Hayes family of South Africa

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by Stephen Hayes

In March 1998 I visited the Balkans for the first time. The main purpose of my journey was to collect material for a doctoral thesis on "Orthodox mission methods", and to try to get a better idea of what role the Church was playing and could play in resolving some of the conflicts in that part of the world.

My original focus of interest was Yugoslavia, and when I started asking travel agents about plane fares from Johannesburg to Belgrade, they told me that Olympic Airways had a special to Sofia, Bulgaria, with a stopover in Athens, and that it was possible to get a train from Sofia to Belgrade, so I opted for that. It would also give the opportunity to see my daughter Bridget, who is studying in Athens. I was also invited to visit Albania by Fr Luke Veronis, who was teaching at the Orthodox seminary there. In the event, however, I never made it to either Albania or Yugoslavia, as it proved very difficult to get visas for them.


So I flew to Athens on the night of 20-21 March, leaving a warm South African autumn for a cool Balkan spring, when day and night were of equal length throughout the journey, and arrived in Athens just after 5 am. I was met at the airport by George Stefanakis and my daughter Bridget. I had "met" George by e-mail; he runs the Orthodox Gathering webring on the world wide web, and George very kindly got up at such an early hour and travelled right across Athens to fetch Bridget and meet me. Over the next couple of days George and I met and discussed BBSs (computer bulletin boards), as a means of linking Orthofox Christians in different countries, and George is setting up his own BBS, which I hope he will be able to links to various networks.

Bridget had been in Athens for the previous six months. She had a bursary to study at the University of Athens, but the first year consists entirely of language study to learn enough Greek to follow lectures and write essays when the "real" course begins.

On the Sunday after I arrived Bridget and I went to the monastery of St John the Forerunner at Karea for the Divine Liturgy. The bus dropped us half way up the hill, and it was quite a steep walk up to the monastery which was hidden away in a fold of the mountain. The Liturgy began quite early, at 7:30 am, but it was very warm by the time we had climbed the hill. In spite of the early hour, the monastery chapel was packed with people. It is a very beautiful chapel, with ikons painted by the sisters. Throughout the Liturgy, more and more people kept arriving, and when the side door opened to let in more people at one point, we could see that it was snowing outside.

After the Liturgy there was a question and answer session, led by the chaplain to the monastery, Fr Antonios, attended by about 100 people. The discussion was about human relationships, and how one could be kind and loving to people in all circumstances. We stayed to lunch with Fr Antonius, and another priest, Fr Vassilios, who is also Bridget's spiritual father.

The monastery began as a sisterhood, who lived in their homes in Athens under their spiritual father, and then offered themselves to the Archbishop of Athens for mission service. The Archbishop offered them the monastery at Karea. It had originally been a male monastery, but the monks had moved to Moni Petraki in central Athens, and the Archbishop did not want the Karea monastery to become a museum. The sisters moved in to the monastery at Karea in 1971, and grew in numbers, and there are now about 40 sisters - from Albania, Finland and Kenya as well as Greece (some of them are working as missionaries in Albania, and some have also worked in East Africa). Bridget had stayed there in the guest rooms for her first week in Athens. It's about a 25 minute bus ride from central Athens (bus 203, for anyone who may be going to Athens and might like to visit).


Plamen Sivov
Plamen Sivov
On Monday 23 March I flew to Sofia, Bulgaria, to meet Plamen Sivov of the Pokrov Foundation and Fr Kirill Kiradjiev, who maintains the Web page of the Bulgarian Patriarchate. Fr Kirill took me to meet Marin Virbanov, who told me something about the state of the Bulgarian Church. Marin was one of the founders of the Patriarch Evtimou Youth Organisation, which had started during a student strike in 1991. He said that the communists had separated the theology faculty from the university into a separate academy because they had not wanted the theology students to "contaminate" the students of other faculties. It sounded familiar - in South Africa in the 1970s the government had expropriated the Federal Theological Seminary in Alice because they did not want the students at the University of Fort Hare contaminated by independent thinking.

The strike lasted several months, and during those months of idleness the theology students occupied the time by giving public lectures in Orthodox theology to anyone who was interested in hearing. After the academy was reintegrated into the university, the youth movement that was thus started continued to give public lectures and now has branches in various parts of the country.

