Orion buckled his belt and, with his gigantic legs spread out in a straddle and his eyes eternally scintillating, he set off for another journey on the highways of the Athenian sky. The last remnants of sunset’s fuchsia were flurried away towards the island of Salamis. Some of the ancient marble ruins in the Acropolis area whispered their concluding lines before getting blanketed by night, others livened up on their pedestals illuminated by fame and lights alike, and young couples concealed their protracted kisses in the mystery of the twilight.
I meandered through the insular alleys of Anafiotika, whiffing the silk in the scent of the gazia trees, their honey-golden blossoms invisible in the dusk. The shacks of the neighborhood, humble and old, slanting against the sacred Rock of Athens, were silent: rickety shutters tightly shut, benches and chairs deserted outside locked doors, clay pots with flowers and basils trimly lined up next to whitewashed walls and stairs. A few scattered street lanterns placed under the protection of antefixes – little more than candle flames in a somber sanctuary – were whispering in faded amber hues. And everything was holy, for the grace of Goddess Athena was cascading from her temple overhead, and the rock itself, emerging not just from above and around but even from within the modest constructions, exhaled energy that was healing and invigorating at the same time.
I leaned against a low wall fencing the path from the precipice and looked at the tapestry of my city spreading as far as the eyes could see. In the lull of the night, the buzz of Plaka’s brimming tavernas, the hum of the bustling alleys, and the traffic from the cars beyond the historical center could be detected as just a faint white noise, imperceptible and inconsequential. The steeple of St George-of-the-Cliff rose below my feet; the stripes of the blue-and-white flag hoisted nearby waved at the whim of the evening breeze, their wakes bringing the salty taste of our seas and the wind-kissed roughness of our land in my mouth. Aeolus’ flirtatious explorations carried aromas from wisterias, redbud, and lilac trees – purples weaved into the cobalt embroidery of the evening – and I breathed in gratitude, for spring and Easter – rebirth and salvation – were in the air.
Hints of frankincense escaped from the doors of the numerous churches that sprout like anemones among the ancient ruins; they transferred along the echo of the Salutations to Virgin Mary chanted in the familiar Byzantine motifs. The hymns remind of the time when, 1400 years ago, the Blessed Mother strode on the walls of Constantinople stimulating faith and courage against the aspiring conquerors, finally securing the freedom and well-being of the City. Similarly, I could feel Her presence tonight, rambling around the Athenian streets, holding hands with the ancient Goddess: two sacred women, brides ever-virgins, invincible champions, protectors. Their muted footprints emitted myrrh, their gaze shone in ferocious determination, their essence – miscible and immiscible – bestowed love on the lagoon of the human soul that possesses the gift to reflect the light from the stars within.
A shadow dashed behind me, and I recoiled in surprise. It was just a cat. Plaka neighborhood must be something of a sacrosanct cat-realm, for I have never seen such a thriving and pompous community. Another cat strolled by and, encouraged by my immobility, jumped on the same wall I was leaning on, perching on its edge. She purred capriciously and stretched, revealing her claws: softness and fierceness combined. I stayed still, asking permission to connect with her and be allowed into her wisdom. Aloof and imperious, she stared straight into my eyes, and I could see in her expanded pupils the omnipotence of the cosmic plan.
Time decelerated and seemed to transcend to another dimension – as it always happens when truth unravels, and the psyche needs more space to absorb, in slow motion, the revelations that are about to imprint on human consciousness. In this shamanic den, surrounded by storytelling elements and shielded by female deities, I could observe the gradual ecdysis of my soul. I peeled the outer skins, pierced through strata of precious ores, quartzes, and amethysts, and when I thought I had reached the end, I was compelled to penetrate further, landing not on peace – as I expected – but on a seething core of lava. There was darkness, ugly and vicious, at the center of the planet I call “self,” a display of a dystopian facet I did not suspect I bore within me, an environment that burnt through gilded facades and veneered appearances, leaving only the bare rough ground untouched.
