Saturday, 28 January 2023

Marie Spartali Stillman – Three Anglo-Hellenic Graces – Scarborough

Marie Spartali Stillman (self-portrait)
I was delighted to learn earlier this week that English Heritage are to instal a Blue Plaque in honour of the memory of Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927) “at the house where she first began to realise her ambition of becoming a painter” (this is presumably the Spartali family home, known as The Shrubbery, now situated behind St Barnabas’s Church on Clapham Common North Side).[1] Spartali Stillman was born into a prosperous family of London Greeks in the middle of the nineteenth century. Her father, Michael, was one of the heads of Spartali & Co., an import business, and served for several years as the Greek consul-general in London.  

Spartali Stillman became associated at an early age with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Introduced to Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1864, she sat for him and, telling him that she herself wanted to learn to paint, took lessons from Ford Madox Brown. From 1867, she started to exhibit her work professionally, while continuing to model – for Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and John Spencer Stanhope among others. In 1871, she married the American Pre-Raphaelite painter and journalist, William James Stillman. The last retrospective of her work was at the Delaware Art Gallery in 2015/16 [2]. 


Spartali Stillman is being honoured, of course, in her own right. But in the London Greek community of the day, she was simply the most talented of three cousins who were closely associated and collectively known as ‘the Three Graces’ because of their striking beauty and presence and their role as models and muses for the Pre-Raphaelite artists of the second generation. Alongside Spartali Stillman, Maria Zambaco (née Kassaveti) (1843-1914) was the mistress and model of Edward Burne-Jones; Aglaia Koronio (née Ionidi) (1834-1906) was one of William Morris’s great confidantes.[3] All three were artists. In this last year, I have found myself increasingly thinking about their milieu because of the church in which I am now worshipping: St Martin’s on the Hill in Scarborough. 


St Martin's on the Hill
St Martin’s has one of the most important and complete collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in any English church. Built in 1861-3 by the architect George Frederick Bodley, it has one of the three earliest schemes of decoration by the first company founded by William Morris, along with his Pre-Raphaelite friends: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Together with Bodley himself, the company decorated ceilings and walls in the church, and also provided a nearly full set of stained-glass windows, an elegant painted reredos, a decorated organ screen and a beautifully painted pulpit. The designs and work are by Morris, Philip Webb, Rossetti, Madox Brown, Burne-Jones, Stanhope, Peter Paul Marshall and the company’s principal glass painter George Campfield.[4]

It is one of the features of work by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. that their ecclesiastical art no more disguises the identities of the models for their murals, images and stained glass than do the paintings by individual members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The images of several saints and angels in the stained glass at St Martin’s are portraits of Pre-Raphaelite “stunners”: the non-PC term given by Rossetti and friends to the several tall, striking and beautiful women who posed for them and became entangled in their lives as lovers, wives and friends. A lovely window by Morris and Burne-Jones is devoted to the ‘three Marys’ (the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany) with the images based on Georgiana Macdonald, who married Burne-Jones; Lizzie Siddall, the wife of Rossetti; and Annie Miller, one of Rossetti’s many lovers. We have, I think, no window modelled on Spartali Stillman. But one of the most intense windows, designed by Burne-Jones, daringly depicts his mistress Zambaco variously as St Dorothea, St Theophilus and an Archangel, with gorgeous flaming wings. This is certainly a connection I didn’t expect to find, mediated by the personalities and practices of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, between the London Greek community of late Victorian England and the High Church circles of then fashionable Scarborough.


English Heritage has not yet announced the date for unveiling the plaque in honour of Marie Spartali Stillman. But I hope that today’s London Greek community will get involved and that an image of the plaque is soon widely available. It is good to have this opportunity to recall and celebrate particularly Spartali Stillman’s work as a painter, but also the broader artistic influence of the renowned women of the Kassavetis-Spartalis-Ionidis clan. 



28 January 2023


[1] See the English Heritage announcement here.


[2] A book was produced to accompany the exhibition: Margaretta S. Frederick & Jan Marsh (ed.), Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman (Seattle: Marquand Books, 2015).


[3] There is an excellent overview of the milieu of 'the Three Graces' in Victoria Solomonidis-Hunter's article (in two parts) for the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery: 'Aglaia Coronio née Ionides (1834-1906)', at (pp.6-8) and (pp.6-8). An image gallery, giving biographical details and illustrations, of the Three Graces and their work is available here (thanks to Victoria for sharing this link with me). 


[4] The Friends of St Martin’s have produced a good website and several guides and booklets exploring different aspects of the church and its Pre-Raphaelite heritage. 

Sunday, 10 July 2022

Greek Affairs of the Heart. Travellers in Greece. An Occasional Series 4. Dilys Powell

Dilys Powell
I made a mess of getting to know Dilys Powell (1901-1995). I encountered her first through the book she published last about Greece, Villa Ariadne (1973), and then read forward in time, with An Affair of the Heart (1957). I found both of these books beguiling, but also problematical and even, in places, off-putting. Villa Ariadne was written during the Colonels’ dictatorship but doesn’t even allude to the political travails of the country. An Affair of the Heart covers Greek politics in the immediate aftermath of the Dekemvriana, the Communist uprising in Athens in December 1944, but does so from a surprisingly angular, partisan and emotional point of view. From these two books, I gained the impression of a writer who could live only in a classicist-idealist’s view of what Greece was and is.

Nevertheless, I persisted and am glad I did. Early on in my time as ambassador in Greece, I read The Traveller’s Journey is Done (published 1943, but written in 1939); more recently, I’ve tackled Remember Greece (1941). This last book has particularly caused me to rethink my views on Powell’s writing about Greece and, indeed, to re-read all of the books, taking them in the order in which she wrote them. This I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to see Greece through Powell’s eyes. It sets this, in some ways, eccentric writer about Greece in a more sympathetic perspective.


Humfry Payne
Dilys Powell had a rich, long-lasting and complex relationship with Greece. She encountered the country first in 1926, on honeymoon after marrying the classical archaeologist Humfry Payne (1902-1936), whom she had met at Oxford where she was reading modern languages. Payne held a studentship at Christ Church Oxford, and from April 1926 was also the assistant curator of coins at the Ashmolean Museum. After their marriage Powell worked as a journalist in London. In the summers of 1927, 1928 and 1929, Payne excavated on Crete, with a base at the Villa Ariadne, the house built at Knossos by its famous excavator Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941). Powell spent some part of those summers with him, getting to know Greece and absorbing fragments of its language and customs. In 1929, at what would now be thought an astonishingly young age, Payne was appointed as Director of the British School at Athens. Powell joined him for some part of every year of his directorship, not least at the dig for which he is most famous. From 1930 to 1933, across four summer campaigns, Payne led the British School’s excavations at the sanctuaries of Hera Akraia and Limenia at Perachora, not far from Loutraki to the north-west of the Corinth Canal. The finds were of great importance, but Payne would not live to see their full publication; he died in Athens in 1936 of septicaemia, spread from a small wound on the knee, at the age of just 34.  Powell buried him at the cemetery of Mycenae, where his body remains today.

