Thursday, May 26, 2011

Church Things

An Athenian Icon Vendor Receives a Miracle for Himself

Mystery rain, it should be called, a friend once joked. It’s ninety degrees, sunny, and annoying droplets graze your scalp, threatening your ice cream. You look up, wondering where the water is coming from, and see an Athenian widow swathed in black, sweeping the afternoon’s ablution off a balcony onto the unsuspecting pedestrians below. Her pots of basil are appropriately verdant, and my plain white shirt is newly decorated with a smattering of muddy specks. The ‘rain’ is no mystery, after all.

Young back-packers brush past me sporting matted hair, burnt faces and peeling shoulders from a weekend in the islands. I breathe a mixture of suntan lotion and fish as I exit the open-air market in the Monastiraki section of Athens. Sidewalk vendors bark at me to buy their wares: cold drinks, skewered chunks of roasted lamb, lottery tickets. The windows are filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the tourist market place: chalky replicas of Cycladic idols, pornographic pots and postcards, baskets of milky blue “evil eyes” staring up at me.

Then I stop; I have been looking all over for these tiny religious portraits. I peer into the shop; the walls are lined with icons of all sizes. Before I enter I glance at the name of the store and laugh. The owner has translated it into English, a poor substitute for the Greek. He calls it Church Things. I like the sound of it better in Greek: Ecclesiastica

He’s a burly guy who greets me warmly. “Sit down, please,” he indicates to a stool next to him. A woman is sorting through some items at the table, and when I see them I take in a sharp breath. Even more than the religious icons, I have been looking for these, too. “What are they called?” I ask, pointing at the tiny, hammered squares of silver depicting eyes, arms, legs, ears, Volkswagens. “Tamata,” says the man, stressing the first syllable; he introduces himself as Anastasios. “Whatever you want to pray for, there is a tamato for it. I have many, many more,” he says, dispatching a young man to the back room who fetches two more small plastic bags. He spills them onto the table when he returns. “Ahhhh, c’est tres jolie, tres magnifique,” the woman gushes, fanning them out like a deck of cards.

“Whatever you need to ask God for, you can use these,” Anastasios explains. “You want to heal a broken foot, you hang a tamato of a leg on the iconostasis – the screen in front of the altar of a church - and pray for that. He pauses and smiles gently, offering me a sheet of silver with a flaming heart punched into it.  You want to find your heart's desire,” he says softly, “you use this.”

He is a happy man, or so he seems. I ask him how he got into this business, this shop selling religious artifacts surrounded by the kitsch of lumpy Aphrodite statuettes, cheap sandals and acres of T-shirts.

“A miracle,” he answers flatly. “Years ago,” he begins, “my wife and I tried to have a child, but were not successful. I began to think we will never be able to. We visited fertility specialists, doctors of all kinds,” he goes on. “My wife was told she could not conceive, so she began to pray to the saints.”

“One day she traveled to the island of Tinos,” booms Anastasios, continuing. “She prayed for five days on this very holy island. My wife, you know……” he sweeps back a stiff handful of graying hair,”….she came home. He stops suddenly, then adds in a stage whisper, “My son, he is just turning ten now.” He is beaming, this man who appears to be about sixty years old. In a culture steeped in traditions that are not always politically correct, there are few things more meaningful to a Greek man than being able to produce a son.

“He almost died at birth,” he says, gesturing to his throat. “The doctors had to open his airway to help him breathe….he has a little scar there now, still….” He stopped talking for a moment. “I knew he wouldn’t die, though,” he says finally. “God would not have gone to all this trouble to give me a child just to watch it die…”

“In the night, sometimes, in the shop I worked at before, I would hear noises,” he  murmurs. “My old shop, I sold tourist things, you know, vases, post cards, key rings, all that stuff. But at night, I would sleep in the shop because my wife was so unhappy. I would pray before I went to bed. The night my wife returned from Tinos I slept at the shop,” he paused. “… and was awakened by noises.” His face contorted suddenly, as if struck by a vision. In an agonized hush, he leaned in to whisper in my ear,

“you know, the heavens, they open up every night between two and three in the morning.”

