“…απορώ και εξίσταμαι.”

14 Aug

I was going to leave my boy Mikey alone for a while, because the games are over, obviously, and because he deserves some time without us intruding on his life all over the place.  But a couple of people want to know what the Greek heading on my last Phelps post meant so I’m back bothering him again.

It says:

Ποιόν σοι εγκώμιον προσαγάγω επάξιον, τι δε ονομάσω σε, απορώ και εξίσταμαι.

“What praise can I approach you with that would be worthy?  By what name address you?  I stand beside myself in wonder.”

It’s from the Orthodox service of the Salutations of the Virgin (Chairetismoi), which are a series of services sung on Friday nights during Lent — Saturday mornings for the Russians.  I have no idea why it’s sung during Lent; the subject matter is Lent-irrelevant; and I also have no idea whether it’s actually a Vespers or a Matins service, since Greeks have a habit of singing Matins the night before, “in anticipation,” which I like because I don’t like getting up in the mornings for church or anything, and because night-time seems more appropriate for what Rebecca West calls “the dark and mysterious Orthodox rite,” but the Russians are probably right to sing it in the mornings because they’re greater sticklers when it comes to issues of office accuracy (which means it must be Matins) and because Friday nights during Lent are really supposed to be when the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, the most “dark and mysterious” of all “dark and mysterious” Orthodox rites, should be conducted anyway and now nobody knows what I’m talking about.

It’s also – I’m being serious now – called the Akathist hymn, the Un-sitting hymn, because it should be heard standing up, but all Orthodox services should be heard standing up; pews are an innovation of Greek-American churches, and Russian churches don’t even have the stalls for older people that Greek churches have always had.  It was supposedly first sung during an Avar siege of Constantinople in the 7th century, which was then miraculously lifted.

The lines above are addressed to the Virgin by the Archangel Gabriel.  It must’ve been truly wonderous to hear it set to an Ottoman-era composition, but it’s now sung to a banal nineteenth-century tune that ruins the poetry.  This was part of the halting but thankfully limited “modernization” of the music of the Greek Church that occurred in that and the early twentieth century; I wonder if the influence of Anatolian refugees and clerics put a stop to it.  But the more central a hymn was considered to a service’s meaning, the more likely it was to have been set, at some point, to a boring, semi-Western, “Mary-had-a-little-lamb” melody (like the hair-pullingly tedious Ainoi on Good Friday night, which seem to last for hours and which many — unbelievably — consider the highlight of Holy Week), in order to encourage, you know, congregational participation along Protestant and Neo-Catholic lines, as if it were more spiritually edifying to sing badly in a group (we’re not Black, you know) than to listen to the technically demanding music of the Church — essentially a branch of the Perso-Ottoman classical tradition — performed by highly trained cantors.  Maybe I’ll remember that next time I’m at the opera.

(There were a group of young – teenage – cantors here in Astoria in the nineties who were real prodigies and who used to dig up the older compositions for these hymns and ambush the congregation with them; I used to love to hear their clear tenors and baritones and technically perfect drone silence the bewildered aunties.)

The last clause, “απορώ και εξίσταμαι”  “I stand beside myself in wonder” is used sometimes as an ironic archaicism by Neo-Greeks to mean: “You’re shitting me…” or “Are you for real?” or like when a kvetching girlfriend says: “You know, I really can’t believe you…”  But I doubt most of them know where it’s from.

Anyway, it may be weird to choose a hymn to the Virgin with which to sing the praises of Michael Phelps, but the lyrics just hit the perfect tone of wonder and adoration due an athlete — and man — like him and Mikey’s a Cancer so he’ll get the Mother thing.

Another fresco from the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Decani in Kosovo (click), but I can’t for the life of me figure out what episode in either Christ or the Virgin’s life it’s supposed to represent, unless it’s the time Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem and lost Jesus because he was at the Temple discussing the Torah with the elders, but he was twelve in that story…

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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