Friday, 29 November 2013

You want churches, we got 'em

A church in Skopelos town centre.

Apparently a whopping 98 per cent of people in Greece give their religion as Greek Orthodox. I read this in the CIA World Factbook so I'm taking it as sort of correct. What I didn't read in the Factbook is that here on Skopelos there is one church for every day of the year. The source of this "fact" falls in the category of something someone told me or I might have read it in a local guidebook.

The two facts - if facts they are - do seem to lend credence to each other. I would even go so far as to say that I think there might be enough churches on Skopelos for there to be several for each day, although I admit this is just an impression I have.

Anyway, rest assured that religion and principally the Greek Orthodox church is a big deal here. By no means is everyone a die hard attender of church, but it really does seem that very few Greeks will go through the course of a year without some attendance at church or acknowledgement in some way of their religious roots. And on Skopelos it's not difficult to go to church because, as I have said, there are loads of them ranging from sizeable concerns that could hold a good crowd to much more modest affairs about the size of a household garage.

As I type this, I am looking out from our house on to the rest of the olive grove and sure enough there is a small church used by the family who own this land. Most of the time it's locked up and left alone, but every now and again a small army of Greek women (never men) descend on the church to clean it up in readiness for a service. If I look out of the window to my left I can just see a small chapel in the grounds of a holiday village on the other side of the valley and if I crane my neck right round I can see the imposing walls of a monastery with its church.

A small church, but by no means the smallest.

So you get the idea, churches are to be found everywhere here and a lot of them, possibly even most of them, are not built by the church but by anyone with a bit of land and the desire to express their devotion to their faith. I suspect that's why you get so many small churches, it takes a lot of money to build something big, but maybe it's better to do anything rather than nothing.

As someone with little that I could call religious faith - other than a constant feeling of trying to get a grip on what life's all about - I find religious life interesting, but perplexing. Greek Orthodox priests are a striking sight in their black robes and lofty hats and there are few, if any, occasions of any significance here at which a priest will not be called on to attend. You certainly wouldn't launch a business without having at least one priest help get you on the right side with the Almighty.

Our neighbours, who are neither Greek nor members of the Greek Orthodox church, had a priest in to bless their new house when building work had ended. Later one of the neighbours admitted remonstrating in what he claimed was a light-hearted way with the people who organised the priest's attendance after the house was struck by lightning. "I told them the priest can't have done a very good job, but they just said if he hadn't blessed the house I might not have been here at all," our neighbour recalled, facing up to the unshakeable logic of the faithful.

Priests taking part in the Οχί day parade.

Recently I heard one member of the expat community here say: "Do you understand what Greek religion is all about? It's just superstition, isn't it?" At this point I was about to ask him to explain the differences between superstition and faith, but good manners and the desire for a quiet life intervened and I kept my mouth shut (first time for everything etc etc). Maybe the two merge in to each other and then again maybe faith is something much more important than mere superstition. And maybe the question would seem completely irrelevant to the faithful here as they kiss an icon or cross themselves on passing by a church. For them, it is not only a way of life, it is a way of expressing their Greekness which is immune to the problems currently besetting this country.

The interior of a church dedicated to St Rafael.

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