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Reflections On A Holy Saturday Night – Part 3

 

Photo by George M. Groutas

This is the final part 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 holiest of days in the Greek Orthodox calendar, but I am not at church. I am exiting the movies, heading somewhere high up. (Click here for part two.)

I watched Forever Young engrossed, not moving a muscle throughout.

When the movie ended I felt like a new man. I would say I felt ten years younger – but that would have made me eight years old, hardly an age to feel good about when you are eighteen. Asking permission for pretty much everything was not what I had in mind.

Not that the movie itself was that good either. It was an average Hollywood flick, pleasant and predictable.

But the idea was powerful. A man during WWII gets frozen in some sort of government cryogenics experiment that is immediately shut down and covered up, all traces lost. He wakes up fifty years later and tries to make sense of a totally strange world, while trying to reconnect with the woman he loved and was going to marry just before the experiment. When he finally finds her, she is old and cannot believe it’s really him, looking so young and beautiful. Eventually she comes to grips with the facts, and they are happily reunited – and then nature takes its course and the man begins to age rapidly, right before her eyes.

Nature, you see, cannot be cheated.

It’s a sad movie if you think about it. It makes you feel trapped in the workings of this thing called the body and its finite abilities. Life is limited, it says, so live it to the fullest instead of wasting your time trying to find ways to cheat it. That is what I got from that movie.

I wasn’t all that sad though. For I also saw that the characters got the chance to live life together, as it had been intended: both of them aging, both of them in the same boat, together. And even though the man was now old, ever so closer to death than he had been a few days ago, when he first woke up from his frozen sleep, he felt happy and blessed that he got to spend the remaining few years of his life in the warm comfort of the woman he loved, as her aging peer and not like some kind of Revlon-drenched freak preserve.

Forever Young truly captured some really magical concepts and values, which had shined via sheer simplicity and a tinge of fairytale telling. It had no need for Shakespearean prose, Tarantino-esque dialogues, outrageous characters or budget-busting special FX. The unoriginal elements of the movie had been fully absorbed into its magical aspects, blending into a superb concept that melted away the rigidity I had dragged in from the modern societal wasteland I called home.

I was in fact rejuvenated. In that movie theater I had had a religious experience, and no critic or cleric could take that away from me; no doubt could ever taint it. No logical analysis could deny it. Not even my own.

There were a few people in the cafeteria waiting for the next show, sipping drinks and smoking cigarettes, all of them young, devout subjects of a modern, emancipated life

It was around 21:30 when I exited the silver screen dome. I looked around. There were a few people in the cafeteria waiting for the next show, sipping drinks and smoking cigarettes, all of them young, devout subjects of a modern, emancipated life, and members of an undefined faith who had come to their temple to pay homage to their chosen gods. Other than the faint elevator music in the background and the nearly muted discussions of the visitors, the place was distinctively quiet. The food vendor was shuffling a new batch of popcorn, sending tantalizing wafts across the room, and the usher was playing idly with his torchlight, and the raven-voiced ticket clerk was shuffling through her bag, probably for some tissues. I felt I was floating.

I glided out of the theater and into my car, where I sat for a few minutes enjoying a cigarette and contemplating whether I should go to church. I was feeling strange, imbued with a sense of utter serenity, and didn’t want to waste the moment. Such states were rare to find. Perhaps this, yes, this was the opportunity I had been looking for, the time to go to church and feel a connection with the divine. Now that the doors of perception had been opened.

But then I remembered that our churches were without ventilation; packed to the maximum without a hint of organization; their grounds littered with all sorts of mobile mini-markets and trodden on by bored adults and rowdy kids; crackers exploding during the ceremony, long before the planned festivities of Anastassis (Resurrection), which takes place at midnight; people trampling over each other to receive the Holy Light and all sense of respect lost in mass frenzy and confusion… and I asked myself:

‘Is this really where I’m going to open my spirit and get in touch with the Higher Power?’

I scanned the serene neighborhood around the theater and considered going back to the cinema cafeteria, which beamed brighter than any church in town. Then I changed my mind. I tossed the cigarette out the window and decided to roll away, letting the road take me there, somewhere, wherever that was.

