12 October 2012

Finding hope in Greece in the midst of economic and financial crises

Patrick Comerford
The political and economic crises that are besetting Greece have dominated European news for the past 12 months.

There have been two general elections so far this year, three governments have fallen, and a third is on the brink. The political parties that once dominated Greek politics are in a state of flux, the extreme right has become more visible and violent, and populist left has become more appealing as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU) and the European Central Bank (ECB) demand increasingly harsh cuts in public spending.

As I write, the fears and prospects of a Greek exit from the single European currency, the Euro, continue to gather steam, and ordinary Greeks on the streets, fearing the prospect of being reduced to penury, wonder whether they have any friends left in Europe.

Ordinary Greeks are hard-working, family oriented, loyal and – by the standards of many European societies – disarmingly honest and trustworthy in their one-to-one encounters and personal relationships.

For those ordinary Greeks, the blame for their present distress lies not with politicians in the past who engaged in widespread graft and favouritism as they allowed public spending to escalate out of control, or with the business and professional classes, who have often avoided tax paying as if it were a summer game. Instead, popular Greek feeling blames northern European in general, German politicians in particular, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel individually, for the present crisis.

Greeks need no reminding that democracy has been their gift to civilisation. This is no idle replay of the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where everything is said to have Greek roots. But Greeks are constantly conscious that they have given the world philosophy, drama, theatre, comedy, architecture, arithmetic, and many and other concepts without which we could not regard ourselves as civilised.

On the other hand, in the popular press, Greeks are reminded constantly that the outstanding German contributions to Europe in the 20th century are the Nazis, the holocaust and the death camps.

It has been a difficult message for German tourists to hear in Greece this summer. After all, the sins of the grandparents ought not to be rained down on the grandchildren. Germans count for high proportion of sun-package-holiday tourists in Greece, and those who have come this year are most likely to be Germans who are most sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Greeks

On the other hand, a close friend who is politically very astute, points out to me that many of the people in Crete who voted for the extreme-right party, Golden Dawn, in this year’s elections, were the grandchildren of people who lived in island villages that suffered brutally at the hands of the German invaders in the 1940s.

Crete has a strong and honourable tradition of resistance to oppression that dates back to the War of Independence in the 19th century. Crete was later than many other islands in being incorporated into the modern Hellenic state and this has heightened Cretan sensitivity to injustice and oppression, particularly during World War II, the Greek Civil War, and resistance to the colonels’ dictatorship.

But despite their pride in their culture, philosophy and democracy, Greeks seldom talk about their country a Biblical land. Yet the New Testament is written in Greek, and much of it is addressed to Greeks-peaking people. Readers of the Bible tend to forget that most of Paul’s missionary journeys involved lengthy stays in places that are now part of the modern Greek state – Thessaloniki, Athens, Corinth, and of course Crete.

I have been a regular visitor to Greece since the 1980s, and I have recently visited Greece three times in the space of 12 months: Kastellorizo, which is the most easterly and most remote Greek island, accessible only through Turkey; Thessaloniki, where my grandfather’s infection with malaria in 1916 led to his death but also, ironically, is one of the reasons why my father was born and therefore why I am here today; and Crete, which is almost like a second home with the frequency of my visits.

My friends in Crete reassure me that there island has been cushioned by the present recession in the Greek economy because of the foreign earnings that tourism brings in. But they have awoken to the reality that this tourism is not a bottomless well from which they can continue to draw from and drink liberally.

Hotels that I once stayed in were open for the high season, but one had only six guests in one week, while maintaining a full staff at reception, in the kitchen, in the bar, by the pool, for cleaning and housekeeping and for security. Other hotels have simply closed in the face of the downturn in tourist numbers.

Outside the tourist areas, shops are closing every day because of the combined effects of a drastic drop in custom and an inability to pay ever-increasing taxes and charges. I was told sadly that every family has a story of someone whose life has ended in suicide.

The head of Saint Titus is revered in a shrine in the church with his name in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the midst of all this despair, I still find Crete a deeply spiritual island, and my stays there have always included regular visits to churches with lengthy, historical associations, and monasteries that continue to maintain a life of prayer and spirituality that dates back to the Apostolic Church.

In Iraklion, the principal city of the island, one of the oldest churches is dedicated to Saint Titus, the companion of the Apostle Paul and the recipient of two of his pastoral letters. During the Ottoman occupation of Crete, the church was converted into a mosque, although its dome and square shape are part of the inheritance from that era, it is once again a living, thriving centre of liturgy and worship, and the head of Saint Titus has been returned as a revered and treasured relic.

But few tourists stay long enough in Iraklion. They are passing through on their way to the Minoan site at Knossos or to the package holiday destinations to east, such as Hersonissos and Malia, but they seldom explore the quieter side streets and squares.

Nestling beneath the rococo delights of the Cathedral of Aghios Minas, in one of those quieter squares is a Church dedicated to Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai, which was once the centre of intellectual and cultural life in Crete. The scholars here included the greatest poets, writers, artists and icon writers of the 15th and 16th centuries, and they were the lively interface between Byzantine culture and the Italian Renaissance. One of their best known students was the artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who moved to Italy and Spain where he was celebrated simply as El Greco.

Rethymnon, where I was staying once again this year, dates back to antiquity and classical times, but is fundamentally a Venetian city, with its churches and towers, palazzos and piazzas. Many of the churches date to the Venetian period, but even the modern ones too are decorated with fine Byzantine-style frescoes and icons.

During my week there I also visited three Greek Orthodox monasteries in the mountains above Rethymnon.

The first was in Adele, a small village with a population of fewer than 450 people, where the Church of the Monastery of Aghios Panteleimon (feast day 27 July) is one of the principal sights.

In the neighbouring village of Pagalohori, Moni Arsanios dates from the 16th century. Below, there were panoramic views out to the Cretan Sea; above me there were views up to Mount Psiloritis, the island’s highest mountain. The katholikon or main church in the monastery is dedicated to Aghios Georghios (Saint George), and a smaller church is named after Saint Mark the Deaf. But the monastery probably takes its name from a monk called Arsenios, who built the monastery in the 16th century.

The icon screen in the Church of Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The katholikon was dedicated to Saint George in 1600. When The Turks occupied Rethymnon in 1646, the monastery may have been deserted. In 1655, Bishop Neophytos Patelaros put the monastery under the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the Stavropegic and Patriarchal status of Arsaniou was reconfirmed in 1778 and again in 1850.

But the Stavropegic status which the protection of the Patriarch of Constantinople gave to the monastery did not protect it from natural and political calamities. Many of the cells of the monastery collapsed under a strong earthquake in 1856, and ten years later, in 1866, the Turks destroyed what they could in the monastery to punish the monks for their revolutionary activities.

A new Church of Saint George was built in 1888 on the ruins of the old church, but the Turks returned in 1896 to burn and plunder the monastery. A year later, they murdered the monk Father Gabriel Klados, hanging his head on a tree in Rethymnon to use for target practice.

By 1900, it looked as though the monastery could not survive, but it was reconstituted in 1903. Further woes came with World War II, when the Germans executed Abbot Damianos Kallergis in 1941 for the support the monks gave to the Greek partisans and the resistance to the Nazis. But the monastery survived. It was renovated in 1970, the katholikon was decorated with frescoes in 1988-1990, and a museum and conference centre were founded.

Along with the visitors who come to the conference centre and museum, the monastery has a steady daily trickle of tourists. But the future of Moni Arsanios must be a matter of faith today as there are only three monks living permanently there. The two I met during my visit are in their mid-80s, the third monk is in his mid-40s.

The Church at Arkadi once featured on the Greek 100 drachma note (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Further up into the mountains above Rethymnon, following the corkscrew roads that weave their ways through olive groves and vineyards, across deep gorges and through pine-clad rocky outcrops and tiny villages, is Arkadi, one of the best-loved monasteries in Greece.

The first impression is of arriving at a fortress, with strong, thick, square fortified walls that can be entered only through one narrow gate that leads into a large square courtyard. Local lore says it was founded in the fifth century by the Byzantine Emperors Heraclius and Arcadius. By the time the principal church or katholikon was built in the 16th century, the monastery was celebrated as a centre of science and art, with a school and a well-stocked library.

When the Ottoman Turks captured Rethymnon in 1648, the monastery was pillaged. But the monks soon returned and the monastery continued to prosper, so that 18th century travellers and writers described it as the richest and most beautiful monastery in Crete.

In 1866, Arkadi became a centre of a rebellion against the Turks and almost 1,000 besieged people – many of them women and children – huddled together and died there on 8 November in one of the most horrifying stories of Crete’s struggle for independence and union with Greece.

The massacre was the ultimate expression of the rallying cry of the Greek War of Independence: “Ελευθερία ή θάνατος, Freedom or Death.” The deaths of so many women and children provoked international outrage, and the monastery remains a symbol of the struggle for independence in Crete.

Arkadi is a national shrine, and for many years it featured on Greece’s 100 drachma note. But Arkadi is also a working monastery, although there are only three monks there today. If the survival of the Greek economy is perilous, then the future of Greek monasticism is a matter for prayer too.

Keep Greece in your prayers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
This essay was first published in Koinonia, Volume 5, No 19, Trinity 2, 2002 (October 2012), Kansas City MO, pp 8-11.

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