SINCE ARRIVING IN GREECE, I have thought a great deal about what it means to be conservative. Such meditations come easily here. Greece is one of the most profoundly conservative societies on earth.
I am not talking about politics. In classic European fashion, Greek politics veer from one extreme to the other. A military junta ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. Today, the socialist PASOK party holds sway.
But conservatism – real conservatism – pays no heed to the comings and goings of dictators and politicians. It is a matter of the heart.
I felt its pulse last weekend when I journeyed to Kephalonia – an island which recently acquired a veneer of hipness, when the film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was shot there.
Like most places in Greece, Kephalonia is experiencing an orgy of overbuilding. Restaurants, hotels and nightspots are rising at a fever pace, to accommodate a stampede of tourists which may or may not materialize.
But the real action on Kephalonia occurs not in the commercial realm, but in that of tribe, ritual and tradition.
My wife has relatives there, which makes her an honorary Kephaloniti. This proved lucky for us, as the Kephalonitis retain their ancient disdain for outsiders.
At one point, my sister-in-law transformed a rude and surly cab-driver instantaneously into her best friend by explaining her family connection to the island. "Around here, if you’re not Kephaloniti, you’re xenos, a stranger," she explained afterwards.
In the oh-so-sensitive world of the European Union, "xenophobia" has become a buzzword for "hate." But the Greeks – who invented the word xenos – make no apology for distrusting outsiders.
Only Greece’s deep-rooted "xenophobia" saved it from extinction through 400 years of Turkish occupation. While Bosnians, Albanians and other neighbors curried favor with the Turks by embracing Islam, Greece clung defiantly to its Christian faith.
The Orthodox Church today is inseparable from Greek identity. Indeed, it is in matters of religion that Greece shows its conservatism most plainly.
Growing up in the Catholic Church during the Sixties, I watched the death of the Latin liturgy; the shedding of nuns’ habits; and the institution of "folk masses" featuring sing-alongs of "Blowin’ in the Wind." I saw priests – with perfectly straight faces – deliver homilies in which they analyzed the lyrics of Jesus Christ Superstar.
The Greek church knows nothing of such foolery. Its rituals remain unchanged since Byzantine times.
On Kephalonia last weekend, we paid our respects to St. Gerasimos, whose remains lie in a monastery high in the mountains, encased in glass, within a silver sarcophagus. When my turn came, I stuck my head through the open panel of the sarcophagus, as I had seen others do, and kissed the saint’s velvet-wrapped leg bones. At the head of the coffin, I kissed the glass, behind which I could see the saint’s mummified face, his mouth agape, his gray-green flesh clinging to his skull.
One of my wife’s cousins – a passionate leftist – told me that St. Gerasimos is known to rise from his tomb and walk the hills of Kephalonia. She urged us to visit the island on August 15 – the Assumption of the Virgin – when serpents with crosses on their heads mysteriously gather around a certain church. The faithful pick up the snakes and hold them to their breasts.
I was married years ago in a Greek Orthodox church in Manhattan. The priest and cantor sang the ancient liturgy in the same inscrutable Byzantine Greek that we heard last weekend in Kephalonia. At the high point of the service, the priest took my hand and led me and my bride in a procession three times around the altar – a ritual that signified our joining as man and wife.
While we walked, I caught sight of my mother-in-law in the pews, nodding her approval, a deep smile of satisfaction on her face.
Her look reminded me of a TV documentary I had seen, about Haida Indians in the Pacific Northwest, whose young people began reviving long-neglected ancestral dances. While the young people danced, the camera zoomed in on an elderly woman who nodded slowly, a look of profound satisfaction on her face reminiscent of my Greek mother-in-law’s expression at my wedding.
We have the power, through our actions, to bring peace to our parents’ hearts, to send them quietly to their rest with the comforting assurance that generations may come and go, but tribe and family endure forever.
That selfless impulse forms the heartbeat of Greek society. In my view, it also constitutes the essence of conservatism.