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Posts Tagged 'greek orthodoxy'

The division of disciplines and the implications for people like me

Registration time is upon us, and next semester, I’ll be diving into the deep end of the actual History pool, taking a colloquium titled “Essential Readings in Early Medieval History,” and a seminar called “Greek Democracies: Athens and Beyond.” The former is with one Prof. Deborah Deliyannis, from whom I took an undergraduate course in medieval history four years ago and who has been a great source of encouragement and help every step of the way ever since. I’m looking forward to finally getting to take a graduate course from her (and also reading some Latin under her supervision).

As we start to enter the last few laps of this semester, I’m starting to see some interesting challenges relating to the notion of interdisciplinarity. My academic interests center around the interaction of liturgy and history; the way I’m approaching the matter is necessarily interdisciplinary, so I’m doing things like sitting in on art history and ethnomusicology courses. I’m also pretty much having to go through yet another department — Classical Studies — to work on my languages, so there’s an interdisciplinary component there, too. The issues I’m starting to see appear to have to do with differing methodologies, different kinds of evidence producing different results, and different departments being protective of what they see as their own intellectual territory.

For example, in Art History’s “Problems in Early Christian Art” course for which I’ve been attending the lectures and discussions, I have been somewhat taken aback at how some of the students appear to be totally disinterested in textual sources. Now, I state that as somebody who is not an art historian, so I assume that what we’re talking about here is a methodological difference between disciplines, except that both the professor (as well as one of the other candidates whom I heard do a job talk for the position last spring) seem completely comfortable dealing with textual sources and actual historical context. This has manifested itself in a couple of different scenarios; a couple of weeks ago, when students were doing initial presentations on their paper topics, what seemed to be the common methodological approach was first to pick an image or set of images, track down as much secondary literature about the image as possible, and then construct an argument on that basis. In other words, the only relevant primary source is the image with which you are working. I asked one or two of the presenting students if they planned on tracking down any contemporary literary sources related to their topic, and all I got was a shrug, with an answer amounting to, “Sure, I could see how that might be useful. Maybe if I have time I’ll look into that.”

This week, our readings dealt primarily with literary sources. I was part of the group that was “leading the discussion” (what seems to be a euphemism for “doing the reading so that the rest of the class doesn’t have to,” given how involved in the discussion the rest of the class seemed willing to be), and the reading I was discussing was the an excerpt from Robin Cormack‘s book Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and its Icons. Cormack examines how images function in the Byzantine world of Late Antiquity, using as evidence the Life of St. Theodore of Sykeon and then the Miracles of St. Demetrios of Thessalonica. I also put together a small slide deck about St. Nectarios’ monastery on Aegina as a contemporary example of what Cormack talks about.

The reactions all around were fascinating; they ranged from indifference towards using literary sources to what seemed to be active hostility towards what Cormack was trying to accomplish. “It’s really dangerous to be relying on these kinds of sources for what we do,” I heard more than once. The argument seems to have been that literary sources can only interpret the image for you, and art historians need to be able to see them with their own eyes. Historical context is a nice-to-have, maybe, but ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant compared to actually being able to see what you’re dealing with and to do one’s own analysis of the visual material. Never mind the open criticism I got from one student for trying to relate what we were talking about to a contemporary example, saying point blank, “You can’t do that” — even though Cormack, in the body of the text, invited exactly such an application of his analysis to other scenarios. The professor appeared to understand what I was doing, and tried to bridge the gap between the concerns and what I was actually saying, but my colleague seemed unimpressed and, curiously, quite upset. It was a very odd class session, and I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it. Is Art History, at least as taught here, just adamant about wanting to be Art History, rather than “History of Other Things Where We Occasionally Use Pieces of Art as Evidence”? Like I said, it not being my field, I don’t know exactly what to think, particularly since the professor herself seems to be somebody who is more than adequately conversant with matters of historical context.

Another example I’ve run into has to do with the relationship of Classical Studies to other departments that routinely refer to texts that are in the languages they teach. In History, for example, I have to prepare a reading list with a decent number of texts in both Greek and Latin for my exams; the trouble is that there is not a fantastically economical way of preparing these lists in the context of coursework. Readings courses are difficult for professors to make time for on the History side, and there just isn’t anybody in Classical Studies who is interested in much later than 100 B. C. The forensic oratory and rhetoric course I’m taking this semester starts to approach relevance (and I will be able to include all of these texts on my reading list), but that’s about it. I am reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a faculty member on the Greek side; I told him my interests and asked if there would be a way of pursuing them in Classical Studies, and he just said, “You’re outta luck, kid. The last person here who was anywhere close to your interests retired ten years ago.” Along the same lines, I am told that the instructor for 2nd year Greek had originally included St. John Chrysostom in the curriculum for this semester, but dropped it almost as soon as the term began. Now, just as was the case when I took the same class from the same instructor two years ago, all they’re reading is Plato’s Ion.

Even if it the History faculty did have the bandwidth to do readings courses, so I am told, Classical Studies would oppose such offerings; they are very protective of Greek and Latin and don’t want anybody else going near them in a classroom setting. The only reason Religious Studies is able to teach Syriac and Coptic is because they have a course number coded as “Readings in Early Christian History” that can be used. It theoretically could be used for reading Greek texts, but not, it seems, without drawing the ire of Classical Studies, so it just isn’t done. Students can do individual readings if a faculty member has time, but good luck with that.

