Saturday, August 27, 2011


In the secluded Byzantine monastery of Philanthropinon, which is perched mutely on a small hill on the island of Lake Pamvotis in Ioannina, counting both the vicissitudes of time and nature, there is a most singular iconographic depiction. For once one enters the exonarthex and casts their eyes to the left, seven great sages of Ancient Greece, rendered in exquisite Byzantine style, return that gaze. Unlike the usual Byzantine depiction of saints as serene mediators between earth and heaven, these sages appear quite animated, their hands lifted in disputation. Some, anachronistically, sport turbans and they lack the haloes that would otherwise have them be confused with those who have gained heavenly favour.
Those depicted are also an eclectic mix and the inscriptions to the side of each figure are instructive, referring to “the Greek Aristotle,” “the Greek Plutarch,” “the Greek Solon,” and also “the Greek Thucydides the philosopher,” as well as Plato, Apollonius and the obscure Cheilon. The purpose behind the unlikely depiction of these non-Christian historical personalities in a Christian church of 1342, is to symbolize the synthesis and continuity between ancient Greek and Christian thought. The iconographic depiction is thus endearing in its naivety, especially given that it displays misconceptions as to those who it depicts – Thucydides and Plutarch were historians, not philosophers, and their contribution to Christian doctrine can be considered negligible indeed. Nonetheless, the honoured position afforded arbitrarily to sundry Greeks of ancient times represents a powerful message, of unbroken lineage and the continuous permeation of Greek thought through the belief systems of the Greek-speaking people, as well as tangible evidence of the evolving respect and love within scholarship for the thinkers of the past. The use of a church in order to convey such an idea is thus unique and historically significant.
Or at least it was up until the present. For the Archbishop of Ochrid of the schismatic so-called “Macedonian Orthodox Church,” Stefan has recently permitted the depiction of no less a personage than Alexander the Great on the dome of the church of St Nikola in Štip, which also sports a lovely bronze statue of a muscular Alexander in its city square. The iconographic depiction on the dome of the church, is of a beardless youth, much resembling traditional depictions of the deacon and proto-martyr Stephanos, flanked by the star of Vergina, a pagan symbol of the Macedonian royal family, and along with an identifying title: “Alexander Makedonski.”
In contrast with the ancient Greek sages of Philanthropinon monastery, who inhabit the exonarthex or lobby, not canonically considered part of the church proper, Alexander Makedonski is festooned upon a dome. In the Orthodox tradition, the dome represents heaven and it is usual for a representation of the Pantokrator – Christ as ruler of all to be painted upon it, or at least of other saints significant to the faith. For an “Orthodox” archbishop to authorise the painting of a pre-Christian historical personage, replete with pagan symbols, in one of the most important areas of a church would therefore be most disquieting and concerning for Orthodox believers and require immediate justification.
As compared with the sages of Philanthropinon, and as far as can be discerned, Alexander the Great did not produce any original thoughts that permeated or influenced Christianity in any way. He was a king who indulged in savage massacres, purges of his friends and embarked upon a lengthy war of world domination that inflicted death and misery upon the nations he conquered. Though some may admire his precocity, vision and military prowess, it is difficult to see how his personality, attributes or deeds can justifiably afford him a place of honour in an ‘Orthodox’ church. So why is he there?
Perhaps the answer may lie in the attempts of sundry Greek historians over the years, to argue that in spreading the Greek culture and language throughout the Middle East, initiating a process whereby Greek became the lingua franca of the whole region, Alexander inadvertently facilitated the preaching of the Gospel and the spread of Christianity and that somehow, this was divinely predetermined. Accordingly, it could well be that the Archbishop of Ochrid, in authorising Alexander’s depiction upon the dome is merely sending a powerful message about the central role that the Greek language has played in the spread and development of Christianity, as well as showing who is responsible for making the Greek language so intrinsic to that religion. If this truly is the case, he should be thanked for his sensitivity and admiration for the Greek language but also instructed by his brethren that such depictions are canonically inappropriate to the church he purports to lead and are in fact, unacceptable.
