In a Grave For Three Years

The monasteries of Mt. Athos are hundreds of years old, and hundreds and thousands of monks have ended their earthly lives in them. But where are all of the graves of the reposed? Can it really be that the monks just don’t consider it necessary to take care to preserve the memory of their deceased brothers?

Purity of soul

Anyone that visits Mt. Athos’ monasteries will notice two peculiar things: first, even large monasteries have small cemeteries with only a few wooden crosses mounted in the ground; second, the oldest burials in these cemeteries are, at best, twenty or so years old. But how could that be?

First of all, let’s take note of the fact that Athonite monks are usually always buried on Mt. Athos itself. However, it does sometimes happen though that an Athonite monk due to various circumstances may end up living in another monastery outside of Mt. Athos and thus will be buried there instead. For example, at the Danilov cemetery in Moscow can be found the revered grave of the Athonite monk Aristoklis (Amvrosiev), who for many years had presided over the Athonite metochion in Moscow and thus was buried in Moscow after he reposed. However, any monk that reposes on Mount Athos, even if he had come to the Holy Mountain from another country for the first time, is not taken to his homeland to be buried, but is buried at the same Athos monastery in which he had reposed.

To repose on the Holy Mountain, in fact, is actually considered a kind of recognition of the deceased’s righteousness and almost a guarantee of the salvation of his soul. An Athonite monk of our time, hieromonk Gabriel, would always say, “What a joy it is to die on Athos! Here, the Mother of God herself meets the monk after his death, guiding his soul on its way from Earth to Heaven…”

On Mt. Athos, according to tradition, the burial of the deceased is preceded by a special rite. Also, the deceased monk’s clothes will not be changed and neither will his body be washed before burial. On the one hand, proper hygiene is, of course, always maintained; on the other, too much care for the body and health in general is considered an unnecessary occupation, not worthy of a monk’s time. And in fact, this manner of burial is not exactly something unique to Athonite monasticism. For example, in the “Monastic Rite of Burial” we read the following: “When a monk reposes in the Lord, it is not appropriate for his body to be washed or be seen unclad.”

The deceased instead will first be clothed in a “schema” and his head will be covered with a “koukoulion” (attire worn by schemamonks). Afterwards, a cassock is sewn over the body, serving as a coffin for the deceased, and an icon of the Holy Virgin Mary is placed on his chest. It’s worth noting that usually during burial procedure the icon of the Virgin Mary is only given to women, while men are given the icon of the Savior. But, since Mt. Athos is considered to be a place where the Mother of God is especially present, and according to belief, is the first to meet the souls of the deceased, the funeral traditions that have formed here are unique.

Generally burial takes place on Mount Athos on the day of death and without a coffin, so that the body may return unto the ground as soon as possible. Such a burial practice is actually common in many religions and cultures. In particular, Abrahamic religions adhere to this rule in accordance with the words that God addressed to Adam before his exile from Paradise: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:19).

After the customary prayer rule is read, the deceased monk is carried by his fellow brethren to his place of rest and is buried. Afterwards, on top of the grave the brethren mount a low four-pointed wooden cross on which, using simple paint, is made the most concise inscription: the name of the monk and the date of his death.

Stone after stone

It should be noted that the Athonite grave, that is, the very ground that the body is buried under, is much different than it is elsewhere. For example, the ground in Russia, which is mostly flatland, does not share in common any of the burial-related problems that inhabitants of the Mediterranean and other mountainous areas face. In Russia, the usual environment where the body of the deceased is placed is usually a homogeneous, soft, crumbly mass: at best, it is soil or sand; at worst—clay. On Mount Athos however there is nothing of the sort. Mt. Athos is all stone. Sometimes the ground is just a single stone mass, but more often it consists of cobblestones and large gravel. Soil on Mount Athos is in deficit even more than wood is. Therefore, agriculture on the peninsula is practically absent—there are no appropriate conditions for it. By the way, some time ago in the past, the Russian Panteleimon monastery on Mt. Athos had soil delivered to it by sea so that the monks, despite harsh conditions, would nonetheless be able to plant a few gardens. During our trip we happened to see some monasteries that had a bit of farmland, which at best had a few dozen rows of cabbages and some kind of gourds. The largest garden we saw was at the Great Lavra monastery, which had about 40 yards of land. And, no doubt, the soil for this garden was also brought from elsewhere, for the ground around the monastery is mostly all stone. As for the ground of the surrounding roads, it is either siliceous or consists of dense red soil resembling something like grated brick.