Crossing the room, he sits down, exhausted. I am enraptured by an image of light hovering above his shop when he speaks again. “The next day, my wife felt funny. Three weeks later, the tests confirmed. She was pregnant.”

Half-listening, I sit and ponder the nature of these peculiar metal squares. Anastasios’ naivete reminds me of how kids play telephone with tin cans and string: here’s a direct connection to God - ask for anything you want, and with this lucky silver card, you’ll get it! I watch a dove land on the blue post outside the shop, shrug, and adjust its feathers. It peers in the window, its pebble eyes drawn to shiny frames catching the late afternoon sun. Startled by a noise, it lifts off into the gauzy Athenian sky.

“It was God himself, standing here and speaking to me,” Anastasios is going on, oblivious to my wandering attention span. “I felt him near me, like it was a real man,” he indicates, shaking my shoulders. “At that time, at that moment, I knew what I was to do. I opened this store, selling religious items, portraits of saints. Church things, you know?” he smiles.

I feel dizzy; perhaps it’s the heat, and I can’t choose which ones to buy; arms, legs, torsos.......what part of body do you value most? Even the Volkswagen rates its own tamato. Even in Mexico the same tin sheets of currency, called miraglos, are used to bargain for God’s favor.

Getting up to pay, I ask him how his miracle is doing in school. “Fine, fine,” he assures me, “he is a good boy. But his mother worries about him all the time,” he adds, looking suddenly older and ashen. “Since he was so sick at birth, she feels something else might happen, so he sleeps in her room every night.”

“In your bed?” I ask, wondering how a man of his size, his wife and a ten-year old child can all fit into a typical Greek double bed.

“Yes, in our bed, but without me there,” he indicates, pointing to the floor. “That is where I sleep now.”

“On the floor!” I echo, incredulously. “How long has that been going on?”

“Since he was born,” he answers flatly. “Most of the time I sleep in the shop,” he continues, “it’s more comfortable here.” He looks up at the ceiling, puzzled. “Sometimes I still hear noises between two and three a.m.”

I thank him for the story and offer my hand; he takes it, clasping and shaking it heartily.

“I wish you luck with your child,” I offer weakly, unsure of what to tell him. “I’m sorry you have to sleep on the floor,” I add.

“Oh----no! No problem with that,” he answers reassuringly, squeezing my hand a moment longer before releasing it. “No trouble, really…. sleeping on the floor is a blessing,” he says as he walks me out onto the street.

“You know the secret about miracles?” he asks softly, as though not to offend the saints who might be listening. He pauses for a moment; a look combining bliss and surrender breaks over his face and takes away the ten years.

“If you ask for a miracle….” he steps back into the store, framed by the door and resembling, just for a moment, a saint himself, “don’t ever question the manner in which God delivers it.”

As I step out onto the street, I feel a trickling on my shoulders. Looking up, I shield my eyes against the searing white light. There, on the balcony, broom in hand, is an old woman. Grinning toothlessly at me, her black dress flaps like a helpless crow against the cibachrome sky. While people brush past me I stare at her for a long time, filled with thoughts of loss, of the piercing depths and heights of life. She is alone, but she has her work, a meaningful rhythm of day, a purpose. Instinctively, I reach for the heart against my chest and wonder; maybe I can find mine, again, too.

Checking my watch, I’m lurched back into the present; children are scrambling over a soccer ball in a nearby alley, a caged canary swings, a blur of butter, in a shop doorway, a train whistle in the distance reminds me I have a plane to catch. Slowly, I get my bearings, adjust my pack and once again join the moving river of people. At the end of the street, I turn back to look; the old woman is no longer on the balcony. Something compels me to wave at her anyway; I lift my hand above my head. It’s a tentative salute, I suspect, to mysteries: both those which can be solved….and those which are not meant to be.


Photo of Anastasios and Amanda at Ecclesiastica, Athens

For more information about the miraculous icon of Tinos go here

25 comments:

  1. Some mysteries can never be solved. If they were, life would become too boring. Looking forward to the next mystery and to your wonderful posts ....

