Saturday, October 9, 2010

Of Saints and Statesmen

Sunday, 03 October

We went to church at St. Spyridon, of course. It’s a very short stroll from our hotel. And we are so very glad we did!

The Italian occupiers, besides forbidding the use of the Greek language (which survived anyway), also forbade the further building of Byzantine-style churches. Churches had to look Catholic. That’s what the Church of St. Syridon looks like, complete with towering campanile. The icons inside also show Italian influence. The ceiling is covered with icons, the biggest being (so far as we could tell) a depiction of the Council of Nicaea. And each ceiling icon is surrounded by a frame, elaborate and gilded, almost Rococo. So as we approached the church today and a most unusual chant floated out to our ears, Demetrios said, “Italian influence on the music.”

But that’s not what it turned out to be. The music had Greek words and the usual Byzantine melodies but the arrangement and the harmony were distinctly – Russian! It was sung by an all-male choir and was beautiful beyond words. (Although if you listened very carefully, you could hear, discretely in the background, an organ. Or so we thought; later we decided it had been the trombone we saw one man carrying out of the church!)

Some portions of the Divine Liturgy were sung in Slavonic instead of Greek; gradually we became aware that two of the four priests were Russian. Then we decided the seven sailors standing at attention near us were Russians and so were the naval officers in their white dress uniforms. Then Demetrios pointed to a distinguished looking man sitting at the front and said, “He must be the Russian Consul or something.”

There was also an unfamiliar icon in front, of a Russian admiral of the 18th Century, complete with bemedalled dress uniform and white-powdered wig. (Checking on Google I've concluded he is Admiral St. Fyodor Ushakov.)


We had no idea what this Russian business was all about, but the Liturgy moved us to tears, it was so wondrous.

The sermon was on loving your enemies as God loves His, and the priest said the same thing I’ve said many times: only Christianity really preaches this kind of love. (I add that only Orthodox Christianity, specifically, teaches Christian love unadulterated by that dark passion people mistake for Justice; but I’m not sure the priest said that.)

Singing the Creed before the relics of one who helped write it was an amazing experience.

After the Liturgy, the priest spoke again and explained that this was going to be the annual Week of Friendship Between the Greek and Russian Peoples, and this shared service had been a part of that, in fact the kick-off event, if I understood correctly. That explains the two naval vessels we saw in the harbor yesterday.

We didn’t want to leave when it was over. When the crowd had thinned, we took seats and just sat there, feeling all weepy, and didn’t want to move. We didn’t have any idea how long we might stay and we didn’t know why, but we both just felt a strong reluctance to leave.

That was a very good thing because presently, in the murmuring all around us, we heard a woman say the casket of the Saint was going to be opened in ten minutes. We immediately stood up and got into the “line”, euphemism for a crowd. And our timing was perfect, because there were only a few people ahead of us when the casket was indeed opened.

Now when we say a saint’s body is “incorrupt,” not decayed, you are to understand “mummified”, at least in this case, and I think most of the time. Mummified, that is, without having been embalmed, which practice is unOrthodox. It’s not like Lenin’s “body” in Red Square, which was only wax, or Bernadette’s body, in my opinion probably a similar fake, which looks exactly as though she had fallen asleep two minutes ago.


The body of St. Spyridon is clothed in bishops’ vestments and red velvet slippers embroidered in gold threads. The head is slightly to one side, just as it was (we overheard one woman say) when he died. And you find yourself looking right into the face of a saint who was alive in the year 325, one of the great Fathers of the Church, one of the forgers of the Nicene Creed. One of those bishops, who as our new Canadian friend Matthew said the other night, gathered from all over the world and found common expression for their shared experience – the same experience we still share today.

We walked out of the church in a daze, and I looked through my tears into Demetrios’ eyes, and saw the same tears there. I do not know why this Saint is so very moving. He just is. We understand now, without being able to put into words, why the people here have such affection for him, feel such an intimate, personal relationship with him. I think rival religions simply have no chance here, against St. Spyridon. Forget it.

The next thing we wanted to do was find the house where Kapodistrias lived, the man who wrote the Greek constitution, and the house where Solomos lived, the poet who wrote a very long patriotic poem, the first two verses of which became the Greek National Anthem. They were both from Corfu. Both houses were easy to find, and Solomos’ house was very near the metropolitan (cathedral) church, where, we learned, lies the incorrupt body of St. Theodora. Yes, that’s the Byzantine empress, not the most famous one, wife of Justinian, but “Theodora the Orthodox”, she who returned the Church from the heresy of iconoclasm.

