A Retreat and Pilgrimage to Panagia Eleousa, Mikrokastro — Reflections
A retreat! Amidst various Lenten temptations and “the purifying draught of dishonour, sneers, derision and insults”! Mikrokastro monastery is my haven of peace, silence, hesychia and spiritual refreshment under the protecting Veil of the Theotokos. The grace-filled presence of Panagia Eleousa and the mesmerizing beauty of the Akathist Vigil at Mikrokastro monastery have offered me, again, a timely refuge!
The exercise of authority is not a stone hand in a velvet glove- it is a wounded hand nailed to the Cross. (My spiritual father’s words)
Wonder-working icon of Panagia Eleousa, of Mercy at Mikrokastro
How difficult at times to show patience in annoyances and unmurmuring endurance of scorn, disregard of insults, and the habit, when wronged, of bearing it sturdily; when slandered, of not being indignant; when humiliated, not to be angry; when condemned, to be humble”, but how difficult does this feel! (St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 2:8) Indeed a narrow path to theosis!
To the Theotokos, let us run now most fervently,
As sinners and lowly ones
Let us fall down in repentance,
Crying from the depths of our soul:
Lady, come and help us,
Have compassion upon us;
Hasten now for we are lost
In the host of our errors;
Do not turn your servants away,
For you alone are a hope to us.
I have always been attracted to spiritual retreats, removing myself from the usual environment to allow precious time for silence, hesychia, reflection prayer, meditation, and rest. Have you ever felt the need to try to try to “Take stock” of your life and/or re-commit to connecting with the spiritual aspects of life? I often feel such a need, as I am usually laden with complex administrative duties and time-consuming writing tasks. Lately I have been so busy with translating a huge book on St. Paisios’ Life and Works, the forthocoming, 2nd edition of Elder [now Saint] Paisios of Mount Athos Hardcover – 2012, by I understand that “Translation [can be] a Means of Grace” but with the book’s 750 pages (!) I sometimes feel doomed 😳
Silence has always been blue to me!
We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.
“If you are praised, be silent. If you are scolded, be silent. If
you incur losses, be silent. If you receive profit, be silent. If
you are satiated, be silent. If you are hungry, also be silent.
And do not be afraid that there will be no fruit when all dies
down; there will be! Not everything will die down. Energy will
appear; and what energy! “ St. Feofil, the Fool for Christ
PILGRIMAGES: PAINFUL AND DANGEROUS DESERTS
Pilgrimages are like crossing a desert. They can be painful if taken seriously, and can even be dangerous. They are painful because they crack the shield of one’s comfortable certainty that things can only be done one way. In truth, nothing is one, except Faith itself; by comparison, the manners in which this faith ‘becomes flesh’ are countless. There are as many shapes and nuances of the faith as there are human beings. This is a painful lesson to learn, but it is absolutely necessary. Without this understanding, one loses sight of the personal nature of any spiritual experience. There are as many prayers as there are sighs, and there are as many sighs as there are human hearts. There is no rule on Heaven or earth to regulate the outpouring of love or pain of one’s heart.
Lord, by this time he stinks …
Suddenly, ‘The’ traditions of your local region become just that: local traditions, creations of a certain historical and cultural context which reflect the faith. As a pilgrim, you unavoidably find yourself immersed in a different context, a different embodiment of the same faith – other customs, other ways to pray, other saints and prayers, all embraced by the faithful in that region with the same absolute conviction that these local expressions of faith are ‘The’ only expressions of faith.
Pilgrimages can also be dangerous and may lead (paradoxically) to a weakening of one’s faith. To some extend, this is a natural progression – when you grow in your faith, there is a moment when it becomes clear that what you previously held to be absolute truths are actually not. There are always other ways to express one’s faith. If you are weak of heart, this process of leaving your past behind may be a dangerous moment, and you risk losing your path while crossing the desert.
However, if you take courage and press forward, the Spirit will lead you to a new understanding – a higher one, a more loving one, embracing the endless diversity of the personal ways in which we manifest our One Faith. When you leave behind the comfort of your home, prepare yourself for the dangers of the desert, but don’t lose heart: at the end of it all, God has already prepared a better, higher, more spiritual home for you.
Mother Theologia, a true Mother, and Siatistis Pavlos, both immensely popular and widely revered throughout Greece
“The first stage of tranquility consists in silencing the lips when the heart is excited. The second, in silencing the mind when the soul is still excited. The goal is a perfect peacefulness even in the middle of the raging storm.” (Ibid, Step 8.4) The Ladder of Divine Ascent is also known as The Monastic Bible. In many monasteries, it is a tradition to read this book during Trapeza meals throughout Great Lent.
There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present day society: to retreat ahead of it.
There’s no cure, except the retreat into Love,
For the suffering of subtly afflicted hearts.
Mikrokastro is a village in northern Greece, near Siatista in the Kozani district. It derives its name from Mount Kastraki which lies on the other side of the village. This mountain is on the way to Saitista and is known for the massacre which occurred there at the hands of the Turks in November 1912, which is the year the inhabitants gained independence from the Turks. The monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos was founded in 1753 and houses the miraculous icon of The wonder-working icon of Panagia Eleousa, Theotokos of Mercy, dating back to 1603, maybe as back as the 13th century, wondrously alive, even to the remotest ‘corners of the world’. The monastery at one time operated an old age home, an orphanage, and a hospital for sick children. During war times many sought refuge and sustenance from the monastery, and in turn the people loved the monastery and the bishop who made it a center of the people’s lives. The monastery is the heart of western Macedonia and is truly a place where the command to “love one another” is exemplified.
Yearly on the 15th of August the male inhabitants of Siatista parade with their horses (the Cavalry of Siatista) in a procession of the icon from the monastery to Siatista. In Siatista a party ensues and the men dance on the baks of the horses while the wine flows freely, and people break their fasts with a great feast among friends and family till the early morning hours. This festivity goes back to Ottoman times when the Turks granted the inhabitants one day of freedom to do as they wished according to their traditions, and the men would ride their decorated horses to show their leventia (Greek word for manliness and courage).
- Be sure to stop if near! The monastery is famous for its hospitality! [Telephone number: +302465071307 ]
PILGRIMAGES: PAINFUL AND DANGEROUS DESERTS
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?
Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.