Now let’s take a look at the following scenario: a monk in one of the Athonite monasteries reposes in the Lord. In order to bury him, the brethren of the monastery have to urgently fulfill an extremely laborious obedience—prepare the place of burial for their deceased brother. Let us not forget that the deceased, according to monastic customs, are buried as soon as possible, usually on the very day of their death. Little by little, or rather, stone by the stone, the hardworking monks, with their shovels ringing, dig through the rough terrain of Mt. Athos. Finally, the grave is complete and the body of the deceased brother is gently placed within. But now what? Will they really fill the grave back up with all those stones and boulders they just dug up?! Of course not—for a cause such as this they can’t find enough soil. Now let us again keep in mind the deficit of soil on Mt. Athos, as this circumstance will soon help us understand the reason behind other important burial customs on the Holy Mountain.

With the grave now covered and topped off with a small mound of earth, and the wooden cross with its inscription mounted in place, the burial is complete. Now, here is the incomprehensible part of the procedure to one who is not familiar with Athonite burial customs: In just three years’ time the grave will be dug up, and the deceased brother’s bones will never again return to their former place of rest!

On Mt. Athos, a monastery brotherhood prays for newly-reposed monks with especial assiduousness. For the first 40 days, the entire brotherhood of the monastery reads the customary prayer rule for the reposed, repeating it according to the amount of knots on their prayer ropes. Also, in memory of the reposed monk, the monastery prepares “kolivo” (also called “kutia” in Russia), a ritual memorial dish which consists of some grain such as wheat, rye, oat, or rice, as well as honey, raisins and nuts. Furthermore, for the following three years the deceased is commemorated at every Liturgy during the proskomedia. Now bearing in mind that the Divine Liturgy in the monasteries is served daily, this means that the deceased monk receives commemoration every day and for quite a long time. Finally, the name of the deceased is also recorded in a special memorial monastery book, the so-called “Kuvaras”, which bears record of the names of all the deceased monks that have lived in the monastery from the time of its very foundation. For example, the “Kuvaras” of the Great Lavra monastery, read during special memorial days, has been recording the names of its brethren to this very day since the 10th century!

The ossuary

After three years have passed, the grave of the newly-reposed monk is carefully dug up and the brethren now examine the remains of the deceased to see what state they are in. If the soft tissues of the body are not completely decomposed yet, the grave will be covered up in likewise manner and the following procedure will be repeated again until it is clear that only the bones remain. By the way, according to Athonite tradition, a body that is not “accepted by the earth”, i.e., doesn’t decompose, is regarded as a sign that the monk did not make the effort to lead a proper monastic way of life and that his soul has not found rest in Heaven. In such case, the entire brotherhood begins to pray even more diligently, beseeching the Lord for the forgiveness of sins and purification of their fellow brother’s soul.

If the bones of the deceased are completely free from flesh (and this, under the Athos climate, while also taking into account the terrain, occurs most often in just about three years), they are taken out of the grave, and after being thoroughly washed with water and wine are transferred to the ossuary, which is a building that resembles a chapel and is usually located somewhere nearby, outside the walls of the monastery. As for the empty grave, it’s now ready to grant rest for another three years to someone else after his repose.

So now we know how Mt. Athos manages to solve the problem of soil deficit and why there are so few graves in the cemeteries of these ancient monasteries. As it turns out, there can’t possibly be too many graves, as there is a constant “rotation” going on that many at first aren’t aware of.

