Archipelagos: a large group or chain of islands. Connected islands of refuge. Places of sanctuary in a swirling sea of movement and thoughts. An inner place of stillness for safety, security, rest, recovery and renewed energy. Sanctuary.
Today was a hot day with temperatures in the mid thirty degrees Celsius. We walked thirty five kilometres passing orchards and climbing hills with scrubby forest and dry hills.
We descended a hill walking along a stony path lined with sharp thorny underbrush bleached and dried by the summer sun that had just made way for early autumn. The thorns leaving my legs scratched and bleeding. There were irrigated orchards of apples and juicy peaches and occasionally the run off from a leaky pipe created pools of water. These became little islands of moisture in the dried landscape for frogs.
Further along there were other puddles and pools of water – an overflowing pipe bringing ice cold spring water from the mountains provided the perfect habitat for these amphibians.
These frog islands scattered along the trails became islands of survival for frogs, an archipelago of islands in a sea of dryness and heat. In this isolation these creatures could wait out the long hot dry periods before the winter rains came.
Villages along the path also provide well needed reprieve from the fierce heat and blazing sun for pilgrims. In some countries like France and Greece where the water is potable they provide a refreshing drink.
Today we stopped in the small hillside Greek village of Nisi. Its miniature square at a crossroads in the village came with a shady tree and water fountains. Ice cold mountain spring water gushed out continuously from stone spouts into a stone basin.
As I prepared to set off again out of this little island of reprieve from the sun I drank and filled my water bottles with the refreshing ice cold elixir quenching my thirst. I also soaked my t-shirt and hat in the water that I could only keep my hands in it for a few seconds before the pain of cold water saw me remove them. Putting the t-shirt on was exhilarating and as I made my way into the sun again the cool water evaporating off my clothing insulated me from the heat.
As we walk through north western Greece on our way to Thessalonika I have noticed little Christian Orthodox shrines along roadsides, hillsides, and besides remote orchards as well as outside people’s houses.
As I walked I have wondered what these shrines were for. One would assume that these were erected to commemorate a tragic traffic accident. This may the case in some instances, yet being placed on the edge of fields and orchards points to these having a different function.
These little shrines contain an icon of a saint and often with the more tended ones, like the one I walked past on the edge of a remote orchard, it had a little paraffin lamp burning within. It suggested to me that these shrines were to worship a saint to provide prosperity and good luck.
I tend to want to believe this. So much so that as I walk past these shrines I say a silent prayer, and see them as a reminder to be aware of my current thoughts. I see them as little refuges, little spaces where my thoughts can rest.
Kandilakias are little islands in a vast archipelago where as I walk through the landscape my thoughts can rest a moment at each spot along the way. Combined with the cool and refreshing water fountains and village squares both my body and soul can be refreshed.
Chapels and Churches
Chapels and churches in remote areas and in villages also provide islands of refuge, places of coolness from the fierce heat of the day, to sit in stillness to rest one’s soul and wear body.
Many also are islands of a different sort…
I remember some time ago reading about Ethiopian church forests. These are tracts of relict forest species that once covered much of Ethiopia. Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia created living symbols of the garden of Eden around their places of worship. There are over 35,000 church forests ranging in size from a few acres to three hundred acres. They are islands of green in a denuded arid landscape. 
Today I was reminded of these church forests as we approached the town of Edessa walking from the direction of the small village of Nisi. There is a church on a hill and in the church grounds are a few large girthed old oak trees. In the couple of days walking through dry hills and low growing forests these were the tallest and oldest trees I had seen.
Yesterday we passed a couple of chapels on a hill surrounded by dry stony rolling with sparse vegetation. Their quiet interiors provided a welcome reprieve from the sun and to sit silence in the coolness of these holy places.
Caves and remote places have also throughout history provided refuge for individuals or groups fleeing persecution. Hermits have often been associated with living in caves where they could find solitude and rest from the world that they had retreated from.
My parents and ancestors came from the Maltese islands, an archipelago of islands in the Mediterranean Sea. The word Malta may have been derived from maleth meaning hiding place as there is evidence of Neolithic cave dwellers from 3800 B.C. on Malta.