Now, on the one hand, I think I can understand some of where Classical Studies might be coming from. If I had to guess, I’d say that, not dissimilar to Art History, they want to remain distinct as Classical Studies, not “The Guys Who Teach Greek and Latin to Other Departments.” Thing is, they still make everybody else come to them to learn Greek and Latin anyway — and then they make it clear they don’t take the texts other people want to deal with seriously. There was the snarky remark I heard from one of their faculty once about “undergraduates who enroll in first-year Greek because they want to read a certain famous text that is decidedly not part of the Classical corpus”, and then there was the whole way said text was treated when I took second year Greek — we spent all of two or three weeks on it, the instructor was sightreading, they clearly weren’t familiar with the text at all, and constantly made remarks like, “Yeah, that’s not real Greek” and “Why is is this guy making comments about bridegrooms and all that? I tell you, you can’t make this stuff up.” (Frighteningly enough, this person went to a Catholic university for undergrad.) One solution might be to make people in History or Religious Studies adjunct Classical Studies faculty, but it sounds like that’s a way they don’t want to go. They don’t want to teach the texts we’re interested in, but they don’t want anybody else to teach them, either.

I’m told that right now, there just aren’t enough History students who need Greek to be able to influence Classical Studies’ thinking on the matter, but we’re close — sufficiently close that if we have the same rate of growth over the next couple of years we’ve had over the last two (that is, from zero to close to ten or so) the game could easily change.

Interdisciplinarity — it’s a nice buzz word, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself to make it work, it seems. I assume that will be part of my education.

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Alliteration in liturgy, or things that don’t work in translation

Something that anybody accustomed to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in English hears on a regular basis is, right before the Koinonikon, is the priest saying:

Holy things are for the holy.

And the response:

One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

I noticed something the last time I attended a Divine Liturgy in Greek, however. The priest says:

Tα Ἅγια τοῖς Ἁγίοις.

And the response is:

Εἷς ἅγιος, εἷς Κύριος, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, εἰς δόξαν Θεοῦ Πατρός. Ἀμήν.

εἷς and εἰς are homophones, the former being the masculine singular word for “one,” the latter being the preposition which usually means some variation of “to”, and with ecclesiastical pronunciation (meaning, among other things, all of the diacritics are ignored except insofar as they indicate stress accent — sorry, classicists), they are pronounced the same way as the first syllable of Ἰησοῦς. (There is a slight glide at the beginning of Ἰησοῦς the way some say it, but I’d argue it’s undetectable for all intents and purposes.) Rendered more or less phonetically, with italics on the sound in question: “Ta Aghia tees Agh-ee-ees.” “Ees aghios, ees Kirios, Eesous Hristos, ees dhoxan Theou Patros. Ameen.”

So, the response is alliterative, set off by the last syllable of the last word of the priest’s part. I don’t know that this suggests anything earth-shattering, beyond being something interesting that appears to be unique to the Liturgy in Greek. Anybody know if this also happens in Slavonic? I don’t know that there’s any real way to reproduce the effect in English, unless we were to do something like “Gee, he’s holy, gee, he’s Lord, Jesus Christ…” Or, um, maybe not.

If I were really digging for a practical point, it would be that maybe this allows the call and response to overlap somewhat? That might possibly make sense from the standpoint of a live acoustic. Probably this is just a fun little nugget of evidence that those writing the liturgical texts knew what they were doing.

I’ll also add a Latin note, while I’m thinking about it: I’m reading the Life of St. Hilarion right now, as noted earlier, and the following line is in the third section, when St. Hilarion is still learning from St. Anthony and observing his ways — “cibique ejus asperitatem nulla umquam infirmitas frangeret.” Fremantle translates this as St. Anthony never on account of bodily weakness deviating “from the plainness of his food,” but asperitatem is actually a more interesting word than that. It can also mean “dryness”, which would make this line a reference to the practice of xerophagia “dry eating”, or eating only raw fruits and vegetables. This is certainly a practice associated with monasticism, and I pointed it out to my advisor, for whom this was evidently news.

Anyway — the little bits and pieces one gets from the source languages are an enrichment of one’s understanding of the texts, to say the least. They may not be showstoppers, necessarily, but they definitely make the flavor more complex.

Week 5 of grad school and all is well

The last couple of times I had a hiatus in blogging, it was because things weren’t altogether well for me.

This time, to be honest, I’ve got nothing to complain about. Things are going really well.

I’m going to repeat that, just for emphasis and the sheer joy of being able to say that truthfully and unreservedly, perhaps for the first time since moving out here over six years ago:

Things are going really well.

The last several weeks have been something of a whirlwind; after getting back from Greece I had two papers to finish, a godson’s wedding to hold crowns for, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it — er, wait. That is to say, two days after the wedding, Orientation Week started, during which I had to take a Latin and a Greek diagnostic exam; then the semester started for real, and it was off to the races.

Im photographing them being photographed. Theres something kind of uncomfortable meta about this, dont you think?

I'm photographing Matthew and Erin being photographed. There's something kind of uncomfortably "meta" about this, don't you think?

Matthew and Erin’s wedding was wonderful; we were in South Bend for the three days leading up to it to help out with various things, and it was a joy to be part of it at every step. Fr. George Konstantopoulos at St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend served with Fr. Peter, and this was a lucky match for everybody — Fr. George has decades of experience and knows all of the little things that often get left out in the simplified versions of services that are often done these days. For example, I was a lot busier as the koumvaros at this wedding than I was for another one at All Saints last year — at that wedding, I just stood there. Here, I did the crown exchange and the ring exchange — and let me tell you, I was sweating it during the ring exchange. Oh, I thought. These rings are very small, and my fingers are very big. And all three sets of hands are shaking. If I drop them it will be very bad. Now I remember why I don’t do brain surgery. Fr. George also had the gravity and authority (to say nothing of the beard) that comes from many years of doing this, and it complemented well Fr. Peter’s still-youthful energy (he’s 35, I guess it’s not inappropriate to say that, right?).

