Key Points:

Early morning chill mixes with keen anticipation as we leave our cruise ship and board a launch heading for Patmos.

It's Sunday, and this is the island where St John the Divine received the Revelation - recorded under that name in the last book of the Bible - and as theological students "following in the footsteps of Paul and John" this is a profound moment for my wife, Fran, and me.

As we descend the steep steps to the Cave of the Apocalypse, where the Revelation is said to have been received, we're greeted by chanting and incense and, when we're inside, by a sense of reverence. It's the kind of environment where your pace slows, your eyes drop, your senses quicken.

Five laymen chant a cappella in stalls on the left, the priest responding mainly from the altar area behind life-size icons. Even though it's early in the season, tourists, quiet and respectful, outnumber the faithful, who come and leave quickly, crossing themselves, lighting candles, kissing icons.

The service is mysterious, ancient, mesmeric - unfamiliar to us Western believers - and yet there is a sense of richness and holiness that transcends culture and language.

This is the way it's been for 2000 years on tiny Patmos, just 34 sq km of Greek territory in the Aegean Sea near the coast of Turkey, but an island that holds a disproportionately large place in history.

In legend, The Iliad's Orestes took refuge there, pursued by the Furies. It has been occupied since around 500BC by Carians, then Dorians, Ionians and, from the 2nd century BC, the Romans. It was taken over by the Byzantines, then Turks, Venetians, Italian fascists and Nazis, before returning finally to Greek hands in 1948.

The oldest settlement is on the Castelli Hill - the walls of the old Acropolis with its remains of the temples of Apollo and Dionysus and a hippodrome dating from the 6th and 4th centuries BC can still be seen. But it is the religious history of Patmos that is truly remarkable.

Christianity progressively displaced pagan worship of traditional Greek gods and goddesses, with St John's presence and the events surrounding him on the island setting it apart.

Patmos became St John's home "because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Revelation 1:9). Tradition has it that John was taken to Rome where he was thrown into boiling oil at the Latin Gate, emerging unscathed, and was then exiled to the island.

He is believed to have lived in what we now know as the Cave of the Apocalypse and the voice of God is said to have issued from a crack in the wall. The cave is now surrounded by a monastery complex and every niche and hollow has its own story relating to John, including a three-fold seam in the ceiling which apparently appeared during the Revelation and represents the Trinity.

The Christian presence on Patmos can be traced back virtually unbroken to the time of John.

Different peoples, civilisations and religions have come and gone for two millennia, but Christian worship has been maintained - through equal measures, perhaps, of God's divine protection and practical defence mechanisms, such as 15m walls with a little balcony known as "the Killer" for pouring boiling oil on the heads of any who sought to break in and make off with the monastery's treasures.

For security, the monastery only has two entrances and the town is deliberately labrynthine to confuse attackers.

Patmos has had one of the most important and best-organised libraries in Christendom for nearly a thousand years, since the foundation of the monastery in 1088 by a monk named Christodoulos (Slave of Christ).

The island was granted world heritage status by Unesco in 1998, which said, "There are few places in the world where religious ceremonies that date back to early Christian times are still practised unchanged. The monastery, the Cave of the Apocalypse and medieval town constitute an exceptional example of a traditional Greek Orthodox pilgrimage centre of outstanding architectural interest."

Pilgrimage, of course, is experiencing a renaissance among believers and non-believers alike.

The Santiago de Compostela across northern Spain and the pilgrimage of Lourdes in France are alive with modern pilgrims - some on day trips, some spending weeks walking these well-worn routes - as they seek to encounter God, or perhaps just the time and space to reflect more deeply on life and its meaning.

Patmos, too, has long been a place of pilgrimage, and as a site which is holy to both Western and Eastern Christians is alive with breadth and depth of faith.

We only get about 20 minutes in St John's cave, then spend an hour in Christodoulos' monastery nearby - another service, more incense, more chanting - and at the compelling little museum, which features some of the earliest remaining handwritten translations of the Bible (5th and 7th centuries), fabulous icons including one from the great artist El Greco and ancient vestments which, incredibly, are still used as part of Easter celebrations.

But by now it's mid-morning and already it's time for we tourists to leave, the tyranny of a sailing schedule which allows only a few hours on the island. Besides, pathetically, we are hungry, having left the cruise ship before breakfast.

As we depart, worship at the cave and the monastery continues, apparently unaffected by our visit. It's been like this pretty much for the last 2000 years. Neither, one suspects, will it change much in the next millennium.

Our tour takes us 16 days through Greece and Turkey, travelling from Philippi and Thessaloniki in northern Greece down to Athens and Corinth, then across the Aegean via Patmos to Turkey where we see the ancient sites of the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3.

It's a study tour - part of our masters in ministry through St Stephen's University in Canada - and is preceded by three or four months of intensive preparation.

It's also something of a personal pilgrimage: walking where Paul and John walked, wrote and were inspired; getting a sense first-hand of the immensity of the miracle that was the spread of the early church; seeing places that for a New Zealand reader of the Bible are easy to dismiss as just names rather than literal towns and cities where people lived and breathed.

But the pilgrimage aspect is blunted by a hectic travel schedule: up at 6am, on the bus at 7.30, into a new hotel at 6 or 7 at night.

There's regular amazement at knowledge gained, understanding dawning and a sense of walking in the path of the founders of the Christian faith, but spiritual experiences need time for reflection and processing and on this trip such time is rare. This is not, nor is it meant to be, walking the Santiago de Compostela.

Nevertheless, after having read the plaques and inspected the artefacts like a tourist, I find myself connected, by faith more than practice, to these ancient yet still active and powerful expressions of Christianity in what has been dubbed "the other Holy Land" and I leave feeling a little wiser, a little less trapped in the box of my own spiritual experiences and a little more in awe of God and his church. I had no revelation on Patmos, the place of the Revelation, nor in any other of the biblical sites we visited. But, spiritually, and naturally, I am enriched by having been there.

However, it's not just believers who can expect a rewarding experiences in places like these.

In Thessaloniki, we swallow gritty, sand-warmed Greek coffee and sample heavenly pastries sitting under the arch of Galerius, the Roman emperor from 305 to 311 (and a ruthless persecutor of Christians, by the way).

In Athens, we drink ouzo while bathed in the light of the breathtaking 5th-century BC Erechtheion, the smaller, poor cousin to the Parthenon on the Acropolis, but for my money way more impressive.

In Mycenae (Greece) and Troy (Turkey), we struggle to comprehend how these walls could truly have been built 3000, 4000, even 5000 years ago.

We also see the sites of Paul's and John's New Testament writings: the pipes in Laodicea where the water was "neither hot nor cold" (Revelation 3:16): the theatre in Ephesus where Paul's presence caused a riot among the silversmiths who made idols to the fast-fading goddess Artemis (Acts 19:23-41); and Mars Hill in Athens where Paul preached to members of the Areopagus to reveal the identity of their "unknown god" (Acts 17:16-34).

Such places are compelling, overwhelming even, as hundreds and thousands of years of history, tragedy, achievement and human ebb and flow become an almost physical presence.

Pilgrim or not, it's good for the soul.

Vic Francis pastors the Shore Vineyard Churches in Auckland and is a former Herald sub-editor.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
Vic Francis travelled with US-based Pilgrim Tours, www.pilgrimtours.com, but tours of Patmos and other biblical sites are offered by numerous secular travel agencies throughout Greece and Turkey.