"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
C. S. Lewis

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Village Easter: Memories of Childhood

Uncle Milios never spoke a truer word, when he said the good Christians living outside the town might end up having to celebrate Easter that year without a liturgy. In fact no prophecy was ever closer to fulfillment, for it almost came true twice – but happily God made the authorities see the light, and in the end the poor villagers, local shepherd-farmers, were judged worthy to hear the Word of God and eat the festive eggs.
The cause of all this was the busy little coaster that (supposedly) linked those unhappy islands to the inhospitable shore opposite, and which twice a year, when the season changed in spring or autumn, would almost invariably sink, and as often as not take the whole crew down with it. They would then put the post of captain up for auction, and each time some poor wretch, undaunted by the fate of his predecessor, was found to undertake this most perilous task. And on this occasion, at the end of March, as winter was taking its leave, the coaster had gone down again.
The parish priest, Father Vangelis, who was also the abbot (and only monk) of the small monastic establishment of St. Athanasios, had been appointed by the bishop to take charge of the villages on the opposite shore. Though already an old man, he would take the boat across four times a year, during each of the main fasts, to hear the confessions of his unfortunate parishioners – the "hill-people" or "mountain-scarecrows" as they were called –and give them some spiritual instruction, before he hastened back to his monastery (if it was during Lent) to celebrate Easter there. Rut that year, as we have said, the coaster had sunk, the islands were cut off for several days, and Father Vangelis was reluctantly obliged to stay and celebrate Easter on the far shore of the billowing, storm-tossed sea. It seemed as though his little flock in Kalivia, whose homes clustered around the monastery of St. Athanasios, would end up not having any liturgy at all.
Some of them thought they should take their wives and children down into the town, to hear the Resurrection proclaimed and attend the liturgy there, but Uncle Milios, the village elder of Kalivia, wished to celebrate Easter the way he always had; Sevenmonth (so called because he'd been born premature) didn't want his wife being stared at by the townspeople; and Uncle Anagnostis, an old villager who knew the Easter service by heart, but couldn't actually read a word of it, longed to chant "Receive the body of Christ" himself. All three insisted (and many agreed) that at all costs they must get one of the priests in town to come up to Kalivia and celebrate the liturgy for them there.
Everyone felt the best choice would be Father Kyriakos: he wasn't of a particularly good family (he was even related to one or two of the villagers himself and he didn't look down on them. He was even said to have some Albanian blood in him. He certainly wasn't stand-offish – in fact it was rumored here and there that the priest had a habit of "finishing off the husband's procreation duties" with his female parishioners. But that was just the idle talk of mischief-makers and grudge-bearers, and only fools paid any attention to it. Like most of the true clergymen of the Greek Church (with one or two exceptions), the priest was by and large of blameless character.
Though this is true, the fact remains that married priests are usually out of pocket and out of luck, and, being forever burdened by the need to feed their offspring, they can appear to be grasping individuals, who don't even trust their own colleagues fully. This was the case with Father Kyriakos, who was perfectly willing to go and celebrate Easter for the villagers, as he had a generous heart and would have liked them to enjoy Easter and the arrival of spring along with everyone else, but he had his suspicions about the other parish priest, and was reluctant to leave him in charge of the parish, especially on that day. Father Theodore, however, the other priest, who was known as "the Whirlwind," urged him to go, saying it would be a pity to lose the income from Kalivia, and suggesting that they share the receipts from the parish and the village equally between them.
This did not reassure Father Kyriakos at all: in fact it made him even more suspicious. However, as he had already more or less made up his mind to go to Kalivia when he asked his colleague for his opinion, he told his son Zachos – who pulled a face and grumbled – to stay in the church sanctuary as a spy, collect his half of the offerings and the priest's fee, and only come and join him in Kalivia at sunrise, when the liturgy had ended.
It was four hours before dawn, and the Evening Star was already high in the night sky. Uncle Anagnostis woke the priest, and before they entered the little church of St. Demetrios he improvised a bell out of a solid piece of walnut wood and a stick, and walked through the village, banging nosily to wake the sleeping inhabitants.
One after another the villagers arrived, accompanied by their wives. All were dressed in their best clothes.
The priest gave the blessing.
Uncle Anagnostis began to recite from memory, beginning with the preliminary prayer and the canon, "On the waves of the Sea."
Father Kyriakos appeared at the sanctuary doors, chanting, "Come, receive the Light."
When they had all lit their candles, they filed out into the open air to hear the Resurrection gospel. A sweet, contemplative Resurrection, amid the blossoming trees, the fragrant bushes swaying in a gentle breeze, and the white flowers of the wild clematis, "neige odorante du printemps."'
They sang "Christ is risen," and all went back into the church. Men, women and children: no more than seventy souls, all told.