Sanctuary of Hera, Perachora

Powell was not a classicist and had not learned modern Greek at university. But the years spent with Payne in Greece had made an irrepressible mark on her: she returned independently to the country every year from 1937 to 1939, when the first signs of war appeared in Europe. During the war, she was recruited to the Political Warfare Executive in London: part of the British Government’s propaganda effort; there her expert knowledge of Greece involved her in Greek affairs. She returned to the liberated country in 1945, and made further journeys subsequently in 1953, 1954, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1966 and 1971. She was undoubtedly well travelled in Greece and got to know much of the country well; she formed friendships with the ‘ordinary’ Greek people she met, with archaeologists of several nationalities, including Greek archaeologists, and with some of the British expat community, including the diplomatic community.


John Pendlebury
The books reflect the long evolution of her experiences and knowledge of Greece. The Traveller’s Journey is Done is an account of her life in Greece with Humfry Payne, centring on the time spent at the British School at Athens and at Perachora. Remember Greece was part of the war effort; it not only reflects lyrically on Powell’s knowledge of Greece, but also offers a primer of the geography of Greece and its politics since 1922, calling on Brits not to forget Greek heroism in the 1940-1 war with Italy and looking forward to the country’s liberation from Nazi Occupation. An Affair of the Heart replays some of the moments of the earlier books, but tells more specifically of Powell’s estrangement from Greece in 1945, when she revisited the country in the closing stages of the war and found it hard to deal with the sharp polarisations of political opinion in the country; she found it even harder to handle the blame that many attached to Britain’s role in the civil strife. She stayed out of Greece for the best part of the following decade, until in 1953 she was invited to join a delegation to negotiate in Athens an Anglo-Greek Cultural Convention. That visit rekindled her love affair with Greece, and she started visiting regularly again. In 1954, the Sunday Times sent her to cover the pioneering maritime archaeology being conducted offshore of Chios. In her last book, Villa Ariadne, Powell returned to what was always the core of her encounters with Greece: the world of British archaeologists. Payne had dug on Crete, at Eleftherna and Knossos, and knew Sir Arthur Evans well. Villa Ariadne is in part a biography of Evans, at home in Oxford and on Crete, in part an account of his pioneering work at Knossos. But the second major figure of the work is John Pendlebury (1904-1941), one time curator of Knossos, expert in the general archaeology of Crete, and war hero, who was executed by the Nazis during their invasion of Crete in 1941. The book tells his story in detail, but also provides a broader account of the Resistance on Crete and of Powell’s subsequent efforts to meet the key figures in the Greek Resistance.


Each of the four books has high value, even if for me the first two are the best. Although written in the third person with Powell appearing as ‘Elizabeth’ and her husband as ‘Payne’ – an odd attempt to achieve, perhaps, a detached narrative voice in what is a very personal memoir, The Traveller’s Journey is Done is in essence a story of two love affairs: one between Powell and Payne, and the other between Powell, Payne and Greece. Here and in Remember Greece Powell gives a compelling, often lyrical account of interwar Greece. She captures brilliantly, I think, Athens in its seasons:


In winter Athens withdraws into itself; wind shouts down the dark hilly streets, restaurants open doors to show bright lights, cafés are snug and full of smoke. But on summer evenings the city puts out blossoms. The men, in summers before the war, left off their black felt hats and their dark suits (made, if they were well-to-do, of English cloth); everybody wore a linen or a raw silk suit, and even the taxi-drivers fanned themselves with boaters. At midday the sunlight was white-hot; screwing up their eyes behind dark glasses, the Athenians walked on the shady side of the street. In the afternoon the place was asleep. The shops put down their shutters for three hours. The conductor snored in his bus at the terminus. The masons, the carpenters, the plasterers left their tools lest they should be summonsed for breaking the peace of the siesta. Rich and poor sprawled on their beds in darkened rooms. Even the society busybody barred her house to callers, even her servants could rest. But as the sun slanted down towards Salamis, and Hymettos turned to rose-colour, young men and girls sauntered out of their homes to take the air…[1]


But she is also alert to the changes that she witnessed in the capital during the interwar years:


Athens…has always since I have known it been a city with the air of a capital, gay, easy, prosperous-looking. But in 1926 the transformation from a nineteenth-century Balkan town to a modern European city was still in progress. Occasional horse-cabs still shambled through the streets, the horses wearing a necklace of blue beads against the evil eye, and taxis were still not a matter of course. There were few and poor buses; the centre of Athens was served, as much of it still is, by trams. The streets and pavements, except in the middle of the city, were full of pot-holes. There was no adequate water supply, and the best drinking-water was sold by the jar, brought in carts from springs outside Athens.[2]


She writes lyrically about life in the countryside, recognising the hardship and isolation of peasant lives and the challenge of travel in such a mountainous country. The patterns of agricultural life had not changed for centuries:


The life of the countryside flows on, rhythmic, measured, tranquil. In autumn and in spring the earth is sown. Already in May in the lowlands the corn is yellow, and men and women, girls and boys, reap the fields. If they have far to go from the village, they may camp out for days. In the summers when the British School was excavating the Heraeum of Perachora on the point opposite Corinth, we would sometimes hear voices at dusk murmuring in the fields behind our tents: a family from the village six miles away, tethering the mules, and lighting a fire, and settling down to sleep. The corn is threshed on the circular stone threshing-floors beside the fields; the Greeks give to these threshing-floors the name that they give also to a halo round the moon. The sheaves are strewn thickly over the floor, a pair of mules are harnessed and driven round and round it; behind them, like a surf-rider, bumps the driver, poised on his foothold. Sometimes a woman takes charge; and then, perhaps, a tiny child will be whirled round, standing between her ankles and gripping her bare legs.[3]


She was aware of extensive poverty and hunger in the countryside and of their impact on the lives and expectations of villagers. Outsiders, like the British School, might bring employment to such communities and, as local villagers hoped, transform their longer-term economic prospects. This certainly seemed true of the hoteliers at a popular site like Mycenae; Powell kept track of the progress of one particular family there across the decades. But even at isolated Perachora, the community was able to build a small museum (hoping that the Heraion finds would be repatriated from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens) and roads were eventually built, to bring tourists and scholars to the site (I myself revisited the site a couple of weeks ago - see my photo above). 


