Monday, September 14, 2009


Having only recently moved into new offices, my partner and I surveyed our new domain with the proprietorial air of a feudal seigneur. Desks, photocopiers, printers, bookshelves and filing cabinets stood mutely before us, shiny and new, pledging their allegiance and obedience to us for all time. The smell of reconstituted office furniture timber truly is an intoxicating one. Drawers, polished to a brilliant sheen that once despoiled by the touch of the human hand can never be restored, half-open languidly, beckoning seductively with the promise of being stuffed full of files and other materials that can transport one to paradise.
As I re-arranged my pen holder for the thirteenth time, listing all the items that still needed to be arranged, I turned to my partner and said: "Do you know what we need to do? We need to arrange for an αγιασμό." I watched with bemusement as my partner turned various shades of crimson and then purple: "What? What on earth for?" he spluttered. "Isn't the idea of setting up shop in [insert obscenely expensive and pretentious non-Greek Melbourne suburb here] about launching ourselves as a corporate brand and disassociating ourselves from the ethnic taint? And you want to bring the priest in here? Seriously! What have priests ever done for us?" Thereupon, my partner being possessed of vast reserves of knowledge pertaining to Greek history, he launched upon a lengthy exposition of the peccadilloes of priests throughout the ages, with particular attention to the nefarious role played by them during the Greek revolution and the construction of the Modern Greek State, with such vehemence and gracefulness of poise, that he put Diatribe to shame.
Upon him regaining his composure, having spat out the last of his stores of bile and brimstone, I led him upstairs to the kitchen where I made him a Greek coffee. He threw himself into his padded leather chair, feeling the leather audibly exhale καημό and indignation and put the cup to his lips. A small sensuous slurp ensued and then a deep sigh: "Ah, this is the life," he exclaimed. "By the way," I informed him, as I meticulously swept away the last traces of icing sugar that had floated away from the plate of kourabiedes at the epicentre of the conference table, "the priest will be here next Thursday." Choking on a bolus of kourabie, my partner coughed: "Don't let him anywhere near me."
Father Anthony Cagnoni of Saint Haralambos church in Templestowe is an old friend and a phenomenon. Of Italian background, and possessed of a sunny Brisbane disposition, his metaphysical yearnings gradually led him to the Orthodox faith. Having served as a priest for a few years in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, he completed his theological training at Saint Andrews Theological College in Sydney and after briefly serving the Greek community in Sydney, has recently moved back to Melbourne.
To be in the company of the eminently approachable Father Anthony is a singular experience. Possessed of a razor sharp wit and amazing dexterity when it comes to turns of phrase, he exudes charisma in quantities that could make the faint hearted swoon. Further, his knowledge of things supernatural is as prodigious as it is encyclopaedic and one brings away from a simple conversation with him about everyday life, a wealth of information about the holy fathers, the saints and theologians' opinions.
My chief delight in him is his attitude to the place of the Greek language and culture within the Orthodox Church. He displays a remarkable sensitivity and deep knowledge and respect for the development of the Church within a Hellenic context. As such, and in contrast with other priests who have converted into Orthodoxy that one may find in other jurisdictions, and who invariably take an iconoclastic approach to the maintenance of what they term as "ethnic" culture in a universal church, Father Anthony has meticulously studied the tradition of the Church and understands that the Greek language is an inextricable part of its context. "Of course it is a preposterous idea to totally exclude English from services," he explains. "However, Greek has been part of the liturgy for two thousand years. It is significant and there are elements within it that truly cannot be conveyed through translation. For the purposes of a younger, Greek-Australia congregation, I like to conduct most of the liturgy in Greek, with perhaps the Gospel reading and the sermon in English."
When Father Anthony arrived on our doorstep on the Thursday in question, my usually voluble and expansive partner was overawed and silent. Striding into my office, Father Anthony discussed in excited tones how he was setting up chaplaincies for Greek-Australian students in Melbourne's universities and marvelling at how the Greek Church goes about its business quietly and unobtrusively, as compared to the machinations of purveyors of other doctrines. Then, assuming an air of awe-inspiring gravity, he stood up, placed his epitrachelion around his neck, lit the censer and commenced the blessing in perfect, melodiously beautiful Greek.
My partner stood upright with his head bowed as the father intoned the preliminary prayers, raising his eyebrows in surprise only upon hearing the discordant tones of my voice, chanting the laity's response. One of our Anglo-Saxon employees peered through the glass partition, into my office totally perplexed. Discussing his perplexity later, he reconstructed a scene whereby it appeared that my partner was standing in a corner, his head bowed like a naughty boy, while the priest and I were telling him off.
The epistle reading from Saint Paul, that accompanies the αγιασμό, excerpted from his epistle to the Thessalonians is a thought provoking one: "Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day...For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread." Now there is motivation for you.
It was just after the Gospel reading, when Father Anthony was dipping the basil into the holy water and sprinkling it around the office, when our hot-shot, "important" clients walked in the door. My partner, mortified, froze, not knowing what to do. Uninhibited by their presence, or indeed by the glances my partner and I were exchanging, Father Anthony walked out of my office, casting the agiasma around the premises, all the while chanting: «Σώσον Κύριε τον Λαόν σου.» Turning to the clients who were standing respectfully, if not a little puzzled, Father Anthony raised the basil and landed it squarely on their foreheads. One of them, an Orthodox Lebanese, made the sign of the cross respectfully, while the other, an Anglo-Saxon, accepted his ritual dowsing without protest.
As Father Anthony completed the blessing, he winked: "I cast some extra holy water towards the direction of the photocopier. After all, that's where most of the demons live." Ushering him out of the door, my partner turned to our clients and said: "Wow, I can still see the burn marks on your foreheads guys." Father Anthony stifled a chuckle.
Now, I am finding that the photocopier is working without a hitch. Furthermore, I am finding it difficult to swear or be nasty to my co-workers, given that sitting on the top shelf of my bookshelf, is the basil bouquet with which Father Anthony blessed the office. How long this blessed state will last I do not know. However my partner is now has a weighty tome of Byzantine Greek grammar on his desk that he takes sneak peaks at when he thinks I'm not looking. Diatribe leaves you this week blessed and ready to fight the good fight with a legal question: Who do we sue if the blessing does not lead to increased profits? My money is on the photocopier.


First published in NKEE on 14 September 2009