Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Birds Without Wings

Several of the blogs linked here (Prochoros, Pontifications, This is Life) have, in recent days, posted stories about the continuing Turkish pressure on the few remaining Orthodox Christians in Turkey. About 2,000 Greek Christians hang on in Istanbul, and their future, as well as that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, does not look hopeful.

Within the memory of some, Istanbul teemed with Christians. And not only that, but Christians lived throughout Anatolia as they had for 1900 years. But no longer. In fact, they are now so completely gone that the Turkish nationalists have nearly achieved their goal of eradicating any memory that they were ever there. Lest we Americans take too much comfort in our own triumphalism, let us soberly contemplate that this was, more so than anywhere else, the Christian heartland.

One of the best works of literature I read in 2005 was Louis de Berniers' Birds Without Wings. With great sympathy and affection, the author relates the story of a simple village in southwestern Asia Minor. The lives of the villagers are interconnected and overlapping, as would be expected. The village is a pleasant mixture of Greek Christians, Armenian Christians and Turkish Moslems, all of whom, interestingly enough, consider themselves good Ottomans. But they find themselves swept over by the flood of history--the Great War, the Armenian Genocide, the Greco-Turkish War and finally, the expulsion of the Greeks in 1923. de Beniers weaves a tragic and unforgetable story.

That brings me to another book recently read. Fr. Gregory encouraged me to read St. Arsenios the Cappadocian. Fr. Arsenios (1840-1923) was the village priest of Farase, in eastern Cappadocia. He, along with the Christians of Farase were expelled to Greece in 1923. He died 40 days after arriving there (as he predicted he would).

The most memorable story in the book is the final one. As with the fictional families in Birds Without Wings, the Farase Christians lived among Turkish Moslems. A Christian woman and a Turkish woman were best of friends. The Turkish woman told her Christian friend a secret: she wanted to become a Christian. The Greek woman went to Fr. Arsenios with the story. He told her to instruct the woman in the Christian faith. She did so, and the Turkish woman was secretly baptized, being given the name Eleftheria (Greek for "Freedom"). This was kept secret, as her own family would kill her if they knew she had become a Christian. She was able to partake of the Eucharist about 3 times before she became bed-ridden. As she was on her deathbed, she expressed a wish to her Christian friend that she wished more than anything to be able to partake of the Eucharist one more time. As her Turkish family was gathered around, this seemed impossible. The friend informed Fr. Arsenios. He took a small apple, cut a plug out of it and inserted the Holy Communion and then plugged the apple back up. He sent the apple back with the woman to her friends bedside. She entered with her arms folded and the sick Turkish lady knew what she meant. She gave her the apple, which she joyously ate, and soon afterwards died in peace.


Mimi said...

I have wanted to read that book since it came out, and now your review makes me want to even more.

I shall pick it up at my next book store visit.


John said...

I think you will love it. Let me know what you think of it after you've read a bit.

Christina said...

i need to find that book... i think my dad may have it... my great great grandparents were greeks living in asia minor.