Friday, January 22, 2016

Bruce Chatwin and His Discovery of Orthodoxy

By Petros Panayiotopoulos

One of the most enigmatic and contradictory personalities of the last century, the writer Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989), came to have a close relationship with the truth of Orthodoxy, mainly through the attraction he experienced towards the life of the monks of the Holy Mountain. A constant traveler, a nomad student of nomads, he found in Eastern Christianity many of the answers to issues which troubled him throughout his life, and especially in its last stages when he suffered from AIDS.

He was born and grew up in Sheffield, educated at Marlborough, and when he left he took a job at Sotheby’s. It was here that he quickly revealed his impressively sharp eye for detail and perspicacity and he quickly rose through the ranks and became an authority on antiquities and the Impressionists. In this capacity, he traveled widely for business purposes. After a few years, however, he was forced to stop because he developed problems with his sight.

His doctor, Patrick Trevor-Roper, advised him to “open his horizons” and Chatwin followed his advice to the letter, traveling all over the world, studying customs and ways of thinking and recording them. For a time, he felt drawn to university life and enrolled at Edinburgh to study archaeology, considering himself an “architectural intellectual”. But this involvement lasted no more than two and a half years either. Thereafter he devoted his time exclusively to traveling, writing and his unstable personal life.

His narrative style has been thought to rival that of the great American author Ernest Hemingway and for many he’s the most important modern travel writer. It was said, in fact that he was capable of compressing whole worlds within the pages of his works.

Initially he disliked Greece and took every opportunity to say so. Later he got to know the country and became a frequent visitor. He stayed at the house of his friend and fellow writer Patrick (Paddy) Leigh Fermor († 2011) in Kardamyli in Mani. In 1985, while he was in Greece working feverishly on a book, he interrupted what he was doing and paid a visit to the Holy Mountain.

He must already have had some knowledge of the Mountain from the art critic Robert Byron (1905-1941), author of The Station, one of the best books available in English about the Holy Mountain. For Byron, the wall-paintings on the Holy Mountain were the best in the world. Chatwin respected Byron’s work greatly and his personal questioning may well have been shaped by it.

From as early as 1980, he’d begun to pester his close friends, James Lees-Milne (architectural historian) and Derek Hill (painter) who were regular visitors to the Athonite state, to take him with them. Lees-Milne, whom he asked first, was completely opposed. Chatwin then turned to Hill, who knew Nikanor, the former abbot of Hilandar (the monastery was still idiorrythmic at the time), and who had already visited the Holy Mountain some 25 times. Hill acceded to Chatwin’s request, albeit reluctantly, since he was far from certain how his idiosyncratic nature would respond to the Athonite monks and their way of life. They finally visited the Holy Mountain in May 1985, although others claim that he was accompanied by Leigh-Fermor on the visit.

The writer was greatly taken by the Mountain. In fact, during his visit to one monastery he became cross with some Greek visitors who were speaking loudly during a service and preventing him from concentrating.

Bruce Chatwin (l.), Fr. Luke Majoros (c.) and Fr. Mitrofan (r.), both from Hilandar.

One afternoon, when he was on his way to the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, he was enraptured by the image of a rusty cross on a rock, which was being washed by the waves. Hill, who was with him and had known him for about twenty years, saw him staring at the cross, stunned. After a while, Chatwin said: “There must be a God”. “He didn’t talk about it, but I knew by his whole bearing it had affected him. I think it hit him like a bomb”, Hill recalls. (His biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, later wanted to visit the Holy Mountain to see what it was about this cross that had moved Chatwin so much. On the eve of his departure he was told by an English priest: “Nobody goes to Athos by accident. Whatever you think you are going for is not the reason”.)

It was a journey that would radically alter Chatwin’s life. After his death, it was rumored among his circles that he “had found God” there. However that may be, it was clear on his return to London that he had been greatly affected, although he preferred not to go into detail. In any case, his acquaintances called this journey the most “mysterious”.

Before then he had barely been interested in the metaphysical. His wife, Elizabeth Chandler, was Roman Catholic and before their marriage in 1965 he had had instruction about the basic faith and practices of that Church from a Jesuit in London. But when they later moved to the USA, he was given a leaflet from Elizabeth’s parish. The content bothered him greatly: it explained that a Roman Catholic should not marry anyone of another dogma or religion. This clashed directly with his “nomad” outlook. From then on he began to believe that only those who were permanently settled in a particular spot could be interested in religion.

But he was never really free of metaphysical questions. At one point, in a note, he remarked that the study of nomads was a search for God. Somewhere else he noted that religion is a technique for getting to your death, at the right time. In all probability, it would have been during his illness that he turned to the metaphysical.

While recuperating with Elizabeth in Nepal, his thoughts had turned to a man’s Athos “in the Greek sense of abode or dwelling place – the root of all his behavior for good or bad, his character, everything that pertained to him”.

On his return to England, he went to Oxford to visit Bishop (now Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware of Diokleia and discussed with him the possibility of being baptized Orthodox on the Holy Mountain. “What he wanted was to be received by baptism on the Holy Mountain since the Holy Mountain had played such a decisive part in his conversion ... I offered to receive him myself,” His Eminence recalls, “but we were overtaken by events.”

There are some who believe that he managed to become Orthodox. Be that as it may, his funeral was held in Nice, where he died on 19 January 1989, with an Orthodox Greek priest conducting the service. His forty-day memorial service was held in the Orthodox Greek Cathedral of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Bayswater, London, and Metropolitan Kallistos relayed his wishes to a frankly astonished congregation: “Bruce was always a traveler and he died before all his journeys could be completed and his journey into Orthodoxy was one of his unfinished voyages.”

His relatives brought his ashes to Kardamyli, to the Byzantine chapel he loved, which dated from the 10th century and was dedicated to Saint Nicholas. When he first saw the spot, Chatwin observed: “The Greeks have always kept the best places for God”.