22 May 2012


Two Papadiamandis books came in from Denise Harvey in Greece this week.

Here are some photos:

Note that the copy of Love in the Snow is one of the older style European monographs with the uncut clusters of pages.  That lovely manner of printing is so rarely found today I had to photo the uncut pages.

I plan on reading both books this weekend and will report back on both next week.

16 May 2012

Papadiamandisian music.

Here is a cd the title of which is (when translated into English) "In the Shadow of Athos: Melodies of the Kollyvades from the Skiathos of Papadiamantis."  It's a Greek language cd with booklet in Greek, though we may get some of that translated via Richard who told me about this.

15 May 2012

false arts and fragments.

I recently learned of a new Orthodox church building here in America which, despite a large building campaign, has resulted in a $15,000 a month over 30 years mortgage.  The priest at that parish is very influential in American Orthodox life and a friend of mine, another priest, expressed to me his concern that such a fever might spread, with its build, build build!!! bigger, bigger, bigger!!! extravagant, extravagant, extravagant!!! mentality and the urge to grow both structurally and demographically in haste.

Then I happened upon a discussion wherein a professional iconographer (from whom you can learn to paint an icon for only a couple thousand dollars at one of the offered week long icon painting seminars), wherein the purchasing of icon re-productions for worship was disdained.

That discussion reminded me of a passage in Greece's Dostoevsky which refers to both the "iconographer-businessman" and mechanical reproductions of icons.  Here is the passage:

The Falsification of Liturgical Art

In 1889, Papadiamandis's article, "The Nine-Hundredth Anniversary of the Great Lavra" was published.  In this text, he notes that "the inherited distortion of religious life, from the viewpoint of art" is not simply a change of style and technique in ecclesial painting.  He asserts that this change is the result of a deeper decay, which deforms the Orthodox phrónima and the liturgical ethos of a people.  The building of a church or the painting of an icon reveals not only the ethos of the architect and iconographer but also of the particular liturgical gathering - or of the whole Church - that accepts it.  There is an essential relation and correspondence between the ecclesiastical-liturgical ethos and the representational (eikastikó) style of art.  In Papadiamandis's day and earlier, the liturgical community built the church according to its needs and abilities, while its wall paintings were usually painted, not by an iconographer-businessman, but by someone who had fasted and had asked for the enlightenment of God for this work.  There was even a living tradition of people who built the churches, painted the wall-paintings, created mosaics, composed hymns and melodies, shaping soulless matter with spirit, with the sense of the Liturgy and of co-liturgy.  These people would not individually improvise or idolize their inspirations but expressed the life of the Church as a Body, as a liturgical community that was guided by the Holy Spirit.  Just as priests served the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of the people, the architects, builders, painters, poets, and hymnographers of the Church served in the same way, practicing their sacred art as a spiritual ministration. 

In the ecclesiastical community of Skiathos, there was a living liturgical tradition and a genuine eucharistic ethos.  There were people such as "the blessed Athanasios Kephalas, from Epiros, a spiritual struggler, well-educated, fluent in many languages, eloquent, and a painter" who painted a beautiful icon of the Panagia "Sweet-kissing Mother of God."  Such strugglers knew how to live and paint as Orthodox Christians.  The contemporary practice of entrusting the construction of a church to a contractor and its adornment to industrially made icons, iconostases, and stalls, was completely foreign - and unacceptable - to the tradition that Papadiamandis represents.  The lumps of cement, which people today imagine to be "Byzantine style churches" and copies of the church of the Holy Wisdom, were not common then.  One reason for this was that the people who were "hardworking, ground down, poverty-stricken, burdened with peasant chores and scattered in hamlets and villages, lacking as they did the funds to build large and resplendent churches, instead built numerous less pretentious ones."  Another reason was that those people had a sense of the originality and uniqueness of every building and did not neglect the unbroken development and inexhaustible diversity of Byzantine architecture, which never built two churches exactly the same.  Similarly, they did not have a lavish attachment to one particular school of painting, nor did they disdain the painting of the united, unbroken, and continuous Orthodox tradition that in every era was able to express dogma in its own style.  They would never have have been able to interpret the senseless and mechanistic transfer of icons and wall paintings from other places and periods as traditionalism in liturgical art.  They would not have considered unchecked improvisation to be the mark of their freedom, nor would they have affirmed the audacity of the inspiration of the moment.  Ecclesiastical art occupies a place in tradition where faithfulness and freedom interpenetrate one another, are in harmony with one another, and include one another.  The dynamic relationship between this faithfulness and freedom requires creative members of a living ecclesiastical community, which makes possible the continuity and creation of the tradition.

