Monday, April 12, 2010


Every time I enter my church, Tchaikovsky's piece 'In Church,' begins to play as a soundtrack in my head. This piece, one of the first I ever learned to play on the violin, with its slow and sonorous tones, seeks to evoke the mysticism of Russian chant. I remember being entranced by its proximity to the chanting I knew from church and enthusiastically explaining to my violin teacher that Tchaikovsky was Orthodox. Violin teachers tend to dwell in exhalted realms far divorced from such lowly concerns as the religious affiliations of composers who are supposed to have devoted themselves to nothing else than the production of music and thus, she greeted my assertion with the indifference that allusions to non-Western culture deserves.
'In Church' also happens to be the underlying soundtrack of both the scariest and most brilliant childhood dreams I have ever had. Both took place in my church. I dreamed that I entered the church at midnight. The light was dim and the chanters were chanting Tchaikovsky's piece. I looked up and noticed that all the candles were black and that even their flame was black. The priest was an immensely tall, black robed figure and his kalymaukhi was impossibly lofty, like a stovepipe. The chanting grew louder and increased in intensity. As he turned around to face the congregation, all of whom were wearing black, I became the priest and I could see that all the people's faces were blurred beyond recognition. The doors of the church swung shut with a loud bang and next thing I knew, I was standing before the icons next to woman so corpulent that she could put the most mammalian pachyderms to shame. Somehow I understood I was to be married to this woman and the whole scene descended into high farce as I, a child, ran around the church, obese bride to be and menacing priest in tow, clamouring for an exit. My best dream, on the other hand, took place on a Sunday when I was eleven. I was lining up for communion. Columns of sunlight were pouring in from the long, stained glass windows, carving a translucent path in the air. When I stood before the communion cup I looked up and instead of the priest, I saw my grandfather, who had recently died. As he held out the spoon for me, I asked: "Aren't you dead?" He laughed, a half-snort, half-guffaw, replying: "Are you kidding? I'm always with you." This is my favourite dream not only due to the fact that I got to see my grandfather again, but also because he kept his promise. I have been seeing the same dream, at least one every three months, ever since.
My grandfather seldom stepped foot in church, but my grandmother often did, being of a religious bent. It was because of her that I believed up until the age of seven that God lived behind the altar and that His angels supported the priest's elbows as he kneeled in prayer. Also, pointing to the icon of Christ in the templon, she would remind me that Christ sees everything, and would tell her if I was naughty.
Our templon is unique. Over the Royal doors leading to the altar, there is not a veil, as is customary, but rather, a sliding icon of Christ as High Priest, which usually adorns the back of the Bishop's throne. Further our icons do more than look at you, wherever you are in the church. On the occasions where your transgressions are particularly heinous, they actually look away in disgust, usually toward the Heavens.
When I was young, I was convinced that Heaven was in the roof of our church. This was due to the fact that the ceiling was painted sky blue and adorned with a myriad of gold stars. During long services, we would attempt to mark time by counting them. Sooner or later, the chant would merge with the incense rising up towards the firmament, blurring one's vision, so that the count would be invariably lost. Years later, the ceiling was cleaned and sanded to reveal polished wooden beams beneath, resulting not so much in a loss of a glimpse of Heaven but in the gaining on an insight into the hull of Noah's Ark. One Epiphany, the dove that is usually released in church could not find its way out of the Ark, let alone obtain a suggestion of olive branch and safe ground. Instead, it perched upon the lofty icon of St Mark the Evangelist and proceeded to provide it with votive offerings of guano. Our ceiling is quite high and the icon hard to reach. Years later, traces of the votive offering are still there. Also discernible are the outlines of dust on the north and south wall that denote the previous position of two signs, delineating gender-based seating arrangements: «Θέσις Γυναικών,» on the left and «Θέσις Ανδρών» on the right. They are the cause of my first youthful campaign for emancipation: a refusal to stand with my mother on the grounds that I was a male, and by rights, was entitled to stand where I have always stood in church, at the back, behind the pews, on the right-hand side. The signs had been there for so long, redundant given that elderly ladies stand on both sides of the church indiscriminately, though men never venture to the left, lest they find themselves bereft of their God-given masculinity, that I have no idea when they were removed.
It is traditional, when entering an Orthodox church, to light a candle and then venerate an icon. For some reason, in our church, the order is reversed, with the icon placed closest to the door and the candles after them, causing traffic chaos as the faithful double back upon each other in order to perform their prayers in reverse. As an infant, candles were a source of great delight for my sister. She would wait, like a racehorse straining at the gate for the mnimosyno to be sung. Candles would be handed out to the congregation and upon its conclusion, my sister would race another little girl to collect as many as she could. This practice has now been discontinued, vestiges of it surviving only in the few holier than thou, officious elderly members of the congregation who will punctuate the liturgy with processions to the candle holders, in order to unnecessarily snuff out candles that still have long to burn.
I have nicknames for our church wardens. One of the more youthful ones, I term church boy, another, traffic cop, because of his propensity to appear in front of the teeming crowd waiting for antidoron and divert them in so many ineffectual and circular ways as to cause total confusion. My favourite, Father Christmas, named thus because of his snow white beard, and who presided ever since I could remember over the sale of candles, has recently died.
When I sit at the back of the church, my glance is irrepressibly drawn to the left, towards the third pew from the front. That was my grandmother's seat and whenever we entered church, we would greet her first and then find a place. To the right, fifth «στασίδι» on the wall from the front was the seat of an elderly gentleman from my father's village who would look me up and down bemusedly and ask: "Are you Kostas Kalymnios?" Two στασίδια down from him was another uncle, and in the chanter's box, was my aunt's father, the most kindly and saintly man you could ever meet. Today these seats are taken by others and month by month, I notice more re-shuffles in the seating arrangements as familiar faces that I have seen ever week, all my life, vanish. No matter who fills their seats now, they still appear hollow and empty, like the scratched out eyes in the icons of the churches in occupied Cyprus. Further, I have bid adieu to more friends and family from this church, than I care to remember.
We have two priests, the old priest, who is silent, stern, confident in command and quick in the delivery of the liturgy. Father is my idea-priest and has been around since the time of Melchizedek. He is the closest replication I have seen to the Old Testament God, kindly but stern, world-weary and frustrated by the pettiness of his flock. The young priest is large, ebullient and jovial, quick to crack a joke but uncannily perceptive and intuitive behind his sparkling blue eyes. Whereas prior to his arrival the congregation was ageing, grey and sullen, he has managed to conjure up youth and now the church is filled with children, looking at icons in wonderment and taking priority over elbowing old ladies, in line for communion.
There is a Greek Orthodox Church two streets away from where I live and yet week after week, I am drawn to the church of my childhood. When I hear the hymns I and my ancestors before me have always known, when I see the family of saints and apostles that have stared down at me from their perch ever since my birth, I know I am home and that this home has no temporal beginning or end, regardless of the fact that I have a photo of my mother as a young woman, witnessing the laying of the foundation stone of this church. Time and my conception of myself lie within its cavernous narthex and these can never be erased, even by the blowing out of a candle at the end of the liturgy, unless it is my own.
A few nights ago, I dreamt that the roof of our church had disappeared and was replaced instead, by the night sky. As the priest censed the icon of the Panagia, I could see my grandfather's lemon tree leaning over the walls. Our angels manifest themselves in the form of citrus fruits but require the reading of the Gospel in order to render them intelligible. We pass through the portals of their abode, in search of those who have come before us, and to prove that we, ourselves, continue to exist.


First published in NKEE on 12 April 2010