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April 5, 2011

The Neptic Spirituality of General Yannis Makriyannis

General Yannis Makriyannis (1797–1864) was a Greek merchant, military officer, politician and author, best known today for his Memoirs. Starting from humble origins, he joined the Greek struggle for independence, achieving the rank of general and leading his men to notable victories. Following Greek independence, he had a tumultuous public career, playing a prominent part in the granting of the first Constitution of the Kingdom of Greece and later being sentenced to death and pardoned.

By Christos Yannaras

General Makiyannis's reputation now overshadows that of his contemporaries. Well known as a War of Independence fighter, he had shown legendary courage against Ibrahim in the Peloponnese and Kutahi on the Athenian Acropolis. He also led the uprising of September 3, 1843, which forced Otto to grant Greece a constitution.

Makriyannis's fame would have rested there if his Memoirs had not come to light fifty years after his death. Without any formal education, he learned to read and write only in later life. He kept a journal recording events he had lived through from the Revolution until 1851, hiding the manuscript in his garden.

In 1907 John Vlachoyannis transcribed and published this manuscript, but the Memoirs attracted only limited attention amongst a narrow circle of intellectuals, chiefly historians. It was only in 1943 that the poet George Seferis aroused more general interest in Makriyannis, through a lecture he gave in Alexandria and Cairo asserting to general astonishment that "Makriyannis is the most important prose writer of modern Greek literature, not the greatest only because we have Papadiamantis."[1] His vigorous reading of extracts supported his analysis.

The Memoirs then went through several editions and were widely read and discussed. An illiterate fighter's popular sensibility elucidated history like a revelation.

As a witness to factional in-fighting, his work became popular with the left, sustaining their interpretation of the War of Independence as a class struggle between peasant soldiers and landowner (or Phanariote) politicians.

Makriyannis's vigorous language has appealed to Marxists, who have dominated the interpretation of his Memoirs. But there is popular piety and genuine faith on every page, unselfishness and a refusal to compromise. In his views on society and the individual he was always faithful to traditional Orthodox practice.[2]

In 1983 a second spiritual testimony of Makriyannis was published. This was his Notebook, recording his personal spiritual experiences and prayers, interspersed with daily events.[3]

This second manuscript could be described as an Orthodox saint's autobiography or Synaxari. The revolutionary fighter, tough garrison commander, opponent of politicians and Ottonian despotism, and famous general who was condemned to death and had spent years in jail, had led a discreet life of asceticism, prayer and charismatic tears, his experience of the vision of God recalling the greatest hesychasts of the neptic tradition. His unselfconsciousness is evident:

I said on Holy Thursday and Good Friday I would on these two days do 3300 prostrations day and night ... I have no other way of thanking God but by my sinful prayer, 1300 prostrations morning and evening and 100 with the prayer-rope, and whatever I can manage before I go to work and when I come home to give thanks, sinner that I am.

Zisimos Lorentzatos says that The Notebook

is permeated by the three characteristics we find in all his writings: sudden light, tears, and the impossibility of describing the indescribable ... Apart from the tears of compunction - which Patriarch Kallistos Xanthopoulos calls a sign of the spirit's participation in noetic prayer and a desire, in the humility of poverty, for ceaselessly flowing tears (On Prayer 31) - and the acknowledged impossibility of setting down what he attempts to describe - "and I cannot represent how the light troubled me and the terror and the tears of my eyes" (258); "how can I, my dear readers, describe this beauty and great light?" (251) - there are indications which enable us, I believe, to be almost certain (naturally, as far as possible) that Makriyannis in the last years of his life not only followed the difficult path of noetic prayer, the "pray without ceasing" - "Today, Friday, I struggled for many hours with sinful tears; on the other days I spend four hours, morning and evening, in prayer, when I go out of the house, and when I return, and when I am about to eat" (252) - but was also granted, it seems, the union which is "the summit of desire" where the eternal light, "if it gazes at itself, it sees light, or if it gazes at that which gives the vision, it sees light there too; and such is the union, where all things are one, so that the one who sees cannot distinguish either the means or the goal or the essence, but only that it is light and that he sees light which resembles nothing created."[4]

Makriyannis's theology in his Memoirs or more especially in The Notebook did not interest progressive Greek intellectuals. When John Vlachoyannis showed the recently discovered manuscript to George Theotokas in 1941, he responded: "This is the work of a madman."[5] And Linos Polites in his preface to The Notebook says: "The religious mania of the aged Makriyannis is offensive to us today."[6] Most reactions were in the same vein. Even psychiatrists were sought to support the view that head wounds that Makriyannis had suffered had brought about a form of paranoia.[7]

Makriyannis's marginalized witness brings hope that the Church's Gospel and its universal Greek embodiment survive and function invisibly like the buried "mustard seed." As Makriyannis said: "It is our fate as Greeks always to be few. From beginning to end, from antiquity to this day, all the beasts fight to devour us but they cannot. They consume us but the leaven remains."[8]

1. I quote Seferis from the second edition of his Essays (Athens: Phexis, 1962), 195.

2. For a brief sketch of the theology of the Memoirs see my 1966 article "O 'Laos Tou Theou' Ston Makriyanni," reprinted in Yannaras (1981) 213-27.

3. Published as Oramata kai Thaumata [Visions and Wonders] by the Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece (Athens, 1983), in two volumes.

4. Lorentzatos (1984) 124-27. The last citation in the passage is from the Triads of St. Gregory Palamas, which Lorentzatos goes on to compare with Makriyannis's corresponding testimonies.

5. See Theotokas's article in the newspapaper Ta Kathimerina Nea, September 16, 1945.

6. Oramata kai Thaumata 14.

7. In a television program broadcast a few days after the publication of Oramata kai Thaumata.

8. Makriyannis (1907) bk. 1, ch. 8.

From Orthodoxy and the West, pp. 190-192.