The Bulgarian Church had been more weakened under communism than most of the other Orthodox Churches. This was because after the initial communist takeover, when about 60 priests had been killed, there was little overt persecution. Instead, the communists controlled the church by infiltrating spies and informers. Their job was to ensure that the worst students in seminaries passed, while the best ones failed. The worst clergy were promoted, while the best ones were denied promotion. The aim was to promote venality and corruption among the church leaders in order to destroy the public image of the church.

Another effect of the communist period was that Christians sought anonymity. People wanted to slip into churches unnoticed and unseen, and this has persisted, so in most parishes there is little community life. In addition, at the end of the communist period, a self-styled reformer, Christopher Subev, had promoted a schism in the church. The schism was promoted by various political factions, and it has made it difficult for the church to rebuild. There are a lot of vested economic interests involved as well. Much church property was expropriated by the communist government, and the schism provides a convenient excuse for the government not to hand it back, because they say they don't know who to give it to. This gives politicians the opportunity to feather their own nests with the property they control.

Fr Kirill also took me to see Archimandrite Gavril of the Patriarch's office. He said that monastic life in Bulgaria was very weak. There were 30 monasteries in Sofia diocese, and about 120 in the whole of Bulgaria, not all of them occupied. There are about 120 male and 200-300 female monastics. There are, however, small signs of a revival, as small groups are starting new monasteries or reopening old ones.

A couple of days later Plamen Sivov took me to the monastery of St Peter and St Paul, just outside Sofia. It had originally been a male monastery, but all the monks were killed and the monastery destroyed at the time of the Turkish invasion in the 14th century. At the beginning of the 20th century a hermit went to live there, and rebuilt the church, but it was demolished again by the communists in the 1970s. Now it has been reopened a third time as a female monastery. Sr Veronica, who became a Christian in the 1980s, opened it, and lives there with a novice, Sr Desislava, and with the help of people from the local village they have rebuilt the church. In the world St Veronica was a chemist, and Sr Desislava was trained as a film director. Now they live surrounded by building material, without electricity or telephones (the expense of putting in the lines is too great), yet many people, including those of the Pokrov Foundation, look to them for advice as spiritual mothers.

Veliko Turnovo

Plamen Sivov also took me with a Dutch visitor to Veliko Turnovo, about 200 km east of Sofia, where we met more leaders of the Patriarch Evtimou youth movement, which has its headquarters there. Dimiter Kirov and Mariyan Stoyadinov, of the theology faculty of the St Cyril & St Methodius University there, told us more of how it started, and of their involvement with the Balkan Orthodox Youth Association.

Veliko Turnovo
Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria
The visit made some rather abstract things become real for me. For years I have heard the prayer of commemoration of the saints at the Vigil service, commemorating "Evthymios of Turnovo". Seeing where he lived, and meeting members of a youth movement inspired by his example and named after him, gives a new dimension to the Vigil service.

The Pokrov Foundation was started by members of the parish of the Protecting Veil (Pokrov) of the Mother of God in Sofia. Its main aim is to try to restore the community life of the church, not only in their own parish, but in the whole of Bulgaria. To this end they publish books, and a magazine "Mirna". I bought and brought home several copies of their books for our bookstall, as there are several Bulgarians in South Africa. One was a translation of Fr Alexander Schmemann's "Of water and the Spirit", and the other a book on ikonography. The foundation is run as a very well-organised NGO, with several people in the office, and provides administrative support to several other church and charitable groups, such as the Patriarch Evtimou Youth Organization, and NGOs that work on a variety of health and community development projects. Their web page gives more information:

My last night in Bulgaria was spent at the home of Iassen Ivanchev, who lives with his parents and fiancee in a flat on the outskirts of Sofia. Iassen is an ikonographer, and his fiancee is an art student, and it was good to share a meal with them, and join in their family prayers. The following morning they took me to the St Alexander Nevsky Church, the biggest church in the Balkans, where their spiritual father, Father Stanoi, celebrated the Liturgy of the Presanctified. Father Stanoi has visited South Africa and concelebrated at the Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Annunciation in Pretoria during Holy Week and Christmas for the last couple of years.

