By Jackie Morfesis

Fair to say that nearly fifty years ago I watched “Zorba the Greek”, the spectacular, stunning, comic, and yes, tragically haunting film by the great writer Nikos Kazantzakis and directed by Michael Cacoyiannis. At the time, through a child’s eyes, I knew even then that this film spoke to my heritage. To my family’s history. To my ethnic background. To the generations upon generations before me who hail from Ithaka, Greece.

I was spellbound by the beauty of the landscape of the island of Crete in the film. By its exquisite stature and also by its barrenness. The film was a sea of contradictions and opposites. Let me explain. Even as a child, I was emotionally moved by the scene where the widow, played by Irene Papas, was stoned and then stabbed because she resisted the advances of a young man who then committed suicide. She also transgressed the cultural norm and had sexual relations with Basil, played by Alan Bates. When she was encircled by the village men brandishing rocks, it struck a primal and fearful chord in my heart. Specifically, the heart of a young girl. As an adult, I know that it is reminiscent of women being stoned in the Old Testament as punishment for adultery and prostitution until we are told in the New Testament of Jesus’ admonition against stoning.

In another scene, when I saw the old women of the village encircle the dying love interest of Zorba, like a cackle of ravenous crows, that too struck a chord in my soul. I knew that this was something awful. Something from the very bowels of humanity. Today we may not witness such blatant descent of greed upon the dying, but we certainly all know stories of families battling in and out of court over inheritances. Because something appears more sophisticated and civil doesn’t mean it is truly any less brutal or heartless.

I am sure at the time that there were and still may be those of Greek descent who were horrified to see such negative and derogatory depictions of our culture. Not without reason, these are disturbing scenes. Yet, as an adult, I look back and wonder if the blinding beauty of this film could even exist if it were not for the equal intensity of its blinding horror. This is very much the same way I felt when I spent one year in Greece on a Rotary scholarship. I witnessed and experienced such sweetness, incredible and profound joy, and also in many ways, a chilling, cold, harshness that seemed to be woven into the very rock and stone of its mountains.

We visited our extended family in Ithaka when I was a young child. Like many Greek families, my family took more than one trip overseas. On another occasion, my father’s brother Dennis, my Uncle Denny, went over with his mother, my yiayia. They went to Ithaka to the village of our relatives. My Uncle Denny invited our cousin to go to dinner and dance. Her parents would not allow her to go. Evidently, dancing at one of the clubs on the island was considered scandalous. I am sure they danced at family parties, church functions, etc. This was very similar to the way I was raised. I was allowed to attend all church social functions, but I was not allowed to attend any of the school dances except for my prom, most likely because I was asked by the Greek valedictorian of my class.

What I want to share about the incident with my uncle and my cousin is going to sound shocking in the context of today. Yet decades ago, it may have only raised eyebrows, if anything at all. My uncle and aunt in Ithaka, in their effort to stop my cousin from going dancing with my uncle, locked her in the cellar of their village home until my uncle returned from the evening.

I remember hearing this story and feeling extreme empathy. As if I was a caged bird, just like all the delicate and treasured caged birds of Zorba’s love interest, Bouboulina. All I could ask was why? Why were young girls and women being treated as property to be controlled and contained?

I was moved by Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of Zorba in the film and by Basil, Alan Bates. Yet, I was also moved by the widow, Irene Papas. Clothed in black and shrouded in silence, she embodied the unspoken yet powerful presence of a woman on fire who was not allowed to burn. Zorba said it best when he commented to Basil that all the men wanted her and hated her because they could not have her; only Basil could. What tremendous insight. What searing truth.

I cannot help but think of how young girls and women are still kept in their place in Greek culture and life. Certainly not to the extent it once was, yet it still exists. Especially in our churches.

I started my church life as all Orthodox Christians. I was baptized. I grew up in the church. I went to Sunday School. Greek School. I was involved in J.O.Y., G.O.Y.A., and Y.A.L. I belonged to the Daughters of Penelope. I traveled to AHEPA conventions. I sang in the choir. I served overseas as a youth counselor at Ionian Village. I served for years on the Parish Council. Yet, a six-year-old boy has more access to the altar of my church than I do. A male convert to Orthodoxy has more access to the altar than I do and is allowed greater opportunity to serve in the church than I do.

This is something that women in the church have come to understand and accept. In fact, it is not even something that I would venture to say that most Orthodox women even think about. Just like we do not sit and ponder why we are not welcome at Mt. Athos monastery complex all day long. It is a given. Like the sun and the moon. The stars. The wind.

Like the women in Zorba the Greek, our position is still regulated. Still contained. Managed. We are the church of the Church Fathers. Not the Church of the Church Mothers. We are the Patriarchal Church, not the Matriarchal Church. Once again, opposites. Polarities. Where do they join?

For my whole life, this truly never mattered to me. I remember my name being called on the roster for altar servers, but that was only a mix-up. Since that one brief window of time when I was almost allowed to serve on God’s altar, I have not thought about it too deeply or at length.

Until a few days ago when I rewatched Zorba the Greek. I know of women who have left the Orthodox Church not because they were not faithful Christians but because they were. They left because God’s gifts could not be fully realized within our church.

Scripture is very clear that we have all been given gifts. As a creative soul and a woman of faith, to not be given the opportunity to pursue and fulfill your gifts is a true tragedy. I believe that this is also a theme of Zorba the Greek.

Speaking of my own family, my father, a very talented singer, received a full scholarship to study voice when he graduated high school in Pennsylvania. In fact, he was chosen by the famed conductor Eugene Ormandy and sang in an all-boys choir at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Even this did not persuade his father from Ithaka to allow him to pursue a career in music. When my father told his father about the scholarship, his father said: “Throw it in the trash; you are going to be a cook.” Similar to the response given to my mother’s mother, who wanted to pursue a career in nursing. Her father was more dramatic. He told her if she mentioned wanting to be a nurse again, she would no longer be able to speak.

How many Greeks and Greek Americans have similar stories? Stories of unfulfilled dreams? Stories of being threatened for wanting more from life. Stories of being locked up or locked away?

I know that regardless of how much I love the Lord and how much I use the gifts that He gave me, I will never, in a million years, be given the access, support, encouragement, or agency that men have within the Orthodox Church. I am grateful for the men who have given me support. Who have recognized my passion and my gifts. I am grateful for those who do not continually need to push down, suppress, and smother the voices of our young girls and women. Including Dr. Nick Stamatakis, among others. Men who are unafraid of women with a voice.

Even so, I cannot count the times when I have come face to face if you will with the eyes of disapproval. Eyes that tell me, you can only go so far and no farther. I have not been physically stoned like the widow in Zorba the Greek, but I can attest to having stones thrown at my faith walk and at my life.

What can faithful Orthodox women do? She can teach Sunday School or Greek School or become involved in the Philoptochos. She can become a monastic if she has the calling. However, within the church, she cannot preach. Share God’s word. Minister. Or evangelize. Only within very specific and contained boundaries. Outside of my church, I can serve God in every way He calls me.

However, as an Orthodox woman, what I truly cannot do is be on fire in unacceptable ways. Unfortunately, being on fire for God within a patriarchal church is also stepping outside our boundaries if it means questioning the power structure and those in power. Being on fire for God within the Orthodox Church means you will hit a brick wall again and again with clergy, monastics, leaders, and authorities. One step out of place, and you will quickly find that there are countless ways to put you back in your place. Most of them revolve around being lectured on reading about the lives of the saints and developing greater humility instead of encouraging us to study God’s Word and follow Christ. The patriarchal thread weaves its way into a woman’s life over and over, sometimes in ways that serve to strengthen and lift us up and sometimes in ways that serve to do nothing more than attempt to strangle our very voice and contain our breath.

My father, like many Greek fathers, was mythic in my eyes. He was like Zorba, greater than life. In addition to being a father like many of my friends’ Greek fathers, yes, I heard the stories; my father gave me something as well as a strict upbringing. To understand what else my father gave me, we only need to hear the words of the great Nikos Kazantzakis, as said by Zorba: “A man needs a little madness, or else…he never dares cut the rope and be free.”

I have a little madness. Otherwise, I would not be able to write these words. I would not be able to speak up in the face of power when I see that our religious leaders are not leading filled with the spirit but filled with secular and worldly ambitions. I would not be able to speak up when others are silent. I would not be so bold as to take risks when it is easier to be safe.

So, right here and right now, I am thanking my father, Peter, the rock who controlled and contained my life in many ways. The one who put boundaries upon me no less than a cage surrounding a delicate bird. The one who confined me in ways that took decades to understand, unravel, and work to heal. Certainly, he was guided just as his father was guided by his love and protection, doing what he believed was best.

Yet, even so, he saw my fire. Because he, too, had fire. He saw my talents. Because he too, had talents. He acknowledged them. He was even proud of them and encouraged me to pursue them, especially because his own father denied him that opportunity. Even though, in many ways, I was told no when I wanted to fly. I was told no when I wanted to do and pursue some of the things that children my own age had permission to do, he did give me something even more valuable. Like Zorba, he gave me the gift of having a little madness.

There is so much more that we can also learn from this film. The value of true friendship. The value of dreams. To be unafraid of living, of being spirit in this flesh and blood body. The necessity of laughter. Of seeing the world through philosophic eyes. Of being able to step back from the tragedy of life and find hope even amid catastrophe.  Especially when our lives fall to ashes, to know that we have choices. We always have a choice. We can even dance.

 

7 COMMENTS

  1. Beautiful post Jackie & it’s true that women are treated like children by some Greek men…even by clergy, but stand strong like the great nun Mother Gavrilia of Greece who gave up her millions to be monastic and kept company with the gems of Orthodoxy.

    As for film, Zorba should’ve been played by a Greek actor – just like St Nick Shrine’s architect should’ve been Greek.

  2. Beautifully worded; Jackie–you truly are a Wordsmith! You have great insights that you are able to externalize through your writing. Let me ask you something? After my dear mother passed away several years ago, I wanted to deliver a heartfelt eulogy in her honor–in the church, by the lectern. I was told that was not allowed, and that I’d have to wait till the Macaria to utter my tribute–in a local restaurant! As a daughter, you can imagine how this stung and how it piled on further grief an anguish!
    Lo and behold, I felt powerless. I will now skip forward–it’s two years later; I go to a funeral in the N.Y. Metro-Area, and the daughter is up at the lectern eulogizing her father! Was her voice stronger? Did her family have more power, that the powers-that be – allowed her what was denied me? Double standard? Now, I’m thinking like your Zorba–I’m thinking, we need to straighten out so much. Do we have the strength in numbers? Can we, as women, eulogize in the sanctity of Church-as opposed to the noisy “inappropriate” setting of a 150 people, where people were barely able to hear my words! Yes- change is needed… No daughter should be denied the honor and the privilege of honoring her beloved mother within the confines of the church, where her mother still is in her midst’s and will hear the last words of love!

  3. Stunning and heartfelt – thank you for sharing your beautiful and personal story. May I humbly suggest you continue sharing your message?

    • Pamela, thank you for your sweet words. Advice please – in what ways are you thinking for me to continue to share this message?

  4. Larissa, thank you for sharing. Memory eternal to your beloved mother. I hear you and empathize with you. I care gave to my mother in my home and will never forget the audacity of a man who did not even visit her (us) in her illness nor phone nor send a card – get up at the Makaria and eulogize my mother. It was one more attack upon my grief and exhaustion. I am sorry to hear that you were denied the opportunity in Gods’ house to eulogize your mother. You have also hit the nail on the head. We do have strength in numbers. Many times, the lone voice cries in the wilderness. Let us stand together and speak power and life over each other. Let us support each other – with love instead of being consumed with fear.

  5. You are right: Christianity is Patriarchal and it should be. Nothing wrong with that. God knows how to organize His church. In Islam no woman complains!!! Why not? Because Muslims are taught to NOT question God. Christians think they can do that and you have these problems. Women are given amazing gifts and talents and they are to be used to raise wonderful families. Without such families, the world falls apart. Look at it now. Plenty of passages to back up what I am saying. The world has infiltrated the church, priests/preachers are scared to say what I am saying, so the poison of feminism is seeping through and infecting the churches. Not good. Absolute and total submission to God is what is required. I only found that in Islam, really. Christians are forever arguing with God about everything. That is weak and embarrassing. I too loved Zorba the Greek. I grew up in Southern Italy…a bit similar to Ellada. I’ve been to Ellada and in some small villages. I can see the various bad cultural problems. Those are problems. Very similar to bad Islam country villages with really weird and very bad customs the result in terrible things. Small village mess has nothing to do with pure religion. May God have mercy on us all.

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