I am also reminded of a legend I heard once about a young girl who fled into a cave as the Ottoman Turks invaded Malta in 1565. The story goes that a spider spun its web over the entrance of the cave and as the invaders looked from the mouth of the cave they didn’t enter as the web indicated that it was undistsurbed, thus saving the girl from being killed or taken into slavery. This story of a cave providing refuge has been celebrated as a miracle by the local people.
The word refuge comes from the Latin refrgium equivalent to refugere – to turn and flee or run away.  Refugees are fugitives fleeing persecution, war and torture. As we walk through Europe on our way to the Holy Land, I think of the refugees heading the opposite way. I think of the Syrians fleeing war traveling thousands of miles often to find asylum. 
I think of their journey and the perils they must endure and the persecution many experience along the way. I think of how it must be like to have to flee one’s home and the fear and hardship they may experience crossing borders and sometimes refused entry. I think about after a long day of walking I can think of nothing more than a cold shower, dinner and rest and how these basic necessities may be denied to refugees.
I also think about the Palestinian refugees who fled their homeland to escape being killed in the 1947 Great Tragedy or Nakba. We walk in solidarity with these displaced peoples and ‘in penance for the broken promises and political fixes‘ that the Balfour Declaration was part of.
I think of the refugee camps and the inhumane conditions they must endure in them. I think of the land of Palestine and those peoples who daily must endure water and power shortages, and brutal treatment under occupation, hemmed in by walls that restrict tighter and tighter their freedom of movement.
In Palestinian Arabic there is a word to describe the people’s courage and steadfastness. It is sawm (pronounced sa–oom).
I can only imagine what it must be like to wake up and daily have to meet incessant challenges – restricted freedom of movement, dealing with tragedy of murdered or displaced relatives, water, food and power shortages, restriction of building materials and building, walls to keep them hemmed in, the threat of being killed by settlers as you harvest your fields, waiting at checkpoints and the constant threat of being arrested for no reason, the litany of challenges goes on.
Yet get up each morning they do. Yet each day they continue to be steadfast and never give up. They have shown incredible resilience and physical restraint against powerful adversaries. It is in this place of inner stillness that the candle of hope burns when these oppressed people find hope – hope that one day they will no peace in their land.
It is in this place that the elderly who were driven out of their homes and made refugees living in foreign lands in refugee camps find hope. They keep alive their return to their land as many hold the keys to their homes they had fled 75 years ago in the hope that they and their children will one day soon return.
Drawing From The Well
Sawm is that place of stillness inside that they draw from. It is a well of stillness that many of us would be better for being able to find it within ourselves. It is a cool place within that refreshes them on their long walk to freedom. It is a place of hope where a candle burns like in the kandilakia. Each day they seek a new inner island of refuge in a sea of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Within all of us there is a place where only we can enter. It is a private place, a sanctuary, a retreat from the outside world. It is a shrine where a flame ever burns. It is quiet, cool and comforting.
To reach this place doesn’t take great physical effort walking hundreds of miles to reach. In fact it requires no physical effort except the effort to sit quietly and still. It is in this stillness that I am able to retreat to that part of me that gives me safety and refuge.
Inner Island of Refuge
Along this journey to Jerusalem I have found it increasingly important to find this stillness when the majority of my waking hours is in the process of constant moving, of walking. Even thoughts are moving while I traverse the landscape.
Just like kandilakia here in Greece are little islands, reminders of something past, a tragic death, or a stopping point for a moment of gratitude, stillness, so too are they a reminder to find my inner stillness.
As I continue through Greece, kandilakia remind me to carry this inner peace, this light of hope, even in movement, in each action, each step.
Archipelagos of Stillness
How do you find your inner stillness in a sea of thoughts? How do you traverse the oceans of overwhelm island hopping from one refuge of stillness to another?
In a world of oversaturation of information and communication it is important that we connect to our inner stillness regularly, swim to those islands of stillness, of solace, of refuge.
It is in these sanctuaries of peace that when feel the light has burned out in our external world we can find the goodness that once covered the earth, the hold onto the vestiges of forests, to plant new trees, new thoughts, to draw from the well of stillness and hope, to refresh ourselves, to give us the energy to continue, to walk another day.
Fresco image Wikipedia Commons https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siege_of_malta_1.jpg#mw-jump-to-licens
The siege of Malta (1565) – Arrival of the Turkish Fleet
Date 16th century
probably in the grand hall of the Palace of the Grand Masters in Valletta
Blog post written September 16th 2017.