Monday, April 21, 2014

James Joyce and Orthodox Holy Week

By John Sanidopoulos

James Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century. In a 1922 New York Times profile of Joyce, the following was told of him: "Mr. Joyce has no reverence for organized religion, for conventional morality, for literary style or form. He has no conception of the word obedience, and he bends the knee neither to God nor man." Yet what we find evident from his own testimony and that of his friends is his appreciation of the music and rituals of Orthodox Holy Week services, which he took every opportunity not to miss, whether it be in a Greek or Russian church.

In the autumn of 1904 he moved to Trieste to teach at Berlitz language school, where there was a large well-established community of diaspora Greeks. It is around this time that he begins to attend the Church of San Nicolo dei Greci, a Greek Orthodox Church in Trieste. Joyce reported to his brother Stanislaus that a colleague at his school had tweaked him about his ambiguous irreverence: "He says I will die a Catholic because I am always moping in and out of the Greek Churches and am a believer at heart: whereas in my opinion I am incapable of belief of any kind" (Letters II:89).

Nearly thirty-five years later, in Paris in 1938, Joyce used an "obligation" to attend an Orthodox Good Friday service as an excuse to avoid the unpleasant prospect of an invitation to an early dinner:

"But today she [Mrs. Turner] rang up to ask us to dine on Friday at 7:30! (6:30 pm real time) I am going to say I have to go to the Greek church - perfectly true it is their Good Friday - and can't get out till 8 at least so I am coming at 8:15 at least" (Letters III:420).

Throughout his life Joyce liked to attend Holy Week services, at various ecclesiastical venues whether it be in an Orthodox or Catholic church. A friend from Trieste, Alessandro Bruni, recalls the following of Joyce's regular attendance at Holy Week services:

"In his house there is no religious practice, but on the other hand there is much talk of Christ and religion and much singing of liturgical chants. I can go even further. You had better not look for Joyce during the week before Easter because he is not available to anyone. On the morning of Palm Sunday, then during the four days that follow Wednesday of Holy Week, and especially during all the hours of those great symbolic rituals at the early morning service, Joyce is at church, entirely without prejudice, and in complete control of himself, sitting in full view and close to the officiants so that he won't miss a single syllable of what is said, following the liturgy attentively in his book of the Holy Week services, and often joining in the singing of the choir."

Bruni writes that he had seen Joyce cry "secret tears" at hearing Jesus' words on the cross, "Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani". Joyce's sisters also noted James "devotion" to the liturgies of Holy Week:

"During Easter week he behaved in a way that seemed odd to his sisters. Too fond of the liturgy and music to forgo them, but determined to make clear his indifference, he avoided going with Eileen and Eva or sitting with them. Instead he came by himself and stood in a corner; and when the mass was over left quietly without waiting. He did not attempt to dissuade his sisters from going, but made clear that his own motive was esthetic, not pious."

A friend in Paris, Mercanton, in the late 1930's reports that Joyce told him "that Good Friday and Holy Saturday were the two days of the year when he went to church, for the liturgies, which represented by their symbolic rituals the oldest mysteries of humanity." His brother Stanislaus reports the same. Mercanton's memoir also includes a comment on Joyce's qualified enthusiasm for the chants of Slavic Orthodoxy: "Speaking next about Russian churches, where he [Joyce] loved to hear the deep, bass voices of the officiants, he said that he could not understand my fervent admiration for the Oriental ritual."

Throughout his writings, Joyce alludes to Eastern Orthodoxy. However his knowledge was not deep, as his main source of information was the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet he had a deep appreciation for the music and aesthetic of Orthodox services which he felt were best experienced during Holy Week.


R.J. Schork, "James Joyce and the Eastern Orthodox Church" in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, vol. 17, 1999.

Dennis Michael Shanahan, The Way of the Cross in James Joyce's "Ulysses" , 1983.

Below are photos from San Nicolo dei Greci in Trieste, where James Joyce often attended Liturgies and Holy Week services: