Mittwoch, 14. Mai 2014

The Small Churches of Maroussi by Photios Kontoglou

When a man is spoiled, he begins to despise the simple and the poor things. Often however, he returns to his old self, like a drunk who sobers up, and then again feels a great appetite for simplicity, rejoicing in peacefulness, and wanting to live humbly and quietly. Then he enjoys the humble and guiless things and he feels in himself the sweetness of Christ and the peace which one finds in the Gospel.  Without a simple heart, no one becomes a true Christian. This you will understand from some words from the Saints who say: "Whosoever does not know peace, does not know joy. If you love gentleness, live in peace, and if you are worthy of peace, you will be happy at all times. A man with many worries, cannot be peaceful and gentle. Modesty strengthens the heart, and when one is modest, immediately he is covered in mercy. Prayer is happiness. The Kingdom of Heaven is found within us. The happiness that man feels in his heart for God is greater than this life. Whosoever is poor in the riches of this world, is enriched by the wealth of God. Whoever loves gaudy things cannot have humble feelings because the heart is adorned with the same things that adorn the outside.."    You who read what I am writing, don't  tire and say I am repeating myself, about Christ, about simplicity, about humility. If your heart can understand their meaning you will see that I am right. I am telling you again and again, becauses I desire to give you the one true happiness, which I too discover belatedly, but which I discovered with God's help. The love I have for you impels me to reveal this solitary step into beautiful surroundings that even I did not suspect.

This silent and secret joy of Christ (I say the joy of Christ because He gave it to us, and no one else can give it), exists in the small remote churches, especially those built in the three hundred years prior to the Revolution of 1821.  During that time Greeks lived in the mountains, they were illiterate, but they had the wisdom of faith within them.  These Greeks were tortured, poor, humble, shy, above all, they persevered and bravely fought in the mountains.  From the fall of Constantinople our nation was bitter and this bitterness made our hearts deepen. Sorrow brings patience and patience brings humility. If you hear the words of Emperor Constantine Paleologos to his troops the day before his death you will cry. It sounds like a hymn, like those sung during Holy Week.  What I'm saying is that the Greeks during the years of enslavement were humble,  As examples one only has to see the humility of heroes such as Botsaris, Diakos, Katsantonis, Androutsos, Vlahavas, Kanaris, Tombazis, Kountouriotis, Tsamados, Bishop Germanos, Rogon Joseph, Isaias Salonon and other captains, laymen and clergy. Seek and you shall find that which I speak of in the writings of Makrigiannis, Kasomoulis, Fotakou, Skouze and in the songs sung by the sheperds.  These people were  tormented, patient, Christian. From this fragrance, like that of the mountain wildflowers, emerge our small churches, built in every place, on mountains, isolated rocky outcroppings, mountain passes, islands, along the seacoast. The holy homes of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Saints. Wherever one may go they welcome you and invite you in, through their low doorways, bringing peace and comfort. The mountains around Athens are decorated these humble places of pilgrimage. 