Powell’s eye and sympathies have a wide angle to them. At the same time, she learnt about Greece and Greeks from the very particular and specialised milieu of classical archaeology. This was a milieu focused on pre-Christian antiquity. She learnt and absorbed a lot: stratigraphy, pots, tools, votive offerings, the lay-out of ancient shrines, the settlements around them, and so on. She was, however, more aware than her husband appears to have been that this was a narrow world, and not the world in which contemporary Greeks actually lived. She knew that contemporary classicists could be condescending about the Christian, Byzantine centuries and their impact on mores, values, beliefs; the shape and architecture of settlements and of lives. But despite this, she never really learned very much about Byzantium or had much interest in it (she acknowledges this as a failing in An Affair of the Heart), and seems to have understood little or nothing about Orthodoxy (though she does cover the basic rhythms of a Greek Easter in Remember Greece, p.114f.); she appears to have had no religion of her own. 


She did, however, learn something of the febrile vibrancy of Greek politics. Her first visit to Greece took place under the Pangalos dictatorship: she noted with some irony the excellent road he had built from Athens to Eleusis, where he ‘had a villa’, and described the absurdity of the dictatorship as far from ‘reassuring’:


Next the Dictator busied himself with public morality. It was the time of short skirts. In Greece at least, he declared, no woman should walk about with a skirt more than a regulation number of inches above the ground. The police were instructed to measure any doubtful legs; one day, unfortunately, they investigated the skirts of a young lady of good family, and amid the uproar the decree was noiselessly withdrawn.[4]


She was present for the failed Plastiras coup of 1933 and the failed Venizelos coup of 1935. In Remember Greece, she sets out a brief summary of political events from 1922 until the outbreak of the Greco-Italian War in 1940. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she had an ambivalent view of Metaxas, whom, on the positive side, she saw as responsible for the rearmament programme that enabled the Greeks to resist Mussolini. Remember Greece closes with a chapter summarising how Greeks regained their freedom from Ottoman hands and went on to create a modern state.  About 1940, she has this to say:


The national identity which had been preserved through centuries with so much tribulation was threatened again, the liberty which had been won was again in danger. For the Greeks this was indeed ‘total’ war: the total war of the free people of mountain and sea, the shepherds and fishermen, the men who work in fields and vineyards and olive-groves, against the men of steel and fire: the creators against the destroyers; life against death. They chose life. We need not fear, any more than they feared, the extinction of the vital spirit. Their country will live again, and they with it. In the words of Pericles: ‘Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, escaped not from their fear, but from their glory.’[5]


Heady words, written when Powell was working in London for the Political Warfare Executive (the first part of the quotation reminds me vaguely of Ritsos’s The Lady of the Vineyard). And yet, war and the heroism it brought forth was an evidently unwelcome intrusion of the political into Powell’s world. She generally avoided politics and wanted to play no part in them. After the war, she hoped to escape from political issues. This is very clear from the book she published in 1957, An Affair of the Heart. Her visit to Athens and Thessaloniki in 1945 was, for her, a disaster: an ‘estrangement’; she found herself ‘quite unprepared’ for the mood of the country: ‘a country full of rage’.[6] She found herself arguing vehemently – in the cities and in the villages – with liberals, conservatives and communists alike about responsibility for the civil war, and was clearly shocked that all sides tended to blame the British (though for different reasons). Perhaps this reaction of hers was inevitable. She had spent the wartime years writing propaganda for the wartime effort; the country she loved had been liberated and, as she saw it, properly kept out of communist hands. She was not in the least prepared for the reality of civil discord and the strong and hostile emotions aroused on all sides. She decided that it was ‘time for me to get Greece out of my blood’.[7] 


But, as already mentioned, she was called back to Greece eight years later and, the civil war decisively won, restarted her ‘affair of the heart’. From this point on, her relationship with Greece became a non-political affair: the final two parts of An Affair of the Heart and the whole of Villa Ariadne are, in effect, exercises of nostalgia, tempered and disciplined by Powell’s continuing contacts with the country and its people. During the mid-1950s, she re-established contacts with her friends in Perachora; from 1958 onwards, she returned to Crete and renewed her connexions with the British School at Knossos. On Crete, she became increasingly keen to tell the story of the Fall of Crete in 1941 and the subsequent Resistance in the mountains, led by the Greeks themselves and the British Special Operations Executive. In both cases, Powell’s efforts to re-engage with Greece took the form, not just of enquiry and research, but also of empathetic association through hard physical effort. Inspired by the walks that she and Payne had made in the 1920s and 1930s, Powell took to her feet, becoming one of England’s legendary Greek mountain-walkers.


In September 1953, she walked a third of the way from Lidoriki in Phokis to Nafpaktos on the Gulf of Corinth; and the following month, she walked much of the way – often in the rain – from Ioannina to Metsovo across the Pindus.[8] In 1959 on Crete, she decided to walk over Mt Ida (‘Psiloreitis’) from Nithavris to Anoyeia, in loose emulation of the route taken by the British kidnappers of General Kreipe, the Nazi commander of Crete:


One wants, of course, to find out for oneself. One is curious to know what the terrain is really like – how desperate the distances, how steep the ascents and descents. Imagination alone can never conjure up the sensation of the mountains; you need the aching thighs, the thinning air, the stones under your feet.[9]


For me this intrepid mountain-hiking is one of the reasons to love Dilys Powell and to give her, as I did in a talk to the Benaki Museum in 2016, her due place in the pantheon of true British travellers in Greece.[10] She was gutsy and unyielding (she was 57 when she tackled Mt Ida), and she responded with raw honesty and deeply lyrical sensibility to the harshness and beauty of the Greek landscape:


I staggered on, zigzagging upwards, gasping for breath. When I was allowed a rest I dropped to the ground without the energy to take off my knapsack. No water, no springs anywhere, only ridge upon ridge. The cliff was behind us now, but in front I saw only the surge of the mountains, like a sea of petrified waves. Yet, in this wilderness, arid, trackless – without a guide one would be irretrievably lost – there were obstinate blossoms: pale dwarf tulips flushed with pink, their petals curling open to show a golden heart; and, its greenish-white trumpet crumpling round the yellow pistil, the tiny arum which grows on Mount Ida.[11]


Powell’s love affair with Greece was a long affair, which had tempestuous moments and moments of unhappiness, doubt and despair. But it was undoubtedly an affair of the heart, an affair of total surrender. For all their unevenness these four books count; they should be read and re-read, not just for what they tell us about philhellenic sentiments of the past but also for their inspiration to pick up the rucksack, to tie up the bootlaces and to walk today in Greece.



10 July 2022


[1] The Traveller’s Journey is Done (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1943), p.38. 

[2] Remember Greece (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1941), p.66

[3] op.cit., 111.

[4] Traveller’s Journey, p.23f.

[5] Remember Greece, p.181f.

[6] An Affair of the Heart (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1957), p.28f.

[7] op.cit., 55.

[8] op.cit., p.79-84; p.110-120.

[9] Villa Ariadne (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), p.181.

