A Journey of Pain and Love to Heaven

Nobody would dispute that the most important day in a person’s life, after his birth and baptism, is that of his marriage. It is no surprise, then, that the aim of contemporary worldly and institutional upheavals is precisely to crush the most honorable and sacred mystery of marriage. For many people, marriage is an opportunity for pleasures and amusements. Life, however, is a serious affair. It is a spiritual struggle, a progression toward a goal—heaven. The most crucial juncture, and the most important means, of this progression is marriage. It is not permissible for anyone to avoid the bonds of marriage, whether he concludes a mystical marriage by devoting himself to God, or whether he concludes a sacramental one with a spouse.

Today we will concern ourselves primarily with sacramental marriage. We will consider how marriage can contribute to our spiritual life, in order to continue the theme of our previous talk [1]. We know that marriage is an institution established by God. It is “honorable” (Heb 13.4). It is a “great mystery” (Eph 5.32). An unmarried person passes through life and leaves it; but a married person lives and experiences life to the full.

One wonders what people today think about the sacred institution of marriage, this “great mystery”, blessed by our Church. They marry, and it’s as if two checking accounts or two business interests were being merged. Two people are united without ideals, two zeros, you could say. Because people without ideals, without quests, are nothing more than zeros. “I married in order to live my life”, you hear people say, “and not to be shut inside four walls”. “I married to enjoy my life”, they say, and then they hand over their children—if they have children—to some strange woman so they can run off to the theatre, the movies, or to some other worldly gathering. And so their houses become hotels to which they return in the evening, or, rather, after midnight, after they’ve had their fun and need to rest. Such people are empty inside, and so in their homes they feel a real void. They find no gratification there, and thus they rush and slide from here to there, in order to find their happiness.

They marry without knowledge, without a sense of responsibility, or simply because they wish to get married, or because they think they must in order to be good members of society. But what is the result? We see it every day. The shipwrecks of marriage are familiar to all of us. A worldly marriage, as it is understood today, can only have one characteristic—the murder of a person’s spiritual life. Thus we must feel that, if we fail in our marriage, we have more or less failed in our spiritual life. If we succeed in our marriage, we have also succeeded in our spiritual life. Success or failure, progress or ruin, in our spiritual life, begins with our marriage. Because this is such a serious matter, let us consider some of the conditions necessary for a happy, truly Christian marriage.

In order to have a successful marriage, one must have the appropriate upbringing from an early age. Just as a child must study, just as he learns to think, and take an interest in his parents or his health, so too must he be prepared in order to be able to have a successful marriage. But in the age in which we live, no one is interested in preparing their children for this great mystery, a mystery which will play the foremost role in their lives. Parents are not interested, except in the dowry, or in other such financial matters, in which they are deeply interested.

The child, from an early age, must learn to love, to give, to suffer deprivation, to obey. He must learn to feel that the purity of his soul and body is a valuable treasure to be cherished as the apple of his eye. The character of the child must be shaped properly, so that he becomes an honest, brave, decisive, sincere, cheerful person, and not a half, self-pitying creature, who constantly bemoans his fate, a weak-willed thing without any power of thought or strength. From an early age, the child should learn to take an interest in a particular subject or occupation, so that tomorrow he will be in a position to support his family, or, in the case of a girl, also to help, if this is necessary. A woman must learn to be a housewife, even if she has an education. She should learn to cook, to sew, to embroider. But, my good Father, you may say, this is all self- evident. Ask married couples, however, and you’ll see how many women who are about to marry know nothing about running a household.

Once we reach a certain age, moreover, the choice of one’s life partner is a matter which should not be put off. Neither should one be in a hurry, because, as the saying goes, “quick to marry, quick to despair”. But one should not delay, because delay is a mortal danger to the soul. As a rule, the normal rhythm of the spiritual life begins with marriage. An unmarried person is like someone trying to live permanently in a hallway: he doesn’t seem to know what the rooms are for. Parents should take an interest in the child’s social life, but also in his prayer life, so that the blessed hour will come as a gift sent by God.

Naturally, when he comes to choose a partner, he will take to account his parents’ opinion. How often have parents felt knives piercing their hearts when their children don’t ask them about the person who will be their companion in life? A mother’s heart is sensitive, and can’t endure such a blow. The child should discuss matters with his parents, because they have a special intuition enabling them to be aware of the things which concern them. But this doesn’t mean that the father and mother should pressure the child. Ultimately he should be free to make his own decision. If you pressure your child to marry, he will consider you responsible if things don’t go well. Nothing good comes from pressure. You must help him, but you must also allow him to choose the person he prefers or loves—but not someone he pities or feels sorry for. If your child, after getting to know someone, tells you, “I feel sorry for the poor soul, I’ll marry him”, then you know that you’re on the threshold of a failed marriage. Only a person whom he or she prefers or loves can stand by the side of your child. Both the man and the woman should be attracted to each other, and they should truly want to live together, in an inward way, unhurriedly. On this matter, however, it is not possible to pressure our children. Sometimes, out of our love, we feel that they are our possessions, that they are our property, and that we can do what we want with them. And thus our child becomes a creature incapable of living life either married or unmarried.