Now an ossuary is, in essence, a crypt. But the peculiarity of this crypt lies in the fact that the deceased, or rather, their remains, are not hidden there, but are in plain sight: the skulls are lined up in rows along the shelves, while the other bones are neatly laid right on the floor along the walls. The names of the monks and the date of their death are usually found written on each skull. Here is how the well-known Russian writer Boris Zaitsev, who visited Mount Athos at the beginning of the 20th century, described the ossuary of the Skete of Saint Andrew: “The ossuary of St. Andrew’s Skete is a rather large, secluded and well-lit room on an underground floor. Inside the ossuary is found a cupboard with five human skulls. On each is inscribed a name and a date. These were the abbots of the skete. Then on the shelves lay the skulls (about seven hundred) of ordinary monks, which also have inscriptions. And, finally, what to me seemed most incredible—small bones (the hands and feet) were neatly put together in stacks near the wall, reaching up almost to the ceiling. All this was done with the most profound care that is inherent to this kind of burial tradition. It seemed to me that the only thing missing from this whole picture was a monk that would spend time here keeping record of things and compiling biographies of the reposed brethren. There is some literature present here as well. On the wall here, by the way, hangs a saying that the brethren themselves composed: “Remember, O brethren, that we were once like you, and you will once become like us.”

Thus, in such a manner do the Athonite monks lay at rest after reposing in the Lord, with the ossuary basically serving them as a common mass grave. It’s also worth noting that on Athos it is thought that the color of the skull of a reposed monk is a sure sign of whether or not the monk’s life was well-pleasing to God. Thus, according to this belief, the skulls of the righteous have a beautiful yellowish shade—they look as though they are emitting light, and, sometimes even produce a sweet-smelling scent; the monks that have honestly carried out their monastic vows have white-colored skulls; and a dark colored skull, on the other hand, signifies that the judgment of the departed monk’s soul due to his sins did not have a positive outcome. The last case, however, is quite rare on Mt. Athos.

Mt. Athos’ ossuaries are never locked. Any inhabitant of the monastery can at any time can enter the ossuary and in solitude reflect on the transience of life. Looking at the bones of monks whom one once knew, or of those who had reposed centuries ago, it is unlikely that one would not come to the thought that they themselves will one day also find rest here along with their fellow brethren. Now that is truly something to ponder for the monk… However, monks do not at all fear ending up here in this gloomy house of bones, knowing for certain that there is no need to fear death, for it has already been defeated by the Risen Christ!

Yuri Ryabinin

7/7/2017

 

Come To Me….

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Athonite Film Wins Award at International Film Competition

 
Monks and students at Athoniada Ecclesiastical Academy participated in the 3rd International Cinema Competition with a short film titled Come To Me….
 
The final ranking was announced in Athens on May 25, 2017 at the Michael Kakoyannis Foundation during the award ceremony. It was one of seven films awarded out of 290.
 
Athoniada Academy is a school that operates out of Karyes on Mount Athos. It was originally founded in 1749 by Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril V and housed in a building of Vatopaidi Monastery.
 
The school provides a junior high school and high school education, with free housing, schooling and food, and the students live a common life.
 
All the necessary facilities for living such as washing machines, dryers, sports, table games, books from its modern library, computer room with modern computers, etc. are available.
 
All the students are taught what is also taught in public schools, and additionally there is offered Ecclesiastical Music, Iconography, Liturgics, Teleliturgics, Athonite History, Interpretation of Gospel Passages and Patristic Texts, Ethics, and other things.
 
See the award-winning short film prepared by the Athoniada Academy students:
 
 
 
 

A Smile from Eternity

Honorable Mr. Papanikolaou,

A few hours after the entombment of elder Joseph, you posted at your website an article with the title «Funeral of Blessed Elder Joseph of Vatopedi – A Smile From Eternity«, describing in a few words the event aided by a few pictures.

The photograph of the reposed, who is smiling not only with his lips but with all the expression of his face, made  a great impression on people, which we can see  from the articles and comments in numerous web-sites.

One can indeed come across dead people with a glowing face, a peaceful expression, but with never a smile. On the one hand all the spiritual fathers say that the time of death is horrifying for man. On the other hand we read in the book of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that even the most advanced ones , out of humility, did not let down their guard before entering eternal life, where there is no longer any danger.

In addition, Elder Joseph had a major heart problem and he was very debilitated by this illness. So how did he repose smiling?

The answer is: NO, he didn’t repose smiling, but HE SMILED AFTER HIS REPOSE.

After a conversation of us with some fathers of the monastery, we convey to you the story of the event.

The two monks that were with him until the very last moment, sprinted to the abbot, Elder Ephraim, to let him and the rest of the fathers know about the repose of Elder Joseph and the former two didn’t pay attention to the reposed, who was left with his mouth half-open.

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Thus, they came back to the cell, to prepare the reposed according to the monastic order. Elder Ephraim ordered them to leave his face uncovered. The fathers tried to close his mouth, but as it was quite late, his mouth remained open. They even tied a gauze around his head, so that his mouth would remain closed, but after they removed it his mouth opened up again. About 45 minutes had already gone by, since he had passed away.

-Elder, what should we do, it looks bad with the  mouth open?

-Leave him as he is, do not cover his face!

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They sewed him inside his monastic mantle as according to monastic custom. The whole procedure so that he was put inside the mantle and sewed in took another 45′. Then, they cut off the cloth around his face –according to the order- and found the elder as everybody can see him now, smiling.

Did he listen to them and granted them this litle favour, so that he didn’t hurt their feelings? Or, was it that he wanted to grant us an indication what he saw and let us know the state in which he is now?

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The smile of elder Joseph of Vatopedi, is the First supernatural event after his repose and has become a great consolation for everybody.

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Panayiotis Koutsou

Source: Diakonima

 

Papadiamandis, Greece’s Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens (I)

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One of the greatest figures in modern Greek literature, Alexandros Papadiamandis was born on the Greek island of Skiathos on March 4, 1851, “the second Sunday of Lent and the feast day of Gregory Palamas, while they were singing the triadiká in church” (as we are informed by his fellow countryman Papa-George Rigas, distinguished scholar of folk traditions and specialist of the liturgical typicon).

[For those in a hurry, you may skip the short biography, and go straight to his short story link at the bottom of the page]

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While this first intimation of God’s favor appeared during Papadiamandis’s birth, the second took place during his Baptism:

“He was baptized on the Monday of Bright Week and named Alexandros. Something unusual happened while the priest, Papa-Nicholas, performed the Baptism; as he poured the oil in the baptismal font, the oil immediately made the form of the cross on the water. Papa-Nicholas interpreted this strange phenomenon, saying, “This child will be great.”

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His father was the pious priest Adamantios Emmanuel. Papadiamandis writes that he was “a beneficent guide in all ecclesiastical questions and a sublime adornment of ecclesiastical celebrations” in the church of the Three Hierarchs and in the country chapels of Skiathos.

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From an early age, Alexandros followed his father around the island helping him, sometimes in the altar and sometimes at the lectern as chanter. With his exceptional sensitivity, Alexandros treasured his experiences of sharing this liturgical service with his father. His heart was filled with and his nous was instructed by images from the priestly life and the Church’s services. He was so influenced by them that most of the scenes he chose to paint as a child were taken from the life of the Church. Reflecting on this time, he writes in his autobiographical memoir, “When I was young I would paint Saints, or I would write [hymnographical] verse.”

From his childhood years, Alexandros had the opportunity to live the tradition of the Kollyvádes fathers (those Greek Orthodox Athonite elders involved in the eighteenth century movement that inspired spiritual renewal and a return to more traditional liturgical and spiritual practices). This tradition had been preserved on Skiathos through the presence of a monastery built by the Kollyvádes, the Monastery of the Annunciation. Although the monastery was in decline during Papadiamandis’s later years, the diligently preserved kollyvadian tradition remained alive in the inhabitants of the island. He would later write, “In this small monastery [of the Panagia of Kounistras in Skiathos] at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, six of my relatives were priest-monks.” Papadiamandis gives an account of the monastery’s spiritual life and foundation on Skiathos:

Papa-Gregory…the ascetic, descended from the heights of Athos(7) together with his elder, Papa-Niphon, and thirty other monks. They sailed to the island of Gregory’s birth [Skiathos], and there, in the gorge of Angallianous, they built a beautiful, awe-inspiring monastery—patriarchal, Stavropegic, and coenobitic—with an exquisite, very fine church, built with great care. It was so beautiful that during those years, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was famous and enjoyed great respect among the monasteries of Athos. These ascetics…were the so- called Kollyvádes, who were under persecution on the Holy Mountain, as they insisted on precisionx (regarding frequent communion), and on many other things.

