Marian Devotion in Greece

There used to exist among the Jesuit novices at Roehampton a domestic tradition of an old priest, of great learning and holiness, and imbued with an ardent devotion to the Mother of God. When some neophyte, fuller of zeal than of knowledge, deplored with more fervour than charity the apparent stupidity which kept millions of Eastern Christians, with a genuine priesthood, real sacraments and a glorious liturgy, in perpetual schism, the venerable Father would exclaim: "Don't be too hard on the poor schismatics, my boy; they do 'butter up' the Holy One." The old priest, with all the militant orthodoxy of a Catholic Celt, had nevertheless a corner in a very large and human heart for the eastern "Orthodox" Christians, on account of their uncompromising devotion to her whom they call the Panagia, literally the "All-Holy".
Any Catholic who is brought into contact with the schismatic churches of the Near East must be struck by this feature of Orthodox worship. Accustomed in England to the charges of "Mariolatory", of "adding a fourth person to the Trinity", and all the other calumnies of the lower strata of Protestant controversialists, we find it strange to hear, as the present writer heard in an ecclesiastical talk with a Greek friend : "Oh, but you of the Latin Church have so little devotion to the Mother of God."
Two or three features of the cultus of the Blessed Virgin in the Orthodox and other schismatic Churches of the Orient, stand out prominently, and are apparent even to a very casual student of the matter. In the first place, it is essentially a devotion, a pervading spirit and not merely a collection of devotions and traditional practices. Of devotions, as the term is understood by modern Catholics, we find few traces in the East. Marian sodalities and confraternities are unknown, scapulars have not been heard of, and rosary there is none, though the newcomer to the Balkans may be inclined to think differently when he sees the people fingering strings of beads as they walk the streets or sit in the gardens. This, however, is merely an amusement for nervous fingers and Levantine restlessness. Though without our aids to devotion, the schismatics of Greece, of Russia and of the Christian communities in Asia Minor and Syria, are undoubtedly inspired with a very deep reverence for the Blessed Virgin, based on sound theology. She exists for them primarily in her relation to the mystery of the Incarnation. In the eikons, or sacred pictures, in the churches, she is invariably shown with her Child in her arms, while above her halo of silver or beaten gold is inscribed with her title of highest honour-"Theotókos," i.e., "The Bearer of God".
As a logical outcome of this realisation of the intimate connection between Mary and the Incarnation, there is a keen sense of the honour which is her due and must always have been accorded her in the scheme of Providence from the moment she accepted the sublime mission announced to her by St. Gabriel. The feasts of Our Lady, that of the Assumption in particular, hold prominent places in the Greek calendar. The incidents of the temporary subjection of Our Lady to the dominion of death and her subsequent assumption, are frequently depicted in the churches and chapels under the pleasing title of "The Sleep of the Theotókos".
It is in the liturgies of St. Basil and St. Chrysostom, still used in the daily worship of the Greek Church, that we find the fullest and noblest expression of this devotion. These masterpieces of the religious spirit of eastern Catholicism before the miserable Photian schism, may still be heard in their entirety, chanted nasally by some peasant priest in the meanest of Greek villages, rendered with imposing ritual in the basilicas of Athens, Constantinopole and Smyrna, or celebrated for the benefit of the thriving colonies of Greeks in London, Paris and New York. In the liturgy the Theotokion or, as we should call it, the collect of the Blessed Virgin, invariably refers to her under some title of enthusiastic but dignified praise, such as: "Our all-holy, undefiled, exceedingly blessed, glorious Lady, Theotókos and ever-virgin Mary." In the service of the Orthros is sung the Magnificat or, as the Greeks call it, "The Ode of the Theotókos" after the deacon has invited the people to join in praising her: "The Theotókos and the mother of the Light let us praise in hymns of honour." After the Magnificat comes a versicle that bears a close resemblance to part of the Easter Saturday Exultet of the Latin rite: "Most blessed art thou, O God-bearer and Virgin, for through Him that was Incarnate of thee, Hades is led captive, Adam is recalled, the curse is become barren. Eve is set free, death is slain, and we are made to live." The following is a literal translation of a typical Theotokion or Collect of Our Lady: "Of thy tenderness of heart, open to us the gate, O blessed Theotókos, for hoping in thee shall not fail; may we be delivered through thee from misfortunes, for thou art the salvation of the Christian people."
In the liturgy proper or eucharistic service, often erroneoulsly entitled the Greek Mass, the eikon of the Blessed Virgin is incensed by the celebrant, who kisses it and then recites the Tropárion: "Being a fountain of tenderness of heart, bestow upon us thy sympathy, O Mother of God; regard the people who have sinned. Show, as ever, thy power, for, hoping in thee, we cry out to thee, 'Hail,' as formerly did Gabriel, the leader of the angels."
These few details should suffice to give some idea of the prominent position and the wholehearted character of the veneration of God's Mother in the official worship of the Eastern Churches.
However, it is not only in the public worship of the Orthodox Church that we find this survival of the traditional cultus of Our Lady. It is reflected in many aspects of the everyday life of the people throughout Greece and the Balkans generally. Although the Greeks have always been reputed a worldly-minded race, living for the moment and its joy, and almost impervious to ideas of the supernatural, they have not remained untouched by the spirit of Marian devotion which was so conspicuous a feature of the early days of the Eastern Church and which filled the streets and basilicas with an indignant and clamorous populace when the honour of the Theotókos was assailed by heretics. In every house and cottage in Greece there is an eikon of the Blessed Virgin, often with a lamp burning perpetually before it. Even the poorest of Greek servant girls will buy for a few lepta a little, crudely-coloured print of the Panagia to hang in her room. Along the country roads and mountain paths, on the fashionable boulevards of Athens and in the tortuous streets and alleys of Smyrna, the traveller sees little shrines of the Mother of God, each a simple column of white marble or stone, surmounted by a cross and holding a small picture of 'The Holy One,' and a metal box for the ten and twenty lepta pieces of the devout. The quaintly clad peasants of the hills and plains and the less picturesque artisans and labourers of the towns will stop before these little shrines, and, with bare heads and many signs of the cross, kiss the eikon, place an offering in the little iron box, and pass on to their work. High up on the mountains amongst the grey rocks and dwarf pine trees, where the wanderer meets few living beings save the flocks of goats with their bearded, grizzled herdsmen and the fierce wolf-like dogs of the hills, tiny chapels of Our Lady will be found, built in replica of the more imposing churches of the cities, with the little, yellow tapers burnt by occasional pilgrims, and the silver or brass lamp lighted before the picture of the Blessed Virgin.
Many of the Levantine vessels, with their painted prows and big lateen sails, carry a picture of the Mother of God in addition to the usual one of St. Nicholas, fixed to the mast as a protection on their voyages amidst the myriad islands of the Ćgean Sea. In moments of distress, or when threatened by the fierce squalls which are apt to spring up at short notice in these eastern waters, the captains of these boats will vow a heavy candle or some more expensive votive gift, a gold-encrusted eikon, or a model ship in silver, to the Virgin of Tenedos or Naxos, or some small islet of the archipelago. As in Catholic Ireland and Spain and Italy, girls are invariably given 'Mary' as one of their names, and the visitor who listens to the prattling of the wealthy Athenian children in the Royal Gardens of the capital, or the half-naked, olive-skinned urchins in some country village, will hear many times an hour the name 'Maria,' or its affectionate form, 'Marika.' One notices, too, that many of the women and children have little medals of Our Lady in gold or silver, as well as the plain cross commonly worn by the Orthodox.

G.D.Meadows, St. Peter's Magazine (Cardiff), January, 1921.