Uncle Anagnostis began to chant the Easter canon, and the priest himself (as there was no one else to do so) gave the responses from the sanctuary. He was about to come out and say the preparatory prayer, kiss the icons and begin the liturgy, when a rather tall twelve-year-old boy, flushed and panting, followed by two other boys of about the same age, suddenly walked, or rather burst, into the church. It was Zachos, Father Kyriakos’s son. He rushed into the sanctuary, gasping for breath, and began addressing the priest. Though the congregation could hear his voice, they couldn't make out a single word of it.
This is what he was saying:
"Papa, Papa!" (the children of priests also usually address their father as "Papa"). "Papa, Papa!....Father Whirlwind.... by the back door.... the oblations.... from the sanctuary... his mother-in-law... and his wife.... carrying.... by the back door... the oblations.... I saw them.... by the back door.... the oblations... from the sanctuary.... and his mother-in-law... and his wife..."
Father Kyriakos was the only person who could have made any sense of his breathless son's disjointed words. He understood from them that Father Theodore, the Whirlwind, the other parish priest, was stealing the collection and passing it out to his wife and mother-in-law through the back door leading from the sanctuary.
Perhaps things were not exactly as Zachos suggested. Like all young boys, he loved the country-side and he loved having fun, and he had found it very difficult to obey his father's orders and stay behind in the town. He would have jumped at any excuse to get away and set off on a nocturnal jaunt to Kalivia, especially as he hadn't had any difficulty finding some friends to come along with him.
But Father Kyriakos did not stop to think. He went red and flew into a rage. In a word, he sinned. Rather than giving his son a good box around the ears and calmly proceeding with his duty, he immediately stripped off his stole, removed his cassock and strode down the nave and out of the church – averting his eyes from his wife's face as she stared at him in alarm.
Uncle Milios, however, had an idea about what might have provoked this behavior, and went out after him. A short distance from the church, between three trees and two stretches of fencing, the following conversation took place:
"Papa, Papa, where are you going?"
"Don't worry I'll be back straightaway."
He didn't know what to say. The fact is that he had resolved to go back down to the town and confront the other priest about the theft. He honestly believed he had enough time to get back and celebrate the liturgy before the sun rose.
"Where are you going?" insisted Uncle Milios.
"Get Anagnostis to read the Acts of the Apostles. I'll be right back."
He had forgotten that Uncle Anagnostis couldn't read anything, unless he already knew it by heart.
"After all, I'm leaving my wife here!" he added, unable to think of anything else to say. "I'm leaving my wife here with you!"
And with these words he was gone.
Uncle Milios walked gloomily back into the church.
"I knew it," he muttered to himself.
In the church great astonishment held sway. The villagers stared at each other in bewilderment. Some were whispering. The women were asking the priest's wife to tell them what was going on – but she was even more at a loss than they were.
Meanwhile, the priest ran and ran. The cold night air cooled his brow a little.
"And how am I supposed to feed all these children? Eight of them, God forgive me: the wife makes nine, and me – ten! They'll rob you as soon as look at you! ..."
Five hundred paces from the church the path began to descend, and led down into a lovely valley. There was a watermill standing on the slope, by the side of the road. As the priest listened to the gentle murmuring of the stream and felt the cool breeze against his face, the fact that he was going to celebrate the liturgy (let alone how or where he was going to celebrate it) was swept completely from his mind, and he stooped down to drink. But his lips had not yet touched the surface of the water, when he suddenly remembered, and realized what he was doing.
"I have to celebrate the liturgy." he exclaimed, "and I'm drinking water...?""
And he didn't drink.
Then he pulled himself together.
"What am I doing?" he said, "Where am I going?"
He made the sign of the cross.
"I have sinned, Lord. I have sinned! Do not hold me to account!"
He resumed: "If he is a thief, it is for the Lord to...forgive him...him and me. I must do my duty."
He felt a tear run down his cheek.
"Oh Lord," he exclaimed with all his heart, "I have sinned, I have sinned! You gave yourself up for our sins, and in return we crucify you daily!"
He turned around and hurried back up towards the church to continue the service
And I was actually going to drink water! I am not fit to celebrate! But what can I do? I can't take communion! I shall say the office without taking communion? I am not worthy! 'Behold the first fruits of the vine!" I am not worthy!"
He re-entered the church, and the villagers greeted his return with joy.
He celebrated the divine mystery and administered the Holy Communion to the faithful, taking care that every last drop from the chalice passed through their lips. Himself, he abstained, vowing to tell all to his confessor – and ready to accept whatever penance he might impose.
Around noon, after the service of the Second Resurrection, the villagers laid out the feast under the plane trees by the cooling spring. For a carpet they had the grass and the meadow flowers and for a table they used ferns and rushes. The cool breeze rustled in the trees, while Sevenmonth responded with sweet sounds from his lyre. The lovely Xanthe, his wife, sat between his mother Melachro and Aunt Kratira, her mother-in-law, taking care to keep her cheeks partially covered with her head-scarf and staring pointedly at the trunk of the great plane tree so that the men would not look at her and arouse her husband's jealousy.
