Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West

Macedonia (South Serbia)
Ochrid I

OCHRID is a very long way from London. One gets into a train in London at two o'clock in the afternoon and all the next day one crosses Italy or Austria, and on the morning of the second day one is in Belgrade. Even if one stays in the Athens Express one cannot be in Skoplje before five that afternoon. There one must spend the night, and start early in the morning to reach Ochrid in the late afternoon. It is also a fact that not one in a million Englishmen has been to Ochrid. What happened when we arrived at the hotel on Lake Ochrid, therefore, was unfair. We found Gerda talking to a manageress, one of those strange polyglots who seem to have been brought up in some alley where several civilizations put out their ash-cans, since only bits and pieces have come their way, never the real meat. She showed some interest when she heard we were English. An Englishman had come to the hotel only the other day. Did we know Professor So-and-so? Yes, we knew that ornament of the British academic world. He had liked Ochrid trout, all the world liked Ochrid trout, we would like Ochrid trout, but first would we like a risotto of cravifsh, such as the Professor had also liked? Yes, we thought we would. And were we really married, or did we want two rooms with a communicating door, like Professor So-and-so and his young secretary? "My God," said my husband, with deep emotion, if I had a son I would tell him this story several times a year."

I had remembered this hotel at Ochrid, so strange, like the word "hotel" acted by children in a charade, and this year it seemed stranger. We were the only guests, and the restaurant was not open nor the electric light connected, so Constantine and Gerda and my husband and I ate a dinner which was superb by any standards, which was as good as the filet de sole in Brussels, in a bedroom where four beds were made up, lit by a profligacy of candles stuck in bottles, with the wine cooling in the wash-basin. When Dragutin came for next morning's orders the sight enchanted him and he stood gripping the door-posts and shouting with laughter. "Thus well lived the Turks!" he said. In the morning I woke late and found my husband standing beside me and the room full of the smell of new bread. It is one of the peculiarities of Ochrid that, though it is a very poor town, all day long little boys run about with trays of delicious rolls made from fine white flour. We went out and ate them with our coffee, sitting under a tree on the lakeside promenade outside the hotel. But it was bleak. It was with politeness that my husband looked across the bay at the old town, which lies tortoise-wise on a cape, under a hill crowned with a ruined fortress, built by Byzantines and Slavs and Normans and Turks on a Roman foundation. I had told him that it was one of the most interesting towns in Europe, a city which could, like Assisi, claim to be not wholly built by hands. It was a huddle of discoloured houses under a low sky that seemed to have sunk so low that it had been muddied. The hills, which I had remembered as austere sculptures, were now earth that, when earth's capacity for loutishness became exhausted, became scrub-covered rock. The opposite coast of the lake, which is Albania, could not be seen at all, and the water was dead as a pond in a public park.

I said, "We can see nothing of the place today; this is the sort of thing that Mrs. Eddy, probably quite correctly, ascribed to 'malicious animal magnetism,' but it will be all right when we get to the church where Bishop Nikolai is preaching. Then we will see the genius of the people. He stirs them and they betray what they are. I dare say that those who know them would laugh at me and tell me that the inhabitants are as mean and stupid as people are everywhere, but the truth is that when they are together in a church they shower a power to accept life as it is and to glory in it which I have never seen equaled. I hope we start soon to find him." For I knew, indeed we had timed our journey by reason of our knowledge, that the Bishop Nikolai, who was Bishop of Zhitcha and of Ochrid, was now visiting his second diocese for a week.