Athens again

On my return to Athens Bridget told me that we had an appointment to meet the Patriarch of Alexandria the next morning. We went to the address we had been given, where His Beatitude received us, and it turned out to be a kind of embassy of the Patriarchate on Greek soil - something I hadn't known existed. The Patriarch asked Bridget what she was doing, and when she said she had a bursary to study History and Archaeology, but was hoping to change it to Theology, he encouraged her to do so. The following Friday Bridget went along to the Foreign Ministry (which had provided her with the bursary as a foreign student) with a speech all prepared in her head, but before she could open her mouth the woman there said, "Don't tell me, you've come to change your course. Just fill in a form". We were astounded that the Patriarch, busy as he was (he was preparing for a TV interview when we saw him) would make time to see some very ordinary members of his flock in a far-away place.

I visited the mission organisation of the Church of Greece, Apostoliki Diakonia, and spoke to Fr Constantine Stratigopoulos, who gave me the names of other people I could contact. One of the most fruitful was Prof Stylianos Papalexandropoulos, of the department of History of Religion in the Faculty of Social Theology of the University of Athens. His specialist field is Japanese religion and culture, and he had spent several years in Japan, and was able to give me a lot of information about the Orthodox Church in Japan. He had a photograph of St Nicholas of Japan.

The following night we met him again at the Liturgy of the Presanctified at the Russian Church in Athens, and went to have coffee with him and some members of the choir afterwards. The Russian Church is quite close to where Bridget lives, and she often goes there for Vespers, as it has a proper congregation, whereas in the other churches in the neighbourhood there was often only a priest and a chanter for Vespers. The services are in Greek and Slavonic, and the abbot of the Monastery of the Holy Paraclete, Fr Timotheos, is a frequent visitor, and often preaches there.

The following day I met Nicholas Karellos, who is interested in mission, and is compiling a list of all the Orthodox books published in Greece. He took me to the Monastery of the Holy Paraclete, where we went to Vespers in the beautiful church, patterned after the monastic churches on Mount Athos, and met Fr Timotheos. On the way we visited the place where the elder Porphyrios had lived. He was one of the most influential spiritual fathers of Greece in recent times, and several books have been published about him, with collections of his sayings and spiritual advice.

One thing that struck me in Athens was that, though it was Great Lent, it was very difficult to find a restaurant that served fasting food. On one occasion we went to a specialist vegetarian restaurant, which was quite expensive. The easiest place to get fasting food was actually McDonalds, which had a special "McLent" along with its other meals on offer, with spring rolls and veggie burgers.

Another thing that struck me about Athens was that all the trolley buses had an ikon of Christ in them. Having once been a driver of trolley buses myself, I take more than a passing interest in them, and I was interested to discover that all the Athens ones were manufactured in Russia.

I was also quite surprised to see people in both Greece and Bulgaria dressed up in their winter woollies - heavy overcoats and scarves, fur coats, gloves or mittens and so on. Though there had been snow in Bulgaria the week before I was there, and though Greece had the worst storms in 20 years while I was in Bulgaria, the weather wasn't that cold, and half the time I was wandering around in a T shirt. Maybe Europeans feel the cold more, or perhaps it is a kind of inertia - not abandoning winter clothes until it just becomes too unbearably hot to wear them any more.

Two more observations on Greece: on a couple of mornings I went with Bridget to the university, where she gets breakfast in the cafeteria. On another morning there was a burnt-out truck outside the cafeteria, and the windows of the cafeteria were broken and the canopy all blackened. It seems that rioting students had planted a petrol bomb in it the previous day. In South Africa some people often complain about unruly students and striking workers, but here the worst the students do for the most part is empty the rubbish bins. In Athens, however, for four days in one week, traffic in the city centre was at a standstill for several hours while various groups of striking workiers marched to parliament. I actually came home a week earlier than I had originally planned, partly because Olympic Airways workers had planned a 24-hour strike on the day I was originally booked to return. South Africans who whinge about strikes by students and workers haven't seen the real thing yet! When our strikes reach European standards, perhaps there will be cause to complain.

The second observation is that Athens is all over dogs. George Stefanakis told me why. In the past the municipal officials would catch stray dogs and kill them, and then people objected. Now they catch the dogs, innoculate them against diseases, and let them go. They are well-fed, harm no one, and don't make a great deal of noise with barking. It seems a much more humane and amicable arrangment. George said that there was a problem of a lack of environmental awareness in Greece, and that all the natural forests in Attica had been destroyed, but if people can be compassionate to dogs, perhaps there is hope that they will learn to care for trees as well.

In Europe, at least, Orthodox youth movements like Syndesmos are doing a great deal to promote environmental awareness, and they hold ecology camps for young people, and some of the monasteries are also active in thsi field.

As an Orthodox Christian, I was glad to have the opportunity to visit countries where Orthodoxy has been around for centuries. As Sr Philothei of the monastery at Karea said, it is better to drink from the well than to have bottled water. In both Greece and Bulgaria the church has problems, but, as with the Balkan spring, though much was bare and winter-brown, there were also shoots of new life - mainly in the monasteries, but also in the youth movements. In South Africa, we have no Orthodox monasteries yet.

Nationalism and reconciliation in Eastern Europe

I never got to Yugoslavia and Albania, so didn't learn too much about whether the church can play a role in reconciliation in places where there has been conflict. But one thing I did learn, and can perhaps pass on. I read a journal article on nationalism in the Balkans in the post-communist era.(1) Most of this nationalism, interestingly enough, was stoked up by the communists themselves. It is a secular, rather than a religious nationalism, though the politicians are anxious to coopt the church to lend support to their cause. In Bulgaria, it was the communist government that insisted that Turks and other Muslims must take "Bulgarian" names. In Serbia, it was a communist leader, Milosevic, who stoked the flames of nationalism, and would not allow democratic rights and freedoms (which the church is calling for) to emerge.

The writer of the journal article said that Balkan nationalism was based on the idea that the nation (ethnic group) was the largest social unit one could identify with. Thus in Yugoslavia people could identify as Serbs, Croats, Albanians etc., but not as anything bigger, such as Yugoslavs, and that is why Yugoslavia failed. She considered the possibility of people being able to identify themselves as Europeans, but that seemed a slim hope (and rather abstract) or even simply as members of the human race (an even slimmer hope, and even more abstract).

It seems that South Africa and Yugoslavia are in some kind of time warp. In the 1940s, the Yugoslav government tried to promote the idea of a Yugoslav identity, but gradually abandoned it in favour of apartheid and ethnic cleansing. In 1948, South Africa rigorously imposed apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and in the 1990s abandoned it in favour of a democratic society and a "many cultures - one nation" approach.

What the writer or the article did not consider, and what most social scientists in the Balkans have ignored altogether, is the possibility of the church forming a wider basis of identification. Perhaps this is because the tradition of Marxist historiography regards the church as epiphenomenal, and think that it just reflects the economic interests of classes, and so it is not seen as worthy of mention. Or perhaps it is because in the Balkans the Orthodox Church, in particular, has been so "contextualised" that it is seen as entirely identified with the nation - as Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek or Romanian.

That may be true to some extent, but it is not entirely true. There was one of those spring green shoots, a spiritual one as well as a physical one, among the youth movements. In both Greece and Bulgaria I met people who are involved in the Balkan Orthodox Youth Association. They know each other, and they are building networks of faith and fellowship across the national and state boundaries. Orthodox Christians from Albania, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania meet there. They are conscious of belonging to something bigger than the nation - the Orthodox Church. Perhaps renewal in the church can bring renewal and reconciliation in society as well.


1 Gotovska-Popova, Todoritchka, 1993. Nationalism in post-communist Eastern Europe, East European Quarterly, 27(2), June, pp. 171-186. Back to text

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If you are interested in this topic, you might also be interested in a research article on Nationalism, reconciliation and violence that I wrote, using material collected on this trip.

I made a second trip to the Balkans in April-June 2000, to teach at the Orthodox seminary in Albania. You can read about it in Balkan Spring 2000.

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Created: 1998-09-03
Updated: 2013-06-20