Her sister, Atho, fifteen years old and still unmarried, without a care in the world and no less of a beauty herself, kept teasing her, saying: "Silly girl, what did you see in him? I wouldn't have him if you offered me the heavens and the stars... I'd rather be a nun!"
It was as true that Sevenmonth was not much to look at in terms of appearance or size, but he made up for these shortcomings with agility of body and mind, and a cheerful and good-natured disposition.
Father Kyriakos presided over the feast. His wife sat opposite him, an irreproachable dark-haired woman, stocky and round-faced, who once a year, almost without fail, would innocently hatch out another little priest-child – without bothering with all those herbs (whether for getting a child or for preventing one) that fill the minds of other women.
To the right of the priest sat Uncle Milios, the village elder, and devoted servant of his little community. He knew better than anyone how the lamb should be roasted, carving it carefully so that everyone got his share, and proposing toasts as he tucked into his food. His toasts were unrivalled. After the priest had made a short formal toast of his own, Uncle Milios, clutching an enormous seven-oka cask, stood up and began to greet the company one by one:
"Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! Truly the Lord is risen! He lives and reigns throughout the ages!"
After this preamble, he got down to business:
"Health to us all! Good health! Prosperity! Good cheer! Papa! May your vocation bring you joy!" And to the priest's wife: "May your husband and all your little ones bring you joy! Cousin Theodore! Long life and happiness! Godfather Panayiotis! Just as you baptized us with oil, mal you also crown us with wedding wreaths of vine. Kratira, my in-law! May God grant you a fine husband for your daughter! George, my nephew! May you make an honorable marriage, and may we rejoice on your wedding-day! Aunt Kyparissou! May your our son marry a good woman, and gladden your heart! Raise your glasses! Cheers! Here's to us all! Your health! Cousin Xanthe! May good omens accompany the birth of your child! Your health! Here's to us all! May life be good to us, now and always!"
And the amount he drank depended on whom he was toasting.
Little Sevenmonth also wanted to propose a toast, but a more tender one. He hoped to touch his wife's heart and make her answer him:
"What's up!"
"Drink up, and pass the cup!"
"What, with wine?"
"I drink to you, O darling mine!"
When he had drunk, he passed the cask to his lovely Xanthe, and she moistened her lips.
Then they began to sing. First of all "Christ is risen," followed by popular songs. When Uncle Milios tried to sing "Christ is risen," it either became a slow Anatolian lament, or else a heroic ballad, but the most original singer of all was Uncle Kitsos, an aged gendarme from Northern Epirus – an old regular, who had been left stranded on the island since King Otho's reign. He wasn't even sure whether his name was still in the official register – at times he received his pay, and at other times he didn't. He wore an open-sleeved tunic, short knee breeches and greaves around his shins. The mayor (there was also a mayor, alas!) had sent him to Kalivia for Easter, supposedly to maintain law and order, although there wasn't actually any need for it to be maintained. The truth is that he had sent him off to enjoy himself with the good-hearted country people, whose company Uncle Kitsos liked, even though he would call them "poor wretches" or "tinkers." It is also true that if he had stayed in the town, the mayor would have been under an obligation to entertain him, for Uncle Kitsos had been spoilt by the previous mayors and treated to cakes and eggs at Easter. What customs...!
After kissing the cask three or four times, Uncle Kitsos began to chant "Christ is risen" after his own fashion, as follows:
Crisis lads, Crisis risen
from the dead by death
chomping down death
and to those, those in the tombs
life most blessed!
And yet, despite its singularity, no one ever sang a sacred song with more Christian feeling and enthusiasm, with the possible exception of that worthy old Cretan, long-famed in Athens, who sang the "Dumb are the lips of the impious" with his own interpolation: "Dumb are the lips of the impious and profane, the scoundrels!, at your revered image...."
Ah, the true Orthodox Greeks!
As the shadows lengthened, the men began to dance the klephtiko (the women waited till Monday and Tuesday before dancing the syrtos and the kamara), and Father Kyriakos, his wife, and young Zachos, whom his father had let off in view of the special day (he had decided that his son was actually to blame for all the confusion), took leave of the company and went back down to the town.
Father Kyriakos gave his fellow priest his full share of the collection from Kalivia, and did not even bother to raise the subject of the supposed theft. As it was, Father Theodore himself told him that his share of the parish receipts was in his own (Father Theodore's) house. He had thought it best, he said, to take both shares out through the back door of the sanctuary, so as to keep them from the eyes of gossips with nothing better to think about, who might otherwise kick up a fuss about all the money priests receive. "On the rare day," he said, "that we actually get something in the collection box, everyone has plenty to say about it – but they never stop to consider all the weeks and months that go by without harvest!"
So that was why Zachos had got it wrong.

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(1890) Translated by Andrew Watson. From The Boundless Garden, Selected Short Stories, Vol. I (Limni, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2007).

If you enjoyed this excerpt, please check out the most excellent book, Greece's Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis (Protecting Veil, 2011). http://protectingveil.com/products/books/greeces-dostoevsky-the-theological-vision-of-alexandros-papadiamandis/

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