Sampson is a writer-producer based in Cyprus and the UK. His work has appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, The Scofield, and The Writers’ Magazine, among others. His short story Flames and Shadows was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Film projects include Behind the Mirror(writer/producer – winner of Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival 2015), Vita and Virginia and Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall(executive producer). He loves Alfred Hitchcock films. And traveling. And the Cloud. And is currently working on a psychological horror script.
A LITTLE FIRE BURNING
My name is Angelos Socrates and this is my apology …
Come the festive season, I ponder on the scripture. I may be a free thinker invested in the future, not the past, yet the story of Jesus Christ moves me. I love to engage with it every year, come Christmas and Easter, and would do so at church, but for the intransigence of the religious establishment.
Clinging to tradition for the sake of tradition and nothing else, the Greek Orthodox Church holds service in Koine, a dead version of Greek that the vast majority of native Greek speakers like myself can’t understand, and it vexes me. If this sounds arrogant and selfish on my part, I’ll make my point in due course, bear with me.
The reality is, I’d like to engage with what goes on in church, what the clergy sing and preach. I was baptized Greek Orthodox and am familiar with the story of Jesus. I’m open to spirituality, religious in an open-ended manner, pious but not observant. I long to engage with the faith on occasion, mostly during Christmas and Easter, eager for the words of the congregation to wash over me and transport me, to lift me higher and put me in touch with the divine.
But with everything conducted in a dead language, all I hear is mumbo-jumbo.
They say, ‘learn Koine, and stop complaining!’ – but I say no. It would be just another concession to the powers that be, whose obsession with tradition masks a more sinister agenda. Using a dead language to conduct the service is a wily approach, and learning said language to be part of their congregation plays into that tactic, defeating the purpose of moving beyond earthly tyranny. To teach people the language of the divine, religion ought to speak the language of the times, not the other way round. (Isn’t that why Jesus Christ confronted the Pharisees and scribes?) Preaching in a dead language is nothing more than a show of authority and self-importance, as arrogant as it gets, and I don’t want any part of it.
The alternative is to attend service held in a language I’m fluent in – English, for example – either in the UK or the US, which is fine when I’m traveling. The problem is when I’m at home. I’ve tried the Anglican Church in my hometown, but it doesn’t feel right. The same applies to the American denominations – their expat vibe doesn’t capture what I’m looking for. (It’s different when I visit these denominations on their home turf.) I also don’t speak Latin or Italian or Romanian, so the local Catholic services are out of the question, too.
You may be wondering where home is, by the way, but the names and locations don’t matter. I live in the biggest town on a small island where freedom of religion is a given. It’s an open society where even atheism is ok – although frowned upon by the older generations – yet the avenue to the divine passes through the GOC’s gibberish.
I have learned to adapt over the years, resorting to my own devices. I seek spiritual relief in art, in projects that awaken something deep inside. I watch Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told to get in touch with the life and message of Jesus. I watch Lord of the Rings and get in a grand mood, letting its image and metaphor wash over me. Grand, sweeping, earth-shattering narratives awaken something otherworldly in me. Cosmogony and magic. Sacrifice. Deliverance. Balsam for the psyche.
I watch and re-watch It’s a Wonderful Life and Patch Adams.
I listen to life-affirming music like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, or Queen’s Live Aid Concert, which is one of the most moving events I’ve ever witnessed.
The idea is to broaden my horizons and transcend the mundane using a number of platforms so as to be inspired, not indoctrinated.
I love books, too. They’re great companions, providing solace and insight.
In 2015, for example, over the Easter holidays, I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a story about a father and his young son fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. An awesome story, and I use the word wholeheartedly, awe-some! The spare but effective prose, the ingenious storytelling, the transporting premise on which one grand theme after another is delivered: tenacity, morality, devotion, faith, and, not least of all, life in the wake of death and destruction – it’s an instant classic!
Take this quote:
‘He knew that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’
‘Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.’
The Road is outstanding, a bleak yet exemplary epic.
I read it again a year later and was moved by it just as much as the first time.
In 2017, eager to broaden my scope even further, I went for something similar but different. Two books.