But we did not start. Now that Constantine was with Gerda he had lost his innate personality, even down to the simplest and most instinctive ways of dealing with practical matters. She interrupted his exuberant stories, she pruned every expression of what was probably himself, and he submitted; and presently he timidly offered her something he hoped she would find more acceptable, which was an impersonation of what a German would conceive that a Jew who was a Slav by adoption and a poet would be. He was by nature a shouter and a snatcher, who would smash peace into a thousand fragments and then laugh at what he had shouted and give back what he had snatched, but as I had first known him he carried himself precisely enough from point to point of his life. He could rise early if need be, he was punctual, he never lost anything. Now he ran about like a Jewish comedian, yelling questions and not waiting for the answer, losing things, being too late, being too early. He had also developed an embarrassing habit of telling endless stories of himself in the character of a buffoon, a fool who had torn up valuable share certificates in a rage at the dishonesty of the company' directors, who had lost the chance of a valuable appointment through making some tactless remark. This pleased Gerda, and so it pleased him.

It was their kind of happiness, and we would ordinarily have had no objection to it; it was something that Moliere might have invented. Bu it made our morning's search for Bishop Nikolai into a painful fugue which was reminiscent of a nightmare or the hallucinations of a persecution mania, or sometimes even a miracle play in which our party was playing the roles of the less admirable abstractions. The old town of Ochrid on its hill is stuck as thickly with churches as a pomander with cloves, and there are several churches in the new town that lies flat on the lake shore. The Bishop was going from church to church celebrating services all the morning, and we followed, but we never arrived in time. Every time we were told which church the Bishop was visiting at that moment we were delayed by some buffoonery on the part of Constantine, an insistence on checking the information by making inquiries from some startled person who knew nothing relevant, a sudden desire to buy tooth-paste or a book on fortune-telling, and we got to the church only to meet a crowd walking away from it quickly and with glowing face, not as if they were in a hurry to reach anywhere, but rather as if some excitement had sent the blood rushing through their veins. There was nothing for us to do except to return to a cafe in the central square an drink more coffee until the time came for the re-enactment of this scene which as the morning went on became more and more certainly to our fatigued minds a proof of superior displeasure, of our own unworthiness. It was a great relief to my husband and me when, about lunch time, it was learned that the Bishop had left the town for a monastery twenty miles distant, and would not be back until the next day.

We spent the rest of the day in the narrow streets of the old town looking at its lovely seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century house which have all their own fine faces, their own complexions, and furtively enjoying the quality of the people. In every part of the world one condition of human life dominates the stage. In the United States the stranger has to get his eye in before he can see anybody but beautiful young girls; in England handsome middle-aged men are the most visible ingredients of society; and here in Ochrid the conspicuous personage are slender old ladies with shapely heads, feline spines that are straight without being rigid, fine hands and feet, and a composure that sharply rather than placidly repulses recognition of all in life that is not noble. A more aristocratic type can hardly be conceived, although there was no suggestion of abstinence from anything but the roughest form of labour. It was not that these old duchesses could not sew and cook and sweep, it was that Ochrid had a long past. Before it was Byzantine it was within the sphere of the lost Illyrian empire, it had been a Greek city, and in its beginnings it had formed part of the settlement of a pre-Mycenyan civilization. That is to say that for thousands of years there have been gentlefolk here, people who preferred harmony to disharmony, and were capable of sacrificing their immediate impulses to this preference. The tenuous thread of civilization that here and there is woven into history never showed itself in prettier patterns than these distinguished old ladies, in whom not the smallest bone is barbarous.

But the most exciting aspect of Ochrid relates to its more recent past, to events divided from us by a mere eleven hundred years. As the Slav tribes fell under the influence of Byzantium a considerable number of them were baptized but they were first converted to Christianity in mass by the Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who translated part of the gospels into Slavonic languages about the year 870; and their mission was carried to Ochrid by their followers, Clement and Gorazd and Naum. That is what it says in the books. But what does that mean.: How did these events look and sound and smell? That can be learned on the top of the hill at Ochrid, in the Church of Sveti Kliment, and the other churches up there which were built in that age. According to Serbo-Byzantine fashion they crouch low in the earth, outbuildings for housing something that should not be where people live, something that needs to be kept in the dark. Doubtless in those early days there were converts who went into the blackness of these churches hoping to find new gods like those they had worshipped in their heathen days, but bloodier. Such worship is commemorated in certain Balkan churches, which to this day are ill to enter, being manifestly bad ju-ju. But shadow is also a sensible prescription for good magic, and Christianity as a religion of darkness has its advantages over our Western conception of Christianity as a religion of light.

