Opinion & Features

Sacred mysteries and cheeky cigarettes

A priest shares the Holy fire as Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter

Greek roads are a fascinating experiment in libertarianism. On an almost empty motorway, a fellow driver used the hard shoulder to overtake me. I was doing 80 mph at the time – quite legally, your honour. If you see a yellow traffic light, it doesn’t mean “slow down it’s about to go red”, it means “speed up it’s about to go red!” A reader tells me he was once honked at and abused by an Orthodox priest because he stopped at a pedestrian crossing to let a woman go by with a pram.

I was in Greece for the Orthodox Easter and can report that the Athenians otherwise score very high on my personal civilisation scale: they still smoke in restaurants and, during Holy Week at least, they still go to church. For the vigil on Saturday night, we took the funicular up Lycabettus Hill (the highest point in Athens) to the tiny chapel that sits on its peak. We collected an unlit candle and staked out a prime spot at the back, taking in the stunning frescos on the walls (including a sounder of Gadarene swine flying off a cliff). The priest disappeared behind the iconostases; the choir sang the Easter litany. The laity did what the Orthodox do to the astonishment of tourists: mill about, venerate, pop out for a chat or a cheeky cigarette. The temple is always alive with sound and movement.

Around midnight, the priest pulled back a window and shouted at the choir to speed things up. The hour approached. In the pitch dark, the cleric re-emerged from the iconostases carefully carrying a light that had travelled all the way from Jerusalem and now, as the flame fanned out from wick to wick, it transformed the chapel into a Platonic cave, flickering with the golden halos of painted saints. The priest led us into the courtyard, which had filled with hundreds of Athenians, and he burst into song. Kyrie Eleison! The sky erupted with fireworks. In with mystery was mixed the smell of sulphur – and panic, blind panic because there were far too many people in one place for an Englishman to cope with. “Can we go?” I whispered.

We squeezed past children standing on the sheer edge of the hill (I had gathered by now that there are no words in the Greek language for “health and safety”), down to the city below, where the locals were tucking into dinner at 1am and, of course, enjoying a well-earned smoke.

As I discovered on an earlier trip to Russia, attending an Orthodox service is a lesson in the what the Latins got wrong (for my money) not just since the Sixties but the Reformation. Our rites have become so formal, so didactic. “Sit down, do this, do that…” What I like about the Orthodox is you just experience things.

An ignorance of the language is probably a bonus. In the East, I am less of a participant than I am a witness, a witness to an event that if we rationalise too much we are in danger of forgetting is a miracle. The sacrifice of the Mass can be comprehended with reason, no doubt, but up the holy mountain, it is also a sacred mystery that transports us through space and time.

Happily one doesn’t have to go full Orthodox to experience transcendence. We also attended an Armenian Catholic rite in Athens that was sparser but no less moving. I’ve decided now I’m back in Britain to visit the Ukrainians in London. The great strength of – let’s call it what it is – post-Benedict Catholicism is the growing variety, thanks to hundreds of priests trying to do something different and well. If I want the Extraordinary Form, I now have dozens of Masses in southern England to choose from. If I want the Novus Ordo with grace and authority, there are countless centres of excellence for that, too: my Catholic Easter was largely spent at Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, where the shrine is in its first glittering year of operation. And then there’s the ordinariate for ex-Anglicans, in which I’m trying to build a new home and promise to write about later this year.

The irony is that the enemies of this variety are those who since the Sixties have demanded more and more innovation: it seems they were only really interested in experiments that led us down one particular road. Put in an altar rail or use a bit of Latin and they cry blue murder. But the joke’s on them. Thanks in no small part to the erosion of authority that they have encouraged, a hundred flowers have bloomed, and I can now safely find a Mass at which I don’t have to hear a guitar or a single heresy from the pulpit.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor