May 31, 2020

May 31 - On This Day in 1850 Florence Nightingale Proclaimed From Athens That "The Greek Church is Dead"

On Friday 31 May 1850, Florence Nightingale, who was then thirty years old, wrote to her sister Parthenope Nightingale from Athens, about her travels and experiences in Greece. After expounding with lofty words about the glories of ancient Greece, she finally begins to talk about Greece as it was in her time, and initiates the conversation by proclaiming "the Greek Church is dead." It seemed like she hated everything that has to do with the Greek Orthodox Church, even Greek weddings (!), and much preferred the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. Earlier while in Rome she blamed Greek monks for bringing images of Christ to the West, accusing them for dispelling the reverence of depicting Christ as a symbol as was done in the early Church. The only positive things Florence Nightingale had to say about the Orthodox Church was directed to individual monks and the then dead Archbishop Germanos of Patras because he "thought the best religion was to give his country independence and a constitution." Her denunciation of Orthodoxy held equally for the Russian Church, fueled by the persecution of the nuns of Minsk. Later, during the Crimean War during which she served as a nurse, Russia was the enemy.

Four years after her trip to Greece, in 1854, Nightingale would come to prominence while serving as a manager and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War, in which she organized care for wounded soldiers. She gave nursing a favorable reputation and became an icon of Victorian culture, especially in the persona of "The Lady with the Lamp" making rounds of wounded soldiers at night. She herself belonged to the Church of England, had a strong devotion to Christ, but held to many personal views, including a view of universal salvation.

In all, Florence Nightingale was disappointed in modern Athens, which suffered years of neglect from the Turkish occupation and was desperately poor. Before her ship arrived in Greece, she wrote "my Greece, my home." She imagined it would be as Plato saw it on his return from Egypt. Athens to her imagination was the home of civilization in the West. Even though she was British, she preferred Greek drama: while Shakespeare was only an artist, Aeschylus was inspired. But after spending some time in Athens, her disappointment manifested itself most clearly in her denunciation of the Greek Church. It should be noted that her criticisms of the Greek Church and people were very common with British elite travelers to Greece during the Turkish occupation and in the years following, who were often disappointed in not being able to connect what they imagined Greece once was in its glory days with what it was now. Few had a positive outlook, such as Lord Byron who heroically died trying to restore Greece to its former glory.

She wrote on May 31, 1850:

"Now you want to know about modern Greece. The Greek Church is dead, it seems to me: the priests are her undertakers, the churches her vaults. The priests are so ignorant that they can hardly read, except the liturgy which they learn by heart. They neither are fit nor wish to be treated like gentlemen, would be quite embarrassed if you did. They come out of the lowest class and stay in it. They never preach a sermon and could not. The bishops are all taken out of the monks. The Monastines do not even wear a dress and are mere cultivators of the ground. I prefer the most intolerant fanaticism to this. Out of bigotry can come a St Paul, but nothing can come out nothing. Let there be life, my God, as in the day of creation. Literally you may count the priests of the Greek Church who are educated men - three: Misael, Aeconomus and one other and Aeconomus is a humbug. What a contrast to the liveliness of the Roman Catholic Church. I never go into a church without being disgusted and, in the monasteries, they seem not to have the remotest idea of doing good, of a vocation.

We heard from Mr Hill yesterday of the death of a poor bride, Mme Χαποπουλος; just before we left Athens we were at a wedding at her house. I wanted to see a Greek wedding very much, but when I had seen it, I was sorry I had. The silence of the two people most nearly concerned - they make no vows - the crowns of the bride and bridegroom, which it is the business of the bridesmaids to change perpetually during the whole ceremony, the bride's for the bridegroom's and the bridegroom's for the bride's, the promenading three times hand in hand, the whole family, round the table, which is used as an altar. The whole concern looks like a farce, and the bridegroom in his chaplet like a buffoon. I send you home in a box my bridal chaplet. The Protestant ceremony is far more to the purpose."

A few years earlier, when Hans Christian Andersen was in Athens, he was not nearly as negative about his experience of the Greek Church. You can read what he wrote in comparison here. It seems like Nightingale just didn't get it like Andersen did.