Sunday, October 27, 2013

Slogging Through a Wonderful St. Demetrios Day

It was a wonderful day, mind.  But it started early, ended late, and wasn't easy in between.

We got up in the deep darkness, arrived in the Church of St. Demetrios still in the deep dark (7:20).  That's the church built over the spot where the Saint was imprisoned and killed, in a Roman bath.  His relics are here.

St. Demetrios is one of several illustrious saints Thessaloniki has given the Church, but in this city, he is the favorite.  St. Gregory Palamas, another famous Thessalonian, called him the sun among the stars.  

I suppose, to explain about the Feast of Saint Demetrios, we have first to say what a saint is, in Orthodox Christianity.  "Saint" means holy person and there is a sense in which we are all made holy in Christ and the term rightly applies to all of us, but that isn't the sense under discussion here. 

Well then, a saint is not just a super-religious person who shows great devotion (Francis of Assisi) or writes beautiful religious poetry (John of the Cross) or renders great service to a religious institution (Ignatius Loyola) or has a towering personality and fabulous intellect (Bernard of Clairvaux) or does heroic deeds (Joan of Arc).  For us, Christ is the yardstick, the measure of holiness.  The criterion is, to what degree do we see Jesus Christ's own Life being lived in and through this person?  How well has he or she succeeded in becoming full of compassion, kindness, humanity, humility, self-sacrificing love?  To what degree is this person Christ-with-skin-on?

And the Orthodox believe such a person, still filled with the Holy Spirit after death, continues whatever ministry God had given him or her in this life.  Thus, the Lord's Mother is still the mother of all God's children.   And Saint Demetrios still, by his prayers, aids his city, Thessaloniki, entrusted to him by God.  To his intercessions is credited the rescue of the City from plague, from the Bulgarians, several times, I think; and it was on his feast  in 1912 Thessaloniki was liberated from the Ottoman Turks.  So his feast day is a national and especially a local holiday.  Christians here meet to praise God for this Saint, to sing songs in the saint's honor, and to commemorate his life and death. 

So by the time we got through all the police guarding every intersection near the Church, every approach  but one being closed, it was 7:20 and the downstairs was already hopelessly packed.  We headed up to the balcony, two and a half flights of steep stairs, where we found exactly two seats left, from which anything could be seen.  We wanted to be able to see the proceedings.  We had stayed strictly away from this church after our disastrous experience  there on this day in 2007,   when we became lost from each other and never did find each other again until the middle of the afternoon, at home, each meanwhile fearing the other had met with foul play.  But today, the Patriarch of Constantinople was serving the Divine Liturgy, so we came back, sticking to each other like glue.

Matins was already in progress.  At 7:40, the bells began ringing loudly, joyously, signaling the arrival of Patriarch Bartholomew.  We couldn't see him at this point, but he would have arrived in plain monk's garb, and would have been helped, at the back of the church, out of the black robe and into his flowing purple ad gold cloak, cum train.

Attended by a dozen other bishops and several priests, he led us in the Great Doxology, after some initial proceedings, and by just about 9:00, the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy began.  If I tell you that by 10:30, we had only gotten a far as the Lord's Prayer - about, what? two thirds of the way through the service? - you will understand something of what it was like.

Meanwhile, people just kept arriving.  I knew they would, but our seats, providentially, were right beside what you might loosely describe as an architectural feature (something like bleachers having been constructed in the balcony) that kept them at some small distance from us.  That, plus the fact I was able to look all the way up the aisle to the front of the church, kept my claustrophobia manageable.  (The church is at least the length of two football fields, maybe three.)  People just kept coming and coming and I grew more and more restless.  There were easily 700 of us, just on the balcony, thousands more below.  At some point, someone mercifully turned on the air conditioning and then I felt I could breathe.  The late arrivals had not even stopped when the early departures began, people going to receive communion and thence home, as there was no place for them downstairs and they weren't about to tackle those exhausting, crowded stairs a second time.  

There is exactly one stairway to and from the balcony, so it stayed busy the whole time.

