A Journey through Yugoslavia
Penguin Books, New York 1994
This is the supreme moment of Easter, when the priests lift up the embroidered cloth from the table, take it out into the open air, and walk round the church three times at the head of the congregation, all carrying their lighted tapers and singing a hymn proclaiming that Christ has risen. Constantine and I had walked in this procession when we had come to Skopje the year before, and I had wanted to do it again. It is the very consummation of the picturesque, with the flowerlike yellow brightness of the tapers, the coldness of the starlight and moonlight, the glittering crosses and vestments of the priests, the dark people leaning from the lit windows of the houses in the square, which seem themselves to waver with the pulse of the advancing and receding lights and shadows. But there is here more than that, there is true Easter, the recognition of the difference between winter and summer, between cold and heat, between darkness and light, between death and life, between minus and plus. Something important which passes unnoticed because it is continually experienced is felt again in its real importance. But now we could not join the procession, for we had been at the iconostasis end of the church when it started, and it had accomplished its three circuits before we reached the door. When the Metropolitan who was at the head of the priests halted in the doorway to make his sermon, we were in the antechamber, called the narthex, which runs across the front of any Byzantine church, which here was specially large and secular, because the architects were accustomed to the great porches of mosques, where Moslems are accustomed to sit and gossip and settle business and talk politics.
I was extremely frightened as we stood there, for I thought it possible that a number of people, packed together and constantly stirring in their discomfort and all holding lighted tapers, might set themselves on fire. But I forgot my alarm, because I was standing opposite a peasant woman sitting on a window ledge who was the very essence of Macedonia, who was exactly what I had come back to see. She was the age that all Macedonian women seem to become as soon as they cease to be girls: a weather-beaten fifty. There was a dark cloth about her hair and shoulders, and in its folds, and in her noble bones and pain-grooved flesh, she was like many Byzantine Madonnas to be seen in frescoes and mosaics. In her rough hand she mothered her taper, looking down on its flame as if it were a young living thing; and on the sleeve of her russet sheepskin jacket there showed embroidery of stylized red and black trees which derived recognizably from a pattern designed for elegant Persian women two thousand years before. There was the miracle of Macedonia, made visible before our eyes. This woman had suffered more than most other human beings, she and her forebears. A competent observer of this countryside has said that every single person born in it before the Great War (and quite a number who were born after it) has faced the prospect of violent death at least once in his or her life. She had been born during the calamitous end of Turkish maladministration, with its cycles of insurrection and massacre, and its social chaos. If her own village had not been murdered, she had certainly heard of many that had, and had never had any guarantee that hers would not someday share the same fate. Then, in her maturity, had come the Balkan wars and the Great War, with a cholera and typhus epidemic in between. Later had come I.M.R.O.; and there was always extreme poverty. She had had far less of anything, of personal possessions, of security, of care in childbirth, than any Western woman can imagine. But she had two possessions which any Western woman might envy. She had strength, the terrible stony strength of Macedonia; she was begotten and born of stocks who could mock all bullets save those which went through the heart, who could outlive the winters when they were driven into the mountains, who could survive malaria and plague, who could reach old age on a diet of bread and paprika. And cupped in her destitution as in the hollow of a boulder there are the last drops of the Byzantine tradition.
With our minds we all know what Byzantium was. We are aware that the Eastern continuance of the Roman Empire was a supremely beautiful civilization. It was imperfect because it was almost totally ignorant of economics, and the people were distraught with hungry discontents which they could not name. We know that by the Golden Horn the waning empire developed a court ceremonial, which the earlier emperors had borrowed from Asia, until it made all those who watched it wise about the symbols of spiritual things that can be expressed by sight and sound. The Church itself learned from its partner the State, and raised the Mass to a supreme masterpiece of communal art; and the people, saturated with ritual impressions of the idea of God and of the Emperor, who was by theory the Viceroy of God, produced an art that is unique in its nobility, that in its architecture and painting and mosaics and metal-work and textiles found a calligraphy for the expression of man’s graver experiences which makes all other arts seem a little naive or gross. We know that these achievements were not technical tricks but were signs of a real spiritual process, for the Byzantines were able to live in dignity and decency for four centuries in the knowledge that they were doomed, that one day they would be destroyed root and branch by the merciless Turks. They were not merely stoical in that shadow; they continued to live in the fullness of life, to create, even, in the very last phase of their doom, to the point of pushing out the shoots of a new school of painting.
