June 23, 2021

History of the Oldest Monastic Settlement of Meteora, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Just above the village of Kastraki rises the very high rock known as Agio Pneuma (Holy Spirit). It takes its name from a small church dedicated to the Holy Spirit, carved around 950 in a cave at the top of the rock of the same name by an ascetic named Barnabas. Barnabas is one of the first anchorites of Meteora for whom we have written sources. It was here that the oldest monastic settlement of Meteora was established, but is no longer in operation today as a monastery.

The long-shaped caves on the north side of this same rock, as seen from the side of the main road where scaffolding is still visible inside, indicate the spot served as a place of punishment where the monks of Meteora were sent to repent under great austerity. This is known as the Prison of the Panagia.

Every year for the celebration of the Holy Spirit on the day after Pentecost the inhabitants of the village together, young and old with the priest, go up an accessible path to the church on the rock to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

The Monastery in the Life of Saint Athanasios of Meteora

We read in the Life of Saint Athanasios of Meteora, that when he climbed up to this Monastery in 1334 with his Elder Gregory the Stylite, they found a chapel dedicated to the Holy Archangels; today this same chapel is dedicated to the Holy Spirit. At that time the rock you had to climb to arrive there was called the Pillar of Stagon. Among the first monks there under Elder Gregory was the Hieromonk Anastasios the Stylite.

In 1344, Elder Gregory left Meteora, having become dissatisfied with the local rulers, and went to his homeland in Constantinople, where he reposed in peace. Athanasios and the two hieromonks Gregory and Pachomios caught up with Elder Gregory in Thessaloniki, desiring to follow him to Constantinople, but he made them turn back, saying that their destiny lay at Meteora. He made Athanasios the spiritual father of the hieromonks Gregory and Pachomios, while Anastasios he made abbot at the Pillar of Stagon.

However, while everyone was away, Anastasios suddenly fell ill. Having studied for many years "The Ladder" of St. John Climacus, and bringing to mind the Prison of Repentance written about within, he ordered his fellow stylite monks that were with him that upon his death his body was to be thrown down the ravine in order to become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. When the venerable father Anastasios died, the holy stylites decided they could not dishonor his body as he wished, so they wrapped it up in a robe and placed it in a pit of the rock, where they left it to the providence of God.

When Athanasios returned with the hieromonks Gregory and Pachomios, he called for all the monks to gather together, to inform them that Anastasios was to be the new abbot. However, he was shocked to hear that not only had Anastasios died, but he was never given a funeral. Suddenly they saw a crow among them with the thumb of Anastasios in its beak, which began to devour it in front of them. Athanasios was shocked by the depth of the humility of Anastasios. Athanasios then went to the pit to collect what was left of Anastasios in order to give him a proper funeral and bury him. After this, Athanasios departed for his cave at Great Meteoron and left the hieromonks Gregory and Pachomios at the Pillar of Stagon, and they later established the Hermitage of Venerable Gregory.

Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Four centuries later, the Chapel of the Holy Archangels became known as the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, for unknown reasons. By 1782 it was known as the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, with cells and trees.

The French archaeologist Leon Heuzey in 1858 mentions the Monastery of the Holy Spirit among eleven other monasteries of Meteora and states that he learned about it from the local oral tradition.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, there were two iron crosses on the two peaks of this huge rock, as Photis Kotopoulis informs us. The very high one oxidized and fell from lightning around 1945. On the feast of the Holy Spirit, the people of Kastraki took it down, hung a handkerchief from it and put it back in its place. Today they have erected another iron cross on the lower top of the Pillar of Stagon, today known as the Rock of the Holy Spirit. The second iron cross was towed by helicopter by modern German climbers, who offered it to the Barlaam Monastery. Today it is kept in its treasury.

Characteristic is the description of the first ascent in 1918 of the writer Photis Kotopoulis from Kastraki, before part of the rock was demolished and thus the access became easier:

"I climbed this rock, for the first time, on the eve of the celebration of the Holy Spirit in the year 1918 and at the age of 15 then. The ascent was done by climbing. The height from the base to the point where an iron stake was embedded in the rock reached 30 meters. A thick rope was tied from the stake, with which, holding the climber in each of his steps upwards, he had to alternate each of his hands upwards and so he climbed.

I, a coward about climbing, after I reached about 15 meters high, my legs began to tremble. I could not bear it and I went down, but I definitely had to go up, because I also had a mission to fill in for the absent chanter the next day during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. So they urged me to eliminate part of my fear, to tie myself around my waist to hold me and so I managed and climbed. In the morning and after the end of the Divine Liturgy I noticed that on a coffin there were various iron tools and some worn books. 
Since the 1950s, however, the ascent has become easier and without ropes, from a height of 50 meters it was cut off from the highest peak of the Holy Spirit and slipped downwards, where it collided with the place where the stake was and broke the rock with the stake and in a little while it also became rubble. Everything was shaken and the people of Kastraki could not understand exactly what happened. A dazzling flash came from the impact and a scary boom."

The miraculous thing is that, while the stones reached the nearest houses of Kastraki, there were no injuries or deaths.

Similarly, the writer from Kalampaka, Antonis Papageorgiou, informs us that the stake from which they hung the rope for climbing was 15 meters away from the ground. After 1948 - he writes - the path became easier with the fall of a clinging rock: "One night in March 1948, due to erosion, a large part of the rock was cut off, from which more than 25,000 cubic meters of building stones were produced. It has since become more accessible to the adventurous climber."

During the civil war, the people of Kastraki went up to the cave of the Holy Spirit to be saved from the calamities.

Since 1994, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit has been a metochion of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity.