I live in Greece, married in the Orthodox Church at a time when there was no civil marriage, baptized our daughter because that’s what families did; a child here without a baptism certificate would have been an oddity. In short, I went casually along like the lapsed Scottish Presbyterian I was and found the whole thing rather quaint and charming.
When I first contributed to a guide on the Peloponnese, I remember asking my co-author if she would do the set pieces on the churches in Mistra and elsewhere while I concentrated on the history and mythology. To be honest I thought I had the best of the bargain. Greek history, especially ancient history and mythology were well within my comfort zone. I loved both and on my very first visit to the churches usually mentioned in other guides, I struggled to understand, let alone fully appreciate what I was looking at. The descriptions of the wall paintings and architectural features always veered quickly towards a lesson in art history, wonderful for those educated in Byzantine art but guaranteed to leave a novice like myself glassy eyed and bored in no time. That seemed to be the reaction of most visitors: first an earnest glance at the guide’s gloss, a search to find the points described, and, duty done, off to the next item that they were assured was the reason they had come in the first place.
Obviously my opinion has altered radically since then. The first jolt to my attitude of amused indifference came early: the sheer ubiquity of the Church both physically and metaphorically was stunning. Even the tiniest village boasts more than one church, every hill top with a spectacular view seems to have a church perched on it, monasteries abounded, and the rhythm of the year follows the calendar of church feasts. Most Greeks are named after Christian saints and celebrate on the saint’s day rather than their birthday. And then there was Greek history. While delving into Greek history from 330 AD until the present, it became obvious that Greek history and church history were so enmeshed that I call my text on Modern Greece and the Orthodox Church The Double Helix. They are so entwined it is actually very difficult to discuss one in any detail without reference to the other. Greek language and Orthodoxy are the twin pillars of the National identity and to truly understand one, you need to know something about the other.
This blog is my effort to do just that. I am not an expert, and, frankly, my point of view is all over the place: sometimes sceptical, often cynical, always curious, and, at times, just plain impressed. I now visit churches with all of the enthusiasm of an avid birdwatcher, knowing I will see a lot of expected species but always on the lookout for the rarity. On this last point I am rarely disappointed, hence my section on oddball churches – a section I will never finish; there are too many. Aside from the sheer fun of discovering the spectacular Greek landscape while walking to beautiful individual churches or clusters of churches, there are the details – not just of the architecture, but of the rites and beliefs. Christianity occurred in historical times and there is a record of its development. Westerners are often amazed to discover that the Orthodox Church is the Church – all others are slightly hybrid offspring. This makes it possible not just to describe the what of it but also to investigate the how – a much more interesting area of exploration.
I decided on an ABC approach for part of the blog. Each person’s interest is piqued by different things and at different times. This just seemed an easy way to allow an interested reader to look at whatever seemed worth a look be it B for Baptism, M for Mary, or H for Holy Ghost.
This is also a Travel Guide to Greek Churches but with this difference: I want to give you the tools that will allow you to enter any church- not just the famous ones- and to know what you are looking at. How deeply you decide to go into this is up to you but even an outline of the salient points will banish those glassy eyed stares. I started with 19 churches in Athens. I want to go to the Mani, Mistras, - everywhere really, but probably will never make it. It doesn’t matter.
Lastly I am in the process of writing what I call, for want of a better word, set texts on subjects such as The Church and Modern Greece, Early Christianity and the Byzantine Empire, Church Architecture, on a kind of need to know basis when you are ready or want to have a look.
In short, I am offering the unorthodox visitor a guide to Orthodox Churches and the Greek Orthodox Church. It is possible to look at the texts on specific churches and leave it at that. I hope you will want to learn a little more. I want to share what I have learned and to make your visits to Greece and Greek Churches more interesting and maybe even enlightening. It is a simple as that.