06 July 2009

'A Poor Saint Goes Unsung': The Humble Hero of Papadiamandis

In yesterday’s post on St Alban, I quoted the following wonderful passage from the Venerable Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum I.7 (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994]):

So while he [St Alban’s would-be executioner] was turned from a persecutor into a companion in the true faith, and while there was a very proper hesitation among the other executioners in taking up the sword which lay on the ground, the most reverend confessor [St Alban] ascended the hill with the crowds. This hill lay about five hundred paces from the arena, and, as was fitting, it was fair, shining and beautiful, adorned, indeed clothed, on all sides with wild flowers of every kind; nowhere was it steep or precipitous or sheer but Nature had provided it with wide, long-sloping sides stretching smoothly down to the level of the plain. In fact its natural beauty had long fitted it as a place to be hallowed by the blood of a blessed martyr. (p. 19)

This description reminded me immediately of an 1891 story I read just last Friday by Alexander Papadiamandis—‘Poor Saint’, trans. Avi Sharon (in Alexandros Papadiamandis, The Boundless Garden: Selected Short Stories, Vol. I, ed. Fr Lambros Kamperidis and Denise Harvey [Limni, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2007], pp. 48-64). In the first, framing section of the story, the narrator describes a spot on the island of Skiathos that had long been a mystery in his childhood:

. . . [W]here the road descended and turned in the direction of the Kastro (which was still another half hour distant by this path), the ground amid the lentisk and heather was all red. Our mothers and grandmothers used to regale us with stories of that earth with its unusual reddish shade which also gave off an inexplicable fragrance.

Perhaps someone will say that we were ‘listeners of deeds and watchers of stories’ [Thucydides 3.38.4] (another could have changed it to ‘smellers’ of stories), but for us also it really seemed as if the earth at that spot was emitting a sweet perfume.

A man, it was said, had been ‘hallowed’ there, had achieved sainthood. But how? When? With my simple, childlike curiosity I didn’t question the story and never learned the details. The traditional account, it seems, remained vague and over time the particular circumstances were forgotten. Even the name of the martyr had passed into oblivion. And so, as it is commonly said, ‘a poor saint goes unsung’. (pp. 50-1)

At last, the narrator as a young man meets ‘a respected man from my village’ who has been living in Macedonia for many years. The man tells him many stories about the island, and the narrator asks him ‘about that sweet fragrance and whether he’d ever heard of the man who’d been hallowed near Three Crosses’ (p. 51). The man tells the story of a poor, nameless shepherd who, while tending his little flock of goats, gives directions to a couple of strange foreigners who barely speak Greek who ask the way to the Kastro. When he sees a few more of these men sneaking around in the bushes, ‘A light suddenly shone in the eyes of his soul and a mysterious inspiration came to his mind. “Bandits,” he said’ (p. 54). It is revealed that the men are the small raiding party of a ship of Berber pirates, sent to take the Kastro by surprise and plunder the inhabitants. Reluctantly abandoning his flock, the humble yet heroic shepherd uses his intimate knowledge of the island to beat the pirates to the Kastro unseen, warning the elders of the danger. He is able to save the town, but takes not a thought for himself as he races back to try to secure his flock as well. On the way, he is captured by a lookout party of the pirates, and when the raiders return after finding the Kastro secured against them, they surmise what the shepherd has done. Then the narrative continues:

And then, as has happened so many times before, the Lord’s word came to pass and another barbarian, a sworn defender of the [Muslim] Faith, thought ‘that he doeth God service’ (John 16:2).

* * *

He was taken between the heather and the lentisk, where the shy spring flowers broidered the earth’s verdant carpet. There he was dragged off by the Algerians, cheering wildly; there he washed the flowers and green branches with his blood; and there a burning stream reddened the earth, which gratefully received it. Then, as a feathered wing, a gentle breeze took up his breath and there he fell asleep in paradise, Poor Shepherd! in the image of ‘the good shepherd’ who ‘giveth his life for his sheep’ (John 10:11).

And after that, how could the earth not give off such fragrance? (p. 64)

While there is a clear parallel with St Bede in the lovely descriptions of nature being ‘hallowed’ by the blood of the martyr, one of the things that strikes me most about ‘Poor Saint’ is the hero himself. The allusion to Thucydides could serve as a reminder in this regard. The allusion is to Cleon’s speech to the Athenian assembly, where he says, ‘You have become regular speech-goers, and as for action, you merely listen to accounts of it’ (History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner [London: Penguin, 1972], p. 214). The thrust of Cleon’s words seems to be rather different from the point Papadiamandis is making about the young boys giving too much heed to fanciful tales. But it seems to me that this difference can nevertheless provide a deeper meaning to the allusion.

