The Greek Orthodox church is on Hania Street. We told the students we would meet them down there, after lunch, at the KFC on Kent Terrace. It was raining a bit, and cold as we shuffled inside the church. Just inside the door was Father Demetrios in a long black robe, with a bushy black and grey beard. The students were very appreciative of his appearance, and also of the inside of the church which was ornate and highly decorated. At the far end was a richly carved wooden screen blocking off the congregation from the altar. The altar could be seen through an open doorway in the centre of the screen. There was a modest dome above, and chandeliers, icons along the walls, carved wooden chairs to the right, and a baptismal fount to the left below a large picture of Jesus being baptised by John.
The Father was assisted by an avuncular, rotund man with a shaved head who helped out when the Father’s English failed him. It often failed him with religious words and terms as it turned out, which initially created the impression that he had no idea what he was talking about.
Father: “Here is a picture of Jesus, and… um, Jesus and the…”
Assistant: “Disciples, Father.”
Father: “Ah, yes, Jesus and the Disciples.”
Afterwards I learned that most of the girls found this couple very “cute” and took a shine to them. The Father was keen to point out things,
“Here is God’s all-seeing eye” he said indicating the painted eye above his head.
He slipped off behind the screen and came back with an incense burner, “and here,” he continued, “the incense… container?”
“Burner?” the assistant suggested.
“Burner. Incense burner.” He swung it back and forward as its pungent smell of the incense hit our noses. “To ward off the devil.”
“It has twelve bells for the twelve disciples.”
Excitedly he pointed at the picture of the last supper, “why doesn’t this man have a gold circle around his head?”
“He’s Judas!” we called out.
“Yes, yes, but why no gold halo?” The Father seemed excited.
“He betrayed Christ?” a girl said.
“Ah ha!” The Father was delighted. We had played into his hands. “No. Because he committed suicide.”
We looked confused. The assistant stepped in. “Only God can take away the gift of life, which only God can give. This crime of Judas’ was worse than betraying Christ.”
The Father was smiling. It was obviously a favourite trick of his this question.
The assistant went on. “Suicides cannot be buried at the church.”
My students seemed comfortable with this, but I felt irritated. Murderers I suppose would be fine.
The Father went on. “If we dig up a body after five years and it smells of incense then we know that the person was a saint.” The girls were pleased with this extraordinary fact.
We continued to be bombarded with curious facts. All the icons along the walls had to be in the medieval 2D – no new-fangled Renaissance perspective for them. The blood and body of Christ all got put in a goblet together and were not taken separately. The service was done in Greek, not classical Greek or modern Greek, but a Greek somewhere in the middle. One girl asked how Greek Orthodox was different from the Anglicans which led to a long back and forth in Greek and then a confusing description of the Trinity. Another girl asked about female priests. Father Demetrios said something to the assistant and laughed. I imagine that he said: “I’ll let you answer that one.”
The assistant looked uncomfortable, and said: no.
The day after all this we were discussing the field trip in class and one student asked about the grand chair that was reserved for Christ during the second coming. “Are they actually expecting him to show up and sit on that chair?” I said that I thought that they were. “Jesus is going to have to do a lot of whizzing about,” she continued. All I could think to say was that it wouldn’t be like the Amazing Race, more like Santa Claus, except the people on the naughty list are eternally damned.
I was pleased to hear some of the girls say “wow!” when we pushed inside St Mary of the Angels. After some pottering about down the aisles and looking at the statues, Father Tom ambled out from somewhere at the back. Father Tom was an elderly man, easy-going and amiable. We sat down and he introduced himself and the church to the students. He told us about the statues (“we don’t worship them,” he said, “but they remind us of things”), and pointed out the picture of the Pope.
He went on to talk about the Eucharist, which he explained well. It was during this explanation that I had one of those moments when you realise a number of things all at once. Father Tom explained that he genuinely believed that once the Eucharist had been performed the bread and wine truly became the flesh and blood of the living Christ, and that if he didn’t believe that he would be off from the church tomorrow. It made me realise that if you want to experience the extraordinary then you need only go across the road. The Hindu temple may have appeared to be exotic to the students, but here was a man telling us that he believed he ate the body and blood of Christ on a daily basis.
I also realised, afresh, how strange Christianity is. I think it hit me fully for the first time when I was in Italy which is stuffed full of churches stuffed full of bits and pieces of dead people who other people now touch in the hopes that, essentially, their magic will rub off on them. As it happens at the moment we are looking at the East India Company in History class. There is a point in that story where the intellectual denigration of Hinduism by missionaries takes hold. How odd, I now think, that men who regarded having a man nailed to a cross in their holy buildings as perfectly normal, and thought they were eating his flesh and blood, would criticise the barbarity of other religions.
But we left happy. Father Tom had been a genuine, friendly man who shared his beliefs openly with us and was humble and quiet. It is, to be fair, a long way from the raw new frontier of Calcutta to Boulcott Street in Wellington in 2013. The students had enjoyed themselves, and had been curious, and confused, offended and pleased all in one day. I had been reminded how peculiar ordinary life can be, and how the extraordinary is hidden behind almost every door. I should be glad I live in a society that can tolerate all this divergent peculiarity, including my own perverse belief in science.
“You’ve heard the story about evolution?” the Hindu priest had asked the girls at the start of the day.
The girls had nodded.
“We don’t believe that story,” he had said.
I noted Rama the monkey-god holding his porcelain smile over the priest’s right shoulder, and I smiled back.