One could be forgiven for thinking however, that linking Alexander to Christianity by whatever untenable means is not the Archbishop of Ochrid’s intention. Rather, it would appear that this is just one more in a series of populist, futile and ultimately sad endeavours to appropriate historical figures for nationalistic means. Such an effort can therefore be linked to the flurry of statue building within FYROM, the premise behind which could be a belief that if enough statues of Alexander or Philip can be built, then miraculously, the whole world will come to believe that these personages have nothing to do with Greece but are instead, ethnically and historically linked to the embattled little republic that is struggling to maintain ethnic and social cohesion.
While no Balkan state is immune to gross populist displays and attempts at appropriation, attempts to link these tendencies to religion are ultimately harmful and quite possibly, sacreligious. Christianity, the religion espoused by the Archbishop of Ochrid, is a conviction about the nature of Jesus. It is certainly not a conviction about the nationality of Alexander the Great. Sadly, in FYROM, all elements of society seem bent upon a herculean effort to establish the historically unestablishable. The Archbishop’s distasteful act which could understandably offend the sensitivities of the Orthodox faithful throughout the world, may further imperil the reputation of a church that is not recognised by any canonical Orthodox Church, as one whose priorities may lie in historic revisionism rather than the Gospel.
Such a concerning trend appears to lie deep within FYROMian society. A visit to any suburban cemetery in Melbourne will reveal a startling contrast – while the majority of the graves of the Orthodox deceased depict such Christian symbols as a cross, an icon or perhaps a statue of Panagia, there are a multitude of graves of deceased whose origins or cultural affiliation lie in FYROM, who, along with or to the exclusion of such Christian symbols, sport the star of Vergina, or occasionally, a map of ‘United Macedonia,’ showing the Bulgarian, Greek and FYROMIAN parts forming a constituent whole. While there is no accounting for taste, it appears disturbing that one would choose such a sombre and isolated place to make a final, futile political statement. Nonetheless, one could conclude from such displays, how overwhelmingly deep the desire to assert one’s conviction about their assumed identity lies, and how it takes precedence over almost everything else.
Who knows? Should such nationalistic edifices survive the ravages of time, perhaps archaeologists of the future will posit that in FYROM, circa 2011 a highly syncretic and synthesized religion was developed combining the worship of Jesus and Alexander the Great. In the meantime, a needless conflict over long gone historical personalities of dubious moral fibre continues incessantly. What speaks volumes, is that such a conflict is concerned with the affiliation of personages that caused loss of life and human suffering in the interests of power, rather than the claiming as one’s own, of those, like the sages of the exonarthex of Philanthropinon, who moved others with their thoughts alone, and inspired them to achieve excellence, for the benefit of the whole of humanity.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 August 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011


"Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life."
With out a doubt, the greatest human figure of Eastern Christianity would have to be Mary the Mother of God. The concept that a mere mortal can be deemed suitable to conceive and bring forth into world the Deity is vast, inexplicable and profoundly moving. In allowing such a state of affairs to occur, the Deity awards humanity the most supreme honour, to have him in us so completely, that one of us can give birth to Him.
As a result, the Theotokos, "bearer of God" in Orthodox tradition becomes a multifaceted figure, whose various roles are innumerable. As the supreme Mother, the Compassionate, the Merciful and the Guide, through the Theotokos, also known as the All Holy (Panayia) the Orthodox faith affords the supreme place in the body of the faithful in womanhood, which through the act of giving birth to God, is set at the level of the highest honour.
In traditional Greek Orthodox thought, the Theotokos plays an extremely important role and could be said to be the de facto head of the Greek nation. In times of trouble, when the nation was threatened by barbarian incursions, natural disasters or unjust rulers, Greeks looked to Panayia for succour. Thus, all victories were ascribed to her. It was held to be through the divine protection of the Theotokos that Constantinople was protected against the invasion of the Slavs and Avars, that the Emperor Heraclius wrested the Holy Cross from the Persians and set it up in Jerusalem. More significantly, popular belief held that the Emperors of Byzantium held their crown through the mandate of Theotokos herself. Tradition has it that on the last night before the fall of Constantinople, the Theotokos descended from Heaven and demanded the imperial crown of the Emperor, thus signifying her withdrawal of protection over her city and warning of its imminent fall.
Panayia reputedly also protected Greek troops in the liberation of Northern Epirus during World War II and also during the War of Independence. Tradition has her miraculously curing Greek freedom fighter George Karaiskakis of a gun-shot wound. She is also constantly present in the lives of everyday people. Depicted often as a mother nursing Christ, named the "quick-listener," "the sweet-embracer", the "all-encompassing", the "all-seeing", the "undying rose" and thousands of other appellations, the Panayia is the first point of reference for the Greek people's prayers. Indeed, one of the most frequent prayers in the liturgy is for the Theotokos to intercede on behalf of the faithful. As a human, she is considered to be best placed to feel our pain.
During the Holy Week of Easter, the Church dirges for Christ's crucifixion centre on the very human pain of the Theotokos losing her son. She is a figure we can identify with more readily than the other celestial inhabitants, simply because her pain is very close to us.
It therefore surprises no-one that the anniversary of the Koimisis of Theotokos is one of the most important days of the Orthodox calendar. As is related within the Holy Tradition of the Church, a few days before the 15th of August, an angel of the Lord appeared before the Panayia and told her that her Son was calling her to His side. At that time, while she was over seventy, her face reputedly had not lost its angelic glow. The very next night, she went to the Mount of Olives and gave thanks to God. She then returned home and began to prepare herself.
The Bishop Jacob of Jerusalem, her friends and family begged her to remain with them but she calmly blessed those present and exhorted them always to practise Christian love, and follow the teachings of Christ. At that stage, the apostles suddenly appeared before her. They had been miraculously borne from where they were preaching at the ends of the earth so they may farewell the Mother of their Teacher. After addressing each one and giving them her blessing, the Panayia lay back on her bed, closed her eyes and fell asleep, departing from her earthly existence.
She was buried amidst lamentation in Gesthemane and three days later, the apostle Thomas went to her grave, to get a glimpse of her for the last time. Her body was not there. The bodily assumption of the Theotokos was confirmed by the message of an angel and by her appearance to the Apostles.
The commemoration of this event is a Great Feast of the Church and a national holiday in Greece, celebrating a fundamental teaching of the Orthodox faith-the Resurrection of the body. In the case of the Theotokos, this has been accomplished by the divine will of God. Thus, this Feast is a feast of hope in Resurrection and life eternal. Like those who gathered around the body of the Virgin Mary, the faithful gather around their departed loved ones and commend their souls into the hands of Christ. As they remember those who have reposed in the faith before them and have passed on into the communion of the Saints, the faithful prepare themselves to one day be received into the new life of the age to come.
The commemoration of the Dormition of the Theotokos and the preparation for the Feast begin on 1 August with a period of fasting. A strict fast is followed on most of the days (no meat, dairy, oil, or wine), with the exceptions of fish on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) and the day of the Dormition. Oil and Wine are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays.
On the weekdays before the Feast, Paraklesis services are held in most parishes. These consist of the Great Paraklesis and the Small Paraklesis, both services of supplication and prayer for the intercessions of the Theotokos.
All over Greece, the faithful will mass to churches that have a special significance for the Greek people, such as Panagia Soumela in Veroia and Panagia of Tinos. Last year for the first time, the Oecumenical Patriarch was permitted to conduct the celebration of the Feast at Panagia Soumela in Pontus. Let us hope that this tradition is continued so that all churches will resound joyfully with the kontakion of the Dormition:
"In birth, you preserved your virginity; in death, you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. As mother of life, you departed to the source of life, delivering our souls from death by your intercessions." Χρόνια Πολλά.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 August 2011

Saturday, August 06, 2011


When the bell of the church of St Haralambos tolls dolorously, the inhabitants of the village of Perama on the outskirts of Ioannina cross themselves and ask: "Who is dead?" Immediately afterwards, they ask: "Where?" for half of the village lives in Melbourne and any news concerning any one of its number, whether a birth, marriage or death is immediately relayed home so rapidly, that often, the news is received on the other side of the world more quickly than it takes for it to reach the other side of Melbourne. Loss is keenly felt in the village, regardless of the separation of distance and time, for though it may have been split in two, somehow, the village has managed to survive as a complete and unsundered entity both in the consciousness of the children in its bosom, as well as those across the water.
