I have two friends who always greet me with “Hey, Bejeweled Icon!” That’s BJI for short. Or, one of them may include this greeting in an email. When one of them hails me in this way in public, anyone standing around within earshot does a double-take and wonders what the heck is going on. What did he just call you? Well, it is a long story, but not too long for an essay.
It all started with a trip to Greece with a group of fellow church members in 2006. I belong to a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in Orange County, California and a group of us got together and decided to go to Greece. We’re a friendly, social bunch and small groups of us get together from time to time and do various things together, like dinners, museum trips and so on. I don’t remember exactly how many of us there were on this trip, maybe 12 or so.
This was the second overseas trip, a package tour, some of us had taken together and it was quite enjoyable. Traveling with family and friends can be exhilarating or downright ugly (if something goes awry or someone gets into “a mood” or someone falls ill). In this particular case it was loads of fun and most everyone got along great. During this tour, we had some bus trips over land and part of the tour was on a small boat that travelled to several islands. We had lots of time to enjoy each other’s company during down time.
It happened we were there on Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday, off from Western Easter Sunday by a week, and we learned some facts and factlets about how the Greeks celebrate Easter. On Easter day itself, we stopped on the island of Tinos to visit the church of the Miraculous Madonna. According to legend, an icon of the Virgin Mary was buried on or near this site. An icon is a pictorial representation, rather than a statue or carving, of various Biblical and holy figures, the Virgin Mary, Jesus and various saints. They are commonly seen as art forms in Greek Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches and shrines. Supposedly the Virgin appeared to a nun, in a vision, and revealed to her the exact place where this particular icon was buried. Subsequently, the icon was purported to be the source of several miracles. A church was constructed on the site to honor the Virgin Mary.
Tinos is a place of pilgrimage especially for Greeks who need a miracle to heal them, so in many ways it’s like Lourdes, Fatima or Knock (Ireland) in the Roman Catholic faith. In some cases, very pious and devout pilgrims crawl on their knees from the harbor where they disembark from ships, all the way up to the church, which holds the holy icon of the Virgin. Such a journey, on one’s knees, is arduous, especially in hot humid weather, or in rain and wind.
I and my friends walked up the many steps (on foot, not knees) and went in to see the icon and the church’s ornamentation. Once we were able to see past the many pious souls to the icon itself, we witnessed a sight unlike anything we had ever seen. The icon, or picture, was so covered over with jewels and precious gems of all sorts that you couldn’t see the face of the Virgin at all. The gems and gewgaws had been pasted there by devout visitors and penitents over many years in hopes of the Virgin interceding for a miracle on their behalf. Honestly, it looked tacky and some of the members of our group made some jokes. My friends and I belong to a liberal congregation which has no creed, allowing each congregant to seek his/her own spiritual path; skeptics and agnostics are welcome, and even agnosticism and atheism are considered viable faith choices. Some of us on the trip were skeptics and non-believers. While we respect everyone’s path in terms of faith and spiritual belief, there are occasionally a few jokes made at the expense of those who believe differently. It is not unlike Garrison Keillor making jokes about Lutherans, Catholics (Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility), and the Unitarians. So in that vein, yes, some quips and jokes were whispered.
In addition to the jewel-encrusted icon itself, various items were hanging from the church ceiling. I didn’t fully understand at the time, but I realize now these were hundreds of tamatas or votive offerings, various items and ornaments made of silver, gold and stamped tin. Maybe some were made of other metals as well. These may include ships with sails (often brought as offerings by ship captains and sailors), silver houses, people, horses, autos, etc. In this case there were many and they were hanging close together. Some hung very low so as to create even more of a feeling of clutter and claustrophobia. We Westerners were perplexed, awed and dismayed. Sad to say, some of us laughed. Miraculous Madonna, mea culpa. It looked like several large charm bracelets had exploded and attached themselves to the ceiling, like iron filings to a magnet. They swayed slightly and tinkled like off-key bells. Votive candles burned too.
As often happens in some developing countries, many of the most devout pilgrims and visitors are often the very poorest. There were the usual questions by outsiders about the use of the gemstones and precious metals affixed to the icon, when the value of those items could have been used to feed the poor. And why would poor people give away family heirlooms when they could be sold for needed funds to buy food? But devout pilgrims are a unique lot, and to each his own. Some similar sights can be seen in Italy, in Eastern Europe and various Balkan countries as well. It is what it is.
So, once we were back aboard our ship, there was further conversation about the sights we had seen. We had moved on to another island by then, and some of us had purchased souvenirs of various types and we were comparing notes. Our congregation was going to be having a fundraiser in the near future which involved a dinner, and the planners had decided on a Greek theme. So, some of our party had bought tablecloths, napkins and various items to take home to use as table decorations. We would ask those attending to dress in keeping with the theme, if they were so inclined and wished to do so – to make it more fun and festive. This particular night I and my friends (Richard and Susan) were at dinner, and in addition to discussing our visit to Tinos, and souvenir purchases, we happened to mention the upcoming fundraiser and we talked about what sort of Greek theme costumes we might wear – or not. And from my tactless lips came the idea: I could get some glass beads and pieces of costume jewelry and faux gold and silver charms and paste them all over my face so you couldn’t tell who I was. And I could wear a long robe. If someone asked who or what I was, I would say I was The Bejeweled Icon. Of course the only ones who would get the joke would be those of us who had made the trip to Greece, but after a glass of wine it seemed like a viable notion at the time – sort of. Well, maybe it doesn’t seem funny in the retelling, but it sure seemed funny to us right then, and we were off into gales of side-splitting laughter, the sort of laughter that leaves you so breathless you can’t stop shaking and if you stop to take a breath you just laugh that much harder. Well, the appellation of Bejeweled Icon stuck, even though I didn’t have the nerve to dress in kind for the fundraiser. With these two friends, it has become my nickname.
That is one of the side benefits of travelling – stories and anecdotes to tell and retell later. Sometimes, the irreverent ones are the very best. Maybe, in this case, only three of us still find it funny, but hey, you take your fun where you find it. In this case, we found it on the isle of Tinos. Miraculous Madonna, forgive me and have mercy on my soul.