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A Place to Pray

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Plaka, the main shopping district at the heart of Athens, is hopping as usual. Sidewalk eating at the many tavernas spills out into the streets as the hour grows later, and motorcyclists, completely illegally, zip through the packs of surprised tourists congregating around shop windows.

There is much to buy, see and do here: silver and gold in the classic Greek meander pattern, the squarish curlicue that one finds on everything from yogurt containers to sidewalk grilles. Lots of museum replicas: burnt umber pots and urns decorated with black etchings of ancient mythology, bronze castings of the Charioteer, proudly staring off into the distance sans one arm.

Navigating through the sidewalk cafes is something of a sport in itself. A waiter plants himself firmly in front of my friend and I, entreating us in English and Greek: “Oraia ladies. Para kalo, sit and have something to eat.” Smiling is an open invitation for further harassment; we elbow our way past and continue through the noise of gyro shops and leather salesmen.

Amid the relentless clatter of Athenian life are many sacred spots, small churches like the one we suddenly see on our left, a typical Greek combination of equal-arm cruciform plan and domed central nave. I enter; it is immediately quiet, save the soft clink of coins as travelers help offset the cost of the long beeswax tapers they will light.

After venerating the icons one by one, stopping in the dim half-light to look at the sacred images, I stand at the back and watch my candle burn slowly down, my prayer ascending to heaven accompanied by the intercessions of those around me, both seen and unseen. The quiet of this place infects my spirit.

In front of me an old woman enters with a shuffle and crosses herself rapidly three times with the mechanical motion one sees among public bus riders passing a house of worship. She drops her coins into the box and lights a few candles, then moves from one icon to the other with that same nonstop crossing motion, kissing noisily. She stops for a minute in front of one, staring at it without bowing her head; then, after a short chat and some laughter with someone in the front of the sanctuary, walks out.

I try to look at her as I would have five years ago, an evangelical skeptically investigating Orthodoxy, and I can’t find enough errors. She did everything carelessly, obviously very used to the privilege of having so many churches like this, places to stop and reflect within a stone’s throw of each other. There was no apparent reverence in any of her actions, save the tiredly scripted ideas of crossing and kissing. If she *had* prayed while lighting the candles, it was probably memorized, not spontaneous. Or it might have been just a thoughtful pause, to zone out for a minute as she tried to forget the argument she’d just had with a street vendor. And then – back out into the temptations of the world, not even staying for a minute to be thankful for what she had been given.

But today I see her through new eyes, eyes that are starting to understand more and more of this ancient faith so deep it becomes habitual. It sounds so obvious, but I took a long time to believe that there were spiritual benefits associated with repetition. It’s an additive exercise; each time it takes on a new dimension, means something slightly different, becomes all the more beloved and sacred to the one repeating. This woman has probably been to church several times a week since she was a baby, probably learned to kiss the icons and cross herself before she could speak. Instead of fairy tales, she heard tales of the Virgin Mary and the Greek saints, true superheroes that helped the poor and did miracles in the name of Christ. She learned to pray as Jesus taught in the Bible, and recited with her own mouth the words of others, written by holy people who had nothing on their minds but how to better align their desires with God’s. Her mumbled prayers are so ingrained in her subconscious that she might not even sense the words spilling out.

I pray too, softly, and I know those same words have been repeated, are being repeated, by millions of other worshippers all over the world, across space and time, united with me in their love for Christ and need for His mercy. Looking at an icon is a prayer in itself – evidence of devotion and love that doesn’t need to be expressed neatly in fifty words or less. Lighting a candle is a symbolic act – as long as the flame burns, your prayer ascends to heaven – and lighting it and leaving allows others to carry on the intercessions you have begun.

It is quiet here now, a contrast to the shouting and honking outside; coming in to pray, just for a few minutes, is as refreshing as a basin of clean water for my feet would be on this hundred-degree day. But on Sunday it will be much more like the rest of the Plaka, brimming with the enthusiasm of Greek worship. People will wander back and forth jiggling their babies; clergy will chant, probably, into a microphone that is projected *very* loudly over the small space. It’s similar to the typical Greek home, where the television will be on, loudly, whether or not anyone is paying attention. Historically a labor culture, noise doesn’t bother them, and it certainly doesn’t hinder their devotion.

More than the trail, replete with switchbacks and detours, of my own spiritual enlightenment, in this woman’s pious act I see evidence of a culture so steeped in Christianity it doesn’t even stop to think about it. Driving on the National Highway, one sees the legendary Greek tendency to ignore rules in any form: they drive on the two-lane road as if it were a ten-lane highway, passing each other and zipping among the slower cars. They honk cheerfully, without a shred of vengeance, just to let you know you’re holding everyone else up. If you’re going the speed limit, you should probably drive in the emergency lane as a courtesy to the majority of the population, who will be traveling at roughly double that. And they crash often and tragically. The highway is dotted with signs of these accidents, not wreaths of silk flowers and waterlogged teddy bears, but shrines – small chapels, looking a bit like birdhouses, at waist level. Inside the tiny church-shaped container, there are icons, an oil lamp, and matches; so that, should you feel led to stop and pray for the soul of this victim of Greek impetuousness, you may do so. They are strewn especially liberally about the tight curves of the northern mountain roads, signs of a culture that lives and dies in prayer.

As I watch more travelers enter and exit the small church, I notice that almost everyone leaves something behind – on the steps in front of the altar or next to an icon. There are flowers in various stages of drying, small pressed silver cards with pictures of body parts for specific needs. There are rings and pendants that have been carefully dropped between the glass and the icon, to lie there as symbols of ongoing prayer and supplication. There was a time when I would have thought this overly sentimental; now I liken it to the truckloads of flowers and poems dumped at the gates of Buckingham Palace for weeks after the death of Princess Diana, but with a much more serious and weighty intention. It is a symbol of love and piety, yes; but also of detachment from all worldly things. This prayer is so important that I am going to take off my ring and leave it here, so that next time I look for it I will remember why it’s gone. It reminds me of the Jewish tradition of exchanging sandals when a covenant had been made; people didn’t have more than one pair, so when you had to walk around for months or a year with an ill-fitting mismatched shoe, you weren’t likely to forget or break your word.

My friend’s quiet entrance at the back of the church reminds me of how long I have been standing here, and how much more I have to do and see before the day is over. I say a final, quick prayer, that the serenity of this place will cast a calming and meditative spirit over the rest of my day, and the rest of my life. I feel that it has already started to.

Photo: Monastery Bells - Patmos, July 2001

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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