Around Maroussi (now a Athens suburb) there are many such lovely churches.  One is Saints Asomatoi, and is found upon entering the village by way of Kifissia. The building is simple, barrel-like, a solitary basilica, with an arch of the roof, similar to all these churches. From the outside they appear like ancient stone buildings but on the inside the are painted with fading iconography, some of it damaged by moisture.  Only a few remain intact, the Metamorphosis, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and some of the Saints. In one spot is the likeness of the philosopher Plato  because in those days it was the custom to include other "wise" Greeks. Another small church is Saint Sotira, and inside there are wall icons of Christ, St. John the Forerunner, St. John Chrysostom and other Saints. On the other side of Maroussi, as the sun sets, is a larger church, the Panagia Nerantziotissa. It is covered with an arch and surrounded by old marble steps. Inside one finds iconography that has been painted and then repainted by modern day unskilled hands. Across from this Church is a small naked hill which locals say,  thousands of years ago. was the site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Below this hill is a small church, St. Nicholas, which is partially destroyed. Half the building is still standing including the altar, although it has decayed by the rains. Many times I have sat and prayed there. Its appearance makes it a modest and respectful place. Its stones have separated and are now filled with weeds and grass growing between them. The walls are yellowed with mold, and the wildflowers jut out from the cracks in the wall as if praying to the Virgin who sits there. Her holy face is covered by grass and her hands blackened and yellowed, the Christ child she carries is slowly fading and the throne she sits on is being eaten away by the moisture. On her clothing walk insects and the yellow jackets and bees sing to her "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus."  As for humans, only a few old village women remember her humbly lighting a small lamp that dangles from a solitary nail.   Occasionally there is a censor burning incense on the holy altar. Oh what sweet honey drips from the soul of a Christian in this simple and mountainous wonder, built on rocky soil and blessed thorns. Where else can one find such a hidden and humble prayer, in ruins, amid on rocks and deserted places. Where else does one dare hear with his ears the voice of Christ, the Saints and David saying:  "How lovely are your creations, Lord of the Powers, my soul yearns to be at your side. In the night my soul longs for you and I await the dawn to enter your church, because your commandments are a light unto the world." Holy Greece. Tortured bodies and bitter souls. Tortures that cannot be written on paper, that make souls cry in secret.  Thus they become worthy to approach the tortured Christ, his Mother and the martyrs that died for our faith. From this blow and from this muted sadness comes to the heart the true hope and the solace of Christ. This is the mystery of Orthodoxy. From the seed of bitterness springs forth the flower of true happiness, the love of God. This is what Patriarch Loukaris wrote about: " If we do not have an outward wisdom, we have God's wisdom, in our souls, which  adorns our Orthodox faith, and because of this we are better than others at struggle and lifting up the Cross. Shedding our blood for our beliefs and for the loved of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Greece now for three hundred years  people have been enslaved and have struggled to maintain their faith, and that faith in Christ shines along with its mysteries, and then you tell me that we lack wisdom! 

On top of a small hillock, there at its peak, is a small church, St. John the Baptist. Of all those small Churches, St. John is my favorite. Its low doorway is the entrance where one meets the icon of St. John the Forerunner. You gaze on him and your concerns are silenced, your worries leave you and your heart is cleansed and lightened, carefree like a child. True happiness comes from simple and pure things. The colors are dirty and faded from the passing of time, the mud stuck on the walls splattered by the rain and dried by the sun. Ants wander to and fro, the bees buzz quietly as if the entrance opens up into one large hive. The head of the Saint is covered in matted hair and his arms and face sunburnt, the color of clay roofing tiles, his clothing a faded green that over time has taken on a sweetness that I cannot describe. You sit on the small whitewashed steps and listen to the wind blowing softly through the entrance to where the Saint sits. Peace overwhelms you where you are sitting, forgotten by the world beyond. You ask yourself: Why shouldn't everyone drink of the clean water of a pure life?  Inside the walls are painted from top to bottom. The iconography is untouched except for being blackened by the smoke of burning incense or wax candles. Along one side are some old arm rests and seats. The iconostasis is wooden without embroidery. The oil lamps are lit and the incense is fragrant. As you walk in it is as if you are entering the tent of Abraham. The entire painted room covers you in peacefulness and piety, the steps to the altar full of faith and martyrdom.  Everything suggests humility and solace. The iconography was painted by a illiterate iconographer who worked with a guileless heart. His work is not masterful, or even clever, not even extraordinary. Nevertheless this innocent and humble work exudes a sweetness of faith and a humility that makes one feel just as innocent as the person who painted these walls. In the fading light behind the altar is the icon of the Theotokos , arms outstretched, the Christ child on her lap and beneath her the Fathers of the Church: Saints Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory and Athanasios, all of them with darkened and ascetic faces, painted poorly without technique. Despite this they have a deep mystery about them, which is beyond even the skilled hand to portray. The Apostles are there as well, below them the assembled full figured Saints, Hierarchs, Martyrs painted in yellow ochres, bright reds, black, green and white, blended together by a powerful faith. How pious the work is. When you get close to examine the work you appreciate its innocense and that of the God fearing hands that held the brush.  Your soul finds rest in the images of Saints George, Demetrios, Abba Sisoi, the forty Martyrs at Sebaste.  Lucky is he who arrives at the appreciation of such unskilled, ignored and poor work.

All the small churches around Maroussi are painted by the same hand. It seems that this iconographer was a local indigenous artist  from the village who worked in the surrounding area, and that he was a priest named Demetrios. In Maroussi, an old church, Saint Demetrios is being renovated. In the sanctuary there are a few painted Saints, near the icon of St. Dionysios the Aeropagite, the following inscription: "1622 by the hand of Demetrios priest." This sainted hand has painted all the iconography founded in the little churches around Maroussi. Truly as the Prophet Isaiah said: "and the stammering tongues shall learn to speak peace."

translated by Stavros

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