I ended up on a small hill overlooking much of town. The streets were relatively empty of cars and I could hear loud talking, shouts, and laughter from the various churches, where people mingled like ants around a pineapple

I ended up on a small hill overlooking much of town. The streets were relatively empty of cars and I could hear loud talking, shouts, and laughter from the various churches, where people mingled like ants around a pineapple. Crackers were continuously going off and the voices of kids were trickling through the crisp air.

‘Enjoy it while it lasts,’ I thought out to them, ‘for one day you’ll wake up and the magic will be gone, and who knows how long it’ll take you to rediscover it, if you’re lucky. People seem content but not happy, caring but not understanding, loving but not in love, and they’re the same people who occupy and shape the world you will enter, preparing you for it, sculpting it for you. If you don’t hold on to the dream, brace yourself for a very rude awakening…’

I sat down and scanned the area once again. A huge pile of firewood was adorning every churchyard. Dummies made of straw and dressed in rags were presiding on top of each pile, their minutes numbered. After Anastassis they would be set ablaze, and Judas would burn in the fires of hell one more time for his betrayal. We would once again be saved. Till next year.

Uh-huh, cyclical salvation at its best, as predictable as commodities and worth a fortune – or so they promised, the clerics and bishops did. Every year Judas would burn at the stake, bright as an alcoholic, and in the meantime, between each torching, we would go about our usual business, doing our thing as modern life dictates, not realizing that we were betraying ourselves by upholding double standards, by seeking salvation in our prayers rather than in our actions, by following the brave new creed of a brave new world in which many who take pride in being Christian are actually part time Christian and part time something contrary.

There were no Christians left anywhere in the modern world. They had died with the ages. Those that remained were Neo-Christians…

We were in fact not a Christian population. There were no Christian populations anymore. There were no Christians left anywhere in the modern world. They had died with the ages. Those that remained were Neo-Christians holding on to old Christian beliefs, clinging desperately to hollow hallows and deluding themselves that they actually lived by the values they cherished. But they didn’t. Christian life in the modern world has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ and the Gospels. I mean, love thy neighbor, denounce material wealth, devote life to the Holy Spirit? Yeah right! That is exactly how all Christian populations function these days.

And because it just doesn’t make any sense, what these Neo-Christians do and believe in, because Christ’s teachings were so different from the teachings of their Christian Church, and because most people are guided by blind dogmatic faith and not by a rock-solid spiritual faith of essence, they drug themselves into complacency and convince themselves they are on the right track, the righteous track, the only track to salvation. Meanwhile, the –isms of the world rise up and take over, becoming our new gods: Methodism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Catholicism… not to mention secular –isms, such as capitalism, communism, socialism, liberalism… the new social orders of the world.

I turned my gaze away from the churches beneath the hill and went back to the car, thinking of –isms and holy secular wars and the coming Anastassis.

Once back inside the car, my mood changed. I wanted to lighten up. It was time for some music to clear my head.

I slipped in the cassette-player the only cassette I had, The Very Best Of Kansas, then rolled down the windows and let their sound billow out of the car and into the crisp air. I scrounged around for a pen and some paper for a few minutes, eventually finding a torn envelope under the car manual and a Bic pen under the backseat rug. I examined it for a moment. It looked like something out of the seventies, yellow and black stripes running down its stem from top to bottom, like a pencil made of cheap plastic, only it inscribed with ink, not lead, which is what a pen actually does. Duh!

Anyway, the appearance was stranger than the description. A pen designed to look like a classic 2H pencil. How much more Seventies can you get?

I stared at the torn white envelope on my lap while fiddling around with the bee-colored pen for a bit. I mechanically put it in my mouth a couple of times, the bland taste of plastic making me spit out through the window every time I did it. Some of the spit didn’t fly out properly and landed on my car door. I swiped it with my right hand and felt a rasp on the metal. Dust! I cringed, swiping my hands on my jeans. I made a mental note not to put my right hand in my mouth. Then I thought about it again and laughed. It all seemed so ridiculous. I had many times eaten food that had fallen onto the street, where people, cars, delivery trucks, dogs, cats, and all forms of beasts and machines roam, and hadn’t been sick. I had eaten things that had fallen in dirt – as part of the childish dares we love to make as children, or when drunk – and never been sick. Not to mention that I never quite knew, just as nobody does, where the hands I shook every day had been or what they had touched before touching me. I’d eaten nuts at bars, the kind offered in communal bowls where hands that go pipi – or worse – dig in, in both seedy and uptown establishments, and still survived… and I was now worried about a little dust from my car door?