At some point, late in the day, the dignitaries began putting in their appearance, filling up the center front of the church, which  had been kept clear for them.  A big chair, gilded, red velvet seat, was set in the center for the President of the Republic.  The Prime Minister, Mr. Samaras, was still in Brussels, where he belongs.  The Foreign Minister stood next to the President, and behind them, on one side, the rest of the ruling elite; on the other side, the top brass of the military.  Guards all up and down the aisle.  We had changed seats by now, finding empty ones nearer the front, so we had a good view, directly above them.

The Patriarch's sermon was wonderful!  The subject - what else? - was the Love of Christ.  Of course he alluded to the story of St. Demetrios, by whose prayers a young Christian named Nestor defeated Emperor Galerius Maximian's favorite giant gladiator, a Vandal named Lyaios.  And the Patriarch told us, Do not be afraid of the contemporary Lyaioses;  St. Demetrios is still praying for you and the same thing will happen again.  Not meaning we should do nothing!  Rather, that in our contest  with the contemporary big guys, we will win.  Of course the "contemporary Lyaioses" were standing right in front of him as he spoke!  Beautiful!   Not sure they got it, likely not.  But it took rather a lot of courage for the Patriarch to say this, the more so, given he lives among hostile Turks and depends so much upon Greece for various kinds of support.

Of course, what the Patriarch said  is exactly what the song of St. Demetrios says, too.  We sang it about five times, I think, in all.  (Instead of the one time it is always sung here.)  People sang it with great fervor and gratitude and hope.  

The world has found you to be a great defender
a champion in times of danger
and a vanquisher of heathens, you bearer of trophies.
As you bolstered the courage of Nestor,
who then humbled the arrogance of Lyaios in battle,
in like manner, holy one, great Martyr Demetrios,
intercede with Christ God for us, that He may grant us His great mercy.

At the end, our local Bishop, Anthimos, had us all sing the national anthem, a paean to Freedom.  We sang that with great enthusiasm, too: "Hail, hail, O Freedom!"

Here  are some Internet photos, mostly of the Lyaioses present, but ignore the ignorant captions.  This was a regular Patriarchal Divine Liturgy, much like the usual Liturgy, with added touches customary when a patriarch is serving it.  it was not some sort of "glorification ceremony," whatever that is thought to mean.   The 14th photo was taken from where we were.

We departed while the Patriarch was still being greeted by the big-wigs, working our way single file through a double police cordon outside and exiting the grounds through an opening that admitted just one person at a time.  It wasn't the Patriarch the were protecting; it was the contemporary Lyaioses.  

It was twelve noon.

We stopped at a little eatery where we had some breakfast pastries.  A marching band came by, playing "Macedonia", a patriotic song.  I was near tears, thinking what a proud but pathetic son;  "Macedonia the renowned, home of Great Alexander."  That's really pathetic, I said to Demetrios, for a little nothing country  to have to go back that far to find someone to be proud of.  He promptly reminded m that this was nonsense, that Greece, right up to modern times, has never lacked for heroes and martyrs, and proceeded to educate me about some of the more recent ones.

We went home and collapsed.  I couldn't tell whether my back or my feet were hurting more.

At night, we hosted eight of our friends for a St. Demetrios dinner at a taverna.  Here are some photos.  We got home at midnight.  Demetrios came home with a new shirt, tie, pullover, and book, and our friends brought a box full of chocolates just for me.  

Phideas, our nephew, Christos' son.  It's his nameday, too, as his middle name is Demetrios.

Ianna, left, and Mena

Pelagia, telling a funny story, and George

Manolis and Vasiea

George and Leonidas

Ioannis, "the Theologian"

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


 I've just re-read Hamlet.  There are 8 deaths during the play, incluing his own and the deaths of all those dearest to him (not counting the murder of Hamlet, Sr., which happens before the play begins).  Hamlet is directly responsible for at least four of these deaths, and indirectly responsible for all the rest.  

How did that happen?  How did he, literally and figuratively a prince of a man, starting out as a victim and gaining our strong sympathy from the start, end up being by far the main villain of the piece?

As I see it, his first mistake was to allow himself to be ruled by passions.  So your mother conspires to kill your father; that's strong stuff and obviously extremely hard to handle.  Within weeks, she marries the man who physically carried out the deed; that's even tougher.  But you just don't go all suicidal over it and carry on with whether to be or not to be.  To be is an unfathomably glorious gift and suffering is there to teach us wisdom, not to freak out over.

