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Reflections On A Holy Saturday Night – Part 2

This is part two in a chapter from the book The Other Dimension, an autobiographical account of my teen years and early twenties in Cyprus. The day is Holy Saturday, the most sacred of days in the Greek Orthodox calendar, but I am not at church. I am at the movies, contemplating holy ceremony, mass and faith. (Click here for part one.)

Easter is when Cypriots resume our religious duties. It is in fact the most important event in Greek Orthodox Christianity, even more important than Christmas. The churches come to life during the Holy Week, especially after Holy Wednesday, and for a brief period of time a sense of spirituality settles all around our modern, booming, developing wasteland. People who believe in God but not necessarily in the need to attend mass regularly… people who are too busy all year round, tending to the needs of the everyday flower they so meticulously grow… people who barely cast a thought on anything but the mundane… they are all suddenly lifted by a warm wave of devoutness and carried away to the plains of faith and worship. There, in the packed church halls, they join ranks with the relatively few who hold God above all… with the many more who hold religious dogma above all… and with the ones who go to church just because it’s the thing one does during Holy Week, and pray together.

It’s not a very harmonious experience. The crowd is disjointed and disconnected. It is made up of disparate and incompatible groups, all brought there by a number of conflicting reasons.

Some people, for example, go to church because they don’t wish to offend their neighbors, or because they want to blend in and not stick out like hairs in dough.

Others go because they have been dragged there, indirectly or literally, by a demanding relative or loved one.

Others go because they can meet people there and talk business and strike deals.

Regardless of the reason behind their attendance, once inside the place of worship, rubbing shoulders and stringing hymns with the rest, a strange sensation usually begins to take over them, its energy pulsating through the congregation, easing all pains away and cleansing the body, the mind and the soul, or so one expects.

It is a rarity, which always takes the back seat to the hustle and bustle. The Holy Week draws more people out of their homes than any other religious festivity, save the Christmas holidays, when people go out to shops, cafes and bars, and it is thus quite tempting for people to stray from realm of the spiritual during mass. They tend to chatter away, or zonk out, or push their way through the crowds, getting rowdy and irreverent, all in the name of reverence, of course.

So much for the church goers. Then there’s the people who don’t go to church during this week. They go elsewhere, to the movies for example, and to restaurants and cafés. They go for walks or drives, or stay at home reading a book… or have wild sex… or sleep. Some are atheists, agnostics or nihilists. Others believe in God – simply not the Greek Orthodox or Christian one – or have an idiosyncratic belief system… or just want to make a point. God only knows why they don’t go to church – or maybe He doesn’t. Perhaps they know better, yes, they, themselves, better than any God.

‘No one knows better than God, hence the reason He is God,’ says convention. But who gives a damn about convention? I certainly don’t. It ain’t half as wise as it is made out to be, nor as appealing, scarring the human psyche with the mistakes it makes over time. Take organized religion, for example. Not even the devil himself could have devised such a scheme. According to the manual for religious belief written by a friend of mine during organic chemistry class, devoutness feeds on a combination of guilt, fear, and twisted hope. ‘…Please forgive me God… pray pray pray… blah blah blah… God has forgiven you child… Please make a donation on your way out… No, it’s not for the starving children, it’s for our new temples and limousines… Stop calling the clergy goats, you blasphemer… God is mad at you again… You must fast for two months and pray ten times a day… And make another donation… blah blah blah…’

I believe the term is ‘racketeering,’ with a flair for the supernatural.

Yet once beyond the facets of the mindless acceptance of the divine, on which wolves prey on sheep they supposedly herd and protect, there is something admittedly redeeming and valuable in having faith in the divine. A profound explanation of the mysterious aspects of life emerges, providing a sounder meaning to life. Something that makes real and critical, not hypocritical, sense. Where language cannot reach. Where the self meets the self.

Where God really lives.

I, for one, had stopped going to church a couple of years earlier, because I couldn’t understand the psalms and prayers

I, for one, had stopped going to church a couple of years earlier, because I couldn’t understand the psalms and prayers. In fact, I couldn’t understand bubkus, despite having taken a couple of years of Ancient Greek classes.

