Southern Religiousness

by Klea Charitou
PHOTOS BY CHRISTINA DIMITRIADIS

The votive offering as a personal attempt to understand the world beyond logic and experience

“We may not have a doctor on the island, but we have Kalamos and Virgin Mary to help us.” Nectaria’s remark in a small restaurant at the port of Anafi is a shock to pragmatism and Western European Cartesian logic. To me it would normally carry the same weight as the aesthetic of the black-clad, aged women one sees as a relic from a faith far removed from the contemporary urban lifestyle. Yet two days after climbing up to the Kalamiotissa Monastery, which since the seventeenth century has dominated the Mediterranean’s second largest monolithic peak (after Gibraltar), described by eighteenth century French traveller Joseph Pitton de Tournefort as one of the most spectacular sites in the world, I shudder at the naturalness of the locals’ faith. Their personal accounts, their votive offerings, their annual pilgrimage to the holy icon and ultimately their trust in the Virgin Mary’s powers and miracles suddenly makes sense to me in the the context of the emotional tension and sanctity of the landscape. If science and positivism is meant to be an accumulation of knowledge which replaces and complements the course towards objective truth, here the place emerges as an image of the absolute revelatory truth of the universe. Like romantic travellers from centuries past we begin our climb towards God. We feel every step weighing in thought, with the smell of thyme the local incense, and gradually the burden on the feet goes away as we gaze towards the top. The sound of the wind talking with the rough rocks and the movement of the sea attracts and invites us. We stop to catch our breath, fighting the pressing urge to taste, instinctively and all at once, the laws of the universe. The limbs are aligned: we are here. Before the inconceivable power and mysticism that emerge, I recall Andrei Tarkovsky’s description of the image as “an awareness of the infinite; the eternal within the finite, the spiritual within matter, the limitless given form” (see his Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema). How can one understand the revelation of the absolute other than as a course of faith and initiation? The Argonauts asked Apollo for an island as they fought the waves, and Ernest Hemingway’s Santiago cried out at the height of his struggle: “Hail Mary full of Grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. (…) Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish wonderful though he is.” (The Old Man and the Sea). The inhabitants of Anafi place their hopes with Virgin Mary, and we as passersby seek to experience the purifying light, the island’s greatest saint. Communion with the absolute in nature. Personal time recedes – several children count the stars. Wishes succeed memories in the game of the Perseids’ meteor shower. A moment of silence. Monolithic joy.

 

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