The next morning, the newly-crowned Mr. and Mrs. Wells met us at St. Andrew’s for Divine Liturgy, and Fr. George gave them a big ol’ head pat during the announcements — “Matthew and Erin from Bloomington were married here yesterday,” he said, “and this morning they were here for Divine Liturgy. To me, that is an example of what living life as an Orthodox Christian is all about.” His meaning could hardly be plainer had he hoisted a neon sign saying, Please take being here as seriously as they do.

I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan...

"I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan..."

Before driving home, we headed to Chicago to see our friend Tessa Studebaker, an old singing colleague of mine from Seattle whom we hadn’t seen since before we moved to Indiana. When I met her ten and a half years ago, she worked at Barnes and Noble for the discount and was still in high school; now she’s in her upper twenties, is a college graduate, took a job in France for a while, moved back, and is possibly getting serious about somebody. It’s incredible to think that the last ten years have gone by so quickly that all of that could have happened, but there we are. It’s even more incredible that the majority of that ten years has been spent here in Bloomington — it means I’ve spent more time here than I spent in Seattle after dropping out of college the first time. It means that the address I’ve had the longest in my entire life (four years) has been here. It means that by the time I’m done with my PhD, I’ll have spent probably over ten years at a place I thought maybe I’d spend three years at the very most.

But enough with the existential pondering for the moment. I guess seeing old friends has a way of bringing that out of me.

Orientation was more or less a non-event; I’ve been here for six years, I know where the library is, my e-mail account hasn’t changed in all of that time, so there wasn’t really any particular novelty for which I required context. That said, a couple of things stick out for me — one, Ed Watts, the Director of Graduate Studies for the History department here (who also happens to be my PhD advisor), strongly impressed on everybody to find a schedule for working, a rhythm of grad school life, that gets the job done and can be adhered to, and then to stick to it. Coming from a situation where I was trying to fit being a half-time (or more like three-quarter time) student in around having a fulltime 8-5 job, that advice really resonated with me; I’ve done my best to take that to heart, and I think it’s served me well thus far.

Secondly, I observed this kind of thing while students were introducing themselves:

“Hi, I’m Jacob Goldstein, and I’m doing Jewish history with an emphasis on Holocaust education.”

“My name is Sankar Ramasubramanian, and I’m interested in modern Indian history.”

“I’m Ramon Santiago, and I do early modern Latin American history.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? It seems that who one is can’t help but inform their research interests, and the correlation there appears to be entirely natural and predictable. That said, the same correlation appears to be viewed with some amount of suspicion when it comes to Christians doing Christian history. I haven’t directly experienced that among my cohort yet, but I’ve seen it in other contexts, and something I’ve picked up on a bit is a certain point of view, perhaps almost subconsciously held, that can be expressed as, I’m interested in history because I want to prove that everybody has always been as petty, nasty, and not to be trusted as they are now. It’s a fundamental skepticism of humanity bordering on loathing (but ironically, I think its proponents would probably self-identify as humanists), and it seems to cross disciplinary and ideological lines. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it.

My Greek and Latin exams evidently went well enough; for each language, I had three passages, a dictionary, and an hour. In each case I got through more or less the first passage and the first third to the first half of the second. I don’t remember what the passages were, but they didn’t generate any particular concern. I was worried, when I next saw Watts, that he’d get a concerned look on his face and say, “We need to talk,” but that didn’t happen. He just said I did very well with the Greek, and while the Latin wasn’t as good, it was still pretty good. I figured the Latin would be the weaker of the two anyway.

Then it was time to actually start classes.

So, I’m taking three classes for real, sitting in on two, and then doing some individual reading with Watts for one credit. I’m taking third year Modern Greek, a mandatory “Welcome to the History Department” course called “Introduction to the Professional Study of History,” and then a course in Classical Studies where we’re reading Ancient Greek judicial oratory — Antiphon, Lysias, and Demosthenes, namely. Modern Greek I have to take for my funding (and I should be doing as much with it as I can, anyway), and then Watts wanted me to take some upper-level Classical Studies courses so I could have a chance to sharpen my Greek a bit. The one credit of individual reading we’re doing finds us reading St. Jerome’s Life of St. Hilarion, so I’m also getting some Latin in this semester. Since I’m ahead of the game a bit in terms of my coursework, Watts thought it was important to give my languages some extra time, and he’s right — it’s been a good thing.

(Watts and I have had a couple of simpatico moments with our iPhones — today, for example, we were reading Jerome and needed to look up a word. I pulled out my sketchy little pocket dictionary, and he said, “I’ll one-up you there.” With a gleam in the eye only recognizable by the fellow geek, he pulled out his iPhone and asked, “Do you know about the Latin Dictionary app?” I didn’t, but within two minutes I had it along with its companion Greek Lexicon by the same developer.)

I’m also sitting in on an undergraduate survey Watts is teaching on the Late Antique Roman Empire, as well as a seminar in Art History called Problems in Early Christian Art. The former is really useful background, and I’m doing it instead of taking Watts’ actual graduate seminar on the same material (since I’m actually at a point where it’s vital I take seminars from people other than him). The latter is a result of recognizing a) that my interests, the way I want to talk about them, are interdisciplinary, and b) given certain realities, I will be best served doing some of the interdisciplinary work on my own time. The course is basically dealing with Christian art up to Iconoclasm; the reading is actually highly useful stuff for me, and I’m learning a lot, with certain things I can already talk about being discussed in a very different context than that to which I’m accustomed.

Anyway, it’s a lot, but it’s not a back-breaker of a schedule by any means. Yes, it’s a good amount of work, but I’m finding it easier to manage now than I found it to manage less work while having to juggle a fulltime job. It means I’ve had less time for blogging, yes, but it’s been for a good reason. I think I’m at a point where I understand the rhythm well enough that I can post a bit again.

So, in brief, that’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. Coming up, there’s another wedding this weekend, that of a certain Daniel Maximus Greeson and Chelsea Coil, plus I’m also supposed to run a book review for these folks by 10 November. Plus there are any number of other things for me to talk about regarding what I’ve been reading and what I’m thinking about — it’s more “Where the heck do I begin?” than “What do I have to say?” Let me tell you, these are all problems I am thrilled to have.

I will close this post in the manner which I think I may start closing for the time being — that is, with a rundown of what I’ve recently finished reading and what I’m currently reading.

Recently finished:

Currently reading:

Metro Athens: “We are ascertaining the presence of a common tradition”

From Metro Athens, 6 July 2009, p. 9: (text originally in Greek, translation mine)

Word of unity from the Phanar

The Patriarch of Moscow and of All Russians Kyrill characterized as the most meaningful event of his visit to the Phanar the concelebration yesterday of a Divine Liturgy with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of St. George.

“This peaceful visit is the first of a series of visits to the sister local Orthodox Churches,” said Patriarch Kyrill, and stressed that “the visits will comprise a good beginning for the renewal of the brotherly relations in Christ between two great Orthodox Patriarchates of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Christ.”

One Orthodox Church

The Patriarch of Moscow and of All Russians made a particular reference to the processes which began at the initiative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in 2008 for dealing with the problems of the Orthodox Churches. “From all our soul we are supporting the call which Your Holiness issued from here last year to the local Orthodox Churches, that we should be conscious of ourselves and function as one Church. This, our interpretation, comprises even our own sincere conviction,” said Patriarch Kyrill, speaking to Patriarch Bartholomew.

“A coordinating organ”

Patriarch Bartholomew on his side reiterated how “the structure of our Church according to Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches in no wa signifies that we comprise Churches and not a Church.

“The Orthodox Church certainly does not employ primacy of power, but also it does not lack a coordinating organ, not compelling but expressing the unanimity of the local churches. This martyr’s Throne humbly exercises the ministry from the ages and sacred tradition in absolute fidelity to the imperatives of Orthodox Ecclesiology,” he added.

Strong ties

Patriarch Kyrill referred in detail to the great ties of the Church of Moscow with Constantinople. “We are ascertaining the presence of a common tradition, which unbreakably connects the Church of Constantinople with her former daughter, today the sister Church, equal in rank, of Russia,” he noted, and added, “Our common tradition comprises the firm foundation of our common witness to the modern world.”

PULL QUOTE NOT IN BODY OF TEXT: Kyrill: “Despite historical cataclysms, the name of Christ continues to be hallowed in this city.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Warm embrace of two hierarchs

Hello from Athens — er, rather, “Γεια σας”: in which the author just learns to process the thought, “Hey! I’m in Greece!

(That’s pronounced “Ya sas” for those of you who can’t read Greek letters.)

I checked in online on Tuesday; I was flying Indianapolis to Newark, with a nonstop from Newark to Athens. I had a window seat, and the plane was empty enough that I had two empty seats between me and the aisle. I thought I’d probably only need to check one bag, but I indicated two just to be on the safe side — I had packed an empty carry-on suitcase in my big suitcase, both to keep myself from overpacking as well as to have a carry-on for side trips, and to give myself room to pack gifts on the way back. I had an empty duffel bag in which to pack overflow if it actually turned out the suitcase was over.

Wednesday morning, when I actually checked in at the airport, I was told that they were a bit concerned about me not having enough time in Newark to make my connection, but not to worry — they would reroute me through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris if there was a problem. Still, everything looked good for the Indianapolis flight to be on time, so looked like everything would be all right. I wound up having to move a few things into the duffel bag after weighing the suitcase, and I checked both bags.

Saying goodbye to Flesh of My Flesh at the airport with me being the one taking off for the summer was very strange feeling. She’s gone away four summers in a row; now it was my turn to go off and have an international adventure and for her to stay home. How would this time be different, with our roles reversed? Ask me again in two months.

The plane boarded, we pushed off from the gate only slightly late, taxied off… and parked on the tarmac for an hour and fifteen minutes. Air Traffic Control had issued a new wheels-up time just as we closed up the plane for an hour and a half later, so there we sat. It was a tiny aircraft, and even with nobody in the seat next to me it was cramped. Air travel FAIL.

My flight to Athens was at 5:30pm; perhaps it would be delayed as well and it would be no big deal. Arriving in Newark at 5:26pm, the gate agent looked up my flight — “It’s still listed as on time,” she told me. “But who knows — you might still make it.” Of course, the gate for the Athens flight was all the way on the other side of the airport. Even with a shuttle bus, it took twenty minutes to get over there, by which time the flight was long gone. Air travel FAIL.

I was rebooked for the Paris connection; that meant waiting in Newark for another four hours, and it would also mean arriving in Athens at 4:30pm rather than 10:30am. Air travel FAIL.

Turned out I wasn’t alone; I met an IU undergrad named Alex Edwards who was on her way to participate in an archaeological dig on the island of Aevia, and for whom this was her first major international trip. “Well,” I said as we stood in line to get our flights rebooked, “the good news about this kind of rough start is that there’s someplace for the rest of the trip to go.”

The good people at the Archives of Traditional Music had gotten me a rather hefty iTunes gift card as a parting gift, so I decided to buy a pair of video glasses for my iPod and download some movies to watch on the flight to Paris. I bought Burn After Reading, Star Trek the Motion Picture, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Unfortunately, it turned out that, at the speed of the Boingo hotspot at Newark, it would take about three hours to download the movies, and by this point I had less than an hour. I’d have to finish downloading them once I got to Greece. Also, the goggles themselves would require charging overnight before I could use them. Finally, I discovered in horror that my iPod power/sync cable had managed to be left at home, so I had to buy one of those too. Wi-Fi FAIL; Inflight entertainment options FAIL; Richard packing FAIL.