Hamlet' second mistake was to listen to his father's ghost.  That should be too obvious to need comment.  It's just superstition to suppose that until our bloody thirst for revenge is gratified, a dead person cannot rest in peace.  It's we who perhaps cannot.

Third mistake, setting himself up as judge.  The simple, sober fact is that we just do not know enough to judge anybody, even supposing we were righteous enough to do it without comdemning ourselves in and by the very process.  The first thing we do not know is anyone else's heart.  (It's hard enough to know our own.) The second thing we do not know is how much we ourselves have contributed to someone else's sin.  This is because our contribution to it is often very indirect, and also because we prefer not to see it.  But the truth is, every one of us has added his/her share to the rotten way this world is, so nobody's sin leaves my supposed innocence untouched.  The third thing we do not know is what we ourselves would do in the same situation.  We think we would NEVER do this or that; we promise ourselves we never shall, but when the challenge presents itself in real life... This is why we pray, "Lead us not into temptation," meaning do not put us to the test– because humility, which is just the correct perception of reality, compels us to admit we may flunk!

And then Hamlet's ultimate mistake was to set himself up as executioner.  Do this, thereby placing yourself completely into the hands of the devil, and he whose constant aim is to kill us all will use you to cause more horror than you could ever have imagined.  

And that, to me, is what this play is about.
Wonderful site, presenting Shakespeare's original text side-by-side with a modern text.  
The one is sublime, the other more accessible, so we get the best of both.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Not About You ( or me)

An Orthodox worship service is not about making you feel comfortable in church.  It is not about educating you, amusing you, or entertaining you.  It is not about converting you, not about  evangelizing you; there are six other days a week for that.  It is not about using you to grow the Church.  It is not about making you feel good, giving you an emotional high so you will say you have been "fed".   It is not about inspiring you or comforting you or encouraging you.  It is not about making beliefs or practices seem more palatable to you.  It isn't about giving you pointers for a more successful life.  Although some of these things do happen in an Orthodox service, the fact is, it isn't about you at all.  

It's about God, the Holy Trinity, as revealed in Jesus Christ.  It's about God and what sort of worship best pleases HIM.  It's about remembering all His kindnesses and infinite mercies, His miracles, and all He has accomplished for our salvation.  It's about acknowledging Him, about praising and thanking and blessing and petitioning and glorifying Him.  It's about singing and praying to Him.  It's about offering ourseles, each other, our whole lives, one another, and our world back to Him.  It's about communing with Him, sharing in His mystical Body and Blood.

That's Who it is all about.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nights Out, Part 2

Last Thursday night, we met at the house of Ioannis and Mena, and here are some pictures from there.

Ioannis, with Mena

Vasilis, Demetrios, Ioannis's wife Mena, and the other Mena, widow of Kostas


I only took photos of some of us; the others must await another time.  To tell you the truth, I wanted to show you the house in this case.  The only people of this (theological discussion) group I haven't shown you so far are Takis and his wife, Maria.  They usually come late.  Maria has Altzheimer's and getting her out is obviously an increasingly difficult job.

The house, or the compound, rather, is for sale.  Very nice property in the country.  Mountain views.  Spacious apartments for all of Ioannis and Mena's children.  One, however, is a nun in a nearby convent (in Souroti) and the others don't want to live out there where there are no jobs and there's nothing for young people to do.  So Ioannis and Mena are upping stakes to live in ttheir city apartment.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Nights Out

Out theological discussion group has been meeting every other Thursday as usual.  I do not find it

of particular interest, except because of being with our friends.  Here are some of us, at the home of Manolis and Vasilea.


Mena.  Those three poles in the background are the masts of a model ship.  To the right of the chimney and behind it is a dining room, while to the left is a home office cum ship.

Mena again, and the knee of Vasilis, her son.  Grand piano gets lost in this room.



Stephanos, Manolis'es and Vasilea's son.  He is NOT mentally handicapped; he is spastic.  Cannot speak and drools continuously.  He is also the happiest human being I have ever met.


This is well worth a read!!