In Athens, however, there was a different situation.  Orthodox sensibilities as regards ecclesiastical art and decoration had begun to lapse, especially in the large churches.  Simplicity and authenticity in art were usually exchanged for luxury clothed in bad taste.  In one of his articles, Papadiamandis vehemently points out the danger of the distortion of liturgical art.  He notes that many Christians of that era preferred going to church in small chapels rather than in the large and luxurious churches.  However, he does not regard this demanding piety of the faithful as unwarranted, especially when one considers that extravagance is completely forbidden and unacceptable in churches.

The unique characteristic of Christian churches is their modesty and sublimity.  Poverty does not preclude this characteristic.... Forgeries and things made of fake-gold, which you see in some Athenian churches, are insidiously and audaciously imported, completely unauthorized, by uneducated and tasteless people, so-called wardens of these churches; they should have been stopped.

Papadiamandis senses that the genuine divine beauty, the Church's philok
ália, has no relation to the interference of these wardens or of many today who rush to supply churches with the most luxurious holy vessels and furniture they can find.  These theologically indefensible and aesthetically unacceptable interventions into the physical space of the church come into opposition, as much with the principle of the ancient Greek tradition ("We create things with divine beauty [though] with little money"*) as with the practice of the Fathers of the Church.  When, however, the tradition is not lived properly and when an authentic liturgical life is absent, it follows that there will not be genuine art.  The absence of this life witnesses to an ecclesiological crisis that, in turn, deteriorates into formalism and the demise of all living forms and expressions of art.  

* Thucydides, Histories, 2, 40, vi. 1-5.

There is a lot there, and many undefined declarations and terms, so I will have more questions than assertions.

I assume that by "insidiously and audaciously imported" "luxurious" icons Papadiamandis refers to those of the Italianate style which required especially trained (in Western Europe perhaps) painters to provide them.  It strikes me that today in America something of the reverse may be the case, where the Italianate is now derided as cheap, kitsch, and common and the experts need to be brought in to provide what is (cost wise anyway) the more extravagant "authentic" Byzantine iconographic product - even if the only real Greek or Carpatho-Rus yayas we know regularly kiss Italianate icons and see such as common and normal for Orthodox to do.  This isn't to say that Italianate is better than Byzantine, just that the material and spiritual matters surrounding these things today are complicated and reading Papadiamandis for direction isn't simple - as taking his apparent derision of Italianate icons at face value while acknowledging the spirit of what he writes would not work analogously here in contemporary America.

Of course we don't have the living traditions or the viable options that the people of late 19th, early 20th century Skiathos has - yet I feel there is something in this passage which should still speak to us, if for no other reason than to perhaps facilitate some compunction for a way of life, an economy, which does not allow us to fully invests ourselves, as communities, in human and divine traditions. In America today it is somewhat rare to have a faithful Orthodox actually take part (physically) in much of the structural building of a parish - so rare that when it does happen the builder becomes an Orthodox celebrity (I jest, s-p, you're the best Orthodox celebrity out there).  There is simply no way in America to safely imitate what the village faithful had in Papadiamandis' day.  But I'm not sure the appropriate response to this fact is to shrug and assume God is blessing us to move forward in ways which seem normal to us.  I tend to agree with Keselopoulos that there is an ecclesiological crisis at hand, brought about by human economies which tend to divorce us from the things we use everyday and even the things we venerate, and I suppose the first and foremost thing to do in response to that is to acknowledge this crisis (even if unsure what that means for us).  I'm certainly not going to suggest that the answer is some form of Luddite rejection of most modern technologies and the call for all Orthodox to wander off to rural Old Believer style settlements.  That may be one path for some, but I cannot accept that it is the only or primary way of struggling as an Orthodox Christian in America today.  These are perplexing times.