The flight to Paris boarded late; it was also jam packed. I still had my window, but boy oh boy was I crammed right up against it for the duration of the trip. Flying Northwest I’ve become accustomed to international flights being noticeably better and more comfortable than domestic flights; this is not the case with Continental Airlines, it would seem — word to the wise. Rather than any additional legroom, with the couple sitting next to me I had exactly one inch short of enough room to extend my leg at all comfortably; as a result I had a bad cramp in my knee two hours into the flight about which I could do exactly nothing. A good number of people on that flight seemed to be there because they had missed another plane, and were all in the resulting absolutely sunny mood. Even when I went to the bathroom, within two minutes there were angry pounds on the door. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep. Air travel FAIL.

Flying in over Paris really is lovely, I will say that; the countryside is green and open and seems like a place I’d be very interested to explore. On the other hand, Charles de Gaulle Airport is nothing I really needed to see under the circumstances. The best thing I can say is that between getting a coffee and croissant and navigating through the barely-organized chaos that was boarding the flight to Athens, I got to use un petit peu of my French. I will also say that I got to see the humorous sight of a group of nuns going through security and having to take out laptops.

The Paris-to-Athens leg of the trip had me, once again, packed in with the rest of the sardines, meaning I didn’t sleep — or rather, I did sleep for a bit until the flight attendant dropped a can of tomato juice into my lap. Air travel FAIL. (That said, we did get real food on the Air France flight.)

Landing at Athens International Airport, I noticed with some amusement that I could see a very large IKEA from the air, with an Orthodox church at the end of the parking lot. Yep, I thought, this is Greece.

My big suitcase was the first bag off the conveyor belt; after twenty minutes, though, it became clear that the duffel bag hadn’t made it (and neither had any of Alex’s luggage). After another twenty minutes in line at customer service, I found out the bag was still in Newark (Air travel FAIL FAIL FAIL) and would be delivered to me the next day.

So it was that at long last, my friend Anna Pougas and her dad Giorgos found me, a bedraggled, sweaty, tired Anglo in a Panama hat, ultimately about seven hours later than originally planned. Nonetheless, when Giorgos asked if I wanted to see anything before we went home, I said yes, absolutely.

We walked around Porto-Rafti, a lovely bay with beaches and swimming, as well as old trenches from World War II. We also drove by the temple of Artemis where Iphigenia is said to have been buried, and then had very decent seafood in a restaurant by the harbor. Interestingly enough, there’s a music store in the area called “Ριχάρδος Μουσικός Οίκος” (Ριχάρδος being a Hellenicization of Richard — “Rihardhos”). If I had been sharp enough at the time, I would have taken a picture. Perhaps later.

By the way — if you ever plan on coming to Greece, be aware that the culture of driving is much different from what it is in the States. Chalk Athens up as another European city in which I would never want to drive (so far, that’s just about all of them in which I’ve travelled), and here it’s because drivers here are simply much more aggressive by custom. I suppose we could say that here the rules of the road really are guidelines at best. The other side of this is that, when you’re talking about people who have driven this way all their lives, it’s not really a problem — they know what they’re doing. For me, however, I think my inexperience with that kind of driving would just make me a hazard on the road.

When we got to the Pougas’ house in Halandri, I immediately jumped in the shower and subsequently collapsed in bed. Jet lag? What jet lag?

The next day I woke up around noon. After my bag was delivered, around 3pm, Anna and I walked into the downtown part of Halandri to see if I we could get my cell phone situation straightened out. (Side note: there are pomegranate and orange trees just growing in people’s yards and on the sidewalks.) I’m an AT&T customer so my phone — a Samsung SGH-A437 — is quad-band, and they had given me an unlock code so I could replace the SIM card overseas. We went into a Vodafone store, I unlocked the phone, put in the card they gave me, and… “Wrong card,” the phone’s display told me, even after entering the PIN for the card. I tried again. “Wrong card,” the phone’s display stubbornly repeated. “It’s difficult with Samsung phones,” they told me. Cell phone FAIL. Anna said that they had an old unused phone at home that I could use for the time being; ironically, it turned out to be the same Nokia phone that Megan has loathed for the last two years.

One thing I discovered really quickly: much like London, where Anglican churches are virtually around every corner, so it is here with Orthodox churches. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a church. It’s also clear that, in most instances, the churches were here first, and people built around them (with one case in particular being a remarkable demonstration of this, but I’ll get to that later). The central church in Halandri is St. Nicholas Church, and we attended Vespers there. There’s a lot of restoration of the frescoes going on inside; on the north wall are very bright icons which have clearly been cleaned up, and scaffolds are around indicating that work is being done. From the darkness hanging over a lot of the iconography, it’s apparent that a lot of work is needed — I don’t know if it’s particulate from incense or just what happens to egg tempera after a century or so.

It was a Friday evening, and much like the States, weekday services are clearly expected to have, er, light attendance — the priest did it entirely as a reader’s service, and I mean as a reader’s service. Nothing was sung at all except for the apolytikion for Pentecost — everything else was simply read, and quickly. We were out in less than half an hour.

We walked around afterwards — Anna showed me the new church which is being built in Halandri, St. George, which she said has been under construction all of her life (her brother was baptized in the basement, where they’ve held services up until a few years ago when the nave was finally ready) and for which Giorgos later said he remembered helping to dig the foundations as a boy. Only (“only,” I say as an American who worships presently in a church that’s just trying to figure out how to not look like an office building) the apse and dome are frescoed at this point, and the bell tower is still being finished; “That’s still a lot farther ahead than many churches in America,” I said.

After our little walking tour of Halandri, we headed back to the house to find Giorgos. We were meeting Anna’s brother, Stephen, and his girlfriend Liana to go out to a movie — and I mean out. As in outdoors. Drive-in without the cars. The movie? Well, it was Angels and Demons (Dan Brown FAIL), but never mind that now. Beyond the novelty of watching it in the open air with a concession stand where I could have ordered a martini if I had wanted one, it was also a useful exercise to listen to the English soundtrack while trying to follow along with the Greek subtitles.

