Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Poet and the Saint: The Trek of Nicolas Calas to Mount Athos and his Meeting with Saint Daniel of Katounakia

Nicolas Calas (1907-88) was a Greek-American surrealist poet, art critic, cultural historian, and lifelong Trotskyist, who blended Marxism and psychoanalysis along with the ideas of Wilhelm Reich, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Calas's birth name was Nikos Kalamaris although he would publish essays as "Manolis Spieros" from 1929 to 1934 and poetry as "Nikitos Randos" from 1930 to 1936. An only child, born in Lausanne, Switzerland but raised in Athens, he was educated at home by his aristocratic family, who placed an emphasis on languages inasmuch as they hoped that he would become a diplomat.

His father, Ioannis Kalamaris, was a businessman and a politician in Syros with the Liberal party. His mother, Rosa, was the only daughter of General Alexandros Karatzas and was named after her grandmother, Rosa Botsaris, daughter of the hero of the Greek Revolution Markos Botsaris who had impressed the royal courts of Europe with her beauty.

Drawn to radicalism in response to the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, he was permanently alienated from his elite relatives due to his father's callous treatment of refugees. A year later he matriculated at the University of Athens to study law and was straightaway captivated by Communism.

By 1929 he was similarly engrossed in psychoanalysis, and before the mid-1930s he had published several collections of poems and was recognized as the Greek translator of the work of Edgar Lee Masters, T.S. Eliot and Louis Aragon. In the 1980's, he was the most famous poet in Greece.

It was in the Spring of 1929 that three young men arrived at Mount Athos, among them being Nicolas, who was then a 22 year old law student from Athens.

Nikis, as his friends called him, in 1929 was a young experimental homosexual man with beauty, spirit, rare culture, wealth and Marxist ideology. But as a humble pilgrim he went to Mount Athos. There he captured with his camera the wonders he saw through the filters of natural shyness and sensitivity that distinguished him. He collected the photos from his trek in an album where he glued them to sheets of black cardboard and labeled them with white ink. The album was included in the section of his archive that he, as Nicolas Calas in his later years, a recognized poet and technical critic, donated to ELIA (Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive) and today it is kept in the Photographic Archive.
Calas, after visiting all the monasteries, headed to the southwest side of Athos with its steep slopes, to the so-called desert of Mount Athos. From Karoulia, he climbed to the inaccessible Katounakia and photographed from afar the "cell of the famous Daniel", as he noted in the album. When he got close, he also photographed the Elder Daniel Katounakiotis himself, the founder of the brotherhood of the Danielaioi iconographers and specialists in the art of chanting. It is the only individual portrait in the entire album. Calas stood at a distance of 4-5 meters from the old monk. Given that Calas was very tall, it can be imagined him bending his knees, lowering himself, kneeling almost in front of the Elder so that he could photograph him completely frontally.

The Elder, bony, looks at the photographer with a stern, patient look under his wrinkled forehead. The short sleeve of his garment reveals a skeletonized wrist ending in a clenched palm. Perhaps he is holding a handkerchief or prayer rope in his right hand. In the background of the image, on the left, the vine has embraced the beams of the balcony of the cell.

It is the last image of Elder Daniel who reposed a few months later at the age of 83, on September 8, 1929.

In March 2020, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided on the canonization of Saint Daniel of Katunakia. He was recorded in the List of Saints of the Orthodox Church and is celebrated on September 7.