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  2. Fabulous post Amanda...your writing is wonderful and flows with such magic and exciting energy..thanks for such an intriguing story!
    Shine on
    Victoria

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  3. yes,,, that is a fact isn't it?,,,

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  4. Yowza. This made me both sit very still and tear up. Beautifully-penned.

    ... where can I get a silver-heart tamato ?

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  5. Oh, so poetic, so full of marvelous imagery. The miracle is in your telling.

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  6. This is as fascinating as the story you told about this last August.

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  7. Beautifully written. I love mystical mysteries :-)

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  8. Nice observational touches here, Amanda.

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  9. I wouldn't be happy to have such a 'rain' on my clothes:)

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  10. So well written. I was there.

    Pearl

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  11. great story...I felt a little Greek myself for awhile. He sounds like a real sweetheart....his wife may have a few issues though.....

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  12. loree - i agree - mysteries are the spice of life!

    victoria - thank you kindly for this sweet comment xo

    glenn - i guess you can say that mysteries are here to stay and that is a fact!

    suze - again, kind words, and much appreciated♡ about the tamato - please email your mailing address~

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  13. rosaria - you are too sweet ♡

    r-bear - until you mentioned it, i forgot i posted this before. i could use a memory like yours.....

    sara - kind thanks. i like the way you put it - mystical mysteries ;-)

    robert - thank you!

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  14. ola - mystery rain is a bit gross, to be sure :-(

    pearl - thank you for your kind comment, and for visiting - and i am curious if you mean athens or ecclesiastica by there?

    sue - i hear a lot of women in greece have traveled to tinos in an attempt to become pregnant, so it's not an isolated event - but yes, it is a strange custom to be sure~

    robert - thanks! high praise, coming from an athenian resident!

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  15. Amanda....this is OUTSTANDING!

    I want to read more, more, more about this setting, these people, and the icons. I heard the words "Publish this!" as I read the story.

    You blend great sensitivity, intellect,and power of observation into your exquisite ability to write.

    What a joy it is to come to your blog. Thank you, Amanda.

    (I hope the sentence about maybe finding your purpose was for literary effect...surely you have found a bit of that in so generously sharing your wisdom with us.)

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  16. A noisy God in the thick of night? I thought angels were silent spirits...but this is Greece where the Olympians have all the human failures and then some.
    Anastasios seems a decent fellow. I had an uncle, that I have never met, of that name.
    Pavlos

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  17. Wonderful story - and I like his summing up "accept and don't question"...smart man.

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  18. Dear Amanda, I was here before (Friday), but my comment did not go through.;))
    LOVED this post then, love it now.;)) Mystery in our lives is the spice that makes it worth our while. I need not to explain it all, I need to live it all. And indeed, miracles happen when we least expect and in the way we least expect it.
    Love your story telling, which is captivating and enticing at the same time.;)
    Hope you are having a lovely Memorial Day,
    xoxo

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  19. jo - thank you kindly, dear - supportive words such as yours are so lovely to hear —
    and yes, i had written another fictionalized version of this (a true story) and remnants of that version stayed with it at the end....

    paul - that sentence booms with literary weight - a noisy god in the thick of night — i may have to appropriate it some day! too good! yes - i would imagine the greek gods are not likely to tiptoe around, instead choosing to crash about in the heavens!

    mim - although his shop was filled with religious artifacts, he seemed a much more spiritual type~

    zuzana - i love what you said - i need not explain it all, i need to live it all.........wow. i simply love that — can i borrow it?

    sending hugs♡

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  20. The little touches in your lovely story that keep Amanda planted in reality are well appreciated. Thanks for the post.

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  21. bob - thank you, my friend. i have written a fictional version of this that veers off into mystical realism.......maybe i'll publish that one in the future.

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  22. You are welcome to use the "noisy god" all you want.

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  23. Trust love faith?

    Your encounter moved me but left me feeling a little sad and not sure if it's for the husband the wife or their child, perhaps all three.

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  24. My dear Amanda,

    I just received my tamato, for the granting of the wishes of my heart. The interesting thing is that I received it within fifteen minutes of an email from an agent who was letting me know she had just passed one of my manuscripts onto her boss.

    Thank you from the bottom of my wishing heart.

    Your friend,
    -Suze

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Thank you for visiting♡