Saturday, Anna and I decided to head into downtown Athens and attend Vespers at St. Irene, which is Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ church. (Gavin Shearer, this paragraph is for you.) Athens’ gradually expanding metro system is really nice; on the whole, I have to give a big thumbs-up to the public transportation system here, which seems to be very useful and quite economical. I’m paying 35 Euros for a monthly pass that gives me access to everything — buses, the metro, streetcars, even some of the regional rail I think — as opposed to the 30 pounds we paid apiece for the weekly Tube pass in London. As I said, the system is new (I think it opened in 2001) and thus is still expanding, so there is no metro station near where I’m staying (but there will be one a five minute walk away in a year or so!), but the buses also aren’t too bad. (And hey, the Athens metro even has its own version of “Mind the gap”.) As it is, we made it to Syndagma Station, in central Athens right by the National Gardens, without a whole heck of a lot of muss or fuss. Real cities have trains.

Here’s some useful advice about walking around downtown Athens: there is no such thing as a soft sell there. If you’re walking around the tourist-heavy areas, everybody will be trying to get you to come into their shop or sit down at one of their tables; if you go into a shop, they will do everything they can to get you to leave some of your money there. I was more-or-less prepared for this and only went into a shop because there was something specific I wanted (a little triptych in this case), and only discussed with the saleslady the exact item I was buying, no matter what else she tried putting in front of me. Interestingly enough, she assumed I was Russian; this is not the first time Greeks have jumped to this particular conclusion about me (such as when I visited the Greek cathedral in London a couple of years ago). I’m not sure what that’s all about, but never mind. “Ευχαριστώ, όχι” (Efharisto, ohi “Thank you, no”) coming from the lips of an Anglo raised more than a few eyebrows, and not all of them with respect; I got more than one snarky “Μιλάς καλά Ελληνικά!” (Milas kala Ellinika “You speak Greek well!”) After a couple of those I wanted to reply, “Όχι, δεν μιλώ καλά και το ξέρω!” (Ohi, dhen milo kala ke to xero “No, I don’t speak well and I know it!”)

We got much-needed coffee from Χατζή (“Chatzi’s”), and soon found a rather stark example of a church being there first and people building around it. Here is the chapel of the Holy Power of the Virgin, a chapel of the monastery of the Dormition at Pendeli. In the United States, obviously developers would do everything they could to buy and demolish the property; that they don’t do that here may lead to what look like awkward solutions, but they are definitely conversation starters.

Just a little further down is the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the cathedral of Athens. Services are not being held right now while renovations are happening, but it is still open to the public. Among other things, they have the relics of Patriarch St. Grigorios V (the icon over his reliquary even depicts him hanging in front of the Phanar) and Athenian St. Philothei.

By the way — even the phone booths here are with LEMON!

And how much do you have to love being able to stand on one street corner and see a centuries-old church (foreground), a centuries-old mosque (right), and the Acropolis (hill in background)?

After walking around a bit, we ate a late lunch at Thanasis, a souvlaki place a few blocks from the Cathedral. There I developed a new love: tirokaftiri. ‘Nuff said.

As might be expected, Vespers at St. Irene Church with Lycourgos Angelopoulos as the protopsaltis was a much different experience from the Friday night Vespers at St. Nicholas, to say the least. All I can say is that was the fullest Great Vespers I have ever experienced, in every sense of the word. The church is beautiful, it was celebrated reverently without a single thing cut (although, curiously, “Gladsome light” was read, not sung — as was the Nunc dimittis, for that matter, but I already knew that to be read in Byzantine practice), and it was sung by left and right Byzantine choirs. All told, it was about an hour and a half.

Observations about churches in Greece: all but one I’ve been in so far have a left/right choir setup in front of the iconostasis in the part of the church which would actually have the architectural term of “choir” — that is, between the altar (the iconostasis in this case) and the nave, with a rail in front of the nave. This has the positive effect, particularly when one sees how the two choirs interact with each other, the clergy, and the congregation during a service, of making the two choirs integral parts of the church architecture in a way that reflects the basic cruciform structure of the building. This also strongly emphasizes that the clergy, left choir, right choir, and congregation all have distinct roles in a given service, very much unlike how in many American churches the two choirs have been collapsed into one, which is then for all intents and purposes collapsed into the congregation.

This also has a couple of effects which no doubt many Americans would immediately find distasteful: it means that the altar is farther away from the congregation than it would be without the choir, and it also means that the congregation’s role, generally, does not involve singing — at least nowhere near as much as one finds in many American parishes. While acknowledging that I say this as a church musician who has the role of singing during services one way or the other, I would like to stress that, in context, these are not the Very Bad Things that some might already be thinking they are. When it is working, there is not only no confusion, but there is really no particular reason for the congregation to sing along. The choirs are leading the worship in a different way, and to a very real extent it would seem arrogant in this context for a member of the congregation to try to sing along — the piety of the congregation is largely silent and inwardly-focused, and these are people who would be scandalized by it going any other way. Seen thus in action, I would be hard-pressed to describe the members of the congregation as not participating — it is only that participation means something else than what we often mean as Westerners. It will perhaps be no surprise to find out that I think there’s something there we Americans learning to be Orthodox can draw from this manner of piety — certainly something more than we’ve convinced ourselves is worth taking from it.

The churches also all have galleries (i.e., upper levels in which to stand in the nave), there is a tendency (but by no means a rule) to have the women standing on the left and the men on the right, they all use amplification, they all have rows of chairs, and there’s a good bit of Western-style iconography in most of the older churches. I asked Anna about the chairs; she said that as long as she can remember, churches have had rows of chairs in Greece. (Notice I didn’t say “pews”.) I am curious to find out if this a recent, urban development, or if the simple truth is that, quite frankly, the churches I’ve been in so far have been populated mostly by people over sixty. Yes, it’s true; Orthodox Christianity in Greece seems to be pretty much the faith of the elderly. God bless their steadfastness, but somewhere along the way the faith didn’t get passed on to their children or grandchildren except in a handful of instances.