We arrived just at the end of a Paraclesis service and the casket, all of chased silver, was open, but we didn’t know it. We just knew we didn’t want to intrude upon the four or five priests chanting the service in that little side chapel. So by the time we entered the chapel, the casket was closed again and the priest did not seem inclined to open it again for us. Never mind; we still venerated St. Empress Theodora. And then the same priest, as if to console us, brought us each a little gift: a tiny piece of the Saint’s veil. No, not the original one, not the one she was wearing when she died. It seems her veil needs replacing now and then, just like St. Spyridon’s slippers. Although the body does not deteriorate over time, the veil does. And whenever a new veil is put on the Empress, the old one is cut up into small pieces to be given away. So now we have two of those pieces.

We reminded each other of how a holy person’s holiness spreads to material things, to his body (Matthew 17:2 ) and to his clothes (2 Kings 2:14, Matthew 9:20) and to his belongings (Acts 19:12). So a piece of anything in which St. Theodora’s body has been wrapped is indeed a holy relic.

Next we went, by cab, to Pontikonissi, Mouse Island. It’s a little islet shaped like a mouse, in a pretty setting. There’s a women’s monastery near the island, a little removed from the mainland but connected to it by a short causeway.

Pontikonissi is one of three islands off Corfu laying claim to being Odysseus’ ship, turned to stone by Poseidon, god of the sea. Historians agree, however, that the site Homer was describing is probably on the other (western) coast of the Island, near Ermones. This is probably where Homer says he met Nausicaa, the daughter of the King of Corfu.

We weren’t ready to go home. Demetrios had heard that Paxoi (pronounced, roughly, “Pahk-SEE”) was very beautiful and he wanted to go there. We checked our medicines and found we had brought enough of each, so at 6:30 we boarded the ferry for that tiny island.

It was nearly 9:00 when we arrived, and dark. We found one of the five cabs on this island (Yes, literally 5), asked the cabbie about accommodations, and he phoned someone he obviously knew well, for he addressed her in the familiar form. Yes, she had a room for two.

We bumped over rough roads and turned into a dark little side street, smiling at each other over being in this somewhat ridiculous situation, and arrived at a hotel with no name, really just a house, where a man smoking a cigarette stood waiting for us.

He took our bag up a flight of stairs and showed us into our “apartment”.

Obviously, he and his wife had decided the top floor of their house could be made profitable, and so had very recently, it appeared, converted it into four small “apartments”. The pine furniture looked and smelled new: 2 single beds without box springs, a wardrobe, one nightstand, a desk and a chair. There was also a small television atop the wardrobe. There were two sets of sliding glass doors covered with red drapes and gold sheers, each leading out to a balcony with a table and chairs.

The bathroom, with a blue suite, was immaculate.

There was a kitchenette furnished with a microwave oven above a large sink, plus a stove with 2 burners. We never did check to see whether there were any pots or pans or any crockery or flatware. There was no fridge, but we could imagine a European family of modest means saving money by doing some of their own cooking here. There were no amenities, no shampoos and the like.

We looked around while the man stood smoking, and we said it would be fine. He tossed his cigarette stub into the toilet and said, “Forty Euros.”

“Do we pay you now or later?” asked Demetrios.

The man shrugged. Either way would be fine.

We paid him, in cash, right there.

“Is there anything I need to sign, any paperwork?” Demetrios asked.

There wasn’t, but the mention of it seemed to make the man feel there ought to be. So he had us write our names and our Thessaloniki address on a slip of paper I found in my purse. I’m sure he later threw it away.

When at last he had gone, curiosity having kept him hanging around for as long as possible, we opened the doors and shutters (to air out the cigarette smoke) and found each balcony overlooked a different little courtyard full of flowers and sheds. It was like a living painting. We were delighted!

We were also hungry. So we wandered down what appeared to be the main street until we found a place that was just short of being crowded, a good sign. In the front there was a spit over charcoal on which chickens, legs of lamb, and pork roasts were turning. We took a seat and ordered the chicken. Delicious!

A scrawny little cat was sitting at my feet; I tossed her a bite or two of my chicken. Another cat immediately appeared. I tossed him a bite as well; two more appeared. And then three tiny kittens. No wonder their mother was so skinny! I had to stop feeding them, as more and more were gathering.

The woman at the table nearest us laughed. “It’s no good feeding them, is it?”

So because it’s always nice to find someone who speaks English, we chatted quite a while. She and her husband are Brits, from near London. They have been here two weeks, in a rented villa, and are leaving tomorrow. They go to a different Greek island every year for their holiday. This is their 12th. They come just to sleep and relax in a picturesque setting. They swim and snorkel, too, but that’s about all. “There’s nothing going on here,” they told us. Perfect for them, perfect for us.

When we arrived back in our room, the cigarette stub was gone from the toilet and we could smell chlorine in the bathroom. I suppose the wife had given her husband the what-for and set out to rectify his faux-pas.

4 comments:

elizabeth said...

Wow; how deeply special; God always gives you blessings when you are in Greece; I notice this...

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