THE SPIRITUAL TRAVELER
Visiting the cave on Patmos, where John wrote The Book of Revelation, is a profoundly moving experience. Or is it just cave gas?
“Happy is the person who reads and happy those who listen to the words of this prophecy and heed what is written in it. For the hour of fulfillment is near.”
I hate caves. Okay, huge caverns, preferably complete with tour guides, are all right. They can seem like underground cathedrals. But anything smaller feels like a rocky funky womb to which I have no fetal desire to return. One never knows who or what might be skulking inside. So why fly 11 hours from Los Angeles to Athens, connect via death-cab to Piraeus Harbor for a 12-hour ferry ride during which the squeaky fan above my bunk bed spat nonstop crud, all for the purpose of sitting in a cave? Call it curiosity, morbid and otherwise, about one special cave on the remote Aegean island of Patmos where John, aka St. John the Divine, also St. John of Patmos, wrote the book of Revelation, the Bible’s most harrowing horror story.
Going to the Greek Islands to commune with the divine is on the face of it, a ridiculous thing to do. No place is more devoted to this-worldly pleasures, to the godless, hedonistic “whore of Babylon” against whom John railed passionately. Yachts, nudity and hook-ups galore, it is the perfect place for the Antichrist to re-emerge. So it was with no little trepidation that I entered the Cave of the Apocalypse, as the locals call it.
What I feared might be just some slippery, mossy hangout for teenagers getting stoned is actually a lush underground chapel, fastidiously maintained. This cave is, well, cavernous. The entrance is a great maw of boulders, the nave big enough to squeeze in the entire LA Lakers basketball team, plus the Boston Celtics. But when I went to Patmos in May just before high season, only a dozen or so visitors poked their heads in over the course of the day. The reward for their eyes was not stalagmites and stalactites but tapestries, scriptures and icons of gold.
I sat myself down in the chair nearest to the three holy cracks in the wall. According to local Christian tradition, the wIsdom of the Trinity emanates through these cracks: one crack for God the Father, one crack for God the Son and one crack for God the Holy Spirit. John would somehow receive the holy messages and then speak them out to his faithful scribe, Prochoros, who in turn transcribed what has come to be the most widely known and deeply feared apocalyptic vision in Western history.
After two hours of sitting there and inhaling the Trinity, I was blessed with the first miracle of my trip: the skinny, rickety hard-assed wooden chair I plunked myself down on had become as comfy as an overstuffed Barcalounger.
I could have sat in John’s cave for the rest of my life.
(Is the John who wrote Gospel According to John in flawless Greek prose the same John who later authored Revelation, which had numerous spelling and grammatical errors? John was a learned man, a doctor, an educator and a painter, the first one to paint Mary’s portrait. Tradition holds that this John and the John who wrote “Gospel According to John” were one and the same man but there is little scholarship to support this claim.)
Get high, see God? I have come to believe that the serene ecstasy I experienced in that cave was the result of inhaling what is sometimes known as “cave gas”. Decreased oxygen levels and elevated carbon dioxide, nitrogen, radon, and hydrogen sulfide are conditions typical to caves. When carbon dioxide levels, normally 0.04% of the air we breathe, climb above 2.00% of the available air supply, effects on respiration and pulse rate become noticeable. And when CO2 reaches 3.00%, delusions, aka visions, proliferate. Is Revelation just the product of two guys, John and Prochoros, stoned out of their gourds on cave gas? (Might explain all those grammatical errors.) Did the air inside that cave loosen their grasp of reality? Or did it tighten their connection to the divine?
My speculation about the role of cave gas is in no way meant to be dismissive of their phantasmagoric New Testament masterpiece. Lest we forget, caves have incubated some miraculous literature, most notably the Qur’an, which was revealed by Allah via the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad during a series of meditations conducted inside a Mecca cave. By Islamic tradition, known as “hadith,” Muhammad was illiterate, although some scholars allow for the possibility that he acquired rudimentary reading and writing skills while traveling with trade caravans to Jerusalem. One way or the other, this simple Arab tribesman with an affinity for caves articulated the holy book that launched Islam.
If caves are good enough for St. John the Divine and for the Prophet Muhammad then they are good enough for me.