[10] JKittmer, ‘Περπατώντας στην Ελλάδα: Τοπία / Αφηγήματα’, in MDiamanti (ed.), Πάτρικ Λη Φέρμορ: Και το ταξίδι συνεχίζεται (Athens: Μουσείο Μπενάκη, 2017): p.71

[11] Villa Ariadne, p.193f.

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Recovering a Whole Life

Here on the Yorkshire coast conditions are changeable. The wind strikes up suddenly, in urgent gusts. Clouds appear, as if from nowhere, and scud. A sky that only a few minutes ago was lustrously blue is now turbulent. The temperature drops. Out in the garden, the reader shrugs his shoulders. It may change again in a few minutes. Perseverance! A drop of rain? Τίποτα! So what? After a while, the goose flesh calms and the sun shines once more. The al fresco book regains its attraction. Concentration returns.

These mutable, unsettled weather patterns can be frustrating, but there is a vitality here to the climate that isn’t true of London, where low, grey clouds hang over the Thames Valley for weeks, causing Londoners the sort of mental depression that may lock itself in for whole seasons of the year. In the summer, our days are longer here than in the south, but our temperatures are lower. After twenty years of nurturing plants in my small garden in Tooting, I am adapting my expectations to later and less dramatic growth. Here my paeonies are yet to open; the delphiniums edge very slowly to the sky: a northern hesitation perhaps about the unfettered skyscraper, the ostentatiously showy.




Twenty minutes’ brisk walk to the edge of the village and across the fields brings one to land’s end. The sky opens like a clam. The sea too is changeable here. Some days, the walker feels its anger and strength, even from the cliffs. But on a calm day, whether the tide is in or out, the dark surface is glassy: in no way like the Aegean, but still surprisingly at rest, ostensibly innocent. North of Scalby Ness the beaches are rocky, the cliffs – while less friable than those below Flamborough – are prone to dramatic erosion. This is a Jurassic coastline, good for fossil hunters. 

Crook Ness toward Scarborough headland

At Crook Ness, a rough path, leading through an ancient ravine to a tight and steep concrete staircase, takes the walker down to the beach. At this time of the year, the path is flanked with a riot of red campion and cow parsley. The air buzzes with bees and is thick with flying insects of all shapes and sizes. Keep your mouth closed! Still, it’s a great relief for one who worries about the absence today of the flies, bees, wasps and daddy-longlegs of childhood. The view on the beach is majestic. On one side the restless sea rising to the horizon; on the other, the indentations of the coastline – jagging in and out all the way to the dramatic headland on which the great keep of Scarborough Castle keeps watch over us all.




The outer bailey at Scarborough Castle
That keep is particularly spectacular at this time of year because, in its immediate vicinity, it looks over a swaying field of wildflowers, stretching from the curtain wall that encloses the inner bailey all the way to the cliff edge and the Roman signal station. Springtime brings great joy in the countryside, and here wherever plants are allowed to grow wild they do so with abandon: on cliff edge, on the wayside, along the old railway track and, most attractively, in the castle’s outer bailey. 


Since the flowering started in February, it has been a pleasure to reacquaint myself with names lost since childhood: viper’s bugloss, birdsfoot trefoil, herb Robert, cornflower, cow slip, red campion, to say nothing of the ubiquitous cow parsley, dandelion, celandine, wild garlic, buttercup, red clover, forget-me-not. The castle grounds are a tangle of white, yellow, red and blue wildflowers, jostling alongside elegant and wispy grasses – all of them seemingly impervious to salty sea air. My task for the next few weeks is to learn the typology of those grasses and to put names to the wildflowers I don’t recognise. 

Scarborough harbour and town; the South Bay
Beneath Henry II’s great keep, in a grid plan that arcs gently along the contour, down to the South Bay, stretches the settlement he founded: Scarborough itself. This is, in origin, a great mediaeval port-town: one that has seen countless reinventions over the years. We will return there in subsequent blogs.




At the end of the month, it will be five years since my professional career ended. In June 2017, I was unhappy in my job in the Foreign Office and needed to finish my PhD (the clock was running away from me). The Foreign Office, however, refused my application for special unpaid leave and I had no option but to resign. But I didn’t intend to leave the civil service for good. When I finished my PhD, I knocked at the Foreign Office’s door to examine the possibility of return, only to discover not only that that return would be next to impossible, but that my own life had moved on. Compromises I made throughout my professional career no longer seemed wise or achievable. 

Outside the straitjacket, it has become possible to think again and to engage in the real stuff of a lifetime, what the Benedictine writer Dom. David Foster calls ‘a recovery of our whole lives and a reorientation of our way of looking at them and living them’. Now in my mid-fifties, I have this exciting task ahead of me. My return in January to Yorkshire, my πατρίδα / patrida, is at the heart of that. It has been a good start.



9 June 2022

Thursday, 13 January 2022

On Leaving London

We are always leaving London. It’s a cosmopolitan and restless place. It sucks us in - from the English shires, from the other nations of the UK, from countries overseas - and, when it has turned us into Londoners, releases us to spread Londonism - a loose creed of heart and mind - into the furthest reaches of the globe. We may later return, we may not; but we will have been stamped with the seal of this vast, busy metropolis, that stretches on either bank of the Thames beyond where the unaided eye can see, and London will have changed us. 

I first left London five years after coming here. I was 31 and full of the knowledge and experience I had gained. In those five years, I had learned about labour-market economics, aspects of British social security, departmental budgeting, and how social and employment policy was done across the European Union. I felt quite the expert. And I had worked hard on my French and my Greek. Perhaps even more formatively, I had learned how to co-operate with others in a complex administrative system. I had been a junior Minister’s private secretary, finessing his speeches, checking the work coming to him from the department, communicating back what the Minister wanted, sitting late hours in the civil servants’ box in the Commons at adjournment debates, carrying his bags on overseas visits. I had listened, absorbed and learned. I had discovered how to work ferociously hard and to move things on, while also enjoying what London had to offer culturally and socially. And in 1997, I witnessed the change of Government, from Conservative to Labour, from the privileged vantage of the Minister’s private office. In the first week of the Blair Administration, I came out at work, confident that London’s liberal cosmopolitanism was now politically endorsed, at one with the mood of the whole country, and that the lives of gay people really would now change. In London - a city where one can be both anonymous and gregarious - I had finally become me.


Four years as a negotiator for the UK in Brussels followed. This was the happiest time in my professional career. I loved negotiations and, if I may boast a little, was pretty good at them. I met my husband. I had a religious experience and started to regain my Christian faith. When I returned to London at the end of my posting, I understood that my Londonism was now thoroughly Europeanised. This did not set me at odds with London but was perfectly complementary to it - indeed, was, as I now realised, an essential aspect of Londonism. London, on behalf of the UK as a whole, was playing a global game, open to ideas and peoples from across the world, not least those in its hugely important European hinterland. 