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The renowned Elder Dionysios was a distinguished spiritual father and learned priest-monk who lived on Skiathos, whose roots were in the kollyvadian tradition. Papadiamandis knew him personally and did not hide his admiration for him. He was “the inspired spiritual father in the small monastery of the Prophet Elijah.” Papadiamandis had such monks and monasteries in mind when he wrote, “the rule of prayer should be complete, following all the old typicons, with the vigils and pre-dawn Matins, with all the appointed verses and readings from the Psalter.”

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Papadiamandis was initiated into this kollyvadian—the genuine Orthodox—tradition, in his own home by his father, Papa-Adamantios, and by the broader world of the Church in Skiathos. In an unsigned obituary for his father, he wrote that

Papa-Adamantios, like all of the older priests of the island, was taught how to celebrate the Mysteries(12) by those venerable Kollyvádes (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Kollyvades_Movement), who, at the end of the last century, established the Monastery of the Annunciation…which became a seedbed of humble priests for our island, priests who were lovers of the divine services. Simple and virtuous, they enjoyed the love and respect of the inhabitants, having no affectations or hypocrisy, and displaying no vanity as they lived their lives as priests.

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Seeds of spiritual struggle that had been planted in Papadiamandis during his childhood and adolescence at home and in the wider environment of Skiathos were brought to fruition when he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain for a few months at the age of twenty-one. In one of his stories, we read about some of the events of his visit, mainly at the Skete of Xenophontos, and we perceive how the charm of the Holy Mountain was an inspiration for him. While there, he met many ascetics and hesychasts and became familiar with the liturgical life of the monks. He was enthralled by the vigils of the monastics and recorded in his heart not only the strict typicon and the Byzantine melodies but also the spirit that governed it all. In this way, Athos and its traditions affected the path his life took and enriched it with unforgettable memories.

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Given his rich spiritual upbringing, experiences, and heritage, it is only natural that Papadiamandis would choose to spend his life within this rich Orthodox tradition, preserving the Orthodox liturgical ethos through his writings and life. The critics of his age believed that there was little value in a detailed description of “how a village priest went to celebrate the liturgy in a country chapel for a little community of peasants or shepherds, who and how many took part in the festival, and what their customs were like.” Papadiamandis, however, did not regard the celebrations as mere holidays, but himself lived the events and the life of the Church as the center and foundation of all events and all life.

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Papadiamandis moved within this ecclesiastical environment and within the wider Greek tradition. He lived both aspects of this tradition, Ancient and Byzantine, in a diachronic unity, which spanned the ages. He had utter integrity, both as a person and as a Greek, within whose Hellenism was Byzantium and in whose love for Byzantium might be discerned Hellenism. In his texts, Ancient Greece resembles a flower that, wilting from its desire for the truth, then bears great fruit in the warmth of the Sun of Righteousness [Christ]. When history is viewed as a progression toward the discovery of the fullness of the truth of Orthodoxy, tradition truly lives, and history is kept from being fragmented. Other important figures in modern Greek literature such as Photios Kontoglou and, even more so, Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis would act from this perspective later on, with both their pens and their brushes. Together with our author, they are regarded as solid links in this tradition.

God favored Papadiamandis with many gifts, and he struggled to use them in a way that would bear the most God-pleasing fruit. The reverent and liturgical ethos expressed through Papadiamandis’s writings and life bear witness to the successful cultivation of his gifts.

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Papa-Nicholaos Planas

“It was in 1887 that he found what could be described as his spiritual bolt-hole in the turbulent and often harsh world of the metropolis: the small church of the Prophet Elisha, set in the courtyard of a private house in the old part of the city, under the rock of the Acropolis. There Papa-Nicholaos Planas, a simple priest born in the same year as Papadiamandis, a man of prayer and of great spiritual gifts, would regularly hold vigil services, gathering people from all walks of life into the crucible of the little church. Papa-Nicholaos was canonized in 1992.