It is for this reason that the bells of St Haralambos tolled at exactly the same time as those of St Dimitrios in Moonee Ponds, as we carried out our 105 year old great-grandmother Panayio's coffin out of the church and onto the hearse last week, vainly fighting back tears as we did so. I stood in silence, watching the hearse pull away from the church slowly, ripping from me, with each agonizingly ponderous revolution of the tire, a piece of my soul. Turning back towards the church however, I beheld a veritable multitude emerging from the door, spilling out onto the steps. Some were family, others friends, for my great-grandmother had touched many lives, but most were «χωριανοί,» migrants from the ancestral village, mostly ageing grandparents in their own right, who could not remember my great-grandmother as anything but an old woman, and who were reassured by her presence, upon their arrival in Australia, that nothing had changed. Consequently, she remained as their one thing constant in their otherwise completely altered world, a symbol of continuity but also of unity.
In the mythology of our ancestors, the Palladion was an image of great antiquity on which the safety of a city was said to depend, signifying especially the wooden statue of Pallas Athena that Odysseus stole from Troy and which was later taken to the future site of Rome by Aeneas. If anything, yiayia-Panayio was the village Palladion, removed from Perama and brought to Melbourne. As long as she was alive, as custodian of a tradition and ancestral history transcending the generations the village would always be one, because they would always be someone to remind them of their common origins.
One by one, they filed past us to pay their respects. "They are all gone, all the old people," one distraught «θείο,» lamented tearfully. "First my mother and now yiayia. We are all alone." His sense of distress, is shared by the entire ex-patriate community. The first thing that he, along with his other fellow villages would invariably do whenever they would meet us by chance on the street or at a function would be to ask anxiously after yiayia. If yiayia was well and thriving (which she always was), then all was right with the world. Now that talisman of fortune is gone and all the uncertainty that comes with the realization that nothing remains static, not even the palliatives that we create in our own minds, assails their secret fears of isolation and disintegration pitilessly.
We of the second generation generally seldom see or mix with persons that have migrated from our parent's villages us much as we used to in our childhood, though we still hear their news, owing to a whole gamut of obstacles that life has thrown up before us that have rendered us exceedingly time-poor and unable to appreciate or enjoy the extended networks of people that pre-exist us. Nonetheless, we are still dimly conscious that they are there, however dormant, and ready to be called upon at any time. Through my great-grandmother, I learnt the entire family history of most of the families in her village, stretching back five or six generations. It is a connection, an unbroken lineage of mutual assistance and support transcending time, that unites my life to theirs and their descendants, should they have knowledge of this unique connection, and theirs, to mine.
In times of crisis, especially deaths, the whole dormant network materializes out of nowhere in force, to offer sincere respect, concern, solidarity and assistance to the grieving. They in turn, rather than be put off by the intrusion, (for the modern zeitgeist tends to overly centre on the individual) are heartened by it, for the burden of grief is better borne when it is shared and because there is something deeply ingrained within the psyche of that generation that causes them to turn in times of hardship to a support network fostered at a different time, thousands of kilometers away.
Inevitably, as the years pass, the members of that network become fewer and fewer, for their offspring do not always replace them. It is for this reason that the final farewell to one of their members, especially their Palladion, is given added poignancy and why, the presence of so many second generation members of this network, to acknowledge the uniting presence and immense contribution of a selfless and truly remarkable woman made to so many lives, is so heartwarming. It gives lie to the assumption that links between people forged in the past have little contemporary relevance and should not survive their transplantation to foreign climes and sundry temporal realities. If anything, they serve as a point of reference and a custodian of those values and shared experiences that led inexorably, to the point we find ourselves today, the building blocks of what we understand to comprise our community.
As the generations grow older and the links that bind them are prized apart, first-generation funerals remain to remind us of how infinitely poorer our lives will become (and indeed, how ill-attended our own rites of passage will be) when and if those final links are shattered and lost, without being replaced by descendants willing to acknowledge the ties that bind them with others. For if we do not relate to each other on the basis of our common origin then what other ideological construct could unite our community and preserve our identity? Our Palladion is our knowledge of the intricate and often traumatic web of shared experience that connect us to each other. And as long as that is preserved, those who have had the privilege to symbolize it throughout their lives, will always be with us.


First published in NKEE Saturday 6 August 2011.