I spent the next few years angling for and doing European jobs in the home and diplomatic services in London, while broadening my policy knowledge into global peacekeeping, environmental, agricultural and regulatory matters. I served as the Principal Private Secretary for a Cabinet Minister, and in 2010 watched, from a vantage even more privileged than in 1997, a reversal of the political change that had happened thirteen years earlier. In London in these years, I plugged away at my French, learned some Russian and undertook serious study in modern Greek literature. I didn’t feel like a ‘rootless’ cosmopolitan, a person of nowhere: I felt like a cosmopolitan Londoner, an Englishman, a Brit, a European, proud of where I had come from (my roots in the north of England have never withered), who I was and had become, and what I was contributing, however modestly, to national life. After a while, I wondered where I might head next. 


So I left London again. This time, January 2013, I headed to Greece. I had had a long love affair with Greece, since my teenage years, and had long wanted to live there. Of course, my posting was not primarily (or even secondarily) an opportunity to deepen my own love of Greece, though it did present that opportunity, but was a demanding, public, representational job, leading a large, dispersed embassy in an era of austere budgetary restraint. It would be a challenge to identify, protect and advance the interests of my own country at a time of political and financial crisis in Greece. After what was nearly twenty years in London, I felt I knew my country very well and was confident in my own patriotism and in my ability to project Britain constructively in Athens and across Greece. I wanted Greek and British relations to flourish, hoping to bring Greeks and Britons into closer friendship and mutual understanding. I set to it with enthusiasm.


Nothing prepared me for the shock of what happened in June 2016. When I returned to London five months later, at the end of my posting, I realised that London was in convulsion. London itself had not understood, until June 2016, that it had significantly parted company from much of the rest of the country. Londonism was a creed with an apparently more enthusiastic constituency in Berlin or Paris or Athens than in Yorkshire or Cornwall or Wales. I found myself doing a job I didn’t much like (at the fag-end of empire) in a political environment that had become profoundly hostile, and which now - in the mean spirit of the times - allowed me no viable concession for the overdue completion of my academic studies. It was a vortex of misery. So I left government service and broke the first of the links that had so attached me to London. The successful end of my studies broke another. Finding a position in a Greek shipping business yet another still. The pandemic which confined us all to our homes in March 2020 was the final severing of a sense of real connexion with London. I fell ill (not from Covid) and had to concentrate on regaining my health. In lockdown and subsequently, the city seemed to recede out of sight and mind. As we start (if we are now starting) to emerge from this two-year crisis, London seems to have shrunk, to have lost its way, to have been robbed of its creed, its sources of dynamism and to have found, as yet, no new role.


All this said, I am not deeply pessimistic about London or about the country. We clearly need time to work out again who we are as a people and where we want to head. That seems to me to be likely the work of the next generation. All the signs are that this Government and this governing party are not up to the job. The disrupters turn out to be mere wreckers. This task of rebuilding will require new people, new ideas, new ideals. But I bet that it will really happen, really take hold, in London, when the right people find themselves drawn to this place and create a convincing new dynamic between them. 


In the meantime, I am leaving London once more. This time, I’m returning home: to Yorkshire. I need to find myself again. And my country. In my roots. And I need to think hard about Londonism, its right and wrongs, its past mistakes and future trajectory. One thing is clear. I will not lose sight of all that nearly thirty years in London have meant to me. The friendships I have found here, the lessons London has taught me, the shining opportunities it has given me. In this restless, if now diminished, city the tides of the Thames ever rise and fall, shifting direction, now heading inland, now heading out to sea. I hope I leave one or two small footprints behind me, above the waterline.



13 January 2022

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Travellers in Greece. An Occasional Series 3. Peter Hammond

It may be a bit of a stretch to classify the Rev. Canon Peter Hammond (1921-1999) as a travel-writer. He spent most of his adult career as a priest in the Church of England, and I for one had rather forgotten about him, until I was reminded of his fine book, The Waters of Marah: The Present State of the Greek Church (London: Rockliff, 1956), when reading John Binns’s An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Cambridge: CUP, 2002): itself an admirable work. I had first encountered The Waters of Marah when I was sixteen or seventeen, and, rereading it the other day, was surprised to discover how much of it had entered into my own thinking about Greece.

Hammond was eighteen when the Second World War broke out and he spent it in the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman. In 1946, he was demobbed and took up a place at Oxford to read history. There he became interested in Eastern Orthodoxy and decided to train for the Anglican priesthood. On graduating and before entering theological college, he won a scholarship from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki to study the Church of Greece in its northern dioceses. He studied and travelled extensively there from 1948 to 1950, and in 1951 won a prize from the University of London for a preliminary draft of the book that would finally be published in 1956.[1] 


To speak of the man and his work in these terms is something of a disservice, flattening and banalizing Hammond’s raw experiences in Greece and the book that resulted from them. The fact is, when he arrived in Thessaloniki, the Civil War was still raging in the Pindus mountains and the lives of the local clergy and their parishioners were caught up in the murderous cross-fire of the national struggle between the Government and the communist forces. Like the American Kevin Andrews, who was travelling through the Peloponnese at broadly the same time, to conduct research on the castles of the Morea, Hammond appeared undaunted by the dangers and gained access to many war-torn communities, in his case with the help of the military, civilian and ecclesiastical authorities. Both The Waters of Marah and Andrews’s The Flight of Ikaros: Travels in Greece During a Civil War (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1959) can be profitably read together as, in some ways, parallel, contrasting attempts, by foreign writers with different ideological perspectives, to tell the story of Greece in those difficult years. 


At any rate, The Waters of Marah is a unique compendium of civil-war testimony, theological reflection, ecclesiastical history, biography and personal memoir, and luminous travel-writing. But it also reflects, and reflects on, past English (and Anglican) encounters with Orthodoxy. Hammond refers to and quotes from many of his predecessors, such as John Covel and Thomas Smith - chaplains of the Levant Company, whom we have encountered in an earlier blog, in the eighteenth century; he often gently dissociates himself from their views. He clearly felt closer to the scholarship of John Mason Neale, the Cambridge Camden Society’s main expert in Orthodoxy, in the nineteenth century. Like Neale, Hammond was closely involved in the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association, whose general secretary he was from 1953 to 1955.


The Waters of Marah can be analysed in terms of chapters that deal with: church history (chapters II, III); church organisation (ch. IV); monasticism (ch. VII, VIII); the church’s social and relief programmes (ch. IX); church education and ecclesiastical training (ch. XI-XIII); church liturgy and customs (ch. VI, XV). But all of this is enlivened by Hammond’s acute awareness of the resurgence of Orthodox theology (in Paris, the USA and in Greece) and by vivid writing from his own travels, which provide an audible heartbeat to the narrative. There are, moreover, three particular chapters which offer a direct, extended testimony of life as it was being lived in the communities endangered, displaced and brutalised by the civil war: ch.V ‘A Village Festival’; ch.X ‘A Macedonian Diocese’; and ch.XIV ‘The History of a Country Parson’.  