I wonder if it may be dangerous to try to imitate this sort of "keep it local" mentality.  A parish I once belonged to allowed a catechuman and then very recent convert who happened to be a music teacher at a school to be blessed to compose settings for a couple troparia/kontakia. In my (non-expert) opinion the result was only slightly subtle as a disaster - in terms of deviation from the aesthetic parameters of tradition, at least as I perceived them in my then 17 or so years of amateur appreciation of Orthodox liturgy.  Note - this was at a time in my Orthodox life where I could hardly have been accused of being a liturgical purist or a "typiconista" as one priest I know calls them.  But the young musician in question meant well, and the community meant well, and it is very difficult in America to fruitfully suggest to a group of well meaning converts that they might not be well suited to discern what does and doesn't fit into an Orthodox ethos - especially when one is a convert oneself.  What do I know, right?  But I specifically wonder about the dangers (on the part of both the composer and the community) of thinking (and acting upon that thought) that liturgical forms can be concocted up almost willy-nilly so long as it does not do violence to our very immature sense of what would be offensive in liturgy.  At the same time, I have been to plenty of parishes in America wherein they in rote fashion imitate every jot and tittle of their sub-culturally very parochial liturgical form (I have found this especially true in small to midsize conservative OCA and ROCOR parishes) in a manner that on a number of levels reminds me of those old mimeograph copies my teachers used to hand out when I was in elementary school. Something just doesn't feel natural about it.  But perhaps my radar is too fine tuned to be accurate there.

Trying to think of liturgical situations which I have encountered in America which come closest to what Papadiamandis suggests is the living tradition is not an easy task.  One parish, in a rough neighborhood, had an St. Vlad's Seminary priest who was fairly SVS oriented in his take on liturgy, but he was married to a matushka & choir director who had grown up the daughter of a Serb priest and was inclined toward more traditional liturgy - their meeting in the middle involved a mix of things that always struck me as quite human and beautiful.  Perhaps the closest I have known to what Papadiamandis suggests here is at a skete with one nun and a small chapel where the liturgy and services have some Romanian & Bulgarian influences and are very much a mix of homespun traditional Orthodoxy.

I'm not sure what the "answers" are here, or even what a Papadiamandisian approach to the liturgical arts would look like in an American context.  I mostly suspect we first just need to "own" our poverty, as it were.  I've seen enough "iconographer-businessmen" to come to the assumption that re-produced mechanically-made icons might not always be any less "authentic" than some of the pristine iconography done by the very expensive professional (with impeccable iconographic credentials) who was flown in to take care of beautification business and whose work sometimes results in a strange spirit that seems more like pride over additions to the museum collection than it does the sort of piety Papadiamandis is after.  Hands down the two best instances of Byzantine chanting I've ever heard were 1) at Divine Liturgy, with an elderly Greek man chanting, in a small Greek parish in middle America which met only every other week, had a priest who seemed like he'd very much rather be doing something else, had the most disaffected "I don't want to be here" altar boys imaginable, and had the most kitsch iconography I've ever seen in an Orthodox parish, and 2) at Orthros, with a young convert woman chanting, at a parish with an organ and electric faux flickering lampadas and Italianate icons on the iconostasis (in keeping, I gather, with Greek American ecclesial aesthetics of the 1950s) - you just can't guess sometimes where you will find expressions of faithfulness to the tradition.    In both of those cases there was nothing forced or contrived or rote about the chanting - it was natural and free and warm, even though the settings were a bit surprising or at least aesthetically hodge-podge.  In my (albeit limited) experience at those places where one expects good, faithful chanting the ethos is not always so warm and free.  Is the experience I had of beautiful, faithful chanting in somewhat discordant settings a typical one, and is that about all we can usually hope for in workaday American Orthodoxy?  Fragments of beauty within freedom?  I suppose the first work then is to cherish those fragments.