Of course, the process of getting acquainted, which is such a delicate issue—but of which we are often heedless—should take place before marriage. We should never be complacent about getting to know each other, especially if we’re not sure of our feelings. Love shouldn’t blind us. It should open our eyes, to see the other person as he is, with his faults. “Better to take a shoe from your own house, even if it’s cobbled”, says the folk proverb. That is, it’s better to take someone you’ve gotten to know. And acquaintanceship must always be linked with engagement, which is an equally difficult matter.

When I suggested to a young woman that she should think seriously about whether she should continue her engagement she replied: “If I break it off, my mother will kill me”. But what sort of engagement is it, if there’s no possibility of breaking it off? To get engaged doesn’t mean that I’ll necessarily get married. It means that I’m testing to see whether I should marry the person I’m engaged to. If a woman isn’t in a position to break off her engagement, she shouldn’t get engaged, or, rather, she shouldn’t go ahead with the marriage. During the engagement, we must be especially careful. If we are, we will have fewer problems and fewer disappointments after the wedding. Someone once said that, during the period of getting to know one another, you should hold on to your heart firmly with both hands, as if it were a wild animal. You know how dangerous the heart is: instead of leading you to marriage, it can lead you into sin. There is the possibility that the person you’ve chosen sees you as a mere toy, or a toothbrush to be tried out. Afterwards you’ll be depressed and shed many tears. But then it will be too late, because your angel will have turned out to be made of clay.

Don’t choose a person who wastes his time at clubs, having good time, and throwing away his money on traveling and luxuries. Neither should you choose someone who, as you’ll find out, conceals his self-centeredness beneath words of love. Don’t choose a woman as your wife who is like gun powder, so that as soon as you say something to her, she bursts to flames. She’s no good as a wife.

Moreover, if you want to have a truly successful marriage, don’t approach that young woman or man who is unable to leave his or her parents. The commandment of Christ is clear: man leaves his father and mother, and is united to his wife” (Mk 10.7). But when you see the other person tied to his mother or father, when you see that he obeys them with his mouth hanging open, and is prepared to do whatever they tell him, keep well away. He is emotionally sick, a psychologically immature person, and you won’t be able to create a family with him. The man you will make your husband should be spirited. But how can he be spirited when he hasn’t realized, hasn’t understood, hasn’t digested the fact that his parents’ house is simply a flower-pot in which he was put, to be taken out later, and transplanted somewhere else?

Also, when you’re going to choose a husband, make sure that he’s not an uncommunicative type—in which case he’ll have no friends. And if today he has no friends, tomorrow he’ll find it difficult to have you as a friend and partner. Be on your guard against grumblers, moaners, and gloomy people who are like dejected birds. Be on your guard against those who complain all the time: “You don’t love me, you don’t understand me”, and all that sort of thing. Something about these creatures of God isn’t right. Also be on your guard against religious fanatics and the overly pious. Those, that is, who get upset over trivial things, who are critical of everything and hypersensitive. How are you going to live with such a person? It will be like sitting on thorns. Also look out for those who regard marriage as something bad, as a form of imprisonment. Those who say: But I’ve never in my whole life thought about getting married.

Watch out for certain pseudo-Christians, who see marriage as something sordid, as a sin, who immediately cast their eyes down when they hear anything said about it [2]. If you marry someone like this, he will be a thorn in your flesh, and a burden for his monastery if he becomes a monk. Watch out for those who think that they’re perfect, and find no defect in themselves, while constantly finding faults in others. Watch out for those who think they’ve been chosen by God to correct everyone else.

There is another serious matter to which you should also pay attention: heredity. Get to know well the father, the mother, the grandfather, the grandmother, the uncle. Also, the basic material prerequisites should be there. Above all, pay attention to the person’s faith. Does he or she have faith? Has the person whom you’re thinking of making the companion of your life have ideals? If Christ means nothing to him, how are you going to be able to enter his heart? If he has not been able to value Christ, do you think he will value you? Holy Scripture says to the husband that the wife should be “of your testament” (Mal 2.14), that is, of your faith, your religion, so that she can join you to God. It is only then that you can have, as the Church Fathers say, a marriage “with the consent of the bishop” [3], that is, with the approval of the Church, and not simply a formal license.

Discuss things in advance with your spiritual father. Examine every detail with him, and he will stand by your side as a true friend, and, when you reach the desired goal, then your marriage will be a gift from God (cf. 1 Cor 7.7). God gives his own gift to each one of us. He leads one person to marriage and another to virginity. Not that God makes the choice by saying “you go here”, and “you go there”, but he gives us the nerve to choose what our heart desires, and the courage and the strength to carry it out.

