Ancient Answers


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Take hold of your life!

I woke up this morning with a song that I kept singing quietly all morning:

Κράτησα τη ζωή μου κράτησα τη ζωή μου ταξιδεύοντας

ανάμεσα στα κίτρινα δέντρα κατά το πλάγιασμα της βροχής

σε σιωπηλές πλαγιές φορτωμένες με τα φύλλα της οξιάς,

καμιά φωτιά στην κορυφή τους˙ βραδιάζει.

The poet George Seferis (1900-71)

The very first line is the hardest to translate, for me at least. Is it “I held my life”? Is it, “I held on to my life”? Is it, “I kept hold of my life”? Is it, “I took hold of my life”? Any of these translations is literally correct. But it makes a lot of difference which English translation I choose. Is my life something that I hold like a bag of groceries? Is my life something I protect and hold on to tightly? This second meaning is the one preferred by published translations, and probably comes closest to the original meaning and circumstances of the poet who wrote these words. Or is my life something I take hold of in a momentous decision to make it meaningful? That last is the translation I choose today. It is also what Lent teaches me: To grab hold of my life, to live it to the fullest, without fear and without protective covers, so that I may with boldness come to the night of Pascha and “receive the light from the light that never sets.”

The words are from the poem “Epiphany 1937” by George Seferis, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963. It was set to music by the great Mikis Theodorakis, and was recorded in 1962.

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Here is my translation of the whole song, though I have trouble translating the full impact of the word πλάγιασμα. Is it “slanting” as in published translations, or is it something more like the “cover” of rain? Maybe someone could give me a better translation of that one word which seems to be important in the overall meaning of this song/poem.

I took hold of my life, I took hold of my life traveling

among yellow trees beneath the slanting rain

in silent slopes loaded with the leaves of beech trees

no fire on their peaks; it’s getting dark.

It is because it’s getting dark that we need to “take hold” of our lives. And it is because it’s getting dark that we “keep hold” of our lives! The mistake most of us make is that we keep hold before we take hold! We protect our lives before we have actually lived our lives. That indeed is a very profound problem.

 


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The Ark of Survival

Today, July 22, the Orthodox Church celebrated the feast-day of St. Mary Magdalene. Despite the fact that women have been treated as second- or third-class citizens throughout the history of the church, this particular saint bears the eponymic of “Equal to the Apostles.” And, of course, that’s exactly what she should be called! Peter, Paul, James, John – any of the “apostles” – are in no wise superior to Mary Magdalen. She has even been called “Apostle to the Apostles,” because she bore the message of Christ’s resurrection to the apostles who were hiding in fear (John 20:1-2 & 20:18).

Mary Magdalene greets the risen Christ in the garden

Mary Magdalene greets the risen Christ in the garden

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There is another female saint celebrated in today’s Orthodox calendar: Saint Markella, “the Virgin-Martyr of Chios.” Here is my question: Why does a woman have to be a reformed sinful woman (as Mary Magdalene is presumed by the church to have been, as Mary of Egypt was), or a virgin-martyr, or a nun, or (in some cases) a widow, in order to be canonized? Why are there so few married women (and men, for that matter) who have been raised to the state of sainthood? Not, of course, that God is bound by decisions of the church as to who is a saint and who isn’t – but it is a question that should be asked. Why has so much preference been given to men and women who were not married?

The question is worth asking because the Orthodox Church has so few examples of holy families to offer to a society where the family is calamitously on the brink of extinction. I was watching tonight on YouTube a program first telecast on Greek television in October of 2013. The entire program was dedicated to the music of Mikis Theodorakis – who, in my opinion, is not only the greatest composer of Greek popular music, but the greatest song writer of the 20th century, and beyond, of any nationality! He is an old man now, but he was there for this intimate celebration of his music. You can watch the video here: Στην Υγειά μας. Αφιέρωμα στον Μικη Θεοδωράκη.

At about 21 minutes into the program Theodorakis and the host are talking about the continuing popularity of his music. The host calls the music an εργαλείο, a tool for the preservation of Greek culture and society, especially in the difficult times people are facing now. At 21:45 into the video, Theodorakis says something very profound. He says that the ark (κιβωτός) of survival in Greece is the family. It is the family that preserves the traditions, the culture, the music. I can relate. Growing up in a Greek home in Montreal, Canada, all I heard at home was Greek popular music. And I resented it. I resented hearing the same songs about hard work, poverty and emigrating to foreign lands. Despite the fact that I too was an immigrant and that I too was born poor in Greece and was still relatively poor even in Canada, I couldn’t take these songs. So I escaped to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other denizens of Anglo-American pop. But the Greek music was always there in the home. It was part of me no matter how much I tried to deny it. So later, in the late 60’s and early 1970’s as my own political and cultural awareness developed, I found these songs that I had previously resented to be far more beautiful, more meaningful, and far more stirring to my soul than any of the rock and pop songs that I had been listening to.

The family environment was the key that kept me rooted. If I can speak and write Greek today and if I can drive around Portland listening to Mikis Theodorakis or Manos Hadjidhakis in my car (when I’m not listening to Wagner), it’s because of my family home. And I treasure my upbringing, despite the many hardships we endured. The family still is the cornerstone of Greek society, and it is still strong – though it’s beginning to face the same challenges as the European and North American family.

The family structure is crumbling, and we see the results all around us: lower educational standards, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, alienation, irresponsible sexual activity, violent behavior, guns in the possession and use of minors, disrespect for elders and social standards – and an alarming estrangement from anything religious. No, families are not crumbling because of gays! And no, families are not crumbling because women are working. Women are working because the society requires it and the consumer obsession demands it. Don’t look for scapegoats and who to blame for what is happening to families in our country. Look inside the family and ask what is going on.

What values are being preserved and passed on within the family home? What are the children hearing and seeing within the home? Is there a culture within the home that children are being exposed to when they come off their iPods or video games or social media? Or are the parents also hooked to their own iPods, TV sets and social media? Is there a unifying culture within the home? Does the family even eat together? Is there conversation around the table? Does the family go to church on Sunday morning? Or is team sport the only activity that brings the family together? Good luck with that.

Thank God we have many families in our community that are valiantly swimming against the tide. I pray that the Lord will support these families in their efforts and give them the courage to cultivate unity of heart and mind in their homes. We Orthodox are committed to family values. Perhaps the day will come when the Church will work off its preference for monks and nuns and also recognize the sainthood of parents who raise faithful children. Perhaps some of our own hard-working, faithful parents will be saints – if not in the official calendar of saints, then in the infinitely more important list of saints in the mind of God. May it be so! Let’s honor families. They are indeed the Ark of Survival in our confused and directionless times. God bless the families of our community and families around the world. In Greece too!