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Papadiamandis never married. He was a shy and retiring man, as the few extant photographs of him testify, a man seemingly not of this world despite his acute observations of it. He also had to provide for his unmarried sisters at home. But despite his introspective nature he had a small circle of close friends, including Pavlos Nirvanas and Yannis Vlachoyannis, well-known Athenian men of letters who on various occasions undertook the role of literary agents and helped him during hard times.” (http://deniseharveypublisher.gr/people/alexandros-papadiamandis)

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Papadiamantis’ longest works were the serialized novels “The Gypsy Girl,” “The Emigrant,” and “Merchants of Nations.” These were adventures set around the Mediterranean, with rich plots involving captivity, war, pirates, the plague, etc. However, the author is best remembered for his scores of short stories. Written in his own version of the then official language of Greece, “katharevousa” (a “purist” written language heavily influenced by ancient Greek), Papadiamantis’ stories are little gems. They provide lucid and lyrical portraits of country life in Skiathos, or urban life in the poorer neighborhoods of Athens, with frequent flashes of deep psychological insight.

Papadiamantis’ deep Christian faith, complete with the mystical feeling associated with the Orthodox Christian liturgy, suffuses many stories. Most of his work is tinged with melancholy, and resonates with empathy with people’s suffering, regardless of whether they are saints or sinners, innocent or conflicted.

His work is seminal in Modern Greek literature. … It is a body of work, however, that is virtually impossible to translate, as the magic of his language is founded on the Greek diglossia: elaborately crafted, high Katharevousa for the narrative, interspersed with authentic local dialect for the dialogue, and with all dialectical elements used in the narrative formulated in strict Katharevousa, and therefore in forms that had never actually existed.

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Papadiamandis desire to glorify God is shown even more in the way he ended his life and in his attitude toward death. In a prayer he offered at the end of a poem entitled, “To the Little Panagia in the Turret,” he beseeches her, “comfort me, as well, my Panagia, before / I depart and will be no more.” In a letter written by Papa-George Rigas, we learn about the last moments of Papadiamandis’s life on earth:

His repose took place as follows: He became ill on the 29th of November 1910. On the third day of his illness, he fainted. When he revived, he asked, “What happened to me?” “It’s nothing, a small fainting spell,” his three brothers who were at his side told him. “I haven’t fainted,” Alexandros said, “in so many years; doesn’t it seem that it’s a prelude to my repose? Get the priest immediately and don’t delay.”… Soon after, having been called [by his brothers], the priest and the doctor arrived at the same time. Papadiamandis was, above all things…a pious Christian. So, as soon as he saw the doctor, he asked him, “What are you doing here?” “I came to see you,” the doctor told him. “Keep quiet,” the sick man told him. “I will first follow the ecclesiastical path [and call upon the help of God], and then you can come later.”…

He had control of his faculties until the end and wanted to write a story. Until the end, his mind was dedicated to God. On his own, a few hours before his repose, he called for the priest to come so he could partake of Holy Communion. “Perhaps later on I won’t be able to swallow!” he explained. It was the eve of his repose and, as irony would have it, it was the day they told him that he would receive the medal of the Cross of the Savior. On the eve of his repose, the second of January, he said, “Light a candle [and] bring me an [ecclesiastical] book.” The candle was lit. The book was about to be brought. However, Papadiamandis wearily said, “Don’t worry about the book; tonight I will sing whatever I remember by heart.” And he began to chant in a trembling voice, “Thy Hand Touching” [a troparion from the Hours of the eve of Theophany].

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Papadiamandis sang this final hymn and, as day broke between the second and third of January of his sixtieth year, he wearily fell asleep. After passing through the furnace of pain and trials and tasting many of the bitter dregs of life while faithfully living the liturgical life of the Church, he now stretched out his strong wings to fly to the upper chapel of the angels, toward which he had oriented his whole life. It snowed on the following day and, like Uncle Yiannios in the story, “Love in the Snow,” Papadiamandis lay down his worn-out body, presenting himself, his life, and his work before the Judge, the Ancient of Days, the Thrice-Holy. This was, finally, the only judgment with which he was concerned as he passed through life. Though his life and struggle in this world have ended, his work will continue to give witness to his devotion to the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church for generations to come.

