Deadlines and headlines

With the best analysis of information available to date, and with two significant deadlines today and tomorrow looming, all the auguries are that both will be extended for weeks – or even for years. First, today is the deadline for the report that chief weapons inspector Hans Blix will submit later in the day to the UN. In all probability, it will state therein that his team has uncovered weapons-related smuggling in Iraq, albeit no products linked to weapons of mass destruction. The second deadline is tomorrow, January 28. Following a December 26 decision, the monastic authorities on Mt Athos – the Holy Mountain – have ordered the ultra-orthodox monks of Esphigmenou Monastery to leave the premises by tomorrow, or else face eviction. For more than 30 years, the rebel fraternity has stubbornly refused to acknowledge the authority of Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, who has made no secret of ranking his clerics by their fidelity to his missions – just as President Bush does with his allies. It is amazing how one could use the same terminology in both cases. In both cases, there is a breach between the United States (or the Ecumenical Patriarchate) and its traditional European partners (or, respectively, the monastic community on an autonomous Mt Athos). In both sets of circumstances, the argument is about containment (of President Saddam Hussain, or the Esphigmenou Monastery). The stereotypes and analogies work amusingly on all levels: Take the passionate finger-pointing, or the public perception that political and religious leaders are possessed, or even the same charges of unilateralism, plus the fears of a dangerous radicalization (say of the Arab world, or perhaps of the Orthodox Old Calendarists in Greece and abroad). On Mt Athos, the rebels have refused to abandon their monastery. Saddam will not abandon his palaces, either. All the same, predictably, nothing will happen – barring military accidents – at least for the duration of the week. Indeed, the deadlines will, in all probability, be extended for weeks or even months. Obviously puzzled at how to respond to presidential cries for action and pleas to get moving, a senior Security Council diplomat told Time magazine on Saturday: «The Americans will make a statement to us on Monday. It will be an ultimatum. If such and such doesn’t happen in so many weeks, then the inspections are over.» Next Tuesday won’t be the end for the Esphigmenou monks, either. The holder of the EU presidency, Greece, or at any rate, Greek politicians, the demagogic and the honest alike, could never afford to instruct the police to behave like the John Birch Society while evicting a holy monastery. At least not until July 1, when the presidency ends. So much about deadlines. Now to the headlines. Starting today, a week of Greek letters and arts will be celebrated by all the parochial day schools – plus afternoon schools – throughout the archdiocese of metropolitan New York. Namely, next Thursday, January 30, is the Feast of the Three Hierarchs and the Day of Greek Letters. On this occasion, addressing all «Brothers and Sisters in Christ,» Demetrios, Archbishop of America, meaningfully noted in his encyclical last week that «characteristic of the Greek mind are these words of Aristotle (Metaphysics 1.1): ‘All men by nature desire to know.’» Now, in the times of the three Hierarchs, some early Christians fervently rejected the whole corpus of Greek learning and literature as pagan. Should they have prevailed, we would have lost our great heritage of Greek science, philosophy, poetry and drama, and His Eminence would not be in a position to quote Aristotle. On this occasion, I would suggest to those who have not already done so to read Gore Vidal’s «Julian.» It is really worth tasting this particular food for thought. Gore Vidal’s imperial memoirs are a well-researched and informative piece of historical fiction about the nephew of the Emperor Constantine, the latter best known for converting the Roman Empire to Christianity. Julian is more familiar with his epithet, the Apostate – exactly the same word used nowadays by both the monks of Esphigmenou and the Ecumenical Patriarch to exchange pleasantries, if not by President Bush when referring to the fidelity of Germany, France and Greece. In his time, Julian tried to stem the tide of monotheism when he came to power, but his term in office was too short to effect any lasting change. The Orthodox faith has it that one of the three hierarchs, Saint Basil the Great, studied in Athens in his youth. Among his student friends was the young Prince Julian. They became great friends. When Julian became emperor in 361, he invited Basil to his court, but Basil refused. A decade later (in 370), Basil became archbishop of Caesarea, which made him the Greek Orthodox Santa Claus. Last weekend’s biggest headline in our city’s mass media concerned the extension to Greece’s first modern art museum. The expansion of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art was duly celebrated on Saturday with Greek ministers present, including Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos and Deputy Economy Minister Christos Pachtas, and with a big party at the Sante bar – which had been enlarged as well. Established by private initiative in 1979, this museum started with the donation of 45 works by internationally acclaimed artists. The first donor was Alexandros Iolas (1908-1987), who started his career as a dancer and later became a famous art manager, owning galleries in all the cities that mattered then and now. Iolas, who through a combination of great talent and good fortune, managed to cultivate his eccentricities successfully, supported the avant-garde movement and fought the American puritanism of the ’40s and ’50s, as prescribed by the church, Hollywood and custom. Some insist that public attitudes have changed since those highly spirited days.

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