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Sabbath Day – Greece and Grief

February 11, 2016

The whole morning we were full of joy,

my God, how full of joy.

– George Seferis (1900-1971)


George Seferis won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963, the first Greek to be so honored. Born in Smyrna in 1900, he studied in Paris, joined the Greek foreign service and retired as ambassador to England. I found him a few weeks ago when my year of reading multi-national literature turned to Greece. In retrospect, my own morning of intense joy and satisfaction was a gift  just before a few weeks of intense grief. Those of you reading this blog know I have conducted three funerals in the last few weeks, have listened to church members attending countless others, been to the hospital to visit parishioners in crisis, and have counseled others making end-of-life decisions. I learned last night of another death that has left me reeling.

Grief is simply part of Greece. In “The City” Constantine Cavafy, one of the most important Greek poets in the 20th century, writes of his own culture’s decline as well as it’s restlessness search for fulfillment elsewhere. But,

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will pursue you. You will walk

the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,

you will turn gray in these same houses.

You will always end up in this city.  Don’t hope for things elsewhere.

there is no ship for you, there is no road.

As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

Roman-mosaic-know-thyself copy

George Seferis, riffing on the Ancient Greek aphorism, “Know Thyself,” inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (above), is well known for writing,

And a soul

if it is to know itself

must look

into its own soul.

But less rarely quoted is the next line of the poem,

the stranger and enemy, we’ve seen him in the mirror.

In “The Meaning of Simplicity,” Yannis Ritson offers of most beautiful description of what I think of as divine sacramental presence, which I will someday bring to our table for the Eucharist:

I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me;

if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things,

you’ll touch what my hand has touched,

our hand-prints will merge. 

What a promise!

But my gold standard for reading and studying Greek literature is Anne Carson, who has translated numerous Ancient plays, written one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time (Eros the Bittersweet, according to the Modern Library), and has produced some of the headiest, challenging, poetry on my shelf. For this she has received a truly ridiculous number of prestigious awards.


In the midst of funerals, my entire sabbath one week involved two hours set aside to read her introduction to, and translation of, Euripides Herakles from the collection Grief Lessons. Small moments snatched for poetry, two hours to read a play, these were sabbath sustenance for a time of grief.



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