"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, November 10, 2017

Culture and Faith in a Greek Village

Twice in the past month this book, which I first mentioned on here in 2011, has come up unexpectedly in conversations: first when I was at Notre Dame College in Euclid, OH in early October giving a lecture, and was joined there by John Jillions, who was on my doctoral committee and is now the chancellor of the Orthodox Church of America, and just a lovely human being. I mentioned this book for some reason or other when we were in conversation over breakfast, and it turns out he knew the author from when he was in England teaching Orthodox theology at Cambridge and tending a parish.

Then last week a graduate student of mine returned from a trip to Greece that she just took, and was remarking on how often she saw layers of Orthodoxy superimposed on a still considerable "pagan" cultural substratum. So I take the liberty of drawing your attention anew to Juliet Du Boulay's Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village (Denise Harvey Publishers, 2009), 478pp.

It is a fascinating, textured work thick with descriptions and glimpses of lost worlds, and very moving, too, in unexpected ways. Her chapters, written without any sort of condescension, on certain customs and beliefs surrounding both marriage and death give clear evidence of the uneasy overlay of Christian and non-Christian beliefs and expectations--to say nothing of her unintentionally amusing discussion of villagers' reactions to news of the American moon landings in the 1960s. Those who think of Greece as full-throated, unadulterated Orthodox Christianity of the pure laine variety will be given frequent pause by what is described in this book by a graceful anthropologist who went on to become Orthodox herself, and is now married to an Orthodox priest.

In reading this book, I am repeatedly put in mind of a comment attributed to the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, in August 1914, as the chimes of Big Ben indicated the expiration of the ultimatum to Germany and the commencement of British hostilities against it: "the lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." In reading this book, it is astonishing to me how much the world has changed in less than four decades--how many of the "lamps" of Greek culture have been extinguished, and for not very clear, still less good, reasons. Practices that du Boulay observed during her time in Greece in the late 1960s and early 1970s had already begun to fall into desuetude, a process that has only accelerated exponentially in the last several decades.

Some further details about this book from the publisher:
In 1974 Juliet du Boulay published her first work, Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village, now considered a classic text for the anthropology of Modern Greece. This sequel, the fruit of a lifetime’s reflection, adds new dimensions to this portrait, exploring the all-encompassing religious awareness of the same village community, and its rootedness in both Orthodox Christian and pre- or non-Christian ideas and practices. The story is told through a steady development of rich ethnographic detail in which the people come to life in all their vitality, contradictoriness, humour, realism and courage. From the particularities of life in the village a picture is built up in which the Byzantine legacy intertwines with fragments of antiquity, both Greek and Jewish, and with the universal themes, both tragic and hopeful, which confront man as he struggles to make sense of life. In this way a compelling pattern of symbols and images is revealed which underpin every action and event in the human and natural spheres, and is described here lucidly, convincingly and with great affection.
Excerpts may be read here. But do buy the book if you are at all interested. It is a lyrical and poignant read, at once anthropological and autobiographical, but edifying in any event.

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