Greece, and a benediction on the eve of judgment day

Athens graffiti everywhere

I admit my 1st impression of Athens was of spray paint. Ugly tags on buildings that used to be splendid, scattered splatters on shells that used to be homes, and chemical layers on everything that once served a purpose. Kinda dark, I know.

Democracy, theater, and literature. Mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Olive oil, feta, and loincloths. Greece is the birthplace of so many of western civilization’s highest achievements. But I had bandwidth for none of it.


All I could think of was the unthinkable, the pending, ongoing, seemingly unstoppable personal disaster that I somehow needed to fix. The right combination of words, the proper demonstration of the emotion in me, the right something to fix what was wrong. My lady’s flight would land in a few hours, and I had no idea what to do.


Athens graffiti okay so some of it is fun

Okay so some of it was fun

My pen was useless, journal didn’t want to listen, and voices inside couldn’t agree on what to talk about. It was like Spain in there, everyone talking, no one listening. So I let my feet take over, step by step, looking for something to find.


Found a church. Went inside. Met a man who looked at me from the other side of our linguistic divide. Built a bridge of gestures, smiles, and a half-heft of my camera out of my bag, and he waved his hand in permission.


“Please. Yes. Photo ok.” He grew stern. “Please, five minute only. Then is… Greek economy.” He shrugged and I pretended to understand, until he moved a tapestry to reach the circuit breakers and flipped the lights on.

Athens church of St Demetrius Psirri

Church of St Demetrius Psirri, Athens


Ah. No money for the electric bill. But economic concerns are no match for Greek hospitality and generosity, possibly part of what got them in the current mess, and certainly fundamental in what will get them out of it.


But I wasn’t thinking about the politics of unity or separation, the psychology of blame and castigation, or the economics of exploitation by the wealthy of the poor and by the poor of themselves. I was in a church. And what a church it was, this neighborhood chapel too unremarkable to show up on any maps.


Glittering chandeliers hung from frescoed ceilings where angels watched over a gold-leaf landscape of heaven. Censers dripped their residual aromatic prayers, and the paint of ages flaked off the arches of history, all illuminated in the defiantly boisterous light of the electric lightbulb.


Athens black madonna with child

Don’t do it. Don’t you start humming Smooth Criminal

I was raised in Protestant simplicity, white walls and minimalist iconography, but here was a density of shining saints slaying dragons and offering their benedictions from behind ornate layers of polished silver. Saints with knowing eyes. A black madonna with a silver hand, and I tried desperately not to think about Michael Jackson’s glove.


It was impressive. But I still had no use for established gods, all of which still looked political. What I found holy was the smile of that man. His desire to show me something he found beautiful, and to give me a positive experience, no reward asked, no sinful motivation, just human kindness.


Now that’s an altar where I would light a candle. Even if it doesn’t solve my problems.

Athens my friend in the church