In the very northernmost Diocese of Nevrokopi, which was partitioned between Greece and Bulgaria after the Balkan Wars, Hammond celebrates the Feast of the Dormition (15 August) in the small village of Dasoto, eight miles or so away from Kato Nevrokopi itself. On the Feast Day, he accompanies the Metropolitan of Nevrokopi to the small community, and there attends not only, in the recently redecorated parish church, the elaborate and beautiful liturgy, which he describes in admiring detail, but also the festival that ensued, observing that ‘When one has fasted as a Christian one feasts as a Christian - in Greece at least’: 

When the last of the antidoron had been distributed, Anargyri had replaced the mitre in its black box, and the Metropolitan had concluded a long conversation with the churchwardens about the best method of shoring up the roof…, we left the church and made our way to the dwelling of the parish priest where a vast table had been erected in the shade of a vine. There we feasted until it was high afternoon: the Lord Agathangelos, the president of the community, the kapetanios of the militia, the papas, the schoolmaster, Anargyri, the churchwardens, the singers and several officers from the garrison of Nevrokopi who had accompanied us to Dasoto that morning. It was not by any means my first experience of a village festival: a few months earlier I might well have been deceived into thinking that the bowls of eggs, goat’s milk cheese, olives and finely-shredded vegetables soaked in oil and lemon which appeared with the ouzo constituted the substance of the feast not a mere hors d’oeuvre. Now I knew better, and I was not surprised when the clearing of the table by the papadia [2] and her daughters after forty minutes proved to be no more than a prelude to a banquet of an altogether more serious character. [p.50]


This strong sense of the Church’s rootedness in traditional, village life emerges very clearly in the moving, lyrical chapter about Father Constantinos Photis, who, in 1937, became the parish priest of his village of Palaiochori, a little to the west of Kalambaka. Photis was the son of the village carpenter and as a boy had been trained in his father’s footsteps: as a carpenter and as a psaltes [singer] in the village church:

In 1937, the parish priest died. The elders of the village debated the question of a worthy successor - and who more suitable than the carpenter, Constantinos Photis? A man universally respected among his fellows for his uprightness and integrity; who knew the intricacies of the Venetian service-books with a familiarity such as could come only from long experience. Polycarp, Metropolitan of Trikkala and Staghi, willingly acquiesced in the village’s choice of a pastor, and Constantinos Photis, the carpenter, went off one day to Trikkala (after a short stay in a nearby monastery) and returned clad in black gown and kalymmafchion [3] as ‘Papa Costas’. [p.156]


While he was also very interested in the Church’s efforts to raise the standards of theological education of its priests, Hammond was impressed and surprised by the community-based formation of many a Greek parish priest. He goes on to recount, with admirable simplicity, the fortunes of Papa Costas and his family as they deal with German and Italian brutality under the occupation, and then face further displacement at the hands of communist forces under the civil war. It is a well-told story.


In the first two winter months of 1950, Hammond travelled extensively in the Diocese of Grevena, in two itineraries that were designed to enable him to see parts of the diocese that had been abandoned and not repopulated, and parts to which refugees had started to return. He travelled at first by jeep, but only five miles from Grevena was transferred to mules, with a small military escort. It was February and the winter was harsh and deep. Villages were deserted and ruined. At Ziakas, which had been burned by the Germans and then fought over in heavy fighting between Government and communist forces, all was desolation. The following day, the small party set off for Spelaion and Trikomon:

The paths were ice-bound and treacherous, the snow deep in places. Spelaion came into view after half an hour, set amongst towering cliffs. A long and laborious ascent between high rocks, the Venetikos murmuring through its gorge far below, the path clinging to precipitous cliffs rising from the dwarf oaks and myrtle to lose themselves in the grey mists that swirled around their summits, brought us to a point immediately below the village. After a stiff climb through massive fortifications of uncertain date, we suddenly found ourselves looking down upon a tiny Byzantine church with twin domes, sharply outlined against the untrodden snow; a sombre red jewel laid in a setting of purest white.  This proved to be the catholicon of a small monastery, dedicated to the Mother of God. [p.105.]


When they reached the monastery, they found the church intact but in disarray, while the rest of the monastery had been utterly destroyed. In accounts such as this, Hammond tells a riveting tale with skill and control. He unfolds the story of the impact of a decade of war in terms that are neither sensationalist nor mawkish, but carefully and compassionately descriptive. The quality of writing about geography, climate and people is notably high - and the reason why I have included Hammond in this series. 


Hammond was very interested in the whole process of religious revival in Greek Orthodoxy since the mid-nineteenth century. He drew particularly close to those involved in the Zoë (Ζωή) Movement, which would play a much criticised role under the Colonels’ dictatorship, and it is clear that Zoe was very keen to facilitate Hammond’s access to academics (lay and clerical) and to sources of Orthodox renewal. There is, in this book, little or no attempt to consider the Civil War from a perspective other than that of a Church that felt threatened, and was threatened, by the communists after 1946, in a way that was markedly different from the more harmonious positions taken by the communist leadership and many priests in the early years of the Resistance in the mountains, after 1941. Wider matters of politics do not figure here. None of this, I think, seriously detracts from the value of the book as a very particular testimony to the times. As I mention above, there are different accounts by different travellers in this time telling the story from a different perspective.


For me at least, much of the value of The Waters of Marah lies in Hammond’s close familiarity with a church that was under pressure from civil war, but was managing to preserve so much of its ancient way of life, in communities that continued, where war allowed, to exist in conditions little changed from time immemorial:


To this day the majority of the villages of northern Greece are inaccessible to wheeled transport, at any rate during the winter months; and while the truly remarkable achievements of the last few years - the repair of the shattered railways, and the construction of roads and air-strips - have given Greece a very fair system of long-distance communications, the facilities which most bishops enjoy for travel within their own dioceses remain much as they have been since apostolic days. The metropolitan of a country diocese will think nothing of long journeys by mule or mountain pony across appallingly difficult terrain, his episcopal vestments slung from the high wooden saddle; of fording torrents swollen by the melting snows; and negotiating precipitous slopes where the path seems scarcely to afford adequate foothold for a goat - much less for an elderly ecclesiastic. It is little wonder that many mountain villages saw their father in God but seldom, even in the days before the natural hazards which confronted the traveller had been supplemented by mines and wandering bands of katsapliades, as the Communists were styled in the villages. [p.29]


The landscapes of northern Greece are the dramatic backdrop to this finely woven analysis. But it is Hammond’s admiration for the Church of Greece, its ancient way of life, and its rootedness in the lives of ordinary believers that shines out in this book. It is very much a case of travel-writing plus.


John Kittmer

30 October 2021


[1] There is an account of Hammond’s life in the obituary of him, by Esther de Waal and Keith Murray, in The Independent


[2 ] A papadia is the wife of a Greek priest, a papas.


[3] The kalymafchi is the tall, black, cylindrical hat worn by Orthodox priests.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Στην έρημο του Γιόρκσιρ

Μάουντ Γκρέις από την εσωτερική αυλή

Στην άκρη των ρεικοτόπων του Γιόρκσιρ («Yorkshire Moors»), μέσα στην όμορφη δασωμένη εξοχή, βρίσκεται ένα συγκρότημα ερειπωμένων μεσαιωνικών κτιρίων, από τα οποία κάποια αναστηλώθηκαν και αναζωογονήθηκαν τον 17ο και τον 19ο αιώνα. Αυτά τα κτίρια αποτελούν τη Μονή του Μάουντ Γκρέις («Mount Grace Priory»), τα απομεινάρια ενός από τα πιο σπουδαία και πιο μεγάλα των εννιά αγγλικών «charterhouses». Η αγγλική λέξη «charterhouse» είναι διαφθορά της γαλλικής λέξης «Chartreuse», της πνευματικής έδρας των Καρθουσιανών, του μοναστηριακού τάγματος που ιδρύθηκε τον ενδέκατο αιώνα από τον άγιο Μπρούνο της Κολωνίας. 

Το Καθολικόν
Η Μονή του Μάουντ Γκρέις απέχει μονάχα λίγα χιλιόμετρα από την βιομηχανική πόλη του Μίντλεσμπρο, όπου γεννήθηκε και μεγάλωσε η μητέρα μου. Όταν ήμουνα παιδί, περνούσαμε συχνά τη μονή, της οποίας το καμπαναριό είναι ορατό από την εθνική οδό Υόρκης-Ντάραμ, καθώς ταξιδεύαμε από το σπίτι μας στο Ανατολικό Γιόρκσιρ για να δούμε τις θείες, τους θείους και τα ξαδέρφιά μας. Από έφηβος ενδιαφερόμουν για τη μοναστηριακή ζωή και ζητούσα από τους γονείς μου να μας επιτρέψουν να επισκεφτούμε τη μονή. Αλλά η απάντηση ήτανε πάντοτε «όχι»: θα αργούσαμε για τους συγγενείς μας ή για την επιστροφή στο σπίτι μας. (Δεν παραπονιέμαι: είχαν δίκιο οι γονείς μου!)


Δυο εβδομάδες πριν, κατάφερα τελικά να επισκεφθώ και να ξεναγηθώ στο μοναστηριακό συγκρότημα: ήταν κάτι περισσότερο από καταπληκτικό! Παρόλη τη βουή της κυκλοφορίας από την κοντινή Εθνική Α19, ο τόπος είναι γαλήνιος. Οι δασωμένοι λόφοι είναι πανέμορφοι (μια μακρινή υπενθύμιση των αλπικών τόπων που επέλεξαν ο άγιος Μπρούνο και οι ακόλουθοί του), και η περιουσία των ερειπωμένων μοναστηριακών κτιρίων έχει εξωραϊστεί από το «English Heritage». Γενικά, τα καρθουσιανά μοναστήρια δεν μοιάζουν πολύ με τις Βενεδικτιανές, Κιστερκιανές και Ορθόδοξες μονές. Το τάγμα ιδρύθηκε τότε που προσπαθούσαν πολλοί μοναχοί να ξαναβρούν τις βασικές ρίζες του μοναχισμού, και να επιστρέψουν σε ένα όραμα της ζωής στην έρημο. Οι Καρθουσιανοί μοναχοί ζούσανε μια πολύ αυστηρή ζωή, ο ένας σε απομόνωση από τον άλλο. Ο καθένας είχε τον δικό του χώρο, που αποτελούταν από τρία ή τέσσερα δωμάτια σε δυο ορόφους, δίπλα σε έναν περιτειχισμένο κήπο και ένα αποχωρητήριο, με τρεχούμενο νερό από τις βουνίσιες πηγές. Ως επί το πλείστο ο μοναχός περνούσε την ημέρα στην απομόνωση: με προσευχή, λατρεία, μελέτη, αγροτικές εργασίες, χειροτεχνία ή το διακόνημα που αναμενόταν ο καθείς μοναχός να ασκεί. Δεν μίλαγαν παρά σπάνια οι μοναχοί. Στο Μάουντ Γκρέις, ένας από τους χώρους των μοναχών έχει αναστηλωθεί, ώστε να δώσει μια πολύ καλή ιδέα για το πώς διαβιούσαν οι αδελφοί. Όσοι ζήσαμε τις πρόσφατες απαγορεύσεις κυκλοφορίας εξαιτίας του κορωνοϊού έχουμε μια μικρή αίσθηση των δυνατοτήτων και των ανησυχιών που προκαλεί τέτοια απομόνωση.  


Η μονή του Μάουντ Γκρέις του Ίνγκλεμπυ, της οποίας το επίσημο όνομα ήταν το «Μοναστήρι της Αναλήψεως της Θεοτόκου και του Αγίου Νικολάου», ιδρύθηκε το 1398 από τον Θωμά ντε Χόλαντ, κόμητα του Κεντ και ανηψιό του βασιλιά Ριχάρδου Β’.  Έτσι ήταν μια από αυτές τις μονές που ιδρύθηκαν μετά από την καταστρεπτική Μαύρη Πανώλη η οποία έφτασε το 1348 στην Αγγλία. Για δυο αιώνες περίπου αναπτυσσόταν συνεχώς η μονή και, μέχρι την εποχή της διάλυσής της, είχε χώρο για 15 γέροντες, τον καθένα στο δικό του χώρο, συγκροτημένο γύρω από το μεγάλο περιστύλιο. Οι λαϊκοί, που διηύθυναν τα κοσμικά ζητήματα της μονής, ζούσαν σε κελιά που τοποθετούνταν στην εσωτερική αυλή.  Δυο μεγάλα αρχονταρίκια υποδηλώνουν πως απέκτησαν οι μοναχοί μια φήμη για την αγιότητα και πως προσέλκυσαν άφθονους προσκυνητές.