The ‘accounts of [action]’ with which the Athenians would of course have been most familiar were the Greek epics, narratives which, according to Charles Rowan Beye, ‘arose from the need to celebrate the deeds of famous local men, now dead and sanctified, the objects of a local hero cult’ (Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil [Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 1993], p. 21). But while this seems to be precisely the sort of story we have in the tale of the ‘Poor Saint’, there is an extremely important difference: the hero of Papadiamandis’s story has been almost entirely forgotten. Nothing is known by most of the islanders about what happened at Three Crosses (the story of the forgotten martyr reminds one of the history of the veneration of Ss Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene), and even the sole person who is able to tell the tale, the Skiathan man whom the narrator meets in Macedonia, does not know his name. Furthermore, he is not one of the powerful aristocratic chieftains and even demi-gods whom we meet in Homer; he is a lowly shepherd. When he goes to the Kastro to warn the gatekeeper, the latter, who ‘nourished contempt for the whole race of shepherds’, mocks him, ‘imitating the nasal voice of the shepherd’ (p. 60).

More importantly, the shepherd is not, like the epic audience, one of ‘those men whose justification for existence came from their hopes of posthumous [earthly] fame’ (Beye, p. 23). According to Louis Markos, the epic heroes fight ‘for the glory that honor brings. And they desire that glory for the simple reason that they are mortal, that they will die, and, unless they have done something to bring glory to their name, they will be forgotten’ (From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007], p. 63). By contrast, Papadiamandis tells us:

Nor did the shepherd indulge in any wild reveries about a reward or other compensation for having announced the impending danger and saving the whole village from slaughter and plunder. These things are, how do we call them, ‘sacred matters’, and if there were any reward for them it would lie elsewhere; the shepherd had a vague understanding of such things. (p. 62)

The shepherd is content to remain nameless, to receive his glory from the Good Shepherd alone. Indeed, he closely imitates the latter in his assumption of what St John Climacus calls in the Ladder 25:4 ‘this queen of virtues’—humility (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore], rev. HTM [Boston: HTM, 1991], p. 151), ‘For’, as St Isaac the Syrian says, ‘humility is the raiment of the Godhead’ (The Ascetic Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, trans. Dana Miller [Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984], p. 381). As such, it is a virtue superior to those of the epic heroes, though it may well bring its possessor no earthly glory at all.

Though I don’t have time to delve into the issue just now, I would venture to say this portrayal of the humble hero is a uniquely Christian characteristic and even capability of prosaic literature. Though he emphasises neither the contrast with epic nor the precisely Christian nature of this characteristic, Steven Souris has shown how Dostoevsky has done something similar in his first novel, Poor Folk (see ‘“Living at Double Intensity”: Dialogized Consciousness, the Question of Satire, and the Ethics of Representation in Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk’, Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Talent, ed. Joe E. Barnhart [Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2005], pp. 219-36). But Bishop Athanasius (Jevtić) has made the latter point quite clear: ‘And here comes Jesus, the meek, the humble, the powerless, who is manifested in the persons of the heroes of Papadiamantis and Dostoevsky’ (‘Μιὰ ὀρθόδοξη θεώρησι τοῦ ἀνθρώπου κατὰ τὸν Ἀλέξανδρο Παπαδιαμάντη καὶ τὸν Θεόδωρο Ντοστογιέφσκυ’, [‘An Orthodox View of Man according to Alexandros Papadiamantis and Fyodor Dostoevsky’]). When we read of such heroes, let us not be counted among mere 'listeners of deeds and watchers of stories', but let us too be imitators of 'Jesus, the meek, the humble, the powerless'.


+Bishop SAVAS of Troas said...

I first read this post a few days ago and it has lingered in my mind, as the song says, "like a haunting refrain." I love how you discerned a consonance between Alban and PapaD. I haven't read the story you remarked on - in fact, my experience of his work has been limited to the shocking novella, "The Murderess" - but it seems as though I'll have to add that anthology of his stories to my bedside heap.

aaronandbrighid said...

I'm glad you liked it, Your Grace. I was fairly proud of this post and was hoping to get some comments. You really should read this anthology! 'Poor Saint' is one of my favourite stories by anybody ever!