14 May 2012

this blog is now public.

Just a note to those of you advising me on this project who had previously had invitations to this blog when it was invite only - the blog is now public and anyone can read it.  Thanks.

Papadiamandis in English.

We should begin by listing the English monographs most pertinent to this blog and its project.  Hopefully this list will be expanded with time but this is our (print) textual starting point.

Denise Harvey is the most important publisher of Papadiamandis in English.  Here is the link to the Papadiamandis page on the Harvey site (note the excellent short bio), which mentions these texts:

Johns Hopkins University Press has a 1994 anthology of some of Papadiamandis in English, Tales From a Greek Island, available here.  Some of the stories here overlap what can be purchased from Denise Harvey, and I would recommend purchasing The Boundless Garden prior to purchasing this volume. 

Peter Levi's translation of The Murderess is found here, from NYRB Classics.  I have read this work and enjoyed it, though I admit wondering about the quality of the translation and thinking that the prose seemed more stilted and awkward in places than the translations found in The Boundless Garden.  I have not yet read the new translation of this work by Liadain Sherrard (I just ordered it), but after I read it I plan on writing a post comparing to two translations.  I have no doubt that Denise Harvey will have a better "support apparatus" (appendices, perhaps a glossary, etc.) than the NYRB version, and I have appreciated Liadain Sherrard's work in the past (including her translation of three of the short stories found in The Boundless Garden) so I expect that the Denise Harvey edition of The Murderess will be the superior English edition of that work.

Every English speaker with an interest in Papadiamandis should own a copy of Protecting Veil Press' Greece's Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis by Anestis Keselopoulos and translated by Herman Middleton.  The excellence of this volume cannot be overstated, which is no surprise considering the quality of Herman's Precious Vessel's of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of the Contemporary Elders of Greece, which is far and away the best book of its kind.  

Greece's Dostoevsky is essentially the impetus for this blog and the project it presents.  The book is broken down as follows.  A foreward by Hieromonk Alexis (Trader) which includes sections titled "Liturgical Art and Life: East and West," "Religious Fiction and Greece's Dosoevsky," and "Some Significant Themes for Orthodoxy in America."  Then there is the author's intro, and then the following:

Chapter One: The Life and Work of Alexandros Papadiamandis
A Short Biography of Alexandros Papadiamandis
Papadiamandis's Life and Work in the Context of Modern Greek Literature

Chapter Two: The Clergy
Pastoral Service
Education and Liturgical Ethos

Economic Struggles
The Relationship Between Monastics and the Parish
Liturgical Life: The Center of Pastoral Care

Chapter Three: The Role of the Laity
Clergy-Laity Relations
The Laity as Liturgical Concelebrants
Religious Brotherhoods
Church and State, Church and World

Chapter Four: The Tradition of the Church
Biblical Tradition as Liturgical Tradition
Patristic and Synaxarian Tradition
The Hymnological Tradition, "The Songs of God"
Canonical Tradition
Eastern and Western Tradition
Diachronicity in Tradition

Chapter Five: Papadiamandis's Liturgical Theology
Influences from the Monastic Typicon 
Monastic Typicon in the Monastery
Monastic Influence on Parish Life
Papadiamandis and the Monastic Typicon
Papadiamandis's Theology of the Divine Liturgy
Papadiamandis's Theology of Confession
Papadiamandis's Liturgical Realism and Freedom
Liturgical Precision and Economy
Form and Essence in Worship
Papadiamandis's Liturgical Catechism

Chapter Six: Art in Worship
The Meaning of Liturgical Art
The Theology of the Icon
Turning Liturgical Art into Museum Pieces
The Falsification of Liturgical Art
Church Hymnography and Music

Short Stories
Without a Wedding Crown
A Village Easter



Translated Titles of Papadiamandis's Stories [this is a seemingly comprehensive list]

