Monday, July 25, 2005


Viewed from the top of Sarantaporos monastery, the mountain upon which Satan tempted Christ with temporal mastery of the entire world, Jericho spreads out flat like a woven green carpet thrown over the harshness of the stony Judean desert. This is monk country and it is no wonder that Sarantaporos mountain looms harsh and stark against the blinding midday sun as it rises high above the plain in an attempt to return to its maker. This is also the land of the hunted and of refugees. The mountains are dotted with caverns, hollowed out by monks who weary of the world and its temptations, sought refuge from it in times past, in the extreme nullity of the desert.
One of these, occupying pride of place in the monastery of St John the Hozevite, is the cavern of the prophet Elias, who sought refuge from the persecution of the depraved Israelite queen Jezebel. This monastery is situated in a miniscule model of the Grand Canyon. The endless course of an ancient river has carved deep incisions into the surrounding wilderness, providing not only a place of refuge but life itself. The disparity between the deathly yellow stone surrounding the valley and the verdant oasis surrounding the river, punctuated by solemn cypress trees is almost as equal to the expectation that the pilgrim has of meeting quiet contemplative monks, only to find at least one of them speaking English with a broad American accent and gesticulating wildly under a map of Greece, proudly displayed in the middle of the monastery's foyer. "You know," he says, "the world is full of heretics. Take for instance what happened to me today. These two Suryani women, journalists from Sweden came into the church and started to pray. 'What the hell are you doing?' I told them. 'This is my church, not yours.' But the devil tempts us, he fights us, he lies and tries to tell us that we are all one. With who? With the heretics and our robber Patriarch. Don't let the other monks tell you otherwise. The Patriarch must be removed. The other day, these men came from Hamas and told us that if he doesn’t go they will start bombing the monasteries…" His face emaciated by fasting and his beard prematurely gray from his quest to retire from the world, he bids us farewell: "See you all in heaven."
Jericho is the oldest city in the world. It is said to have been inhabited as a city five thousand years ago and this city, whose name is derived from a Semitic root word Yerihu meaning moon, is aptly named so for it is the moon and nothing else that dominates the night sky of this most ancient witness of human habitation, lust and savagery. Home to the Cannanites, it was one of the first cities to fall to the Israelites led by Joshua and a symbol of divine favour towards them. For all they had to do was blow their horns and the walls of Jericho came crashing down. What followed is best described by the primary source, the Old Testament: "And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword, "and they bunt the city with all that was in it…but all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron are consecrated unto the Lord: they shall come into the treasury of the Lord…"
There are no longer any walls in Jericho, though Jericho has changed hands many times since their destruction. Given as a present by Anthony to Cleopatra, Jericho eventually fell under the sway of the Caliphs and their descendants, the kings of Jordan, until the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967. Interestingly enough, Jericho was the first city to be handed back to the Palestinian Authority after the 1994 Oslo Peace Accord. Jericho is a vibrant, bustling town though its inhabitants rail at the erection of walls through other areas of Palestinian habitation in the West Bank by the Israelis, walls erected in mutual fear and hatred that will never be thrown down by the trumpet or the hand grenade but a concerted effort for peaceful co-existence.
The monastery of St Gerasimos, just outside of Jericho is also surrounded by walls, from which Greek, Byzantine and Jerusalem Patriarchate flags disturb the ultimate sky blue. This most ancient of monasteries, founded in 450 AD commemorates the desert hermit Gerasimos who unlike his antecedents in the region today, was able to transcend the wall dividing man and beast, healing a wounded lion called Jordanes, taming it and living with it and teaching it right from wrong. The abbot of the monastery, Abba Chrysostomos is also a modern day Gerasimos. His lion is the lion of hatred and indifference and he tames it through kindness, outspokeness and utter devotion to the monastic life.
