Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

III. The Orthodox church

4. Secularisation of Religion. Absence of Heresy. Indifference to Conduct. Position of Priests. Fatalistic Idea of God.
 

It is not an easy task for a foreigner to attempt to form an estimate of the worth and character of religion as it is represented by the Orthodox Church in Macedonia. One glaring and quite objective fact, however, seems to promise a fairly sure inference. Nothing could be more remarkable than the total absence of heresy among the Christians of Turkey and the Balkan States. The active speculation of the Greek mind and its preoccupation with religion produced an endless succession of more or less interesting heresies even during the Middle Ages. With the Turkish conquest they abruptly ceased. A Patriarch who had been educated in Germany played a little with Protestantism in the seventeenth century. I believe there is no other instance of any deviation from the monotonous path of official orthodoxy. There has been schism, it is true, but always on political and never on theological grounds. The explanation lies, I am afraid, on the surface. There is no heresy in the Eastern Church because there is no real interest in religion. Turkish rule has crushed every form of intellectual life, and in the feud of conqueror and conquered, Christianity has become no more than a sort of mental uniform in which one party has marched in a long and doubtful defensive warfare. The conquest did, in


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fact, destroy a peculiarly interesting heresy [1] which flourished under the name of Bogomilism among the Slavs of Macedonia and Bosnia and also in Albania. It seems to have been Unitarian in its theology, Manichean in its metaphysics, and so stubbornly idealist, so certain that all matter and therefore all external forms are evil, that it rejected the sacraments. The little one knows of it suggests an affinity with some of the most spiritual of the Russian peasant heresies. But the modern Balkan peasant has neither the leisure nor the ease of mind to approach religion with any fresh and original insight. And here the Christianity of the Eastern Church compares unfavourably with Islam, which proves its vitality by not a little unorthodox speculation. There is no movement of thought among the Christians which can compare in interest with the Bektashi heresy, with its secret revolt against Mahomet, its mystical tendencies, and its preaching of tolerance and brotherhood (see pp. 246, 247).

Indeed the Cross in the East has become so much a mere symbol of warfare that it is a little difficult to define Orthodox Christianity in any but negative terms. I doubt if it has any important bearing on conduct, and certainly in its traditions there is no longer a trace of that humanitarian spirit of mercy and love which the modern mind tends more and more to read into its religion. The Moslem at least has a theory that he may atone for many sins by giving bread to the pariah dogs of the streets. [2] There is no such sentiment as this among the Christians, and as little recognition of any duty to the poor and the sick. I shall not easily forget the impression made upon me during a visit to Koritza, a wealthy and progressive town with a powerful

1. It was connected with the Paulician heresy in Armenia and also with the later movements among the Albigenses and the Bohemians.

2. I suppose there are few men in history of whose cruelty chroniclers will speak more harshly than Sultan Abdul Hamid. And yet this man was recently at pains to give an order forbidding the European Tramway Company in Constantinople to lay salt on its lines during winter, lest the mixture of salt and snow should cause pain to the feet of the dogs of the street. Which, to some just and eternal intelligence, would be the more guilty the ignorant and superstitious despot who massacres disloyal subjects from fear, or the "enlightened" man of the world who causes pain to dumb animals for gain ?


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Orthodox community which lavishes money on large schools, and a pretentious cathedral, when the Greek Bishop begged me to assign a pound from the British Relief Fund to assist a single family of refugees which was starving within a stone's throw of the episcopal palace. [3] Both at Ochrida and Castoria we made several vain attempts to induce the Bulgarian clergy to visit the sick and the wounded in our hospitals, to bring them some spiritual consolation, to read aloud to them, perhaps, and at all events to cheer them with a kindly human word. But evidently ministrations of this sort do not enter into the Eastern ideal of Christianity. The only concern which the clergy displayed in our patients was a very keen anxiety lest we should encourage these miserable creatures, in need of every attention and nourishment, to break the terribly severe fasts which the Church imposes for thirty days before Christmas as well as during Lent. I can only recollect one piece of evidence to show that the Church interests herself at all in conduct the frequent presence in the churches of crude symbolical pictures in which the awful fate of various sorts of sinners is depicted, and a choice assortment of the wicked, including even Bishops and Pashas, are enduring appropriate but always lurid tortures. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that the confessional, which is still nominally an institution of the Eastern Church, has fallen into almost total disuse. That seems to imply a growing indifference to conduct, but it is also, no doubt, a natural consequence of the ignorance and degra-

3. Nothing could illustrate more dismally the essential barbarism of the Greek Church than the abominable cruelty practised in the monasteries upon lunatics. There are no other asylums in Turkey, and the method of cure consists in imprisoning the sufferer in an underground dungeon, where he is more or less starved, sometimes deprived of water, and often beaten unmercifully to expel the evil spirit. I knew one case where these tortures were exercised upon an old priest, who was suffering from nothing more serious than the failing of mental power, which not infrequently follows a severe attack of influenza. It would be well if the excellent Anglican Churchmen who are trying to promote a union with the Eastern Church would use their influence to reform such abuses as these, instead of perpetuating, by their ludicrous flatteries, the complacency which explains them. The Turks are not the only authors of Eastern atrocities.