One was Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky, the story of a scientist in search of the Self, and whose obsession to break through to an altered state of consciousness consumes him. Driven by his passion for self-discovery, the scientist, Dr. Jessup, is ready to shatter one barrier after another to reach his objective. The price is enormous. The damage he causes to those he cares for is pervasive. The lessons he learns, heavy. His life may be examined, and thus, worth living, as per the ancient Socratic adage, but it’s riddled with trials and tribulations. He suffers for attempting to break through.
Yet life goes on, even after everything seems lost, and the willingness to bring change to the world, to become the change itself, walk the walk and talk like a visionary, a person intent on making things happen at whatever price – it’s the crux of the story.
It had me thinking for days.
A line from the book stuck with me:
‘I think that true self, that original self, that first self is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing, tangible and incarnate.’
Altered States was an ode to awareness and accountability. We’re neither a mirage in the desert nor the morning mist on evolution’s highway, the book insinuated. We may be transient but we have agency, the ability to reflect. Our existence matters, it boils down to something identifiable and measurable, which we may explore and probe, perhaps even improve on, if we choose to. Each and every one of us has value, both in relation to each other and as individuals in a system. The universe is borne out of each other, out of every part that constitutes it, an array of Self that comes together, which we have to understand in and of itself (ourselves) before we delve into the mysteries of whatever lies beyond.
I took the message to heart.
The second book I read during the 2017 Easter holiday was Falling Man by Don DeLillo. It’s a post-9/11 New York story where a number of characters come together in the wake of tragedy, to each their own, and sometimes in tandem, to process their trauma. Their journey is debilitating and formative, their identities shared or commingled. These characters strive to understand what happened to them – and to the city they call home – by assessing themselves and the way the tragedy affected them, the impact it had on their relationships and careers, the way they go about their lives. They use their hard-earned knowledge to shed light on what happened, the process dynamic. Their life experiences are crushing yet revealing, instructive, redemptive, restorative, torturous beyond belief, sometimes worth it, other times fruitless, almost pointless.
Says Fallen Man:
‘She wanted this only, to snuff out the pulse of the shaky faith she’d held for much of her life.’
‘She was taking a round of medications, a mystical wheel, the ritualistic design of the hours and days in tablets and capsules, in colors, shapes and numbers.’
‘These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after.’
Indeed. Everything is measured by after, at least over the Easter holidays: Before and After. The end, followed by a new beginning, be it a restoration, a resurrection, a resurgence, a comeback, or a lesson learned. After the fact and before the next storm. Anticipating the coming crisis, one needs to be prepared, something to help us deal with what lays in store, reminding us that life goes on even when we don’t/won’t/shan’t, and that we have the power to continue even as everything collapses.
My writing is a direct result of the power in the books that inspired me, the impact of their words. I was uplifted by what I read because I understood the content.
Many of us underestimate the power of understanding. We believe that only the incomprehensibly mystical lifts the spirit. I agree to a point. Mystery is effective, even transcendent, but at some level one has to appreciate how things work, at least the basics, to connect with the underlying principles of whatever one surrenders to. Mumbo-jumbo can only take one so far.
Big on spectacle but low on meaning, the cryptics of dead-language faith try to sell us what we’re not supposed to get. I don’t appreciate it. I prefer clarity and learning, engagement, interaction, canons that are mysterious and lucid at the same time, difficult yet rewarding; their authors respectful of their readers, the editors smart enough to address their audiences directly, in ways they (we) (I) understand. I’m referring to stories written in a language designed to engage me, involve me – tools for spiritual and mental improvement, contemplation, insight, faith in one’s person, in one’s inner strength, and in the power of other people to help each other and learn from each other. I seek the spirit that animates us, the community that makes life happen, the language that allows community to communicate and in due course tap our potential, be it the deities of organized religion, the magic of self-awareness, the bounty of creativity, the depth of imagination, the pursuit of something larger than life – whatever it is, the lesson is clear: knowledge is transcendence.