The poor also tend to congregate outside of churches here. This makes sense; the churches are in population centers, and there is reason to believe that people going into the churches might be willing to be instruments of charity. This is convicting to me, accustomed as I am to the local church being well away from the rest of the world and inaccessible to the poor and being culturally accustomed to ignoring the people we deem “panhandlers”. Can I go into a church and in good conscience worship the God-man who told me to clothe the naked and feed the hungry while ignoring those very people at the door? How do I know that they are truly in need? Do I have the right to judge? What do I do? I do what I can at any given moment, I suppose, whatever that is, make the Sign of the Cross, and pray I’ve done the right thing, whatever that is.

Sunday morning, we attended Divine Liturgy at a little church in downtown Athens, St. Nicholas (there are just a few of those in the area). It was quite different from St. Irene; it was very small — perhaps seventy or eighty people would fit in there total — small enough so that they didn’t have sufficient space for left and right choirs, nor the extended choir area in front of the iconostasis. There was a very different character of service here than I found at St. Irene; there were liberal cuts all over the place (during Orthros they jumped from the Gospel reading to “More honorable than the cherubim…”, the Great Doxology was trimmed down significantly, there were only two iterations of the Trisagion instead of three, only the Resurrectional apolytikion was sung followed by the kontakion and all the festal apolytikia were omitted, etc.), and while the choir was all men, they sang almost entirely four-part music. It was somewhat disconcerting; the sound approximated that of a barbershop ensemble singing Russian music in Greek. That said, they sang with as much gusto and enthusiasm as they could muster, and it was beautiful even if it left me scratching my head a bit. The priest did not question my coming up to the chalice at all, although I did not realize unil after I had received that, with no servers, it was up to me to hold the napkin to my chin. Richard taking Holy Communion FAIL (although, thankfully, knowing the ins and outs of local parish practice are not a general requirement for partaking so far as I know).

Following Liturgy, we went across the street to the Byzantine Museum. Reading their brochure, it said that students of non-EU universities who were doing Classical Studies or Fine Arts could get in for free with a student ID; I showed my ID at the door and was told I would have to pay because I was a non-EU student. Right, I explained, having anticipated the misunderstanding; your brochure says that’s fine, given my area of study (which I didn’t think was too much of a stretch of the truth). The woman’s brow furrowed and she picked up a Greek version of the brochure. Finally she nodded, but still had a confused look on her face. “I guess that’s what it says,” she told me, and waved me in. Glad I read the fine print more closely than she did.

The exhibit there is decidedly more modest than that at the Royal Academy of Arts back in February, but it had the advantage of not presenting it as “Look at how these crazy, backwards, superstitious Byzantines did things”. It is far more matter-of-fact with less editorializing. The exhibit guide was going at far more leisurely a pace at each section than I had patience for, however, so I worked my way through it on my own. Definitely worth the visit for the iconography portion; it’s also fun to see prosphora seals from Late Antiquity.

Lunch was in an Athenian suburb a little bit north of Halandri called Kifisia; for those of you with a point of reference in the Pacific Northwest, this would be the Attiki Bellevue. We went to a souvlaki place (“Dear Lord, thank you for our daily souvlaki,” Giorgos said) called Gourounakia Kifisias (“The Little Pigs of Kifisia”), and I once again swooned over my latest crush, tirokafteri. (Food here will be an entirely separate posting, as will, I think, travel tips for the heat sensitive.)

Back at home, I called Ioannis Arvanitis and set up a meeting for Monday; shortly thereafter, I started to fall asleep while e-mailing somebody, and I decided retreat was the wiser part of valor, particularly since the next day would be my first day of school.

More to come.

Sunday of Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy in America

This last Sunday, being the first Sunday in Great Lent, was the so-called “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” commemorating the victory of iconodules over iconoclasm at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (“Nicea II — The Wrath of Arius”). In years past, there has been a Sunday evening Vespers in Indianapolis, participated in by all the area clergy and their parishes. This year, instead of Vespers, a morning Divine Liturgy was planned at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, who had just started worshiping in their new building in December.

All Saints’ participation was determined rather late in the game; being an hour and twenty minutes south, and with some of our parishioners commuting from as much as an hour away even further south, it took some figuring out. Ultimately our deacon stayed behind and served a Typika for those who weren’t going to Indianapolis, allowing Fr. Peter to concelebrate and a group of us from All Saints to attend.

The morning was stunning in several respects. For the occasion, a new icon was commissioned of All Saints of North America, which now includes Indiana-born St. Barnabas. The original was put out for us to venerate, and we were all given prints of it as well. I’ve jokingly called Holy Trinity’s new building the satellite campus of Hagia Sophia, but it really is frickin’ huge. As the pictures make clear, I think we had close to a thousand people in there, and people were still having to gather in the narthex. We had everybody, too (among the clergy as well as the people); Serbians, Greeks, Arabs, Bulgarians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, American converts, and even a handful of Copts, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Indians. (Okay, I’m not sure we had any Finns or Estonians.) The communion of the faithful easily took half an hour, and that was with six chalices, I believe. Add another twenty minutes or so for the communion of the clergy.

