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The comforting word

In extremis, we seek what we know, or something very close to it.

In this European autumn, the whole family is steeped in sadness, wrapped in mourning, for my Greek daughter-in-law has very recently been delivered of a stillborn girl. Our hopes for a new generation fade and drift with the falling leaves, and we all have to find our own means of managing unexpected grief. My two bachelor sons do not know what to say or do; neither does their father. Having babies is easy stuff, you can almost hear them thinking. Women manage it all the time, don’t they?

Niko, my second son, serves in the Greek Special Forces, but is currently halfway through a three-year posting in Germany, at the NATO base near Pfullendorf, in Baden-Württemberg. At this crucial time, both he and Katerina are separated from the language, the culture, and the traditions that are so much a part of them. The nearest Greek Orthodox Church is over an hour’s drive away.

Women of the senior generation do what such women always try to do; we move heaven and earth to be there. Katerina’s mother flies in from central Greece and brings the reassurance of familiarity with her. The priest from the hometown has been on the phone and has sent a phylacto with mother, a talisman to keep Katerina safe, to let her know that she is being guarded and protected, that a whole community, both spiritual and material, is thinking of her. And Mama also brings her a little token from the Monastery of St Catherine (Aghia Ekaterini), all the way from the Sinai Desert.

Then it is my turn. I am not Greek, not Orthodox, not Catholic. I am that mysterious thing, a Protestant. I was also raised Nonconformist, a concept with which your average Greek has a great deal of trouble, for 97 per cent of the population of Greece is Orthodox. All I can do is bring a willing ear, books and magazines of a distracting nature, and the mandatory Greek goodies: the dried figs and the sesame seed and honey pastelli sent by a worried father-in-law.

Katerina’s mother is single-mindedly devout. Katerina herself is prepared to be eclectic: she writes a note to God and pins it on the prayer board during our visit to Ulm Minster, and does not look askance at the many statues; she fasts and then makes the trip to the Orthodox Church so that she can take communion. And she takes me to the local Catholic Church of St Jacob in Pfullendorf, where she has come quite often, she says, since losing her baby. We both light candles, at which point I hear my grandmothers clank and moan as they turn in their graves. But I got used to those sounds long ago, having married into Greek Orthodoxy at the age of 23.

Great Martyr St Katherine, courtesy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Western Australia, http://home.iprimus.com.au/xenos/katherine.html.

Orthodox worshippers can often take quite some time to work their way along the iconostasis and around their churches, venerating the icons on stands and on the walls, so for Katerina there is a layer of ritual missing, for here there are no icons to kiss and revere. And she does draw the line at honouring statues. But she gains other layers as I explain about the stoup of holy water, and as the unfamiliar sound of a mighty organ thunders and peals around us, while for me the layers just keep on accumulating.

Like so many European churches, St Jacob’s is in a fair way to overwhelm me. But I delight in it, too. All that pink-and-white baroque-edging-into-rococo richness: the cherubs tumbling about in gold-encrusted puffs of cloud or standing tiptoe on gaudy pedestals, or else appearing to fly through the incense-laden air, arrows at the ready, the trumpeting angels, the pierced hearts with the drops of ruby blood forever falling, the statues of Our Lady, each one framed by a nimbus of glittering stars, and the contrasting ones of Our Lord suffering so starkly and so patiently. Then there are the Bible stories and the allegories, not to mention the elaborate memorials to the dead of local families: it would take me a week at least to read this church’s narrative and even then much of it would remain elusive, locked in the foreign language of a different denomination, a denomination which has often seemed so far removed from me as to be a completely different religion.

My ancestry is lost in the mists of time and in those of a northern clime, but the more recent forebears were definitely products of the English and Scottish Reformation. Their lives were both dour and hard, and it seems to me that they had very little compensation in the way of spectacle and beauty in church; there can have been little sense of entering a different world, a privilege that the Catholics and the Orthodox have always had. In the kirks a certain skill in woodcarving was often evident, and in recognition of the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland, a blue fleur-de-lis carpet was usually a feature. But in some churches even organ music was forbidden. And whereas old Catholic churches were all decorated swirls and Orthodox churches all formal curves, heavily symbolic straight lines were the thing in Nonconformist buildings.

