We are visiting Thessaloniki, following in the footsteps of St Paul. The Epistles may not be our compass point (we are using Mark Mazower’s Salonika: City of Ghosts, a history-cum-travelogue, as guide) but the figure of the burly and hot-tempered martyr casts a long shadow over this city.
It was in Macedonia that Christianity first arrived in Europe and it fills the 14th-century monastery of Vlatadon, with its beautiful display of gold-leafed icons and vaulted ceilings.
In 51 AD Paul preached here (it was a temple back then) about the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah. His fiery words must have inspired members of the small Jewish community in this multicultural port city: he told them about Jesus of Nazareth and his extraordinary prophecy of glorious and eternal happiness for the poor and meek of this world.
Benedict XVI, in his slim little book about St Paul, quotes St John Chrysostom to explain what it must have been like to be in the Apostle’s audience: “in the same way that fire, in setting light to different materials, burns ever stronger… so Paul’s words won over to his cause all those with whom he came into contact.”
We are the uninvited guests at a traditional Greek Orthodox ceremony – a young couple are sealing their vows, 40 days after their wedding.
They look adorable and adoring, she in a floor length white dress, he in a suit and tie despite the baking heat. Their guests are in finery, and there is a stunning many-tiered cake on show outside, with little mementoes of sugared almonds for the 50-odd guests.
I can’t help think the tradition should be changed, so that the newly married renew their vows 40 months after their wedding: 40 days is not long enough to be irked by her monopoly of the bathroom, or frustrated by his love affair with his smartphone… Forty months in, instead, and the bride and groom know one another a lot better, and are in need of some outside validation that, yes, marriage can be frustrating and even irksome, but in the long run it is wonderfully rewarding.
As we walk the sunny, breezy boardwalk and pier, I find myself wondering if St Paul sat and preached here, too, or merely basked in the rays that warm the port, full then as now of net-mending elderly fishermen and stall-keepers selling water and wine (now, it’s Coca Cola and ouzo). I bet that with his rough ways, sharp tongue and hot temper, the Apostle frightened the little children who were rushing and shouting, chasing one another. Though I am sure, as children seem to do, they quickly understood that this cantankerous middle-aged man was more than what he seemed.
Cantankerous because, according to a friend who is writing a biographical novel about Paul, the Apostle was in constant pain – epilepsy possibly or recurring malaria. I can’t help but think that whatever the ailment, Paul should have lingered a bit longer in Thessaloniki, to benefit from the fresh sea air and sun.
The hotel offers an amazing breakfast: pastries, Turkish delight, Greek yoghurt with honey almonds and walnuts, fresh strawberries and kiwis… As we munch happily, we are charmed by a young couple doting on their baby. They have brought him/her in a little Moses basket, and they are cooing and whispering sweet nothings to it. They look, proud and expectant, down into the basket.
I can’t resist, so I approach their table to take a peek at the little bundle of joy. A furry black face, with triangle ears and a brownish snout looks back at me. This was no baby but a puppy. Pope Francis was all too right to warn against the way pets are replacing babies as the focus of adoration.
St Francis taught us to love animals, as we are their stewards; but it simply doesn’t feel right to elevate our four-legged chums to human form.
The trip to Thessaloniki meant missing a surprise party for Lord Alton that was held at the House of Lords last week. The party marked 40 years since he was elected to Parliament, a young, long haired 28-year-old. If anyone deserves the epithet “conviction politician”, it is David Alton.
His deep faith has fuelled his remarkable career, and time and again his strong-held belief in the sanctity of life has led him to clash with his party, and his colleagues. When he resigned from the Lib Dems in 1992, because the party decided to make abortion a party policy rather than a conscience issue, he wrote a piece for the Catholic Herald, that was as eloquent as it was emotional.
“Be sure you put your feet in the right place. Then stand firm.” Those words of Abraham Lincoln’s could be applied to very few politicians today; but they fit Lord Alton to a T.
Cristina Odone chairs the Parenting Circle charity