Some general observations: Holy Trinity is an example of a church which I think would be too big for me to be comfortable in it as my home parish. It is a beautiful building, and it will only get more beautiful as they fresco it, marble the floors, put up the iconostasis, etc., but I’d rather see the design principles applied to a church maybe a quarter of the size. (This begs the question of why Holy Trinity, which I believe has something like 600 people, doesn’t plant some churches, but never mind that now.) I’ve heard it suggested that past 250 souls or so, you really overtax a priest’s ability to minister; I’ll throw out another possible metric, which is that you don’t want the building to be any larger than that in which the cantor can sing comfortably and be understood and heard without needing a microphone. (This assumes that churches are being built with attention to acoustics, which isn’t even necessarily the case with Holy Trinity, unfortunately — there were one or two odd decisions made on that front.) That said, I think it’s wonderful that a traditional-looking Byzantine temple now exists which is large enough to hold everybody in the metro area. I somewhat wonder if perhaps, with Detroit being, well, Detroit, there might not be talk behind the scenes of moving Metropolitan Nicholas’ throne to Indianapolis, hence the building being a size more appropriate to a cathedral than a parish church.

I wound up joining the choir; Max Murphy, my counterpart at Ss. Constantine and Elena, conducts the choir for these big combined services and I sing for him when I am able. The music was, more or less, OCA music with some simplified Byzantine things reworked for a large ensemble. My trouble is that the Orthodox musical heritage is so much richer than the utility music which tends to dominate services like this, but the reason why it dominates services like this is because it is easily scalable to huge ensembles (as well as makes congregational singing reasonably easy). Mark Bailey once told me that Kievan common chant is great because you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes; on the other hand, he freely admitted, the downside of Kievan common chant is that you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes. There wasn’t an overabundance of Kievan common chant at this service, but the principle was still largely the same. At any rate, it was, mostly, the music that virtually everybody in the Indianapolis area sings except Holy Trinity (and All Saints, for that matter), so it was familiar to Max, the majority of the choir, and a good chunk of the congregation.

There were some interesting moments during the procession of the icons; Fr. Taso (the pastor of Holy Trinity) originally asked the congregation to all sing the litany responses in their own languages, in the spirit of our coming together as a symbol of our unity as Orthodox Christians. This didn’t quite work the way he intended, so ultimately he led us in the Tone 4 threefold English “Lord, have mercy” common to Greek parishes (and Antiochian parishes during Holy Week if one is following Kazan). That worked just fine (although it was different from the responses the choir prepared — Max gave up when he realized that Fr. Taso was going off-script).

One always wonders what happens behind the scenes when that many clergy gather on another priest’s turf, particularly when the event functions something of a “coming out party” for said turf, but Fr. Peter made a point of bringing up that very question last night after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. “It was very peaceful, as surprising as that sounds,” he said. “Fr. Taso called us all together and said, ‘Brothers, what do you want to do?’ To have the protos do something like that, particularly at a Greek church, is unheard of.” (When there were some inevitable uncomfortable chuckles, he said, “That’s not a swipe against the Greeks — they’d tell you the same thing!”)

Given events of the last few weeks, there have been conversations about what Orthodox unity in America means, if it can even happen at all now, if we’re looking a big step backwards, what’s the path from here, etc. etc. etc. I think that to some extent these nervous questions are a bit misguided; it’s not exactly like the AOCNA and OCA were preparing to announce an administrative merger next week and the news out of Damascus derailed it at the last second. However, I think we can look at events like this Sunday of Orthodoxy Divine Liturgy and make some informed guesses about what the practical side of jurisdictional unity might look like.

  • Somebody’s going to have to be the protos, as it were, and it’s probably going to be whoever has the resources to be so effectively, including the space to be a meeting ground for everybody. This was true in 1975 when Met. PHILIP and Met. MICHAEL unified the Antiochian churches in this country, and Met. MICHAEL stepped down; it will still be true going forward.
  • Along similar lines, there will be a group who is numerically dominant. There were ten or so parishes represented at Holy Trinity this last Sunday, and at least half of the congregation was Holy Trinity’s own people.
  • It will be up to the group who is numerically dominant and who functions as the “protos” to be a loving and welcoming brother in Christ. It will be up to the others to be receptive to that, and to return it in-kind.
  • It might be a bit of a cacophony for awhile until people figure things out. The job of the dominant group will be to help guide everybody into unity, and to do so in love.

Looking at these points, I’d argue this wouldn’t be a bad model for how things should be now, even, with or without unity on paper.

One other thought for the moment. That icon of All Saints of North America? A couple of them are American born; some of them were active in America. However, with the exception of St. Peter the Aleut (who was martyred young), none of those saints were both born here and active here. Let me suggest that before we have an indigenous church, we’re going to need indigenous saints. Some might argue that we should start with Fr. Seraphim Rose (which reminds me — I’m reading The Soul After Death right now); while recognizing he’s a controversial figure, I don’t really think that it’s in question that he is a native-born model of sanctity. I personally think he is a saint, and I believe he interceded to heal my mother from a heart issue a few years back, but I also think it will take time for the amen of American faithful to be uttered. I know a priest, and perhaps a bishop or two, who I believe might be glorified after their respective reposes. I have heard some suggest Lynette Hoppe; certainly this book seems designed to make that case. There are others I can think of, too.

My point is, until there are models of holiness who have been raised up out of “our people,” as it were, I’m not sure it makes any sense to be so neurotic and anxious about our earthly organization. Once we start producing saints, administrative questions will take care of themselves. The importance of saints who are local and recent, I have come to realize, is that they shine forth the light of Christ in a way that is immediate. What is more powerful, reading a story about somebody who supposedly did something fifteen hundred years ago, or hearing first-hand accounts of people who did those very things within the last few years? We run a great risk by holding ourselves at a distance from saints — they are less convicting that way, I suppose, meaning they’re more comfortable to be around, but they are also less compelling and convincing.

In other words — if we want a solution to the jurisdictional problem in this country, maybe what we need to do is, before we write a letter or join a lay activist organization or start a blog (all potentially worthy things to do, don’t get me wrong), we need to go out and be saints.

We will see.


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