On a trip to Greece a few years ago, my husband and I island-hopped. That meant arriving without a reservation for a place to stay, with just a small backpack and one other set of clothes. And using ferries to travel between the islands, where entrepreneur-ish elderly women are always waiting at the port to offer a place to sleep for a small charge.
Ron and I initially flew into Samos, and a few days later, we took a ferry to Patmos. I’d wanted to see it for a long time, because it’s mentioned in the New Testament. Historically, Patmos is the island where Apostle John was exiled by the Romans. John was around 90 years old, the last living Apostle. And while on the island, he wrote The Book of the Revelation. So naturally, Patmos has become an important Christian pilgrimage site.
Ron and I took the ferry from Samos to Patmos, with a Greek Orthodox monk in black robes as our captain. We were nursing injuries from a motor scooter accident the day before, when we’d wrecked on a winding mountain road while searching for Pythagoras’ cave. My arm was in a sling, and we both had bandaged legs. We felt miserable, but we were determined to get to Patmos, to visit the cave where John had lived.
We stepped off the boat at the harbor of Skala and already felt better, as if there’s something restorative in the air. It was late afternoon, so we found a place to stay and bought food. Whenever we visit Mediterranean countries, one of us gets up first each morning and goes to find fresh-baked bread in the village. That first morning, we sat on our terrace, and I actually read The Revelation over breakfast. An amazing moment, to read any kind of sacred scripture at the site where it was written!
Then we took off to find the Cave of the Apocalypse, where tradition says John received his visions. The monk who had captained our boat was stationed in the cave as a sort of spiritual tour guide, telling visitors how John used to go down to the harbor to preach and baptize. The stone where legend says John rested his head is covered in silver. And there are several significant carved-out places in the cave walls. Initially, Ron and I wondered whether a certain niche in the rock was John’s soap dish or his toilet paper holder.
Ron and I don’t take life too seriously. And although we gravitate to sacred sites and appreciate the love and devotion expressed through faith, we still like to examine the meaning and sanctity that people place on things and ideas. For instance, when we visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City – which houses Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin’s cloak, on which the Virgin Mary miraculously impressed an image of herself in 1531 – to get a close-up view, we had to ride a short conveyor belt past the cloak, moving left to right with the rest of the crowd. We found the cloak extraordinary, but we had to laugh out loud at the conveyor belt, which seemed so bizarre in such a sacred place.
Back on Patmos, our monk-captain eventually explained that the niche in the cave wall was John’s grab-hold place, so he could pull himself up from the stone floor. Listening to him speak in Greek, telling the pilgrims about John, Ron and I eventually became still inside as we sat there on the ledge of a carved-out window overlooking the aquamarine harbor. The breath of sea breeze, the scent of sun-warmed pinewoods, sunlight streaming into the cave, the stillness, the lingering spirit – it was spellbinding. Eventually, the monk came over and spoke to just the two of us in English. And what he said could fit into anyone’s religion.
John came to the island of exiled criminals and found negativity and misery. But instead of succumbing to the situation, he was able to transform it, through his perspective. Instead of hiding out in his cave to avoid the violent criminals on the island, he went down the hill, stepped right into the middle of the pain and suffering, and apparently brought relief and peace to them. If you can’t change the situation, change your thoughts and beliefs about it, and the situation will also change.
And that message is still relevant after 2,000 years: In every situation, it’s possible to turn garbage into gold, or gold into garbage. And we do it through our perspective and our response. We always have a choice whether to be negatively affected when people and circumstances become challenging. And when we choose to feel good even though there’s no obvious reason for doing so, and when we believe that we deserve to be healthy and prosperous even though we’re presently struggling, our perspective of our lives will change for the better, and that will change our lives. When we resist and criticize, we depress our mood and we close heart-felt connections in our relationships. But when we feel appreciation, for anything, we elevate our sense of well-being and we open heart-felt connections with others. And the result is a more joyous life, no matter what our conditions are.