Soon the church bells would toll joyously, signaling the Resurrection and the defeat of death, and the city would be lit up with bonfires

I lifted my finger to my face and stared at it for a moment, then opened my mouth and licked it clean without hesitation, laughing at the strange inconsistencies of my behavior and wondering if there were other parts of my life structured around ceremonial but essentially meaningless standards. Kansas were rocking away full force now, loudly, electrically, urging their ‘wayward son’ to carry on, and so I did. I carried on as wayward, lost son, seeking peace and solace, when a firecracker exploded, echoing loudly in the distance.

I looked around, at the sprawling town below me. The atmosphere was picking up. Time was winding on. Soon the church bells would toll joyously, signaling the Resurrection and the defeat of death, and the city would be lit up with bonfires, signaling the restitution, the vindication, the demise of the traitor, and the rise of the savior. Life would be celebrated and revered, and the city would share a short but profound sense of joy, hope and justice. We would reach the Point Of Know Return. From then on, well, who knew?

I stared at the striped pen in my hand.

I wasn’t in the mood for lyrics. I was in the mood to write. 

Alone in an empty place

Filled with empty houses,

The loneliness arouses

My innermost feelings.

The chilly air coats my skin

As another tune fades away,

I will not turn my eyes from

This spinning reverie.

A tilted tree shows to me

The way the wind doth blow,

As I walk with heart of steel

Against the force to find the source

That bends and breaks the weak.

The moon shines down on the paths of man,

And there is no sun to show us the way,

Not now, not ever,

Not after the sky has been torn;

Just a thousand little stars arranged in perfect order

To cover the disorder of this war-torn island;

Flashing lights speeding away, wailing in urgency, reveal someone in need,

Making us contemplate and think and ask for forgiveness,

Yet, we still fail to arrest the greed that crawls within our Mind.

Struck down by the gloss of our creeds

We perish before our children.

A Man once preached to men Humility and Love,

And then a white dove descended from the skies.

Having been conquered by the Conqueror of men,

The Man then kneeled to all desires;

Three days went by,

A faded lullaby proved the conqueror a liar.

The Man was no man at all;

He was life eternal.

The bell tolls on,

And still God’s Son mourns His vain

And wasted death

Alongside His Father.

Levers of motion are feeling comfortably fine.

How can some be so blind and not see the aftermath?

A pain that stings grasps from within,

Do you feel him now?

Crouched above the world

I see the static dance,

Around me shadows prancing in natural libido;

Smoke adulterates the air

As Kansas state and sing and play;

Do not turn your mind away,

Fight fire with fire, traitors with death.

I hear the whispers all around,

Nocturnal motion continues, falls,

But in my head echoes a call 

For you and me and everyone:

All we are is smoke in the air,

“All we are is dust in the wind.”

An empty house expels its tenants

And the skies above are praised;

Lost forever in this maze we struggle to escape.

In holy ritual the way is shown,

We do not know whether it is valid or not,

We cannot;

Still I am here with my music as my witness

And a taste of bitterness in my dry mouth,

For how long I do not know,

I cannot tell.

A star above ignites and shines.

It reaches out and shouts:

“Don’t listen to the preachers,

 Just listen to the chime,

There the answer you will find;”

 And so I did.

I feel comfortably fine

03:00. The fires had died down. The yards were deserted. The people had gone home. An eerie silence had settled over the town. I wasn’t sure whether it was the calm before the Easter storm or solace in the wake of the Resurrection. Right in the middle of the two, this interlude could be either/or. Both/and.

The lingering scent of burned wood had diffused into the city air, giving the whole place a rustic ambience.

The lingering scent of burned wood had diffused into the city air, giving the whole place a rustic ambience. Had Nicosia mysteriously ascended the Troodos mountain range during the festivities? Had we been translifted? If only it weren’t for some clues, the illusion would be perfect. The flicker in a couple of pyres that hadn’t been put out properly was the only live exhibit of what had transpired earlier in the night. The rest had died away with Judas. The scattered remains of our sins were now littering the ground.

Ouden kalon amiges kakou, I mused, reversing the old adage. There is always something bad in something good too. Yep. It’s all part of that formula of contradictions that defines life, which biologists call homeostasis and the sages divine order.

