Where to Light a Candle is to Pray

John Betjeman’s poem ‘Greek Orthodox’ was first published in London Magazine, New Series, October/November 1971 (volume 11, number 4). It was later included in A Nip in the Air (London: John Murray, 1974).

To the Reverend T P Symonds

What did I see when first I went to Greece?
Shades of the Sixth across the Peloponnese.
Though clear the clean-cut Doric temple shone
Still droned the voice of Mr Gidney on;
‘That ὅτι? Can we take its meaning here
Wholly as interrogative?’ Edward Lear,
Show me the Greece of wrinkled olive boughs
Above red earth; thin goats, instead of cows,
Each with its bell; the shallow terraced soil;
The stone-built wayside shrine; the yellow oil;
The tiled and cross-shaped church, who knows how old
Its ashlar walls of honey-coloured gold?
Three centuries or ten? Of course, there’ll be
The long meander off to find the key.

The domed interior swallows up the day.
Here, where to light a candle is to pray,
The candle flame shows up the almond eyes
Of local saints who view with no surprise
Their martyrdoms depicted upon walls
On which the filtered daylight faintly falls.
The flame shows up the cracked paint — sea-green blue
And red and gold, with grained wood showing through —
Of much-kissed ikons, dating from, perhaps,
The fourteenth century. There across the apse,
Ikon- and oleograph-adorned, is seen
The semblance of an English chancel screen.

‘With oleographs?‘ you say. ‘Oh, what a pity!
Surely the diocese has some committee
Advising it on taste?’ It is not so.
Thus vigorously does the old tree grow,
By persecution pruned, watered with blood,
Its living roots deep in pre-Christian mud,
It needs no bureaucratical protection.
It is its own perpetual resurrection.
Or take the galleon metaphor — it rides
Serenely over controversial tides
Triumphant to the Port of Heaven, its home,
With one sail missing — that’s the Pope’s in Rome.

Vicar, I hope it will not be a shock
To find this village has no ‘eight o’clock’.
Those bells you heard at eight were being rung
For matins of a sort but matins sung.
Soon will another set of bells begin
And all the villagers come crowding in.
The painted boats rock empty by the quay
Feet crunch on gravel, faintly beats the sea.
From the domed church, as from the sky, look down
The Pantocrator’s searching eyes of brown,
With one serene all-comprehending stare
On farmer, fisherman and millionaire.

2 comments to Where to Light a Candle is to Pray

  • MARIA KEPELEK

    tender thanks Father Justin, perfect pictures, perfect language! All in style!
    I miss Sinai, I need to pray there, my torture here comes to end, soon I will be on the pink-blue island of Elafonisi.
    Please pray for me, I know i may one day live just in prayer and silence..
    A pain in my heart, sorrow and tears…

  • maria kepelek

    My soul my heart is longing for the divine ευχαριστια in St.Katerina
    Please Father pray for me, I need to be there..

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