That’s one of the things I love about travel. It opens you up to improbable ideas. Take Patmos, a seaside hamlet, irresistibly bucolic, a fine place for grilled octopus, tzatziki, feta and ouzo after a crystal clear swim. (For all its wonderfully fresh and tasty fish, lamb and salads, Greek cuisine has one major flaw: no garlic.) How utterly unlikely this sweet little island to be the birthplace of a book that somehow manages to be both an immortal literary masterpiece and a grandiose nightmare that has festered in our collective psyche for almost 2000 years! St. John’s prophecy retains its sacred, honored place as the concluding chapter of the Bible, and, perhaps, of humankind as a whole.
It was lunchtime, which meant that I had been communing with the Apocalypse cave spirit for about three hours. The darkness was glowing with candles and gold. Greek Orthodox icons, the best of them anyway, have a special way of enchanting their beholders. Of course they glorify God Almighty, his son Jesus and all the saints. What’s unique to the genre of Christian artwork is that its golden crosses, auras, rays and other features also help satisfy our worshipful attraction to the Sun. What might seem like blasphemy is really just common sense. If you could look straight into the Sun for as long as you wanted to without fear of pain or injury, wouldn’t you do that, especially if a holy face were waiting to smile back down at you? It was, in fact, a gloriously sunny day outside and I was seized by a powerful urge to escape the apocalypse womb and gaze, eyes naked, into Sol, our blazing star above. But my comfy chair, a highly sensitive creature, embraced me firmly, lovingly neutralizing the threat. I didn’t move an inch.
What would a Hollywood version of Revelation look like? TV series or movie, either way the special effects department would have a blast. “In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like golden crowns, their faces were like human faces and their hair like women’s hair. They have teeth like lion’s teeth, and wore breastplates like iron; the sound of their wings was like the noise of horses and chariots rushing into battle; they have tails like scorpions, with stingers in them, and in their tails lay their power to plague mankind for five months. (Revelation 9, 7-11)
Five months of being chewed upon (but never quite eaten) by famished warrior locusts. That’s a story begging to be filmed. Elevator pitch: Revelation: The Movie is a New Testament knock-off of Book of Daniel, an Old Testament horror flick. I know who will be great for the score: Amy Winehouse! With AI these days, it doesn’t matter that she’s dead. That poor girl. That poor insanely sexy genius junkie bitch goddess is a perfect match for the heavenly mayhem—the seven plagues (Covid counts. So do the locusts) mega-quakes, burning lakes, monster storms, people gnawing their own tongues and such. The great Armageddon Good versus Evil battle could be scored to the tune of, “You Know I’m No Good”, a huge Winehouse hit. Of course, who composes the film score is ultimately up to the director. Hitchcock is available. Through AI.
Another deep-dive meditation and three sharp toothed serpents popped out of my forehead. Startled, I opened my eyes and the snakes disappeared. I closed my eyes again and the snakes were still there. Opened and closed yet again, and the snakes were still there. Not a hallucination exactly, but neither was it just a dream. Unlike the locusts, the serpents weren’t armed but were still able to gobble down the locusts greedily. The middle snake arched its head back and, like a Pez candy dispenser, out of its neck came a glowing pellet. Serpent Pez was tempting me. The risk was mine to run. Should I pluck out the candy and pop it into my (imaginary) mouth? Of course, there was probably nothing divine or supernatural about what I was experiencing, just self-suggestion hyper stimulated by the long journey from California and the evocative apocalyptic setting. Still, I had come to Greece seeking revelation and I was offered one in the form of that piece of candied sunshine.
Call it caution,, call it cowardice, call it anything you want, I passed on the offer. If there is one lesson we learn from the Bible, it is not to accept tasty gifts from snakes.
No way I was leaving Patmos without paying my respects to its spiritual leader, or archimandrite (the Orthodox faith equivalent of archbishop in Catholicism). Archimandrite Antipas takes his name from Revelation 2:13, as God’s faithful witness who was murdered in Pergamum, the city where Satan was said to have his throne.
Today the archimandrite serves as sovereign of the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse. He is also abbott of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian, an imposing white castle with sweeping views of the Aegean.