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A Short Biography of Alexandros Papadiamandis, From the First Chapter of A. Keselopoulos, Greece’s Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis (2011)

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Unfortunately not many of his stories are online, but I found one titled “The Gleaner: A Christian Story” from 1889 at http://deniseharveypublisher.gr/assets/0000/0372/PAPADIAMANTHS_-_The_Gleaner.pdf

 

An Ineffable Fragrance

It is impossible to describe how exquisite and noble are the podvizhniki![1] These people—although they bear the traces of harsh struggles, although their bodies are so withered and emaciated—have a fragrance and grace imprinted on their wondrous souls.

1976. The month of August—July 22 Old Style. The Altar Feast (Panegyr) of St. Mary Magdalene in Simonopetra. How they love this saint in her monastery! Her left hand is kept here—her wrist, palm, and fingers—with the skin and tendons. Its temperature holds steadily at 98.6 °F/37° C—proof that this is the hand of a living witness of the Resurrected Christ, living proof of the fact that “death hath no more dominion over” her, either (Rom. 6:9).

At the All-Night Vigil[2], they showed me a stasidion[3] practically in the center. Next to me there was a grey-haired little starets.[4] He stood as straight as a candle, without stirring. During the course of the service he weakened—he was obviously tired. Most likely, he was sleeping. But not relaxed as people usually sleep. His state was distinct and interesting: his head was leaning on his hand, his eyes almost shut. From time to time you could hear him snore a little, gently and peacefully. But every time the singers would make a mistake, he would come into action and without delay correct it. And then return to … his rest. “The body sleeps out of nature’s need, but his heart keeps awake out of its great love.” And truly, his mind keeps vigil. This man, it seems, lives in another world.

We came to the exapostilarion.[5] All the fathers stood, took off their skufias,[6] and bowed low when the serving priest performed the litany over the relics of the great saint and protectress of the monastery, which were lying on a silver tray. Soon the veneration began—I was stunned… I watched what the others did, and I felt that I wasn’t with them. I tried to understand what to do and how to do it correctly, but I couldn’t touch the secret. Everyone around me, I felt, was experiencing an event that I had no idea about. The choir intensified the celebration. The monks showed by their whole appearance that they were experiencing something the likes of which I could not perceive. The only thing that I was able to do was to follow what was going on—superficially and with curiosity. Soon the starets standing next to me left his place and goes in his turn up to the relics. Making three prostrations, he kissed them, was anointed by the priest, and with deep emotion he returned to his stasidion.

“You go, too,” he says to me, “don’t be shy—today the Saint is fragrant. Receive some of her grace.”

I did what he said and went up to the relics. This is what, apart from everything else, the others had done, too. But my doubts stayed with me. I didn’t particularly believe in all this. I went up in a reverie. And I was astonished by the fragrance. I had an insatiable desire to confirm the statement of this fact from an investigative point of view and to venerate the relics again. But I felt awkward—it was an inappropriate time for experiments! I returned to my place—physically—but mentally I stayed with the Saint. My questions multiplied, but my faith did not increase. It was the “sign” that I had been asking for, but it wasn’t the “sign” that I needed. I couldn’t believe in it, but again, I couldn’t imagine that the monks were lying. They had such pure countenances, and they experienced what was going on without reasoning or arguments. I had no reason to suspect them of lying.

“Geronda[7], how does this happen?” I asked. “Maybe out of piety the fathers sprinkled a little perfume? Or are the relics themselves fragrant?”

“Here reverence is ruined as soon as you sprinkle perfume. Reverence is increased when you receive the ineffable fragrance in simplicity. The Holy Mountain is full of such occurrences.”

“What does ‘ineffable fragrance’ mean?”

“If we sprinkled a little perfume from a perfume store, then it would be “fragrance.” Now, when we don’t sprinkle anything but the fragrance pours out all by itself, that is called ‘ineffable fragrance’.

I bowed and kissed his hand. He himself also was fragrant, as if he had been handling incense. The all-night vigil continued—it lasted twelve hours.

A monk whom I knew came up to me:

“Did you get a blessing from Elder Arsenios?”

“Who is that?” I asked, not having any idea who he was referring to.

“The little old man who was standing next to you.”

“The little old man who was sleeping next to me,” I said to myself.

“He has the ‘gift of not washing’, added the monk. “It has already been ten years since he has washed his face and he is fragrant all over. He is as pure as a tear. He lives in Kalamitse, in a cell alone, an hour and a half walk from here. Run, before he leaves!”