St Gerasimos monastery is no ordinary monastery of comtemplation. It encloses expansive grounds which house a large array of farm animals and a great many crops, most of which are tended by the Abbott himself. These grounds exist solely for the benefit of the Palestinian community. Every year, hundreds are fed through the efforts of the Abbott, either with spiritual advice or food. For this reason, he is particularly beloved of them.
Proving that though the walls are nowhere to be seen there can always be walls within walls, the same cannot be said for the Jewish community. Militants from a nearby kibbutz, eager to acquire the monastery's land holdings have in past invaded it, beaten up the Abbott and otherwise subjected him to extreme harassment. When questioned about this he shrugs: "It's the will of God and with the will of God we are staying here, a beacon of peace and Hellenism."
With his hooked nose, rugged cheeks that are as eroded as the mountains of the Judean wilderness, black, close fitting skull-cap and large blue eyes, Abba Chrysostomos looks like a pirate. His eyes look deep into the pilgrims' souls and immediately gauges their heart. Then, his eyes never leaving you he speaks, touching exactly that point which has been burdening the pilgrims' hearts: "You may have heard much from monks and laity here in this land and seen things you may not have swished to see. All this will go once you return to your homelands and you will remember only how blessed you are to have been able to tread on the ground that Christ once trod during your lifetimes." Turning to one lady, who died only two weeks ago, two months after the event, he adds: "Especially you."
It is common knowledge that the monastery of Abba Gerasimos is a place of miracles. As Abba speaks, we glance up at the icon of St Gerasimos painted on the wall opposite the iconostasis, and gasp. The eyes are moving! Our mouths open in wonderment, we turn to the smiling Abba Chrysostomos who explains: "Abba Gerasimos is here, with us in this monastery and he protects us." At the end of his sermon, we are told that the icon of Christ crucified behind the altar sheds blood. There is no time to verify this, but in this place of wonders, anything is possible.
I sneak up to view the old church, rendered useless by the earthquakes that torment this troubled region and with a friend who is staying at the monastery, enter the monastic dining hall. On the far wall is an icon of Christ, a picture of President Stephanopoulos and the now deposed Patriarch Eirenaios. The glass on that last picture was shattered. "He was so infuriated with what is going on that he took the picture from the wall and smashed it over his knee," my friend tells me. "They have offered him the throne, should Eirenaios be deposed, but he refuses to take it. He feels his place is here."
As we leave, all the while Abba Chrysostomos exhorting us to retain our ethnic and religious identity in Australia, I turn to him and ask: "Abba, pray for my mother's health." He looks at me silently and pulls out a piece of paper from his cassock and writes "Υπέπ υγείας Ελένης." "No, don’t look at me like that," he smiles as I shudder. "St Gerasimos knows everything."
We leave the walls of the monastery as the sun sets and the Arab workers down tools and prepare to eat their meal with the Abbott. As our bus winds its way through the sinuous paths of the Judean desert, we reach a new set of walls, the concrete enclosures of the West Bank, hemming in so much frustration, dashed hope and despondency and I remember that it is no coincidence that some of our walls can even be seen from the moon, whether this be the celestial orb or its earthly counterpart, Yerihu.
First published in NKEE on 25 July 2005

Monday, July 18, 2005


“I want to talk,” says George Athanasiou in his Poem ‘Public Announcement.’ “Put the writing on the blackboard in white chalk/ as I chip away at the wall of silence and misunderstanding.”

No greater key can be provided to unlocking the secrets of his poetry. According to George Athanasiou, this is a matter of some urgency: “It’s getting late/ but I can’t wait/ because it’s not about hate/ but about the need to communicate.”
At the eleventh hour, when post-modernism has eroded the world of the meanings and constructs that gave it shape in the hearts and minds of the individual, leaving in its stead a valueless grey moonscape existence of blandness, coupled with craters of despair and disillusion, George Athanasiou dynamically asserts his unique voice in his ‘Public Announcement,’ in order to provide the hope that: “From beyond the plains of shattered dreams on hold/ beyond the bitter cold/ something glorious would unfold.”