The monastery was built on Patmos’s highest point in the year 1088 to defend against pirates and Turkish marauders. Both cave and monastery received certification as UNESCO World Heritage sites while under his authority. It is said that the Archimandrite knows the Book of the Apocalypse by heart in ancient Greek and has written learned commentaries about it. So I wrote him a note requesting an audience. He responded that he would receive me for lunch at the monastery the next day.
Travel tip: It never hurts to send a note to the local dignitary of a place you are visiting. You never know whom you will meet, where you’ll get invited, what adventures might result.
Next day it became clear that my note to the archimandrite had been necessary but not sufficient. To meet with him in person, one first has to be vetted by his lieutenant, Elder Mark, who grilled me for what seemed like hours on who I was, where I came from and what I believed. My being from California was graciously forgiven. The fact that my maternal grandmother was of Eastern Orthodox faith bought me a little good will but not nearly enough, I reckoned, to get past this guy. I had to think quick, make a bold move. Reasoning that there is nothing quite so attractive to a zealous clergyman as a sinner in need of redemption, I played my “Greek” card, boasting that the first book I wrote was all about Gaia, the Greek goddess of Earth.
Elder Mark was appalled. There was a pagan in the house, a woman-worshiper, some Greek woman no less. And they were about to serve it/me lunch! Elder Mark to the rescue. He parked me on a bench outside the Archimandrite’s office, steeled himself for a moment, knocked, and went to do battle inside. Muffled argument sounds. Elder Mark emerges and whooshes me into the office. There sat Archimandrite Antipas, a middle-aged clergyman in traditional Orthodox uniform of high flat-topped black hat, super long gray-flecked beard, flowing black robes, and a great silver ankh medallion.
The man who more than anyone else on the planet embodies the Apocalypse rose from behind his desk and extended his hand.
“Plant more trees. Use less machines,” said the Sovereign of the Cave, amiably inquiring as to the purpose of my visit. I blurted out the pressing question: Where are we today in the unfolding of the Revelation chronology? Subtext: Is the end near? How near? The Archimandrite reminded me that the Gospel says that no man shall know when the end is nigh, referring to the quotation of Jesus in Matthew 24: 35-36 “Heaven and earth will pass away, my words will never pass away. But about that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels, not even the Son, only the Father.”
I was ready for that one, and responded that while Jesus proclaimed that no man would know the exact date when heaven and Earth would finally come to an end, he made no such declaration about the events such as those described in Revelation that would lead up to the end of time grand finale. Jesus cited certain signs such as the Sun and Moon darkening, the stars falling from the sky, people making crazed lamentations, that would indicate that the end is near.
So I repeated my question: where in the end-times process are we?
The Archimandrite explained that John’s vision is not so much symbolic or metaphorical as it is highly encoded to conceal it from those unable to perceive its deeper meaning. Few people, he said, are spiritually fit to receive Revelation’s message of finality, transcendence and redemption. I retorted that I had no desire to know that which I had no right to know. That was a lie. Knowledge is like money, the more you have, the better off you are, right?
The Devil made me do it.
On impulse, I confessed to the two hoary clergymen that Satan aka Serpent Pez and I had had an encounter in the Cave of the Apocalypse, right there on their home court. I asked the Archimandrite’s forgiveness but my heart wasn’t in it. For one thing, I had turned down Pez’s glittering bribe; by my lights that’s righteous, big time. And yes, it’s true, I abstained from the golden candy less out of virtue than fear of getting poisoned, but those guys didn’t need to know that. Bottom line, I landed on God’s side of things. That counts for something, right?
Apparently, God counts for a lot, maybe everything. Antipas, as he invited me to call him, leaned toward me as though to share a morsel of gossip. Was I familiar, he wanted to know, with “the Mark of the Beast?” Vaguely. I had assumed it was some sort of tattoo or brand, maybe a graphic conflation of “$” for lucre and “S” for Satan? Whatever the particulars, I was damn sure I didn’t want that thing anywhere near me or my loved ones.
To Antipas, the Mark of the Beast is basically any computer microchip, GPS, RFID, smartphone, Internet cookie —anything electronic carried or implanted in or on your body or clothing that tracks your whereabouts, shows purchases, associates, medications, or transactions, thus weakening our personal freedom from Satan and his interns.
In short, AI.