Visiting Greece for the first time – as I recently did on holiday – I found myself drawn to the seductive glamour of Orthodoxy. The Greeks in general – island Greeks most of all, I expect – seem incredibly easy-going, considering that they are still in the middle of an economic crisis. Take the appealing way in which middle-aged Greeks bathe in the sea, drifting in up to their necks and floating there while chatting to each other, keeping their hats on at all times.
How much of that air of wellbeing is attributable to the fact that Christianity is still central to their lives? The post office in the little port we visited, the only state building around, smart and air-conditioned, had a picture of Jesus – giving a blessing in Pantocrator mode – hanging on the wall. In Britain you might once have had the Queen’s image. You felt (to make a gross generalisation) that here the Church was a friendly presence, not one whose excessive control is resented. That said, I was told that a Greek superstition dictates that men must touch their testicles if they bump into a priest in the street.
Frequently we came across small churches and monasteries, roadside shrines called proskynitaria, and chapels on lonely mountainsides. They were not locked and musty from disuse, as country churches in Britain often are, and inside we saw signs of regular activity. People seeking divine help had left votive offerings or tammata, flat metal images. When young Greeks in tourist clothes entered to look around, they automatically kissed the icons.
The first thing the Western Christian will notice is that you can’t see the altar in a Greek church because it is screened off from the nave by the iconostasis, a tall barrier richly decorated with icons. In fact, the dense profusion of decoration everywhere, with images of saints, Apostles and prophets arranged according to a traditional iconographic scheme, is the second striking feature to the foreigner. And, third, there is the absence of pews or chairs, except for some high choir stalls along the walls. This is because in the Orthodox liturgy the people stand before God.
The iconostasis is a reminder of the rood screens of medieval England, which performed a similar function. But in the centre of it there is a set of doors, the Royal or Holy Doors. These are usually opened during the liturgy so that the congregation can see the priest at the altar.
It is hard not to think that the Orthodox take their religion a bit more seriously than we Westerners do. For example, “fasting and self-control”, as it says in the Philokalia (writings of the early spiritual masters), are “the first virtue, the mother, root, source and foundation of all good”. And according to Timothy Ware in his book on the Orthodox, the Church’s rules are “of a rigour which will astonish and appal many Western Christians”.
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