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01 Apr 2024

To Meet a Church

[Article written by CYA Student Jessica Wu]

Light a candle, make a cross, kiss the icon, breathe in the incense. No one was ordering me to perform those actions, and I can’t make clear my mind to tell you why I did so. It’s not for experience’s sake, not for “interest,” not even for curiosity. When I kissed the icon and made a cross following my friend’s way, and when he asked me if I prayed, I said my mind was not functioning.
The third time in St. Spiridon at Pangrati, after the Vesper, I said to my Greek Orthodox friend, “I like here. I don’t want to leave.”
The not-so-big yellow church is here in Pangrati, in the middle of busy narrow streets, gray alleys, grocery stores, restaurants, and traffic lights which are often ignored by drivers. I walked by it during my first few days in Pangrati, going to a bakery with newly met roommates. We stopped in front of the building. It was well-lit, just like other buildings in the city that are meant to be appreciated from the outside. We looked at the gates and the icons above them, we walked up the stairs, and we took pictures.

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“This is so cool” Was the comment. The same sentence would be reused on several other occasions, including meeting animals in the National Garden, climbing up to the Athenian Acropolis, going down the Metro stations with open archaeological exhibitions, and eating one’s first stick of souvlaki. Sometimes I silently judge the lack of expression in the English language, only to realize later that the poverty of expression is my own problem.
But you know, each kind of “coolness” is different. The remark I uttered before the church was the type of regard one utters when they gaze at something beautiful yet distant. No matter how long I’ve gazed at it, because of fear of misbehaving, or because of my pride, I can never dream of going into it as who I am. “It’s interesting.” “It’s cool.” I said those as a “chill” passer-by, and then the temperature of Athens dropped as if it was winter. I passed by again several days later, in the rain before some chilly cloudy days. Then, as one gets used to Pangrati, one gets used to passing by the yellow church without staring at the impressive religious building.

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“The big yellow church as you know it,” my professor said, “has a proper name”. St. Spiridon was an uneducated farmer who went before the highly educated theologians and philosophers to explain the Trinity. He held a potsherd, fire, and water, and clay came out. Thus the Holy Trinity was illustrated. The priest told the story when we, as a class, visited the church. I was sitting in the front in order to see better. A big smile was inspired, but not for the sake of politeness.
It was a lovely afternoon. The church’s interior was bright. Icons gently reflected the golden sunlight. Everything was visible. Ι thought that, if not for the sake of becoming educated, I would never read about this religion far away from my origin.

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(Picture by CYA Spring ’24 studentBriana Oser)

Miracles don’t belong in my world. Yet, I am unable to resist going into St. Spiridon. My friend and classmate Nikolas is willing to bring me back again. Our visits happened after the afternoon class. Nikolas is chanting at Vesper and I can observe. He told me that the rituals are called “the mystery” taking after the ancient Greek mysteries, meaning “blind”, or “to close one’s eyes”. So I came to appreciate the darkness. Outside an academic observation, and outside critical concerns, I could sit or stand when the light in the church is quiet. Byzantine chanting and the voice of reading fill the space. I learned to light a candle, I learned to make a sign of a cross, I learned to kiss the icon’s hand, and I learned to say a short prayer.
Once I stayed through a service. Sitting on the left side, following whatever the women sitting near me were doing, I indulged in a long meditation about emotion, the existence of spirituality, my encounters with Biblical literature, my background and identity as an atheist, and the fact that Mystery is happening before me, yet I do not understand the language. At the end of the service, an old lady turned to me. She greeted me in Greek and asked if I came from the Philipines or China and if I was an Orthodox Christian or a Roman Catholic. “No, yes, no, no…” That’s all my modern Greek. My hands were in her hands, her palms were warm. She seemed delighted. Her eyes shined with kindness. Nikolas came to us and told her that I was an atheist. She repeated the word and seemed surprised. Later, my friend told me that she said, “Please help her.” “And she said, I love you. May God help you in everything.” He translated.
“Thank you, thank you very much.” That’s all my modern Greek.

Another time, Nikolas went into the part of the church where I could not go. Then, he went out, accompanying a priest. They stopped in front of me, and I was asked, “Jessica, do you want to kiss his hand?” I said yes. Even if I possess no piety, I’ve received too much from here.
My friend, my friend, you are too good to me to ask the priest to bless me. I didn’t know how and when to kiss his hand, and he didn’t wait for me to figure out. When the kind old man touched my head and spoke the blessing, I felt the sweetness that I could never create for myself even in a dream. For one moment, at least, I wanted to stay in the world as you see it, If only I can find what you’ve found; if only I can believe what you have faith in. Nikolas let me use his praying beads, so I closed my eyes and spoke, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Yes, I was willing at that moment. Night after school embraced the visitor, or the intruder, or the wanderer, in a spiritual space, with sincere hospitality.

No conclusion can be made at this point. Like numerous students and visitors before, I departed and went back to my apartment. But I know for sure, one day in the future when forgetfulness comes through time, even if the topography of the Athenian Acropolis should fade in my memory, I will still remember Athens, on account of one church beside a busy narrow street in the neighborhood of Pangrati: it has yellow walls, and it is named after a Bishop wearing a farmer’s hat.

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Jessika Wu takes the CYA Course The Religions of the Middle East: A Comparrative Approach.