What do I mean? Well, it goes something like this: all the psalms and prayers, all the sermons and homilies – and when I say all, I mean every single one of them – were written and spoken in Ancient Greek. They still are.

This poses a teensy weensy problem: nobody understands them.

You see, people in Cyprus don’t speak Ancient Greek. Nobody speaks Ancient Greek anymore – save the odd academic here and there and a few odd Germanic fellows in Westphalia. Nowadays, and I hope this comes as no surprise, Greek-speaking people speak Modern Greek. Just like Italians speak Italian and not Latin. The world has actually evolved and people have changed tongues and customs. Doesn’t the Greek Orthodox Church know anything anymore?

Forgive us Father, for we know not what we do.

To be precise – and fair – tradition is important. You can’t just diss it. Like I’ve already mentioned, we are taught Ancient Greek at school, keeping up with our roots . So we are mindful of the past, firmly grounded, and geared for understanding our religious ceremonies after all. Right?

Nope. The classes we take are not enough – and not good enough. They amount to a couple of hours a week for a measly couple of years. Barely enough for understanding simple texts, let alone advanced ones.

It is therefore quite impossible, as you can very well realize, to appreciate discourses which have been written under altered states of consciousness, and which describe mystical realities and esoteric teachings. Yes, a few words seep through here and there, true, but that’s about it. It’s all Greek to us too!

Yet, in all seriousness, once you start making sense of things as an adolescent, when your language skills improve and your mind begins to grow, and the adult world begins to make increasing sense in your rapidly adulterating mind, you prepare for the wonders of mass prayer, and go to church with your heart ready to receive the holy spirit, sure that you can dig some meaning out of the ancient texts  – and still can’t understand bubkus! The sermons are as comprehensible as a Klingon initiation ceremony. The few words that seep through provide you only with an approximation of meaning, which is more akin to mental torture than transcendence. “Hail God gibberish gibberish almighty, who gibberish gibberish praise gibberish semi-gibberish, obey gobbledygook, heaven something, save me, save me, amen.”

Your head is bobbing, and you look around and see many adults who, like you, have a vague expression sculpted on their faces…

So you get pissed off, eager as you are to understand but far from it, very, very lost in translation. Then you lose interest altogether and are left wondering why on earth you should ever go to a place where they speak in strange tongues as if they’re on a mission to bore you to death. Holy hypnosis! Your head is bobbing, and you look around and see many adults who, like you, have a vague expression sculpted on their faces, looking lost, detached, or suicidal. And then you’re left wondering who that creep is, who keeps shouting Kyrie Eleyson all the time, sending everyone jumping in the air, including you, just as the wooden stall was getting comfortable.

By the time you are finally able to understand a little of the ancient version of our language, at the age of 13 or 14 – when Ancient Greek classes start, at secondary school – you’ve already amassed a short lifetime of boring and absolutely meaningless church experiences. Thus, unless you decide to add to your already busy schedule a hefty dose of private lessons in a dead language, even if it is the precursor to your everyday spoken one, you have no chance of ever truly understanding what the sermons are saying.

Disillusioned and jaded regarding matters of the spirit, you are most likely to toss away all spirituality, straight out the window, thereby possessing a very slim chance from then on of ever developing and augmenting the sense of wonder and magic that is so prolific during the earliest years of one’s life. The enthusiasm is beaten out of you through a long, painstaking procedure, which sucks the wonder out of most things. The zest never really returns, not unless something dramatic happens in your life that once again draws your spirit toward the spiritual.

You may seek new gods to worship, deities who speak your language and want to communicate with you based on love and communion, not excommunicate you based on fear and tradition

If you do manage to develop this spirituality again, lucky blessed you, it is probably with regards to something other than religious ceremony. You may, for example, seek the magic of spirit inherent in love; in friendship; in devotion or work. You may seek new gods to worship, deities who speak your language and want to communicate with you based on love and communion, not excommunicate you based on fear and tradition.

On the other hand, you may be lured by false gods when seeking the spiritual. You may be drawn by money; by greed or indifference; by righteousness or drugs. You may become a problem child, either a tragic product of our cold modern way of life, or just a bad person where “evil” has found an abode.