Yet one would be mistaken in thinking that George Athanasiou’s poetry is merely expressive of a vague and timid hope in the alleviation of suffering, fear, confusion and purposelessness. As expressed in ‘Serendipity,’ (the name really says it all,) George Athanasiou’s poetry is triumphantly eschatological, indicating a final restoration of the cosmos, unparalleled in its magnitude by anything hitherto experienced by mankind. His is therefore not “a pale and insignificant revelation/ but an unparalleled restoration,” where if one follows the discourse, all will be set right, as was originally intended, in the Beginning.
If, as the critic Vagenas states, the language of poetry is essentially a religious language – that of man’s desire to enter a paradise of expression, then George Athanasiou’s poetry is most definitely religious, having as its chief concern, not only the ‘condition humane’ of Sartre but its final apokatastasis, positively delineating the path towards the guiding source of that restoration he so desires: “Don’t lose sight/ Behold the light.”
In order to achieve his aim, George Athanasiou insidiously unlocks his heart to the reader through his ostensibly extremely personal and individualistic poems. Very quickly however, the reader discovers not only that the deceptively subjective experience of the poet is of catholic application but also that in so indulging in what could only be described in Orthodox terms as a kenosis or emptying of the soul, he has actually managed to penetrate the reader’s own soul, and through his poetry offer consolation and, if the requisite element of gnosis is achieved, salvation.
In order to achieve his soteriological aim, the poet needs to explain why it is that the ‘light’ to which he refers cannot be beheld, the reason for our ‘fallen’ and manifestly miserable state. This central question, which occupies almost every single one of the poems in this collection and to which he returns again and again has one answer – a lack of communication, stemming from a number of sources, arrogance, indifference and fear being but a few. Thus, in ‘The Girl with Red Hair’ he asks rhetorically: “Why does it interest me for her to know where I’m coming from?/ How I feel?” whereas phrases and words such as “if only you knew,” “ignorance” “misunderstanding,” “don’t know,” feature prominently in almost all poems. It is only deep understanding, which has as its pre-requisite the example of kenosis, the self-emptying of all those things that obstruct the attainment of untrammeled communication, that one will be able to behold the Redemption. This then is the poet’s revelation: “to reveal.” (‘The Girl with Red Hair.’) As he points out, the attainment of such a level of communication in the modern era is not easy: ‘even when you make asking for a café-latte a crime.”
George Athanasiou, through the exposition of his own life experience and especially focusing on potential or actual amorous relationships, again a prerequisite for the unencumbered unity of souls, appoints himself as the enemy of such ignorance as masks the path to Redemption. Perhaps the most blatant example of the exposition of his own role as poet can be evidenced in the first lines of ‘The Sounds of Silence’: “The Sounds of Silence have been raised again/ like walls of silence that cannot be broken/ from either side they refused to open/ so a daring plan was hatched/ and a single soul was dispatched/ to try and communicate through prose and song.” Again, in ‘The Inquisitor’ the poet, an inquisitor of the reader’s soul clearly declares his manifesto: “As the inquisitor reaches out his hand for her to take a hold/ And as he brings her out of the hellfire and into the fold/ He restores her to what she was in the days of old/ To her rightful place in the light of the sun/ As we all wait together for the last days to come.”
As is evidenced by the above extract, though possessed of the unique knowledge necessary for the salvation of mankind, George Athanasiou often identifies directly with the reader: “She is decent/ She stands up for the innocent.” (‘Her True Name is Love.’) Often, like an Old Testament Jonah, the prophet Athanasiou despairs of his self-appointed task: “But alas the questions didn’t come/ and the battle against the sounds of silence is far from won.” (‘The Sounds of Silence’) “What’s the explanation?/ What’s this all about?/ As I’m trapped behind a wall of doubt.” (‘Behind the Wall of Doubt’). He also despairs of the reader’s receptivity to his message as well as his tolerance of them: “Would you walk away?/ Would you look any other way?… Would you break my heart?”
