If you ask a priest in a Greek Orthodox village to explain his religion to you, the chances are that he won’t open a Bible and tell you about the Roman Road or the Four Spiritual Laws. Instead, he will probably invite you into his church and show you around. He will explain the importance of the iconostasis and who the icons are of. Then he would tell you about the order of service and show you the prayer books he uses. Give him enough time and he will probably tell you about the different feasts of the church, and the rituals for funerals and baptisms. I would like to think that this is because at the heart of Greek Orthodoxy lies not doctrine, but worship. That would be the beautiful, theologically correct answer. But when the local priest in Zarakas, a village in the Peloppenese, used this method to introduce Laurie Kain Hart to Greek Orthodox Christianity in 1983 it may not have been because he had thought deeply about how to catechize anthropologists. According to the 1979 census, Hart tells us, “out of a total of 8,000 priests, 650 possessed theology degrees from a university; 2,300 had two years of theological training at a major seminary; 2,900 had only secondary education with courses in theology at a minor seminar; and 1,400 were ordained before World War Two when only elementary school education was required.”
The picture of Greek Orthodoxy that Hart presents in Time, Religion, and Social Experience in Rural Greece (1992) is one of deeply held beliefs accompanied by very little actual knowledge about Christianity. “Orthodoxy is, essentially, learned through the calendar and through biography,” Hart writes. By biography, she means biographies of saints like the Virgin Mary, whose life is played out as “annunciation, birth, presentation (initiation), death, ascension.” Each of the festivals surrounding these events reminds us that God came to earth, became man and died to save us. So as to bring this message to mind as profoundly as possible, it is reinforced with food. One looks forward to Easter for the lamb, and if you’re lucky, you remember that the lamb has something to do with the Lamb of God who died for the sins of the world.
Whether or not you keep the fasts in Zarakas probably depends on whether you are male or female. Hart says, “Although families will come to the liturgy together at important holy days and although older men will often attend church regularly on their own, it is the responsibility of the women of the family to go to church and to carry out religious duties. Women and girls are expected to go to church, married men may or may not attend. … There is no particular expectation that men should make a show of religious devotion. … Women care for the domestic icons, and it women who, as the cooks of the household, organize and keep the fasts. It is quite acceptable for a woman to keep the fast herself and cook meat for her husband. This is the principle of delegation in Orthodoxy which also applies to nuns and monks; the religious work of the monasteries is carried out for the sake of the world, and women follow the fast as representatives of the family.”
The Lord’s Supper lies at the heart of the Orthodox liturgy, but most villagers don’t take that either. This is not because they don’t believe it is important. Far from it. The Eucharist is so sacred, and preparation for it through confession is so crucial, that most people are afraid to receive it more than once a year. Only children eat the body and drink the blood on a regular basis. This attitude towards the Lord’s Supper hints at what it means that so few people actively participate in church rituals. What it DOESN’T mean is that few people believe in God. In a Greek village, lack of church attendance is no barometer of faith. What it does mean is that people can cherish deeply held beliefs without being able to articulate them through doctrinal formulations or perform them in public.
Villagers in Zarakas say that women wear their faith “on the outside,” meaning that presumably because men’s faith is less public it is no less sincere. But if it is not important to behave religiously and if one can heave faith without being able to explain it, what DO you have to have to be a believer? Hart’s answer is community. As long as you are part of the village community, celebrate the name days, and respect the priest, you belong to the local religious community too. And belonging, not performing, is what matters in this beautiful little Greek village.