29 March 2012

Poems for Lent (34): ‘Julian at the Mysteries’ by CP Cavafy

‘I’m frightened, friends. I want to leave. / Didn’t you see how the demons vanished / the second they saw me make / the holy sign of the cross?’ (CP Cavafy)

Patrick Comerford

My Poem for Lent this morning is ‘Julian at the Mysteries’ by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης) (1863-1933), who lived in Alexandria and worked as a journalist and civil servant.

Cavafy was instrumental in the revival and recognition of Greek poetry both at home and abroad, and his best-known poems include ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ (1904) ‘Ithaca’ (1911), ‘The City,’ and ‘The god abandons Antony’ (1911).

Cavafy wrote 12 poems on the theme of Julian the Apostate, and his reading notes on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall show how obsessed he was with the apostate fourth century emperor. Five of these Julian poems only came to light in the late 1970s, but the full collection shows how preoccupied the poet was with Julian, who was raised a Christian and became a pagan. However, Cavafy shared none of the late romantic admiration for the last of the pagan emperors. Instead, he was obsessed with removing the glamour and exposing the fraud of this hero of latter-day pagans.

This seems to be a paradox in a Greek poet who was among the first in modern times to write outstanding poetry on sensuality and sexual encounters. GW Bowersock, in his paper ‘The Julian Poems of CP Cavafy’ (Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 7, 1981), suggests Cavafy found that his researches into the Early Church spoke to some degree to his own personal needs, and found greatest in the 1890s in the solitary struggles of the Early Fathers.

Cavafy’s experience of Christianity was complicated by his feelings of guilt and distress over his sexual orientation, which he tried to confront alone, writing a series of private confessions in which he tried to reconcile his sexuality and his Christianity.

This morning’s poem, ‘O Iουλιανός εν τοις Mυστηρίοις,’ was written in November 1896 and was published posthumously. The story of Julian making the sign of the cross when he encountered demons in an underground cavern was first recounted by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, whose original text was familiar to Cavafy. The cross became a recurrent motif in Cavafy’s Julian poems.

The infant Julian and his half-brother Gallus were saved during the massacre of their family after the death of Constantine the Great. Later, when he became emperor, Julian abandoned Christianity and tried to establish a new pagan religion underpinned by Neo-Platonist principles.

All of the twelve Julian poems, in one way or another, address Julian’s encounter with Christianity. Cavafy sees Julian as a figure marked by hypocrisy and a pagan, puritanical intolerance, an ascetic who demanded strict adherence to the principles of his new pagan church.

This morning’s poem, ‘O Iουλιανός εν τοις Mυστηρίοις,’ had first been given the title ‘O Iουλιανός εν Eλευσίνι.’ It has seems the initial title was inspired by Gibbon’s inference from Saint Gregory of Nazianzus that Julian was at Eleusis: “He [Julian] obtained the privilege of a solemn initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis ...” However, there is no evidence to suppose that Julian was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and so Cavafy gave a new title to his old poem.

The satirical account of Julian’s fright at the mysteries and the potent sign of the cross which Julian made by reflex was written in November 1896, when Cavafy was critically reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. At the same time, Cavafy had a particular concern with the Early Church, and the story of Julian making the sign of the cross when he encounters demons in an underground cavern is told by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus.

This morning’s poem, in the week before Holy Week, reminds us of the power of the sign of the cross, even for those whose faith is weak or who have rejected the message of Christ.

CP Cavafy, by David Hockney

Ο Iουλιανός εν τοις Mυστηρίοις,, Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Πλην σαν ευρέθηκε μέσα στο σκότος,
μέσα στης γης τα φοβερά τα βάθη,
συντροφευμένος μ’ Έλληνας αθέους,
κ’ είδε με δόξες και μεγάλα φώτα
να βγαίνουν άυλες μορφές εμπρός του,
φοβήθηκε για μια στιγμήν ο νέος,
κ’ ένα ένστικτον των ευσεβών του χρόνων
επέστρεψε, κ’ έκαμε τον σταυρό του.
Aμέσως οι Μορφές αφανισθήκαν•
οι δόξες χάθηκαν — σβήσαν τα φώτα.
Οι Έλληνες εκρυφοκοιταχθήκαν.
Κι ο νέος είπεν• «Είδατε το θαύμα;
Aγαπητοί μου σύντροφοι, φοβούμαι.
Φοβούμαι, φίλοι μου, θέλω να φύγω.
Δεν βλέπετε πώς χάθηκαν αμέσως
οι δαίμονες σαν μ’ είδανε να κάνω
το σχήμα του σταυρού το αγιασμένο;»
Οι Έλληνες εκάγχασαν μεγάλα•
«Ντροπή, ντροπή να λες αυτά τα λόγια
σε μας τους σοφιστάς και φιλοσόφους.
Τέτοια σαν θες, εις τον Νικομηδείας
και στους παπάδες του μπορείς να λες.
Της ένδοξης Ελλάδος μας εμπρός σου
οι μεγαλύτεροι θεοί φανήκαν.
Κι αν φύγανε, να μη νομίζεις διόλου
που φοβηθήκαν μια χειρονομία.
Μονάχα σαν σε είδανε να κάνεις
το ποταπότατον, αγροίκον σχήμα
σιχάθηκεν η ευγενής των φύσις,
και φύγανε και σε περιφρονήσαν».
Έτσι τον είπανε, κι από τον φόβο
τον ιερόν και τον ευλογημένον
συνήλθεν ο ανόητος, κ’ επείσθη
με των Ελλήνων τ’ άθεα τα λόγια.

(Από τα Κρυμμένα Ποιήματα 1877;-1923, Ίκαρος 1993.)

Julian at the Mysteries, by CP Cavafy

But when he found himself in darkness,
in the earth’s dreadful depths,
accompanied by unholy Greeks,
and bodiless figures appeared before him
with haloes and bright lights,
the young Julian momentarily lost his nerve:
an impulse from his pious years came back
and he crossed himself.
The Figures vanished at once;
the haloes faded away, the lights went out.
The Greeks exchanged glances.
The young man said: “Did you see the miracle?
Dear companions, I’m frightened.
I’m frightened, friends. I want to leave.
Didn’t you see how the demons vanished
the second they saw me make
the holy sign of the cross?”
The Greeks chuckled scornfully:
“Shame on you, shame, to talk that way
to us sophists and philosophers!
If you want to say things like that,
say them to the Bishop of Nicomedia
and his priests.
The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
appeared before you.
And if they left, don’t think for a minute
that they were frightened by a gesture.
It was just that when they saw you
making that vile, that crude sign,
their noble nature was disgusted
and they left you in contempt.”
This is what they said to him,
and the fool recovered from
his holy, blessed fear, convinced
by the unholy words of the Greeks.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard in CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, edited by George Savidis (revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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