There clearly is a long way to go for the reader to become receptive to George’s message. As such, he demands complete and utter self-revelation before the final restoration can be made: “If only she thought she was able/ to put all her thoughts upon the table/ I’d listen to her anywhere.” Yet like the mystic monks in the Orthodox Christian tradition, George Athanasiou is possessed of unlikely clairvoyance. In ‘The Girl with Red Hair’ for example, it is not coincidental that he receives “a piece of her mind,” for that describes exactly the relationship he has with the reader. In this, George Athanasiou ingeniously reverses the usual premise in the relationship between poet and reader. While it is customary for the reader to extract from the poet’s writings, in this case, it is Athanasiou who demands his pound of flesh, or rather, his pound of soul from the reader.
As within the Orthodox Christian tradition of the confessor/spiritual father, this process of soul entrustment can be long, tortuous and delayed but the final union of humanity in which no boundaries between people or the Creator exist is assured: “I must convey/ The next chapter in an elaborate play/ but the lead has gone astray/ She’s gone away/ There’s going to be a delay…to be continued.” (‘To Be Continued.’) This element of hope that underlies all of the poems of this collection is subtle yet omnipresent.
In keeping with George Athanasiou’s passionate love of humanity, most of the corpus of this collection is permeated by erotic allusions and many references to unrequited love. The paradigm of humanity’s spiritual isolation from itself is viewed invariably through the poet’s search for the basic ingredient in the solution for attaining that redemption – love, in its various forms. Thus lines such as, “But alas without her/ I have nothing/ I am nothing,” (‘I am nothing’), “If I were right there by your side, to say I love you” (‘How Could You’), “She is the backbone of my belligerence/ Wearing down my resistance to love” (‘Don’t Tell Anyone’), “I could still dream about you…Love you more than I’d ever let you know,” (‘You Never Know’) indicate an all consuming passion. This can be contrasted with a more paternalistic form of love as this is manifested in ‘I Ache For Her,’ a particularly accomplished piece: “I ache for her/ Not for love/But for the possibility that she might get hurt…Because a love born out of someone else’s pain/ procured is a love of convenience.” Here then is a starry eyed, passionate idealist who has no illusions about the objects of his desire, or the difficulties of his chosen path.
Despite this, George Athanasiou frequently intersperses his writings with hints that despite the often tearful and uneasy path the soul must tread in order to find its redemption, the success of the traveler on that path is assured. In this way, George Athanasiou’s poetry transcends mere social commentary or negative criticism in order to achieve the desired outcome. Having traversed the ascetic path of kenosis, for which humility and self-knowledge are essential, the chthonic garments of pride, arrogance, fear, illusion and indifference are cast aside to reveal a pure soul in communion with the poet, the Redeemer and the entire cosmos.
George Athanasiou’s poetry thus demands the total participation of the reader in order for it to be fully appreciated. Its utilisation of the traditional form of the rhyme, punctuated in parts by alliteration and even, interestingly enough, use of the fifteen syllabic meter of Greek poetry give the poems an essentially lyric quality and indeed many of the poems read like song-lyrics, dirges, ballads or ecstatic doxologies. In doing this, George Athanasiou actively draws upon and partakes of the poetic tradition of the Orthodox Church as exemplified by the Song of Songs and the hymnodies of Romanus Melodus, not in an emulative but rather an interpretative capacity. He is particularly successful.
As we leave the endearingly self-doubting prophet George Athanasiou to “wield Excalibur.. for a girl of her caliber,” (‘Excalibur’) and indeed for all of us, we cannot but look forward to the final moment when in the culmination of his entire message, he will announce: “We interrupt this poem for an important public announcement. Communications have been restored.” (‘Public Announcement.’)