I remembered as I stood in the Church of Sveti Kliment what a cloak-and-suit manufacturer once said to me when he was showing me his factory on Long Island: "Yes, it's a beautiful factory, sure it's a beautiful factory, and I'm proud of it. But I wish I hadn't built it. When I get a rush order I can't make my girls work in these big airy rooms the way they did in the little dark place we had down town. They used to get in a fever down there, their fingers used to fly. Up here you can't get them excited." Though the domes of Sveti Klement are bubbles the porch is of extravagant clumsiness, approached by squat steps and pressed by a wide flat roof, which is utterly unecclesiastical and might be proper in a cow-byre, and is supported by thick and brutal columns. Within the porch is a wide ante-room which is used as a lumber-room, full of spare chairs, ornate candles for festival use, broken models of other churches. Almost every Orthodox church looks as if the removal men have been at work on it, and that they have been inefficient. Beyond is another darker antechamber, where those sat in the early days of the Church who were not yet baptized or who were penitents; and beyond, darkest of all, is the church, a black pit where men could stand close-pressed and chanting, falling into trance, rising into ecstasy, as they stared at the door in the iconostasis, which sometimes opened and showed them the priests in dazzling robes, handling the holy things by the blaze of candlelight that is to the darkness what the adorable nature of God is to humanity.

It is a valid religious process; and it is the one that these people to this day prefer. Further down the hill is the Church of Heavily Wisdom, of Sveta Sophia, which was built, it is said, at the same time as the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople and was restored by the Nemanyas. It is a glorious building, the size, I should think, of Steeple Ashton parish church, a superb composition of humble, competent brickwork achieving majesty by its sound domes and arches. It is decorated with some magnificent frescoes of the Nemanya age, one showing an angry angel bending over earth in rage against the polluted substance of those who are not angels, and another showing the death of the Virgin, where sorrowing figures drip like rain down the wall behind the horizontal body of a woman who is giving herself without reserve but with astonishment to the experience of pain, knowing it to be necessary. That the building should be now Christian is a victory, since the Turks used it as a mosque for five hundred years. But the church is full of light. It is built according to the Byzantine and not according to the Serbo-Byzantine fashion, and has no iconostasis but only a low barrier to divide the congregation from the priest. A makeshift iconostasis of chintz and paper and laths has been run up, but it is of no avail. Light stands like a priest over all other priests under the vaults that were raised high to cast out shadow. And this church is unbeloved. A fierce old nun keeps it fanatically clean and would give her life to defend it. But it is not the object of any general devotion. All the other churches in Ochrid have their devotees who can worship happily nowhere else and who speak of them with a passion which has something animal in it, something that one can imagine a beast feeling for its accustomed lair. But though Sveta Sophia was originally the Cathedral, the honour has been taken from it and given to the small dark Sveti Klement; and nobody gives money or labour to mend the roof which is a sieve.

We left this rejected loveliness, and walked on through the town by a track which followed the top of a cliff beside the lake and took us at last to a church standing on a promontory covered with pale-yellow flowers. This I remembered well, for it was the Church of Sveti Yovan, of St. John, where I had learned for the first time the peculiar quality of Eastern Christianity, that is dark and not light, and unkempt as only the lost are in the West. When I had been here with Constantine the year before he had heard that this church was having its annual feast, and that Bishop Nikolai was holding the service. So we took a rowing-boat from the hotel and travelled over the milk-white water, while the morning sun discovered green terraces high on the black Albanian mountains and touched the snow peaks till they shone a glistening buff, and on the nearest coast picked out the painted houses of Ochrid till the town was bright as a posy of pale flowers. As we came nearer to the promontory we heard a sound of voices, not as if they acre speaking anything, but just speaking, as bees hum; and I saw that all the ground about the church, and all the tracks that led to it, were covered with people. They were right out on the edge of the promontory, where the rock fell in a sharp overhang, and it seemed as if at any moment some of them must fall into the water. There were also many people in boats who were rowing round and round the promontory, never going very far from it, who were singing ecstatically.