Το μεγάλο περιστύλιο
Διότι οι μοναχοί προσκυνούσαν και έτρωγαν μαζί μονάχα σπάνια, το καθολικόν, η κύρια αίθουσα της αδελφότητας («chapter house») και η τραπεζαρία είναι πιο μικρά απ’ ό,τι ήτανε στις μεγάλες βορεινές μονές που ανήκανε στους Κιστερκιανούς και τους Βενεδικτιανούς. Αλλά πάντως το καθολικόν είναι απροσδοκήτως καλά διατηρημένο: συνήθως στη διάλυση των μοναστηρίων, οι καινούργιοι γαιοκτήμονες αναγκάζονταν από το Στέμμα να κατεδαφίσουν πρώτα τους ναούς, αλλά φαίνεται ότι αυτό δεν συνέβη στο Μάουντ Γκρέις. Ακόμη και σήμερα ο κύριος ναός, το καμπαναριό, το ιερό και τα παρεκκλήσια βρίσκονται στη θέση τους. Δεν χρειάζεται πολλή φαντασία κανείς για να ακούσει στον άνεμο την ηχώ της ψαλμωδίας των αδελφών, μαζεμένων μαζί για να ψάλουν τα νυχτερινά απολυτίκια και να συμμετέχουν στη Θεία Λειτουργία τις Κυριακές και στις εορτές. 

Στο Μάουντ Γκρέις ένα από τα δυο αρχονταρίκια μετατράπηκε σε ιδιωτικό σπίτι μετά από τη διάλυση. Λειτουργεί ακόμα, μετά την επέκταση και την αναπαλαίωση κατά τον 19ο αιώνα, με τον τότε της μόδας ρυθμό «Arts and Crafts». Το αρχοντικό έχει μια ωραία έκθεση για την ιστορία της μονής και της μεταμοναστικής ανάπτυξής της. 


Ένας προσκυνητής και δυο γέροντες στην Άγια Άννα
Όσο εξαιρετικά σημαντικός κι αν είναι ο μοναχισμός για το Ορθόδοξο δόγμα, δεν υπάρχει τίποτε στην Ορθοδοξία που να μοιάζει στην οργάνωση του καρθουσιανού τρόπου ζωής. Ο Καρθουσιανός Κανόνας - πρωταρχικά οι «Consuetudines Cartusiae» (οι Συνήθειες της Σαρτρέζ) - υπαγορεύει ένα είδος θεσμοθετημένης ερημίας. Στο Άγιον Όρος οι ερημίτες ζούσανε και ζούνε μια άγρια, ιδιότροπη ζωή, ενώ οι κοινοβιακές μονές, όπως και οι Βενεδικτιανές και οι Κιστερκιανές, είναι, βέβαια, πλήρως κοινόχρηστες. Ίσως το πιο κοντινό είδος  μοναστηριακής ζωής μέσα στην Ορθοδοξία - τουλάχιστο όσον αφορά τον τρόπο ζωής των μοναχών των ίδιων - είναι αυτό που συμβαίνει στις σκήτες, τις μικρές δομές που υπάγονται στις κυρίαρχες 20 μονές του Άθωνα και αποτελούνται από μερικές καλύβες συγκροτημένες γύρω από το λεγόμενο «Κυριακό».    

Το 2014, έμεινα μια νύχτα στην σκήτη της Αγίας Άννης στις πρόποδες του Άθωνα. Τότε συναντήθηκα με δυο γέροντες που έμεναν στα κεντρικά κτίρια της σκήτης: κι οι δυο φιλόξενοι, ήπιοι, πνευματικοί άνθρωποι. Η πεζοπορία μας στην κορφή του Άθωνα και πίσω ήταν σκληρή (μας πήρε 15 ώρες περίπου) και γυρίσαμε στην σκήτη καθώς έπεφτε το σούρουπο. Λόγω της περασμένης ώρας είχα κιόλας χάσει κάθε ελπίδα για ένα γεύμα, αλλά με μεγάλη καλοσύνη οι γέροντες μάς προσέφεραν πλούσιο χορτοφαγικό φαγητό απ' αυτά που ζεσταίνουν την καρδιά του κάθε πεζοπόρου. Φαντάζομαι ότι οι προσκυνητές που έφταναν στο Μάουντ Γκρέις θα είχαν ζήσει παρόμοια φιλοξενία τον 15ο αιώνα και θα είχαν κι αυτοί ευχαριστήσει για τη φιλοξενία, όσο σύντομη κι αν ήταν, σε έναν τόπο μεγάλης αγιότητας, του οποίου οι κάτοικοι είχαν απολύτως αφιερώσει τη ζωή τους στην αγάπη και τη λατρεία του Θεού.


Μονή του Αγίου Χίου, Πάρκμινστερ
Η μονή στο Μάουντ Γκρέις διαλύθηκε το 1539 και για τρεις αιώνες δεν είχε η Αγγλία καμία καρθουσιανή κοινότητα. Μετά από την απελευθέρωση των Καθολικών το 1829, όμως, ιδρύθηκε το 1873 μια καινούργια μονή στο Πάρκμινστερ του Σάσσεξ. Σχεδόν 150 χρόνια μετά, το «Charterhouse» του Αγίου Χιού (St Hugh) ανθίζει ακόμη. 


Γιατί είναι τέτοιοι χώροι πολύ σημαντικοί ακόμη και τώρα; Για μένα, τουλάχιστον, το ενδιαφέρον μου για χώρους σαν το Μάουντ Γκρέις δεν είναι θέμα αρχαιολογίας. Η παρουσία καρθουσιανών κοινοτήτων που ανθίζουν σε τρεις ηπείρους υποδηλώνει την αντοχή αυτού του πολύ απαιτητικού μοναστικού ιδανικού. Η ζωή που ζει κανείς υπό τον κανόνα της πίστης, υπό την απόλυτη αφοσίωση στον Θεό, υπό την υποταγή στον σταυρό προσφέρνει διαφωτιστικά παραδείγματα θυσίας - αυτό που απαιτεί από όλους μας το χριστιανικό δόγμα. Τέτοιες πρακτικές αυστηρής λιτότητας δεν είναι κάτι για όλους. Αλλά η πειθαρχία της καρθουσιανής ζωής - η απομόνωση (δηλ. η ριζική εξάρτηση από τον Θεό), η σιωπή, η ταπεινότητα, η τήρηση των ωρών, η βύθιση σε στοχαστική προσευχή, οι βιβλικές και θεολογικές σπουδές, η πρακτική ασκητική δουλειά - δίνει και σε εμάς που ζούμε κοσμικές ζωές κάτι στο οποίο να προσβλέψουμε, κάτι από το οποίο να αντλήσουμε υλικό για τον δικό μας τρόπο ζωής. Ειναι, στ’ αλήθεια, καλό το ότι η παράδοση που αντιπροσωπεύουν τα ερείπια του Μάουντ Γκρέις, συνεχίζεται μέχρι τώρα, και καλό είναι το ότι τα ερείπια αυτά συνεχίζουν να διατηρούν τη μνήμη των «φτωχών ανθρώπων του Χριστού» στο Γιόρκσιρ.

Tο αναστηλωμένο κελί

Το Αρχοντικό του 17ου και 19ου αιώνα (παλιό αρχονταρίκι της μονής)



11 Οκτώβρη 2021

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