First published in NKEE on 18 July 2005

Monday, July 11, 2005


William Holman Hunt's portrayal of the Holy Light Miracle
When I woke up that Holy Saturday morning, my friend was already at the window, gazing up at the sky. "Look," he said. "There is a rainbow around the perimeter of the sun. "Rubbish," I retorted. "That my friend, is the hallucination of an idle mind." One of the things about solar phenomena is that much like the existence of God themselves, they are most difficult to prove without going blind. Sneaking a peak at the celestial orb through the corner of my eyes however, I could perceive a strange white halo surrounding it and I remembered that it was Μεγάλο Σάββατο, I was in Jerusalem and that today, despite the rule of rationalism, post-modernism, globalism and cynicism, I was supposed to witness of the greatest existing miracles in this non-miraculous age, the coming of the Holy Fire.
From the Jaffa Gate, it usually takes one not less than five minutes to traverse the cobble-stoned steps to the ancient crusader church of the Holy Sepulchre. On this day, however, we found ourselves running into police block after police block, as Jewish police struggled to contain the crowds of believers in an ordered and shall we say, orthodox fashion. Blocked off with no hope of entry at the last 'checkpoint' and suddenly feeling a great sympathy for sheep hemmed into their stalls before the slaughter, we finally sought refuge in the already overflowing in a vast current of heaving middle-aged Greek flesh Greek orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. One can ascend to the flat roof of the complex and from there…well who knows? The milling crowd of corpulent Greek females throwing themselves at the compliant and smiling Russians, patiently waiting, obscures all else from view. You follow the crowd, pushing and elbowing your way till you arrive at a barrier and the unsmiling face of a burly Israeli police officer. This is the utter limit of the pilgrim's progress. Any further progress forward is wholly to be determined by his grace. As the sun rises in the sky and begins to scorch the bleached limestone walls, as the old Greek aunties begin to shed rivers of sweat mixed with cheap copy perfume and bleat like sheep that they are about to faint, the Israeli soldiers remove the first barrier, sending a multitude of pilgrims stampeding down a carvenous dark staircase with the mania of a Pamploman bull chasing its tormentor. The barriers suddenly slam shut. As we descend the stairs, we can hear the Israeli guards snarl to a howl of protest: "Do not push. We will only let you in if you behave and do what you are told."
At the base of the steps is an open air grotto, which is used as a church. Further within is another church and we can hear Romanian pilgrims chanting within. Yet this is no time to sit and reflect. Elbows and arms out, we proceed into the church of the Holy Sepulchre, its vast pillars reverberating under the excited babble of the crowd below. The atmosphere is asphyxiating. Slowly, we push past the holy rock where Jesus was said to have been prepared for burial, past the Armenian shrine of the flagellation and ensconce ourselves beside a pillar, next to the Ciborium, the resting place of the crucified Jesus. It is now 11:00 am and the hubbub of the crowd is pierced by the ululating rush of Orthodox Palestinians. Perched on each other's shoulders, they dance around the Ciborium, chanting traditional hymns, to the rhythmic beat of the dawla. These chants date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem in the 13th century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to chant anywhere but in the churches. "We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!" As they circumambulate the Ciborium faster and faster, it is difficult to distinguish them from whirling dervishes or angels. But at 1:00 pm the chants give out, and then there is a tense silence.
A few bored pilgrims wave their candles in the air, thirty three, one number for each year of Jesus life. They wave them in the idle hope that they will spontaneously catch fire, the symbol of a righteous person. One by one, we all subconsciously mimic the gesture, looking up to the sun in the opening of the vast dome above, or even the electric lights around the Sepulchre, desperately seeking reassurance and absolution.
Then, a delegation from the local authorities elbows its way through the crowd. At the time of the Ottoman occupation of Palestine they were Turks, today they are Israelis. Their function is to represent the Romans at the time of Jesus. The Gospels speak of the Romans that went to seal the tomb of Jesus, so that his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the same way the Israeli authorities on this Holy Saturday come and seal the Ciborium with wax. Before they seal the door, they enter the tomb, and to check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle about to unfold.