All this we know with our minds, and with our minds only. But this woman knew it with all her being, because she knew nothing else. It was the medium in which she existed. Turkish misrule had deprived her of all benefit from Western culture; all she had had to feed on was the sweetness spilled from the overturned cup of Constantinople. Therefore she was Byzantine in all her ways, and in her substance. When she took up her needle it instinctively pricked the linen in Byzantine designs, and she had the Byzantine idea that one must decorate, always decorate, richly decorate. As she sat there she was stiff, it might almost be said carpeted, in the work of her own hands. The stiffness was not an accidental effect of her materials; it was a symbol of her beliefs about society. She believed that people who are to be respected practice a more stately bearing than those who are of no account; her own back was straight, she did not smile too easily. Therefore she found nothing tedious in the ritual of her Church. She could have sat for long hours as she was then, nursing her taper in quiet contentment, watching grave and slow-moving priests evoke the idea of magnificence, and induce the mood of adoration which is due to the supremely magnificent. She was not gaping at a peepshow; she was not merely passing the time. She was possessed by the same passion that had often astounded the relief workers who came here at the beginning of the century to fight the famine that always followed the suppression of the Christian revolts. Again and again, in villages which had fallen under Turkish disfavor and were therefore subject without cease to murder and arson and pillage, they urged inhabitants to emigrate to Serbia and Bulgaria; and the peasants always answered that that might be the wisest course, but that they could not desert their churches. This was not superstition. Before the altars, the offshoot of Byzantines had passed the same test as its parent; it had prevented doom from becoming degradation. This woman’s face was unresentful, exalted, sensitive to her sorrows yet preoccupied by that which she perceived to be more important, magnificence and its adoration.
Now the Metropolitan was at the door, a gorgeous figure, not only because his vestments were bright with gold thread, and his high mitre and pastoral staff and the cross on his breast glittered with jewels. There is inherent dignity in the lines of a costume that has incorporated the philosopher’s mantle of the ancients, the Roman consul’s scarf, and the tunic and gauntlets of the Byzantine Emperor. In a rich voice the Metropolitan announced that Christ had risen, and from the faces above the primrose flames came sharp cries of belief. Then he uttered a prayer or repeated a passage from the Gospels, I was not sure which, and went on to deliver an address which compared the resurrection of Christ and the liberation of Christian Macedonia from the Turks by Serbia twenty-five years before. It was, in fact, straight Yugoslavian propaganda, and most of it could have easily been delivered from a political platform.
It was only our modernity that was shocked. This was not an innovation, but a continuance of the ancient tradition of the Church. ‘As the body politic, like the human body, is composed of parts and members, so the most important and the most vital parts are the Emperor and the Patriarch,’ wrote a Byzantine theologian; ‘in the same way that the peace and happiness of the human being depends on the harmony of body and soul, so in the polity there must be perfect agreement between the Emperor and the priesthood.’ Since the Orthodox Church does not pretend to be anything but a religion, since it does not claim to be in possession of the final truth about philosophy and ethics and political science, this does not raise such difficulties as it would in the West. The Orthodox Church conceived, and still conceives, that its chief business is magic, the evocation by ritual of the spiritual experiences most necessary to man. It has also the duty of laying down a general pattern of moral behavior. If the civil authority assists at the ritual and accepts this pattern it has a right to demand the support of the ecclesiastical authority, and the ecclesiastical authority has a right to give it, save when its own sphere is invaded. It will, in fact, support the civil authority politically if the civil authority does not meddle in theology. This is an attitude that is bound to be adopted by any state church, and that involves no difficulties in the case of a church which does not claim final wisdom on profane subjects as well as divine. The Orthodox Church did not renounce that claim by choice. The renunciation was forced on it by the troubled character of Byzantine history. One can claim final wisdom on a subject to the degree that life as regards that subject is predictable. Now life in Europe has never been orderly for more than a few years at a time and in a limited area; but in the West it has been orderly enough, if only in the homogeneity of its disorder, to allow clever men to lay down principles that they could safely claim to be eternal, since they afforded useful bases for action and thought during some considerable period of time. In the East of Europe it has not been so. Continual and astonishing were its historical convulsions. The Byzantine Empire, which suffered invasion by blood-thirsty and pitiless fellow Christians who had come to redeem the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem and stopped to taste the more immediately delectable pleasure of looting Constantinople, and which knew itself certain to be invaded by Asiatics as inaccessible to appeal as the personages in a nightmare, could not prophesy. Hence its genius turned away from speculative thought to art, and its Church preserved its dogma without developing it and concentrated its forces on the glory of the Mass, which gave a magic protection against evils that were unknown as well as those that were known. Thereby it brought on itself the criticisms that it was sterile and archaic in teaching and an archaic of superstition; but it could not have served its people better in their special tribulation.
For these historical reasons nobody in the congregation was shocked because the Metropolitan’s sermon was a speech in support of the Government; and I am sure also, since the circumstances of Balkan life have forbidden any intertwining of religious and pacifist sentiment, that nobody was shocked because the Metropolitan had in his young days been a comitadji.