Karakallou Monastery on Mount Athos; Tuesday, 2nd. September 2010; 0630.
I was waiting in the courtyard west of the church; my two companions had been at the morning service since 0500. I could hear the rise and fall of the chants, punctuated once by the clashing of the censor. Candles were visible, dimly through the windows.
It was still dark, the monastery obstructing any view of the eastern horizon, and signs of sunrise.
The air was clear and cool. At the zenith the half-moon reflected moonshine enough to see details of the buildings, and bats flying round the church.
A brilliant morning star shone down about twenty degrees west of the moon. Pure white, no twinkling, a tiny disk to the naked eye. The planet Venus, in glory.
My companions emerged from the church. Knowing Ilias is interested in astronomy, I drew his attention to the moon and Venus. He became excited, pointing and calling 'Aphroditi, Aphroditi!'. His voice echoed round the courtyard: a strange name to be heard in such a place.
Aphroditi shining into Karakallou, unseen by the monks buried in the church.
He explained to me that Aphroditi is the morning star, Hesperos the evening star: two names for Venus in opposite chords of her orbit. She may also be called Eosphoros, 'dawn-bearer'. In Latin she is Lucifer, light-bearer.
[Lucifer became a name of Satan. This association may be more apt now we know that Venus is hellish. She has a dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide, a surface hot enough to melt lead, and the brilliant white we admire is sunlight reflected from clouds of sulphuric acid. But she retains her great beauty at our distance.]
In Tolkien Venus becomes The Flammifer of Westernesse, the Silmaril on the ship bearing Earendil, doomed forever to be the herald of dawn and a sign of hope to mortal men.
But these musings were interrupted by the procession of monks coming from the church, black hooded heads bowed, eyes unlifted, black cloaks blowing in the breeze: comparison with the bats still flying was inevitable. With my companions I joined the end of the procession into the refectory with icons in bright paint on every wall, to sit at the pilgrims' table. After a lengthy grace, a monk reading a holy text timed the 10-minute breakfast of pasta, with feta cheese and - surprisingly - red wine.
And then, alas, time to pack up and leave this beautiful place.
On the road from Karakallou, these Ricinus plants graced the wall retaining one of the monastery's vineyards.