In this brusquely forthright setting, I realized that, for years, I had forced an opaque screen in front of my eyes impeding my sight and now I could finally see that, like in the fairy tale, I had repeatedly tricked myself into believing that the emperor was clothed, refusing to acknowledge his nakedness. From this new perspective, I recognized that behaviors of people in my life – of friends, partners, mere acquaintances, or passersby – so far excused under the pretext of “good intentions” had frequently – far too frequently – been disrespectful and manipulating. In anger, agony, and fear, I finally admitted to myself my desperate need to justify – through what I thought was compassion but was actually denial – the faith I had frequently misplaced or the trust I had repeatedly offered when it had not been earned. There, under the test of fire, I found myself liable for a series of self-betrayals I was too terrified to profess, for it is excruciating to admit the harm one has willingly allowed upon ones’ self; and I could see now Death, brandishing his scythe, waiting for my command to execute the falseness of my world.
Wrath and harsh words emerged, surprising me with their acerbity and venom. Where had they been lurking? Did they epitomize who I am? Where was the love – the ultimate cornerstone, the “why” of all life – I had so recently serenaded? For a moment, I was torn between anger for what I had allowed myself to endure, and fear of turning, as a defense mechanism, into someone I did not want to be. Desolation became the ultimate reality – the realm beyond the Matrix –, and I stood empty, dry, and exposed, believing in nothing, least of all in me. Devastated and overwhelmed, feeling cut off from the pillars of my life, I leaned harder on the wall, seeking support. The cat continued to stare at me intensely, her eyes a liquid abyss. The rest of the world, along with me, stopped breathing for a while.
My next inhale bore the freshness of the air, cooling gently the heat that had erupted within. Gradually, as the initial reaction subsided, I gained vision beyond the volcanic magma and understood that the latter constituted merely another piece and not the whole in the bigger nucleus of my existence. Beneath all layers, there were several fragments, created in this life or bequeathed from the past, waiting to be uncovered. Some of them levitated in light, and I had chosen them to define myself; others were plunged into darkness, and I had preferred to ignore them, not only because, on their own, they are catastrophic, but also because the ego enjoys admiring itself solely under a favorable angle. Yet, there was now something important about the dark – something wild and sorcerous – that I could not afford rejecting anymore: it had the power to obliterate self-deception. And I concluded that, maybe, I was not supposed to choose among these fragments but, rather, I was meant to integrate them all into the one unified being I aspire to be. It is only in their entirety that I could gain wisdom, stability, and equanimity; otherwise, any missing piece, be it even the most atrocious, would distort the accuracy of the vision.
During such a unification process, eternal verity is born and, just like in any birth, the knees weaken from the intensity of the energy, and tears escape the sanctum of the eyes. On this arena, courage and integrity are put to the test, for it is not easy to face and accept one’s true colors, especially the infernal ones that inevitably arise. It is the time when hope and faith towards one’s self and, by extension, towards humanity get impugned, and the challenge becomes too onerous to bear. There is fear for unending bleakness, but this is just an illusion, since, once the dark is acknowledged, it transforms into a protecting blaze, an avenger, and the eventually acquired peace is, at last, solid and true.
A gust startled me back to the present, and a few poplar trees nearby, tickled and astonished, giggled in amusement, sprinkling moonlight from their leaves. I followed the path downhill, still fragile and vulnerable, but queerly relieved as well. Passing in front of St Nikolas Ragavas church, I sneaked into the chamber, the flame of a candle warming my cupped hands, the tenderness of the Akathist Hymn nesting in the pathos of my voice. The light of the chandeliers had been dimmed; their flame-looking lamps flickered like fireflies. The candelabras emanated kindness, and the Saints on the sooty walls gazed in austere compassion – for, sometimes, benevolence is not supposed to be soft but, instead, should be wisely vehement to carry the world forward. The crowd, standing (*), was chanting in unison, light sparkling only in their eyes, the rest concealed in veils of obscurity. The harmonious vibration brought a balance in which all beings were immersed, and I understood how music holds the keys to the harmony of the world. I bowed my head in reverence, gave thanks, and stepped outside, once more into the joy of life, inhaling the aromas of the night. Yes, spring was in the air. This is always a good time to start anew.
(*) Akathyst Hymn literally translates into “Unseated Hymn”.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
This post is part of a project temporarily called “Self-Portraits,” comprising of monthly dialogues with the inner and outer landscape in an attempt to document change over time. Complement this with the previous posts:
The Fragility of New Beginnings (November 2016)
A Libation to the Muse (December 2016)
There is Always Hope in the Beauty of Human Creations (January 2017)
Ode to Silence (February 2017)
Falling in Love Once Again (March 2017)