I sat back and tried to take everything in, realizing that I was in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere and all alone, just like in the movies, a few hours back. Surrounded by people but in great solitude. Having an experience.

I tried to make sense of it. I couldn’t.

Looking back on it now, I’m still not quite sure why I’d decided to spend my time all by myself that night. Maybe part of it was due to the fact that I didn’t feel like being asked all the standard questions to which I would have to give scripted answers (if I wanted to avoid telling the truth that is, which I thoroughly wanted to avoid that night). The reasons for my not wanting to go to church and for feeling generally down? Well, they were personal and not up for discussion with anyone out there at the time.

No, I wanted to experience this night in my own company, and, in retrospect, I’m glad I’d done so.

[My parents] believed that God is all around us and that a person’s soul need not pass through the sieves of a temple in order to be purified.

I know my parents and friends weren’t. Not that they expected me to go to church, least of all my parents. They were spiritual people, not dogmatists, and didn’t expect me to go to mass or take holy communion to be saved, or to fit in with the rest. They both believed that God is all around us and that a person’s soul need not pass through the sieves of a temple in order to be purified. As long as a person kept the perennial values alive, that was ok. Going to church was just a way for someone to augment the connection with those values, if one so wished.

It was also a social activity. For them personally, it was an important one, yes; they always went to church on Holy Saturday. They couldn’t and wouldn’t allow the clergy’s hypocrisy to drive them away from holy ritual altogether, as had become the case with me. Sure, they loved it when I joined them. But they never forced me to attend. They respected my disposition.

Still, they were less than glad when I decided to skip the process. Not because I wouldn’t go with them, or because I wouldn’t go to church at all, that wasn’t it. They were just worried because I had actually decided to spend such a night alone.

I guess that even they, open minded as they were, did not understand the joy behind spending some quality time alone, even if the occasion demanded otherwise. Then again they were parents, and it was I who did not understand how worrisome it can be to see your child veer off into the unknown alone. But that wasn’t for me to know until later, when the time was right. For now I was still a teenager, preoccupied with myself and the world I was discovering, not with parental issues. I actually enjoyed spending time alone, regardless of how my parents felt. I enjoyed being alone just as much as I enjoyed being social.

Contradictive but true. I liked both situations. Each had its own merits and time, and I could well appreciate that.

But there was a problem behind this approach. I couldn’t do both at the same time. I had to choose. And that gave rise to an even bigger problem: being social was normal, but spending time alone wasn’t. It was eccentric and odd, by normal standards. Nowadays, yes, it’s different, even in Cyprus; many people go to the movies on their own. It’s acceptable. Odd but acceptable.

Back then, though, nobody did. It was odd and unacceptable. I remember looking at these odd solitary figures and characters cropping up here and there when I was a kid, thinking they had no friends and no life, feeling sorry for them. They just didn’t fit in, looking at odds with the way things worked.

Then I became one of them and realized that they may have not been friendless or lifeless at all. Just different, that’s all.

I certainly wasn’t friendless or lifeless.

I thought that my case might have been an oddity among oddities. But then I met others like me and realized that their waters ran deeper than the surface revealed.

Initially, I thought that my case might have been an oddity among oddities. But then I met others like me and realized that their waters ran deeper than the surface revealed. They had a kind of preference for intermittent solitude. Quality time with oneself. An adjunct to social interaction and not an end in itself. Not a hermit lifestyle, just one that allowed some time for introspection.

So when a little child would scan me in the street or in a store with that trademark inquisitive precocious stare, the one that processes every single detail and may result in permanent imprinting – the one which as an adult you forget what it feels like – I wanted to go up to that child and share with it this little secret: ‘By spending time with yourself you begin to know yourself, your true self, and you still get to make friends. You won’t be cut off from them or never talk to anyone anymore. Not unless you want to be cut off. But if you don’t, you won’t.  You may stay connected to people, in your own measured way, and you’ll only be a weirdo if you let others persuade you that you are, and that what you are doing is weird. Which it isn’t. So know your actions. Know Thyself. Gnothi Seauton. And everything will be ok.’

But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell children that. Can you imagine your kid turning around and telling you, ‘Mom, the long-haired guy in the Metallica t-shirt told me to spend time with myself to know thyself!’ I’d be hauled in for attempted pedophilia and thrown in prison, with a cleric for a cellmate, a murderer for a neighbor, and the cell door constantly open. And solitude would become a distant memory.

All religions point towards prolonged isolation as a means of connecting with a higher power

Solitude. All religions point towards prolonged isolation as a means of connecting with a higher power. Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, they all withdrew from the confines of their societies to know their limits and challenge them, to meet with gods and spirits, and see through the veils. The Saints, the Yogis, the Shamans and all other mystics followed in their footsteps, trying to find God through themselves. And vice versa. They are trying to find themselves through God.

Despite the teachings that God exists in everyone and everything, people break out in a rash when the Self is actually equated with God – in Christianity at least. This is considered blasphemous ideology, one that aspires to replace God with the secular, and which can lead to atrocities like the Third Reich or the Red Terror.

Yet, lawnmower systems like Nazism and Communism, or the Holy Inquisition and Radical Islam for that matter, are fueled not by this overlap between God and Self, but by the inherent flaws in organized society, which teaches people how to be subjects to the Lord instead of how to connect with Him. All religions are accountable for this malpractice, but none more than the three major monotheistic ones i.e. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. They take the cake.

Enlightenment and salvation. In their name all great crimes of the world have been committed. Just like peace.

But I didn’t believe all this when I was a teenager. Sure, I had intimations and inklings, which led me to where I am now, but nothing more. Had I known all this then, I probably would have studied statistics harder, taken A-Level Physics instead of Biology, and gone into fractal mathematics or quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, regrets are utterly useless, a form of escapism even more dangerous than that found in drugs or dogmatic blindness. The past is a source of knowledge, not a ruminating fountain. By appraising it constructively one avoids getting lost in its tunnels like some sadomasochistic Freudian mole, and can, thus, focus on the present and future.

What did the future hold for me? I looked at the tilted tree, the churches with their cross-teated domes and their phallic bell-towers, the mountains of dead embers in the churchyards, the deserted streets, the glowering moon. I smelled the air and hearkened at the wind that was polishing my skin. My mouth was dry as sandpaper. The bitter taste that comes after having nothing at all to drink for hours on end had gradually gone, giving way to a persistent oral drought that had dried up my remaining saliva into a hard, dry coat. I could sense warmness flowing underneath its thick, tight layer.

I scraped my tongue against my mouth walls intensely for what seemed like a long time. Eventually I struck water. The rivers began to flow again and I felt I had a mouth on my face, not a sandpit.

And for the first time ever, somehow, I felt the interconnection of all things

I opened the car door and got out abruptly. Too abruptly. I started losing my sense of balance and felt I was going to crash to the ground. For some reason I didn’t grab onto the car, trying intently to maintain my balance on my own, hands spread out and swirling like a surfer. In the midst of that pseudo-vertigo attack, everything came apart and appeared in its own right, like a flock of soap bubbles. And for the first time ever, somehow, I felt the interconnection of all things, endless, majestic, springing from separate items and leading to all others on bridges folded within themselves and invisible to casual perception.

On my way home I reflected on all this. What had happened? What had actually taken place on that hill? Had I gone through a mystical experience, or had I gone plain mad? I was sure that a psychiatrist would scream psychotic break at me and start prescribing me with pills upon hearing my story, or tell me to lay off the drugs. So much for spiritual enlightenment and mysticism. It could all very well be lunacy of the highest order.

But this prospect, drab as it was, didn’t sway me. I didn’t care. There was a sense of harmony about the whole experience that gave me comfort, despite its disconcerting connotations and possibilities. After all, Jesus was mad by modern standards, and so was Einstein for that matter. In fact, everyone who was anyone in the world was off their rocker. Every single person who ever achieved something significant at some point in their lives, every single one of them, was in some sense cuckoo-de-flappity-flap when doing so. Yet, despite the fact that we know this very well – and even though we are constantly told we have to be exceptional in order to succeed, our role models being exceptional people themselves, who broke, bent, or redefined the rules at some point or other – we are instead taught to conform. We are dissuaded from being exceptional. We are standardized and homogenized. And when we throw caution to the wind, following in the footsteps of these great figures, thinking along the same lines as them, doing our thing, we are considered crazy, or dangerous, and are told to come to our senses.

Had I gone mad? I don’t think so.

But if I had, so much the better.

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