Whatever the case, you’ll probably end up far away from the dogmatic God and even farther away from church. Which may not be so bad after all. At least you’ll have fun doing so, and will not be a slave to the whims of self-appointed promoters of heaven.

And even if you somehow do find your way to God as is – not as he is understood through religion and dogma (man with a beard living in the sky), but the real, divine consciousness that permeates us – you’ll most probably feel obliged to bypass the church on your way there, lest the old and past feelings of being treated like a parrot are dredged up from your childhood memories and scandalize you.

And so the churches on the island remain fairly empty all year round.

I once heard a joke that went something like this:

There were three country churches in a small town: the Presbyterian church, the Methodist church, and the Greek Orthodox church. Pesky squirrels overran each church.

One day, the Presbyterian group called a meeting to decide what to do. After much prayer and consideration, they determined that the squirrels in their church were predestined to be there and that no one should interfere with God’s divine will. So they did nothing about it.

The Methodist group got together and decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creatures. So they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free a few miles outside of town. Three days later, the squirrels came back.

But the Greeks came up with an effective solution: they baptized the squirrels and registered them as members of their church. And now they see them only on Christmas and Easter!

The older population was admittedly much more religious than the young, managing to somehow keep the Church moderately alive

Yes, the Church was in a crisis.

The older population was admittedly much more religious than the young, managing to somehow keep the Church moderately alive. They were, and still are, a generation of a different era, a period in which there were fewer distractions and opportunities; when the values of society were poles apart from today’s… you know, the era you get to hear so much about from older folks… the ‘in my days, things like this would never happen, because in my days we had values and principles’ era.

The people of this era, despite the cliché anachronism, were in all honesty a generation of different times altogether, in every sense of the word. They were not just old and reminiscing. They were a people of totally different circumstances, raised when Cyprus was still the little British colony rising up against its governors and seeking union with Greece. This older generation I am referring to, had once been children that had been raised to revere freedom and to fight tooth and nail for it, no matter what, and at whatever cost. They had been the generation who had lived through WWII, fought with the Allies against Nazism, and then claimed union with Greece, a union that had been promised to them, but which was never granted. They were, in short, people who had experienced the harsher side of life first hand; a different kind of folk altogether, who truly represented an age where opportunity was a luxury, not a given, and in which destinies were forged in a rain of fire, with principle in mind and with faith as their only shield and solace.

These strange and righteous folk – their criticisms of the modern world always firing away – were therefore attending church quite regularly all the way up to their elderly years. Not only that, but they were also managing to find a certain kind of magic in the whole experience.

Their secret? What they had which we, the younger ones, didn’t? Grit!

What else? – for grit is not enough to get one’s head around sermons delivered in ancient tongue. What did they possess in order to be able to appreciate our religious mass?

Put simply, a linguistic advantage. They had been raised to read and write Kathomiloumeni, a more complicated form of Greek, which was more akin to the ancient forms of the language. Not only that, they had also been taught Ancient Greek proper at school, well enough to understand it. In essence, they had the privilege of understanding the meaning of the holy sermons – something quite normal in most societies, yet, quite extraterrestrial by modern Greek Orthodox standards, at least as far as people under the age of forty are concerned, and forgive my sarcasm, but since I feel robbed and cheated of my spirituality, I feel justified in taking swipes at the fact that my religious order expected me to follow its teachings in a language I was never properly taught.

Back to the older generation.

Time waits for no one. It rolls on without reprieve. Things change, the old gets decommissioned, the new comes in, and things become better, smaller, larger. Fitter and more efficient.

This holds for language too. Just as the people of the Kathomiloumeni era started giving birth to their late 20th century successors, the models of language simplification so common across the globe eventually caught up with the Greek tongue. Kathomiloumeni was officially abolished in the late 70’s and replaced by the simpler Dimotiki – a template of fewer accents, tones, and spelling variations – which is still in effect today.

The reasons incited for this deliberate and instrumental change in Greek language were many and not relevant to this story. Regardless of what they were, they had one undeniable and unforeseen result: they ended up creating a cultural vacuum between the Greek generations, which has so far proven very hard to fill. From one moment to the next, whole text books were thrown to the garbage and new ones were compiled, all versed in the new orthography and grammar. And the older generations were suddenly standing on one side of a rift, which, ever slowly growing wider, would inevitably accommodate on its other side the children of the new era.

