired by each of the faiths I encountered.
I left that journey with a clear understanding, articulated in Fierce Light: it is the essence of the worlds religions that matters to me, not the particular form. Spirituality is beyond form. Way beyond.
A few days later, I find myself wandering through Meteora, where the monasteries perch high atop pinnacles of rock, safe from invaders. In the past, the only way to enter the monastery was to be hoisted up by rope. Perhaps too, the devotees feel closer to God, up in the clouds.
After hours of winding through the awe inspiring moss covered pinnacles, alongside sparkling glades, I climbed the spiralling staircase to one of the monasteries that clings to the rock steeple, impossible stone acrobatics.
I entered the church, it's byzantine dome painted with ornate frescos, glittering gold halos and angel wings. I was greeted by an Orthodox monk dressed from head to toe in black. I told him I had been to mount athos, an excellent icebreaker in these parts, and asked him to remind me of the greeting: evlogites, which means "bless me!" To which one replies, akirosos (no doubt spelt wrong): I cannot bless but God does, through me.
He showed me around the church, explaining the significance of the many ikons. I asked why so many figures are dressed in red, and he explained that red is the god colour, and blue is the colour of the earth, except in the case of Mary - then red is the colour for earth and blue is the colour of God. Interesting for me, as I am shooting a film called Redvolution: Dare to Disturb the Universe. It is about the path of what co-director Sera Beak calls "red" spirituality - becoming your own spiritual authority, being a spiritual outlaw, truly knowing yourself, your authentic Self. It is about embodied spirituality-a passionate, sexy, spirituality that isn't afraid of ecstasty, that celebrates life, being human, that sees God in all things.
Meanwhile back in the church...
Transfiguration...metamorphisis....extasis...theosopis...greek words were flying about. My new monk friend explained that to him extasis -ecstasy-was the stuff of other religions, like the eastern religions, and it was an escape. Much like our induglence in the "sweets" of life, like women. Yikes. Clearly the orthodoxy was created by men.
The orthodox path is about transfiguration, he explained, and metamorphosis-through the correct rituals, prayers, divine love and grace, one clears away ones heart and allows God in. It is about theosopis, not extasis. Joining with God not escaping into ecstasy.
I didn't argue-I never argue with the faithful - but between you and me, I have to beg to differ. For me, God is also human, God is also creation, God made all of this amazingness, and I have a hunch She wants nothing more than that we celebrate this magnificence. Her magnificence. With depth, and divinity, for sure, but celebration nonetheless. And that celebration can be joyful, it can be ecstatic, and it can be quiet, it can be sober. It can be both/and. God doesn't fit well into boxes of this not that. God has a bigger palette than that. God wants us to go for it, to burn bright, to be fully embodied and fully ecstatic, all at the same time, in waves and particles, particles and waves - both/and. That's my two cents, just the tip of my tongues worth. But I kept it there, on the tip. It's not for me to argue with a monk, but to listen respectfully, and take what he has to offer, and leave what doesn't fit behind, in that holy place. With respect for his calling, his commitment and his sincere love.
As we were leaving, I told him perhaps one day I would return to Mount Athos-it is a beautiful, holy place.
"Yes", he said, "but the real holy place is right here". He tapped my heart, "wherever we are."
I couldn't agree more.
"Pray for me" he said, as I stepped outside the monastery gate, into the sunshine.
Now, as I walk through the stone trails, lined with purple flowers, sun glistening, flocks of birds swooping and gliding, I can feel the presence of divinity everywhere. It is in the very air. As I walk in the midst of the sublime beauty of creation, it is clear that this is my communion. And that for me, as a spiritual rebel, I will always be a little, and sometimes a lot, unorthodox.