Our boat drew ashore. We climbed a flight of steps that ran upward through the yellow flowers, under bending fig trees; and on the cliff I found myself in the midst of a Derby Day crowd. They were talking and laughing and quarrelling and feeding babies, and among them ran boys with trays of rolls and cakes and fritters, and men selling sweet drinks. They sat or stood or lay in the grass as they would, and they were all dressed in their best clothes, though not all of them were clean. Some were pressing into the church, struggling and jostling in the porch, and others were pushing and being pushed through animal reek in the cave of darkness maintained by the low walls and doors in spite of the sunlight outside. There swaying together, sweating together, with their elbows in each other's bellies and their breaths on each other's napes, were people who had been lifted into a special state by their adoration of the brightness which shone extravagantly behind the iconostasis. After I had overcome the first difficulty of adapting myself to a kind of behaviour to which I was not accustomed, I found I liked the spectacle extremely.

The congregation had realized what people in the West usually do not know: that the state of mind suitable for conducting the practical affairs of daily life is not suitable for discovering the ultimate meaning of life. They were allowing themselves to become drunken with exaltation in order that they should receive more knowledge than they could learn by reason; and the Church which was dispensing this supernatural knowledge was not falling into the damnable heresy of pretending that this knowledge is final, that all is now known. The service was clear of the superficial ethical prescription, inspired by a superstitious regard for prosperity, which makes Western religion so often a set of by-laws tinged emotionally with smugness. Had the Eastern Church in the Balkans wished to commit this error, it has been prevented by history. For centuries it would have found it difficult to find a body of the fortunate sufficiently large to say with authority, "Be like us, be clean in person and abstinent from sin, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven." There were too few fortunate Christians, save among the phanariots, who had sold at least the better part of their souls; and the unfortunate were too poor to be clean, and were chaste perforce, since their women had to be enclosed in patriarchal houses against the rape of enemies, and could not wholly abstain from murder, since only by blood could they defend themselves against the infidel. The Church had therefore to concentrate on the Mass, on reiterations of the first meaning of Christianity. It had to repeat over and over again that goodness is adorable and that there is an evil part in man which hates it, that there was once a poor man born of a poor woman who was perfectly good and was therefore murdered by evil men, and in his defeat was victorious, since it is far better to be crucified than to crucify, while his murderers were conquered beyond the imagination of conquerors; and that this did not happen once and far away, but is repeated every day in all hearts.

So the crowd in the church waited and rejoiced, while the deep voices of the singing priests and the candles behind the iconostasis evoked for them the goodness they had murdered, and comforted them by showing that it had not perished for ever. The superb performance of the Mass, a masterpiece which has been more thoroughly rehearsed than any other work of art, rose to its climax and ceased in its own efficacy. Goodness was so completely evoked that it could no longer be confined, and must break forth to pervade the universe; and with it there poured into the open the priests and the congregation. They blinked their eyes, having become accustomed to the shadows and the candlelight. The sunshine must have seemed to them an incendiarism of the air, committed by the radiance that had rushed out from the iconostasis. Bishop Nikolai, a huge man made more huge by his veiled mitre, stood blindly in the strong light, gripping his great pastoral staff as a warrior might grip a weapon when it was difficult for him to see. The people surged forward to kiss his ring, having forgotten in the intoxication of the darkness what they might have remembered if they had stayed sober in broad day, that he was clean and they were dirty, that he was lettered and they could not read. They cried aloud in their gratitude to this magician who had brewed the holy mystery for them behind the screen and had made the saving principle visible and real as brightness. The people rowing on the lake, hearing the cries of those on the cliff, leaned on their oars, and gave themselves up to their singing. The flat brilliant waters trembled, and the snow peaks glittered. It was as if joy had permeated the whole earth.

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