Map of Skiathos

Now, some clarification concerning the above.  While many of the sub-sections have rather plain titles, throughout the book when there is a consideration of a given topic, say "The Theology of the Icon" Papadiamandis' short stories are drawn from to explicate the given topic - so it is not a mere repetition of basic theological truths which you have read from multiple sources elsewhere.  Also, behind some of these plain jane sub-section titles are controversial opinions - for instance in the section on "Religious Brotherhoods" you will learn that Papadiamandis was very critical of the religious brotherhoods in Greece during his lifetime (I intend for one of my next posts to take up this issue and ask whether Papadiamandis's critique of religious brotherhoods in the Greece of his day might not apply to certain Orthodox groups and initiatives in America today).  In the sub-section "Bishops" you will not read a tritely pious gloss on the office of bishop, but rather the wisdom of a man keenly aware that the human functionary filling that divine appointment was, far too often, cruel and petty.   It should also be said that the sub-section titles which suggest a Papadiamandisian theology as such would almost certainly not have been something Papadiamandis would have been comfortable with.  I don't think he would have been very keen on the idea that there was, or should be, a "Papadiamandis's Theology of the Divine Liturgy" and so forth.  

I plan on referring to Greece's Dostoevsky frequently on this blog, but for now I think it may suffice to say that the genius of Papadiamandis revealed in the book has something to do with how the man is not easily categorized in a manner which would associate him with any of the various 'camps' to be found in American Orthodoxy today.  Papadiamandis is traditional in his understanding of liturgy and monasticism and the typicon, but for several reasons which I hope to flesh out later he strikes me as a far cry from the traditionalist Orthodox rhetoric and posturing one finds in certain American Orthodox camps today.  While Papadiamandis does not express a Luddite or reactionary fear of the modern city or modern social trends, per se, he is also not a modernist in style, nor in ideological temperament.  But he is also not to be pegged as a man raging against modernism qua modernism as if there is some coherent and easily accessed anti-modernism which provides us some clear way out of modern problems.  I think the Papadiamandis we encounter in Greece's Dostoevsky is a man who views modernity as presenting some very new expressions of very ancient human problems.  There is certainly a fear that the good is fragile and in danger of annihilation, but that is a near constant human fear -- what is perhaps unique in modernity is the rate of the acceleration of that which endangers human traditions and the aesthetics and economies of quiet and stillness which are demanded for there to be a possibility of an inner life and an encounter with God.  There are certainly places wherein Papadiamandis' primary fear of the modern city and of modernity seems to have to do with its speed, and there are passages in Greece's Dostoevsky and in Papadiamandis' short stories which read almost like narrative expression of points oft made by the brilliant and somewhat enigmatic Catholic anarchist, urbanist, and cultural theorist Paul Virilio (another comparison which I would like to flesh out in a later post).  

Thus the usefulness of Greece's Dostoevsky is, in my mind, that it concisely presents to us this figure who unintentionally turns the tables on the conventional categories that we so often use to negotiate American Orthodox milieus.  And we encounter a man who was both deeply traditional but willing to maneuver within modernity in a manner that didn't demand that we build fear ridden ideologically driven museums dedicated to some arbitrarily determined purity.  Papadiamandis was concerned about the well being and sustainability of fragile elements in the tradition (which will be a near constant theme on this blog), but it seems that for him truth must always be a living enfleshed thing, and connected to that liturgical realism (and not idealism or fetish) and that humanity so well articulated in by Keselopoulos in Greece's Dostoevsky.  

I'll have much more to say about the book as time goes on.

Another work which I have but have not yet read is A Greek Diptych: Dionysios Solomos and Alexandros Papadiamantis.  I will also report on this work after I have read it. 

And so we begin.  


13 May 2012

About this blog.