I did not catch up with him. He had withdrawn to his cell before the beginning of the festive trapeza. He was filled with the Divine service. He didn’t need food or words in order to fill his soul. He stood, sat, drifted off for twelve hours, and still every second breathed in the sweetness of the all-night vigil. He hath chosen the good part, which will not be taken awayfrom him (Luke 10:42).

From: A Still Small Voice by Metropolitan Nicholas of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, Phoni avras leptis, Athens 2006, pp. 139–144. Translated from the Russian version on Pravoslavie.ru.

Metropolitan Nikolaos of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki
Translation by Dimitra Dwelley

[1] Podvizhnik: a “spiritual athlete,” one who struggles spiritually, takes on podvigs. Podvig – a difficult spiritual task taken on voluntarily.—Trans.

[2] Agrypnia: the very long Divine service celebrated with great solemnity on Athos on Sundays, great feasts and feasts of the saints in whose honor churches are named, and likewise on days commemorating particularly revered saints.

[3] Stasidion: in Orthodox monasteries, a special wooden chair with high armrests and a seat that can be lifted up out of the way, so that a monk can stand up during the long vigils while being able to rest his arms on the armrests. When it is allowed or necessary out of weakness, the seat may be folded down so he may sit. —Trans.

[4] starets (here, “starchik”, an affectionate form): an elder, usually monastic, who through long experience, obedience, spiritual struggles, love and humility is given special spiritual gifts and to whom others come for spiritual guidance. —Trans.

[5] The Dismissal Hymn, the troparion that follows the Canon at Matins, near the end of the service. Sometimes called svetilen/photogogikon, because it sings of Christ the Light of the world. It is connected with the Matins Gospel.

[6] Skufia: priest’s or monastic’s hat.

[7] Geronda: Greek for “elder” or “starets.”

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Who is Metropolitan Nikolaos?
The Metropolitan of Messogea and Lavreotiki, Nikolaos, was born on April 13th 1954 in Thessaloniki, Greece. He studied physics at the University of Thessaloniki. He continued his studies at Harvard and MIT (USA) where he obtained postgraduate degrees and doctorates. He worked as a researcher and research assistant in the laboratory of angiology of the New England Deaconess Hospital (U.S.). At the same time he was a scientific associate of the United States Company NASA and the company Arthur D. Little.
He taught courses at Harvard and M.I.T, the Medical School of University of Crete and the Medical School of Athens University. He studied theology at the Theological School of the Holy Cross in Boston in the United States and was named honorary student of the Theological School of the University. He was the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and the President of the Synodical Bioethics Committee of the Church of Greece. He spent two years on Mount Athos, after which he became a monk on March 18, 1989 at the Holy Stomiou Konitsis Monastery, and the next day he was ordained deacon and then priest on September 10th of that year. Later he entered into the Holy Monastery of Simonopetra. Between 1990 and 2004 he served as a parish priest to the Athonite dependency (Metohion) of the Saviour’s Ascension (Simonopetra Monastery) in Byrona, a suburb of Athens. He was elected Metropolitan of Mesogaias and Lavreotikis on April 26th 2004. Listen to him at a recent Symposium at Madingley Hall, Cambridge https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POCEGvMRGeA

 

Between Son and Mother

A virtual, photographic pilgrimage to shrines in Greece and Cyprus dedicated to the Feast of the Mother of God Presentation or Entry, Entrance, Eisodos in the Temple (November 21)

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Iconography of the Entrance of the Theotokos at Hilandari Monastery–MOUNT ATHOS

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The Monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa in AmorgosENTRY96entry7

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Panagia Malteza of Santorini

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Panagia Odigitria of Kimolos

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The 11th Century Church of Panagia Kapnikarea in Athens

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The Monastery of Panagia of Machairas in Cyprus

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No one stands between Son and Mother

Give us salvation


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“Today, the most pure temple of the Savior, the precious bridal chamber and Virgin, the sacred treasure of God, enters the house of the Lord, bringing the grace of the Divine Spirit. The Angels of God praise her. She is the heavenly tabernacle.”

 

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