In the absence of goodwill from the GOC, which is obsessed with tradition and control, not communication, the above books became my new gospel, or, to be more exact, the basis for a gospel I put together from the canon of literature, and which keeps growing. I’ve added a number of instructive titles to it over the years. Things Fall Apart by Achebe, Disgrace by Coetzee, Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando by Woolf, the writings of Joan Didion, the arcana of Murakami and the Americana of Roth, DeLillo and Twain … the biographies or actors and rock legends, the memoirs of historical and political figures … the list goes on, encapsulating a (hi)story of rise and fall, hope in the wake of despair, renewal and faith against the odds, the pains that accompany it, the sacrifices made to secure what one values.
Religion puts on a show, more interested in social control than transcendence. The glorious anniversaries are fanfare, an end in themselves. I’m not observant, as I already mentioned, and not interested in playing along anymore, not even on the major occasions. My focus is on the underlying message of faith, in the lessons one learns and the way one applies and amplifies them in real life, on a daily basis, not on anniversaries.
The way it plays out, our faith is a charade. I can’t see it any other way. We go through the motions, ticking all the boxes to make ourselves feel better while living lives out of tune with the wisdom we pay tribute to. Our world was mounted to the proverbial cross a long time ago, and it’s been hanging there ever since, suffering abuse by a mass of Pharisees, scribes and merchants of the sinister persuasion. We relive the Passion of the Christ again and again, the coarse leading the eager, the world getting louder, everyone 100% right, chosen, every side blaming the other for the world’s woes, seeking deliverance from each other’s evil. The atmosphere is charged and menacing. We’re in Holy Week fifty-two times a year.
I find it hard to celebrate Christmas and the birth of hope, or Easter and the resurrection of all dear and lost things – and our deliverance from temptation and evil – when the world we live in resembles the holy tale we pay heed to, only the tale has turned into a hollow distraction, if not one of the reasons for which much of the abuse is conducted in the first place.
It seems to me that today’s Church has little to envy from the Pharisees and sundry who came down like a hammer on Christ. I can’t relate to the institution anymore, the way it reveres power and dominion – the manner in which it relegates kindness, compassion, and the beauty such virtues give rise to. Had Jesus walked among us today they would have crushed Him, Him and anyone who echoed His message – anyone who pointed out the hypocrisy in their setup – they would have torn them apart.
I was baptized as an infant, meaning it was not my choice to enter the faith, and have yet to decide whether to extricate myself from the Greek Orthodox Church i.e. officially reject it. I’m considering it.
Whatever happens, I’ll remain be partial to the story of Jesus Christ, inspired by His message.
Still, as things stand, I don’t consider myself a Christian, not in today’s terms. Its founder would be ashamed of it, and so am I.
To be fair, I don’t know if I would have joined the congregation of Jesus back in the day either. I’m not the disciple kind, nor a follower at large. More like a free spirit open to new ways of seeing things, I embrace the mental and spiritual revolutions from afar, in parallel and tandem, to each our own. My allegiance remains to the spirit of deliverance from the powers that be, a battle against systemic corruption and degeneration. I’m ‘anti-atavism’ and ‘pro-evolution.’ Every week is Christmas and Holy Week, so to speak, and the books I engage with give me strength and clarity to push through, page by page, line by line. They offer me insight, the kind I’ve been denied by the GOC ever since I was born (the obsolete Koine matters more to the clergy than communicating with congregants, which is reminiscent of the Pharisees and scribes, and I can’t help pondering how that setup played out in the Gospel), a power structure that cannibalizes goodwill, and to which I refuse to give anything.
The story of Jesus Christ is a reminder that a big part of having faith is to not let the establishment get away with it. Find ways around the powers that be, it says, a way to connect with something larger than life, and if the clergy are not helping, if they’re making it impossible, toss them.
Disillusioned but not disheartened, I strive for purpose in a chaotic world of contradictions and conflict, finding meaning in the meaningless, reasons to keep going.
In the end, when all seems lost and broken, I go back to The Road:
‘Keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.’
I resume Altered States:
‘That true self, that original self …’
I focus on Falling Man:
‘Everything now is measured by after.’
Indeed. There’s always an after. The future depends on it. It’s as close to the divine as I can get. The pursuit of the thereafter, a will to go on even when all seems lost. The power of a smile in the wake of tragedy, a little fire burning somewhere deep inside, keeping the corners lit and warm – that’s what keeps me going, my faith growing, despite the suppression of all things transcendent.