I stand in St Jacob’s and ponder these matters and many others. My grandmothers never left Australia, but I try to imagine them standing here beside me. I also try to imagine their conditioned reactions; it isn’t hard to do. Mutterings about graven images would have been one of them. Fulminations against the Catholic Church in general and the Pope in particular would have been another. Then there would have been the mandatory criticism of the Church’s wealth, gained through the exploitation of a groaning peasantry. My mother, irreverent spirit that she often was, would undoubtedly have commented on the amount of dusting such a place requires, while going on to marvel at the organ pipes, the woodwork, the sculpture, the general richness.

Katerina is interested in German churches as works of art, too, for art is her area of expertise. But it never occurs to her to remark on the extravagance of the spectacle, for Orthodox churches are often very splendid: the worshipper enters to a blaze of light from both massed tapers and huge artificially-lit chandelier, above which Christ the Pantocrator presides in glory, looking down from a blue heaven sprinkled with gold and silver stars. The iconostasis is intricately carved, and decorated with more gold and silver, the saints gaze steadfastly from the walls, and light glints off every surface.

During another outing we happen upon the Lutheran chapel. Somewhat unexpectedly, the door gives under our touch, and we enter an unadorned lobby; leaving this space we enter a rectangular hall that makes the very modest
Presbyterian churches of my youth seem positively lavish. I cannot believe there is no stained glass, but all the windows are clear except for two that bear the same small but stern portrait etched in black and grey. Heroic Luther. Here I stand; I can do no other. His cry echoes down the centuries. But hero though he was, he still had four women burned as witches.

Katerina has never been in such a building before, and while an invisible organist practises a simple hymn tune she paces slowly up and down the short aisle. Apart from the look of mystification on her face, there is very little to see or think about: plain wooden pews, a large wooden cross, no decoration whatsoever. We do not linger. Out in the street, I immediately have a question to answer. What are you supposed to do when you go in? I see her point: no holy water, no candles, no icons, no statues. Ah. Well, the idea is that you sit quietly in your pew and pray. Nothing formal: just a little talk with God, really. The mystified expression does not clear. And I am not surprised.

Katerina has just had a brief experience of religious culture shock of the kind I had, all those years ago, only in reverse. She has had a momentary glimpse of a world she hardly knew existed. But I have been as baffled as she is now, for it has always seemed to me that Orthodox churches are theatres in which a long-hallowed play unfolds before an enthralled audience, the members of which take very little part in the performance. Sermons or homilies, if any, seem to be a brief afterthought. The other consideration, and I try to explain it to Katerina, is that Nonconformity has no filters or mediators; all the protective layers are stripped away. Of course my grandmothers knew this, and understood the Nonconformist emphasis on individual responsibility, accepting as immutable truth the notion that the business of life was directly between them and God. They were less clear, I think, about the way in which any religion has the potentiality to be a means of social control.

Coming from different cultures, Katerina and I approach the world from our own angles and directions. And when it comes to religious practice, we occupy contrasting spaces. Hers is a visual one, dominated by images, prescribed rituals, colour and light; mine is much more aural, for the sermon is the main focus, still, of Nonconformist services. This, surely, was one of Luther’s greatest contributions, that of the democracy of the word: he translated the Bible into German, giving his humbler countrymen not only the chance to read Holy Writ, but also the tools of thought. Reading the Bible gave them at least a chance of understanding the sermons.

Although I have experienced many forms of loss, including this latest one of the tiny person who would have been my first grandchild, I have never suffered Katerina’s specific anguish. If I had been her then, I know I would not have gone to St Jacob’s or to the distant Orthodox church for solace. I would have gone to sit in a wooden pew in the Lutheran chapel for, in extremis, we seek what we know, or something very close to it. As Katerina needs the visions and the light, what would I do without the comfort and the reassurance of the word?

Gillian Bouras is a freelance writer whose books are published by Penguin Australia.

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