The title of this blog is inspired by Alexandros Papadiamandis' short story The Whorehouse, of which I was made aware when reading this passage concerning that story, from the best monograph in English on Papadiamandis:

The priests approach the community's outcasts and sinners with the same sense of pastoral responsibility as they approach the pious.  Papa-Pentelis in Athens does not hesitate to enter and perform the blessing of waters in houses of prostitutes or to celebrate Liturgy in country chapels at the summons of Mrs. Spiridoulas, a woman whom her neighbors judge because she rents rooms to women of ill repute.  When her good neighbors are scandalized and some are bold enough to demand a justification form the priest, he simply answers that Christ did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.  Naturally, Papadiamandis does not pardon Mrs. Spiridoulas, nor does he accept the business in which she engages.  He does, however, want to highlight how this priest shrugs off the judgement of the wider Athenian society, one that lacks a true worshipping community like that found on Skiathos.
( - from Greece's Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis by Anestis Keselopoulas, translated by Herman A. Middleton, Protecting Veil Press, 2011, page 53).

The goal of this blog is to discuss a wide breadth of cultural and literary themes.   Life and love and America and our shrinking world, with an eye to old boundary stones and new discontents and the desire to come to some terms with what we may come to terms with, or, if we may be so bold, even what we need to come to terms with. Perhaps we seek a more keen awareness of the peculiarities of attempting to live out the Orthodox faith in an American context and amidst the strangeness and sometimes blessed, sometimes despair-inducing terrain of American Orthodoxy.  We're looking for the terms to negotiate with, and the hope of a serviceable wisdom to make our way in unsettling waters. 

There not being, yet, an American Alexondros Papadiamandis Society, this blog will seek to take up a wee bit of the lack by making very frequent reference to the writings of Papadiamandis, and the secondary literature concerning him, with frequent questions regarding how we might approach questions of American Orthodox experience from the vantage point of Papadiamandis' literary richness and his insight into humanity, faith, and the beauty of fragile traditions and the breath of community life - from its sometimes smug, sometimes stabilizing centers to its often revelatory and redeeming fringes. 

There is no intent here to take Papadiamandis as a guru, or as some singular source of wisdom.  Papadiamandis himself would seem to have been horrified at the suggestion that any truth he articulated was particularly novel or original.  Though I think he might accept our insistence that among modern literary voices his is a rare one.  And I think a number of Orthodox thinkers would argue that he is a gifted and perceptive voice.

There are certainly any number of good guides one could choose as a reference via which to seek to find a hermeneutic through which to read this life we try to live in contemporary America as Orthodox Christians.  I suppose this blog assumes that we want to find some such lens, or lenses, and as it is not always a bad idea to return again and again to one good teacher, I have chosen Papadiamandis (and his friends and guides, especially 
Papa-Nicholas Planas) for this medium.

Your writer here is an Orthodox Christian, first encountering Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe a score of years ago.  My experience of Orthodoxy has been the usual admixture of healing, brutality, blessedness, cultishness, profundity, pettiness, life, loss, love.  The Church is sometimes stingy in offering consolations, yet those consolations do seem to come at that very moment when you need them, or perhaps not, for some, I suppose in fear. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about my life, and I intend to keep this a pseudonymous blog.  I post and comment under the pseudonym "the fallen dervish," a title I get from one of my favorite Papadiamandis stories.  I should state from the outset that I am not an academic and that I do not read modern Greek.  I am simply an avid reader who discovered Papadiamandis and became intrigued.  I'm muddling my way through this with the rest of the novices.  

Though I intend to discuss questions of living an Orthodox life in America today, I don't want to dwell on the particulars of Orthodox politics here, especially the complexities and banalities of American Orthodox politics, and I'd like to keep the tone on this blog and its comment threads civil and considerate at all times.  The old truism about the battle being fought by everyone you meet, and all that, and the wisdom of the Syrian when he admonishes - "make peace with yourself, and both heaven and earth will make peace with you."  I've found the hard way that by expressing fury on the internet, I reveal a lot more about my interior poverty than I reveal about whatever it is I am raging against.  So let's try to tame that here and ask and ponder questions together in respect and mutual love. 

Thank you for your interest in this tiny little pixel hearth in the colossal world of blogdom.  Peace to you, reader.