Tag Archives: St. Basil

“They’re human beings” — December 6th

6 Dec

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Niko was never a name I was nuts about, though it was that of a grandfather I’m proud of.  And I never had a massive crush on St. Nicholas the way I do on St. Demetrius or St. Stephen or Nestor…or my Kanha…

‘Krishna and the Gopis on the Bank of the Yamuna River’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garwhal’ <i>Gita Govinda</i>, circa 1775–1780

But I do remember a sermon on December 6th ages ago, an unusually enlightened and intelligent one for a Greek-American priest, and an older one at that, at my parish in Whitestone.  I can only paraphrase it now:

St. Nicholas was not one of our great warrior saints like St. Demetrius or St. George.  He wasn’t one of our intellectual, theologian saints like the Cappadocians.  He was simply a saint who made sure that, to the best of his abilities, everyone under his care had a place to sleep and food to eat.

Then he went on to the part that I’ll really never forget:

When someone comes to you in need, the first and only thing you’re to think of is the vulnerable and potentially humiliating position this human being has put himself in by needing and asking for your help.  You’re not to think of how much you can give or how much he needs.  Or if “he’s gonna spend it on drugs.”  You’re to keep him from feeling humiliated with whatever you can.  That’s all.

My favorite St. Nicholas story — and probably the one that Santa Claus has its roots in — is how he went secretly to the home of the three daughters of a poor man at night and left them three bags of gold through the window so that they would have dowries and be able to marry.  He didn’t rail against the dowry system; he didn’t get off on his ideological correctness, like those anti-tipping assholes in New York who leave their waiter a little card explaining that tipping in the restaurant industry is exploitative, drafting the hapless kid into their cause by depriving him of income and not leaving him anything except the little card.  He simply gave three poor sisters what they needed so that they could survive in the world.  And we can talk ideology and exploitation later.

St. Nicholas Fra AngelicoFra Angelico

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Athens exploding in citrus

5 Dec

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Oranges and tangerines are suddenly in season and the farmers’ markets are bathed in their smell and color.  I remember, à propos of previous post’s bitching about birthday and Christmas excess, my mother shaking her head at the riot of insane shopping and spending and spoiling of children (because she too had succumbed; how better can capitalism manipulate you than through your children?) and going about the living room Christmas morning collecting wrapping paper and mountains of horrible plastic packaging, mumbling about how: “On New Year’s Day* we’d get a pair of socks…maybe an orange.”  And while her half of the family had moved from her natal village of Pesta north to Jiannena, another branch, to which she was very close, had settled in the southern Epirote city of Arta, a very pleasant town, the mediaeval capital of the Despotate of Epiros ** and therefore full of beautiful Byzantine churches, which lies in the region’s coastal lowlands and is surrounded by one gigantic, heavenly citrus orchard like the Huerta of Valencia or parts of lower Andalusia, so it shouldn’t have been too hard to get more than just one orange.  But there was no spoiling the children then and in Jiannena one orange was probably expensive enough.

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And I’d love to know whose great idea it was to plant orange trees along many of the streets of the city.  These are bitter oranges, known as nerantzia (obviously same root as naranja and I would say sounds Persian but is probably Arabic) often called Seville oranges in Britain, and they can only be eaten in marmelades and jams — in Greece, either whole and when still green, or in curled slices of the orange peel…my favorite…  Don’t put it in front of me; I could eat gallons of it in a matter of days.

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But since there’s a limit to how many candied oranges a nation can consume, most of them end up fallen on the street, where they get squashed and can be dangerously slippery, but whose rotting smell is not entirely unpleasant.

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The compensation is in the early spring when the trees bloom and — while it would otherwise be a sin to compare such an ugly to such a beautiful city — Athens smells just like Seville.

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* Greek children, and only children, used to get their presents on New Year’s Day, and they were brought by Saint Basil of Caesarea (Kayseri) in Cappadocia.  I don’t know why, since he was a theologian saint and had no gift-giving traditions associated with him — probably just because January 1st is his feast day — and I don’t even know what people here do now.

** The Despotate of Epiros was one of the independent Greek successor states, along with Nicaea and Trebizond, of the dismembered Byzantine Empire that emerged after the Frankish conquest, sack and destruction of Constantinople in 1204, under the rule of one branch of the Doukases, I think, but later also under a motley crew of other Greeks, Serbs, Albanians and Norman Italians.  It rejoined a reconstituted Romania, or Byzantine Empire (below), at some point after 1261 when Constantinople was retaken by the Laskarids/Palaeologans of NicaeaTrebizond, the region known as Pontus in Greek, remained independent.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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