The Church didn’t heed the calls for change. Sticking to tradition, it decided to hold its ground, barricading itself behind the dated formats and refusing to adapt the holy texts to the modern language that was now in full operation. In fact, up until now it still refuses to don the prayer books with translations – which I believe is the way the Catholic Church dealt with its own dead language, Latin – a measure the Greek Orthodox Church considers ludicrous. So there you have it: the Catholic Church is making resurgent moves while the Greek Orthodox Church is bogged down by its obsessions, still loud, very proud, and dying like a good old dinosaur.

Disillusioned with its pastors, a great part of the youth threw their prayer caps on the floor and set off to satisfy their spiritual and emotional needs elsewhere

The effect this has had on Hellenic society is profound. Disillusioned with its pastors, a great part of the youth threw their prayer caps on the floor and set off to satisfy their spiritual and emotional needs elsewhere, in new and exciting constructs. Unfortunately they got lost somewhere in the process. The modern and post-modern worlds are chaotic and competitive and very, very confusing. Lacking a common ideal or a binding purpose, they can lead to stray paths and barren wilderness.

But getting lost isn’t necessarily that bad. If something remains from the teachings of Jesus, it is all those statements imbued with paradoxically sane contradictions, the kind you find in all religions, and in the classics – books, movies, songs and epics – which go something like this: ‘He who was poor shall inherit the riches of Heaven; he who was blind shall see; he who was lost shall find his way into the kingdom of God.’

We were lost alright, roaming inside a sprawling wilderness. It was up to us to find our way through and make the best of our journey.

Comments

  1. veronika

    You should know hymns, psalms etc in orthodox churches come from the byzantine tradition! It was funny what u said about ancient greek! In ancient greece there was no christ, we had the 12gods! That is why we say bc and ac, to point out when chris was born. I am not
    practicing religion but I dont like reading texts BASED ON BIG MISTAKES

  2. sampson

    Hi Veroniki

    Two points on your comments.

    1) on the essence – Do you speak Byzantine Greek? Does anyone anymore? No. Therefore the point still stands: psalms and prayers are delivered in a language that almost no one understands, save a few academics etc.

    2) on technical issues – Byzantine Greek (Koine) was the evolution of Attiki Dialektos, which was an evolution of Ancient Homeric Greek. It was influenced by many foreign languages, leading to a change in pronunciation and spelling. Katharevousa (and Kathomiloumeni) were dialects that were introduced during and after the Greek Revolution and the formation of the independent Greek state, circa the early 1800’s, which tried to cleanse the language from foreign influence by reintroducing ancient terms (αρχαϊζουσα) to the tongue. Hence, in strict terms, yes, the psalms and prayers are delivered not in Ancient (Homeric) Greek, but in Koine Greek, which is MORE AKIN TO THE ANCIENT FORMS of Greek than the Modern Greek (Neo-Elliniki/Dimotiki) is.

    Since the point of the story was not to present an analysis of all the Greek dialects of the Greek language and their many evolutions (a convoluted topic that needs an encyclopedia to cover) but to explain that a) what the psalms say is akin to gibberish to almost all Greeks, and b) the only Greeks who can understand a little of them are those who were brought up to speak Kathomiloumeni/Katharevousa (an ancient-leaning/αρχαϊζουσα version of Greek introduced in the 19th century and in effect up until 1976) i.e. a generation that is now dying off, I used the term Ancient to connote a ancient-leaning/dead language rather than the term Koine, so as not to entangle us in technicalities irrelevant to the story. O nown noeitw.

    Having said that, I am glad for your intervention, because it gave me the chance to clarify the issue here, in the comments section, rather than in the story, which, after all, aims to show that when all is said and done, it’s all Greek to the Greeks too. In fact, it’s worse than I described, because no one is taught Koine at school, as opposed to Ancient Greek, which, like I mentioned above, is taught for a couple of years. In other words, the psalms and prayers are delivered in a language that NO ONE learns at school, not even scantily, hence the failure of the Greek Orthodox Church to engage its congregations in meaningful and mindful ways.