Suddenly the cry of Axios! Axios! Axios! resounds. Patriarch Eirenaios accompanied by his bodyguards enters the church. He looks visibly nervous and his eyes dart here and there as he sees his Palestinan flock silently offer him the thumbs down. Turning to his bodyguard, he asks anxiously: "Δεν πιστεύω να έχουμε φασαρία;" Then, proceeding in front of the Ciborium, he disrobes, leaving only a thin white robe and is thoroughly checked for matches and other inflammable materials. He then enters the tomb while the faithful watch with bated breath. The former Patriarch Diodorus had once attempted to shed some light on the mystery of the ritual that is to follow: "I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of the place where Christ lay after His death and where He rose again from the dead... I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees. Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake, it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic Patriarch. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church."
All the while we wave our candles in the air and I wonder whether the Holy Light is merely a manifestation of God's merciful condescension to let all of us partake of that uncreated light so yearned after by St Gregory Palamas, a little slice of hesychasm for the common man. We look up at the dome, at the pillars and the lamps. For the Holy Light is not only distributed by the Archbishop, but is said to diversely manifest itself. It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps hanging in front of it. It whirls from one side of the church to the other. It enters some of the chapels inside the church and for a few minutes after its manifestation, one can wash their face with it without being burnt.
The first written account of the Holy Light dates from the fourth century, but authors write about events that occurred in the first century. St John Damascene and Gregory of Nyssa narrate how the Apostle Peter saw the Holy Light in the Holy Sepulchre after Christ's resurrection. The Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary written in 1106-07, presents the "Miracle of the Holy Light" and the ceremonies that frame it in a very detailed manner. It is clear that this ceremony we are partaking in has an unbroken lineage from at least the 4th century AD and here we are, humbly beseeching a sign, a single gesture to wipe away our humiliation and restore us anew, as our ancestors have done since the Resurrection. As the Russians and Arabs pray and the Greek become more garrulous, we note that Patriarch Eirenaios is taking his time. Is this a sign of divine disfavour? Will the Holy Light, for the first time in its history refuse to manifest itself and lift the spirits of an already soul-weary people? What will become of us then?
Even in 1579, when the Armenians supposedly paid the occupying Turks to permit their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, a gross violation of tradition, did the Light come. In keeping with tradition, only the Greek Orthodox Patriarch (in its religious not ethnic sense) may receive the Light. The Orthodox Patriarch Sophronios IV was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Light split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox Patriarch, lighting his candle. The split column still exists and homage is paid to it by pilgrims as if to thank if for signifying that they are the elect. It is a guarantee of God's grace and this makes Patriarch Eirenaios delay all the more alarming.
I gaze at the split column and in it I can see all those artificial sunderings, chasms and splits that have plagued mankind since the beginning. We are all insignificant, all miniscule crests in a vast sea of people, whether in a church or on the Earth, desperately seeking significance and illumination in one way or another. And it comes. The person standing next to me swears he saw an unearthly blue glow rise up from the tomb and grow larger and larger. I am sure that I saw a brief flash of lighting. Patriarch Eirenaios emerges triumphant and relieved that Divine Favour at any rate does not dispute his patriarchy though the entire world might. By the time the Holy Fire reaches us, the mad nationalistic scramble to obtain it first by the Armenians is over and as far as I can see, only the fewest of fisticuffs have been exchanged. The Holy Fire, as promised, does not burn me and as I choke under the combined piety and candle-smoke of ten thousand people, as the Arabs once more begin their ululation and the pilgrims, having obtained what they came for commence the mad scramble for the door, I gaze at the flame of the candles I hold in my hand intensely, look once more towards the great dome through which the sunlight is cascading onto the Ciborium and after making the sign of the cross, snuff out the flame by enveloping it with the palm of my hand. As I squeeze out of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I wonder why it is that one cannot immediately identify people who have witnessed a miracle and wonder whether this is not, the greatest miracle of them all.
First published in NKEE on 11 July 2005