Bulgarian monastery near Ochrida; Monastery of Sveti Naoum, Lake Ochrida


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dation of the secular clergy. To go for ethical guidance to the average village priest would indeed be too ridiculous. The married priests outside the larger towns are for the most part almost totally uneducated, and lead the life of peasants, only adding the fees paid by their flock for marriages, baptisms, and funerals to the revenues of their fields. They can read enough to mumble through the ritual, and write sufficiently well to keep the parish registters; but there their superiority to the average peasant ends. Preaching is practically unknown. Their function is not that of the pastor or the teacher. They are simply petty officials who perform the rites appropriate to the crossing of the frontier between this world and the next. They bury and baptize for a consideration, much in the spirit of a customs' officer who takes toll on the border of him who enters and him who leaves. The priest is none the less usually among the leaders of his village. As the representative of the Bishop, and one of the "notables" whom the Turkish authorities may call to account, he exercises considerable power. We had often occasion to appeal to the priest of a devastated village to compile a list of the more destitute families. The result was rarely satisfactory. Either he made a shameless catalogue of his own relatives and friends, or else, fearing to offend any of his flock, he wrote down all alike. The best priests were, as a rule, the men who had been elected by their village as insurgent chiefs because of some natural gift of leadership.

And yet I should convey a totally false impression if any thing in this chapter were to suggest that the Macedonian peasant is deficient in the religious sense. He has it profoundly in some way not very easy to define. He fasts with scrupulous exactitude for no less than two hundred days of the year, and an Orthodox fast, involving, as it does, abstinence not merely from meat, but also from fish, milk, and eggs, is a terribly severe ordeal. In towns, and perhaps in the richer villages, it is not observed in all its rigour, but at least the women of the poor upland villages would rather perish than break it. Ceremonies play a great part in Macedonian life, and yet I can conceive no


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people more scandalously irreverent. Certain rites, like the blessing of the waters on the feast of John the Baptist, when the Bishop casts a cross into the nearest lake or river, for which the young men dive, are frankly pagan and delightfully picturesque. But only an antiquarian could find an excuse for the ceremonial of baptism or marriage. The friends of the infant or of the young couple laugh and talk during the quaint proceedings, and I have heard a Bulgarian priest convulse the church with a witticism emitted during the intervals when he was mumbling incantations and smearing the purple body of the hapless baby with the due number of crosses in oil. But, indeed, there is some excuse for the peasants. Worship is conducted entirely in a dead language, incomprehensible to all but the educated. It is intelligible that the Greeks should cling to the ancient tongue, but when one finds that the new Bulgarian Church revived the old Slavonic of Saints Cyril and Methodius instead of creating a ritual in modern Bulgarian, one suspects that obscurity and remoteness must be essential desiderata of the Oriental religious consciousness. What remains after all these negations is, I think, this: that the Macedonian peasant has a haunting sense of the constant presence of God and the saints. His daily language is moulded by it, and recurring sentences contain the name of God. In Turkish the first word that one learns is yavash (slowly); in Bulgarian it is Gospod (God). Announce that you have come to confer some benefit, the invariable response is, "God has sent you." Ask a village what it will do when the dole you have been providing ceases, and it will answer, "God will see to it." Mention that some one is ill, and you are assailed with a "God will save her. [4] The God behind these phrases is, I suspect, simply the

4. This particular phase of religious feeling results in a complete neglect of all sanitary and medical precautions, particularly where children are concerned. One Bulgarian prelate seemed always to entertain a lurking distrust of our hospital as an impious interference with Providence. "If God means them to get better they will get better; if He doesn't they won't." This typical ecclesiastic often resembled Ibsen's Pastor Manders, who held that insurance against lire implied a defiance of Providence.


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characterless natural force of Eastern Fatalism, endowed with no very definable moral attributes, and entering into no very noteworthy or intimate relation with the human spirit. But the belief in His presence, and in a glorious legion of saints, sometimes visible and always active, and not very clearly distinguished from the traditional Slavonic fairies, is completely sincere, and as yet untouched by Western influences. It is said that in some villages the Bulgarian peasants were only induced to join the insurrection when a phonograph smuggled into church on the fatal Sabbath declared in uncanny tones that it was the voice of Christ who commanded all His followers to rise against the Turks, and assured them of victory. I cannot vouch for the truth of this tale, but if it be an invention it is an apt enough satire on the Christianity of the Balkans.
 

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