    For references and more info, please check
    http://el.wikipedia.org/wiki/%CE%93%CE%BB%CF%89%CF%83%CF%83%CE%B9%CE%BA%CF%8C_%CE%B6%CE%AE%CF%84%CE%B7%CE%BC%CE%B1
    and
    http://el.wikipedia.org/wiki/%CE%94%CE%B9%CE%AC%CE%BB%CE%B5%CE%BA%CF%84%CE%BF%CE%B9_%CF%84%CE%B7%CF%82_%CE%9D%CE%B5%CE%BF%CE%B5%CE%BB%CE%BB%CE%B7%CE%BD%CE%B9%CE%BA%CE%AE%CF%82_%CE%B3%CE%BB%CF%8E%CF%83%CF%83%CE%B1%CF%82

  3. Dr. Robert D. Hosken

    Thanks for the interesting article. As a practicing Christian believer in the U.S. for 56 years after my conversion at age 14, I have always been in favor of using modern language in church service books, songs, the Bible, etc. I learned Russian as a teenager, and noticed that the language used in the Russian Synodal Translation of the Bible was not very comprehensible. In 1991 my wife and I began living in Russia, and I discovered that most church-going Russians also did not fully comprehend the sermons or the Bible. Some said that even though now they had Bibles (previously they were very rare and expensive in the USSR), they didn’t read them because they couldn’t understand the semi-Church-Slavonic vocabulary and syntax.
    So I set the goal of producing a revision of the Russian Bible using modern Russian vocabulary and syntax. After about ten years of work by a team of 20-25 native Russian speakers and myself, we produced the “Agape-Biblia” (www.Agape-Biblia.org) online and in two printed editions. The best comment we received was from a seminarian: “It reads like the Synodal Bible, but I don’t have to translate it in my head when I read it.”

  4. Costas Ioannou

    Hey long time no see 🙂 (I was in your school) It’s good to see you writing. I only skimmed though this because I’m at work so forgive me if I missed something here. There are a few things to consider:

    When the New Testament was written there were two forms of written Greek. One was the formal (ie writing a letter to the King) and one was the informal (writing a shopping list). The New Testament is written in the informal Greek. This actually fits with the message of the Gospel which wants all people to understand it and make it available to everyone. Many of the apostles were unschooled ordinary men (Acts 4:13). I feel it is wrong to force people to go through extra studies etc just to understand the Word of God. It goes against the idea behind the original writings. I am all for translating the Bible in to modern language. About two years ago I left the Greek Orthodox church. It was at that point that I truly found God. I joined a church that embraced the God of the Bible, without all the extra baggage. One that was not about man working hard to earn anything, but about God’s grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). It’s not about rituals, formulas or things you have to say or chant. It is about a relationship with God the Father through Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. About following Christ. Church is a joyful experience where we worship God and receive teachings from the Bible that we can understand. Tradition is important, but sometimes they are not based on the Bible. That can cause problems. Especially when they are presented as mandatory requirements. All that is required is true faith in Christ. This is linked to obedience and repentance. Now I do not call myself Orthodox, Catholic, protestant or any other denomination. I am simply a Christian. A believer in Jesus who loves and follows Him from my heart. Feel free to contact me privately if you would like to know more.

  5. sampson

    Dr. Hosken, thanks for writing in and sharing your initiative. What you do is admirable. Taking the message of the scriptures to the people by making it available and comprehensible is not only a good deed but also a practical improvement on society. I hope many Russians, who would otherwise be standing bereft in Church, having a spiritual time on account of mood, or not having one at all, will benefit from your translations, now able to absorb the messages of mass and holy ceremony. I also hope that the Russian Orthodox clergy will take advantage of the opportunity offered to them and start initiating reform and translations themselves.

  6. sampson

    Hi Costa, thanks for writing. What years were you at school?

    I’m glad you had the courage to abandon what was not working for you and find something else. It takes courage to find a new path. Identities and tradition for the sake of tradition can be stifling, drowning out the wisdom religion is supposed to convey. Send me a message on Facebook with your profile there, or an email. Otherwise send me your email at info@sampsonicmedia.com

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