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Glimpses of Greece:
Our Fathers

I’ll never forget my introduction to Europe, in August 2008.  After decades of settled and happy living in Melbourne, I wanted to experience something different, that only travelling would give me.  After I landed at Athens airport, I took the train to Larissa, and at the train station there, I had to wait for another train, to go to Volos.


Next to me was a young man, 25 or so, who looked exhausted.  He was Bulgarian, but spoke Greek.  He was in training to become an Orthodox priest, and was on his way to Athens, to do some work.  Looking like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, perhaps this young man had just re-enacted Christ’s 40 days and 40 nights in a desert without food.  I didn’t know whether to speak to him or call for an ambulance!


If I’d travelled to Europe to find some passion, some depth, and the riches of cultural exchange between the different European countries, then I was getting it already.


I am not a believer.  Not in any normal sense anyway.  Kierkegaard tortured himself over this problem, and concluded that believing (in God, in Christianity) required a mammoth effort, an irrational “leap of faith”.


Perhaps this faith is predicated on need, a deep, existential need.  A need for purpose, and validation (a cooler word for “salvation” perhaps).  I can’t begrudge this of course – it’s just that I don’t have this need myself.


Greece is a religious country.  It always has been, and it continues to be.  Even in hard-nosed Athens, many people cross themselves when they see a church.  In the smaller cities, and in the villages, it almost goes without saying.  One relative of mine will curse as he speaks (malaka this and malaka that), but will still do his cross at churches.


I am not a believer, but I admire the “spirit” let’s say, of the whole enterprise.  Especially the spirit that exists within all the individual priests, their great dedication to this incredible mission/vocation in their lives.


The Greek Orthodox priest is a distinctive figure, with his long black cassock.  Whenever I see any of them (especially out of context, i.e. away from their churches), I often wonder about them, about how they deal with the constant dilemma of being a sacred figure (or certainly an intermediary) in a very secular world.


Of course, this is not a problem for the 1,500 or so priests/monks living in the enclosed area of Mount Athos , where women are forbidden and everyday life doesn’t exist.  But for all the other priests living and working all throughout Greece, they have to deal in both the divine and the human (or “all-too-human”, as Nietzsche would say).


In Australia, Catholic and Protestant priests can be renegades, literally hanging out with prostitutes (as Christ advised), but in Greece the vocation is seen as “pure”.  Recently, there has even been the situation where the governing Church bodies have suspended Father Christos Mitsios for attending soccer matches (and also being outspoken).


Much of it is indeed an “image” problem – it is odd seeing a priest doing practically anything outside of the formal church context.  I’ve seen them clearly looking uncomfortable in various situations – travelling on trains, ordering souvlakia, even just walking down the street.  It is complex.  They are respected figures, but there’s also been church scandals in recent years.


Like in any field, some priests are arrogant, some humble.  Some smart, some dumb.  Human, all-too-human.


The angriest priest I’ve seen was the grumpy old fellow who was driving along a major road in Athens, when he stopped his car, got out and verbally abused a woman.  “Go to hell!” he kept yelling at her, as she was dumbfounded.  And I’m sure he could arrange it too!


My favourite priest-in-public moment was when I saw a priest walking along in a jolly Franciscan friar kind of way, and bend down and pat one of Greece’s many stray dogs.  It was a nice, humble act.  We are, after all, “All God’s creatures great and small”.


In terms of formal settings, I of course have witnessed some weddings, baptisms, funerals.  But there was one service that gave me goosebumps.  It was a religious carnival in a small village on Mount Pelion, just off Volos.  It was a midnight service, and I wandered in at 1 a .m.  What can I say?  There was a hushed atmosphere as the Father leant over and whispered into a nun’s ear, advising her.  It was a mystical moment.


Our fathers, who art on Earth … Amen.

© Bill Mousoulis 2010
This article first appeared in Neos Kosmos, 2010.