If you choose your spouse in this way, then thank God. Bring him into touch with your spiritual father. If you don’t have one, the two of you should choose a spiritual father together, who will be your Elder, your father, the one who will remind you of, and show you God.

You will have many difficulties in life. There will be a storm of issues. Worries will surround you, and maintaining your Christian life will not be easy. But don’t worry. God will help you. Do what is within your power. Can you read a spiritual book for five minutes a day? Then read. Can you pray for five minutes a day? Pray. And if you can’t manage five minutes, pray for two. The rest is God’s affair.

When you see difficulties in your marriage, when you see that you’re making no progress in your spiritual life, don’t despair. But neither should you be content with whatever progress you may have already made. Lift up your heart to God. Imitate those who have given everything to God, and do what you can to be like them, even if all you can do is to desire in your heart to be like them. Leave the action to Christ. And when you advance in this way, you will truly sense what is the purpose of marriage. Otherwise, as a blind person wanders about, so too will you wander in life.

What then is the purpose of marriage? I will tell you three of its main aims. First of all, marriage is a path of pain. The companionship of man and wife is called a “yoking together” (syzygia), that is, the two of them labor under a shared burden. Marriage is a journeying together, a shared portion of pain, and, of course, a joy. But usually it’s six chords of our life which sound a sorrowful note, and only one which is joyous. Man and wife will drink from the same cup of upheaval, sadness, and failure. During the marriage ceremony, the priest gives the newly-weds to drink from the same cup, called the “common cup” [4], because together they will bear the burdens of marriage. The cup is also called “union” [5], because they are joined together to share life’s joys and sorrows.

When two people get married, it’s as if they’re saying: Together we will go forward, hand in hand, through good times and bad. We will have dark hours, hours of sorrow filled with burdens, monotonous hours. But in the depths of the night, we continue to believe in the sun and the light. Oh, my dear friends, who can say that his life has not been marked by difficult moments? But it is no small thing to know that, in your difficult moments, in your worries, in your temptations, you will be holding in your hand the hand of your beloved. The New Testament says that every man will have pain, especially those who enter into marriage.

“Are you free from a wife?”—which means, are you unmarried?—asks the Apostle Paul. “Then do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you are not doing anything wrong, it is no sin. And if a girl marries, she does not sin, but those who marry will have hardships to endure, and my aim is to spare you” (1 Cor 7.27-28). Remember: from the moment you marry, he says, you will have much pain, you will suffer, and your life will be a cross, but a cross blossoming with flowers. Your marriage will have its joys, its smiles, and its beautiful things. But during the days of sunshine, remember that all the lovely flowers conceal a cross, which can emerge into your sunshine at any moment.

Life is not a party, as some people think, and after they get married take a fall from heaven to earth. Marriage is a vast ocean, and you don’t know where it will wash you up. You take the person whom you’ve chosen with fear and trembling, and with great care, and after a year, two years, five years, you discover that he’s fooled you.

It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that it is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross. The joy of marriage is for husband and wife to put their shoulders to the wheel and together go forward on the uphill road of life. “You haven’t suffered? Then you haven’t loved”, says a certain poet. Only those who suffer can really love. And that’s why sadness is a necessary feature of marriage. “Marriage”, in the words of an ancient philosopher, “is a world made beautiful by hope, and strengthened by misfortune”. Just as steel is fashioned in a furnace, just so is a person proved in marriage, in the fire of difficulties. When you see your marriage from a distance, everything seems wonderful. But when you get closer, you’ll see just how many difficult moments it has.

God says that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2.18), and so he placed a companion at his side, someone to help him throughout his life, especially in his struggles of faith, because in order to keep your faith, you must suffer and endure much pain. God sends his grace to all of us. He sends it, however, when he sees that we are willing to suffer. Some people, as soon as they see obstacles, run away. They forget God and the Church. But faith, God, and the Church, are not a shirt that you take off as soon as you start to sweat.

Marriage, then, is a journey through sorrows and joys. When the sorrows seem overwhelming, then you should remember that God is with you. He will take up your cross. It was he who placed the crown of marriage on your head. But when we ask God about something, he doesn’t always supply the solution right away. He leads us forward very slowly. Sometime[s] he takes years. We have to experience pain, otherwise life would have no meaning. But be of good cheer, for Christ is suffering with you, and the Holy Spirit, “through your groanings is pleading on your behalf” (cf. Rom 8.26).

Second, marriage is a journey of love. It is the creation of a new human being, a new person, for, as the Gospel says, “the two will be as one flesh” (Mt 19.5; Mk 10.7). God unites two people, and makes them one. From this union of two people, who agree to synchronize their footsteps and harmonize the beating of their hearts, a new human being emerges. Through such profound and spontaneous love, the one becomes a presence, a living reality, in the heart of the other. “I am married” means that I cannot live a single day, even a few moments, without the companion of my life. My husband, my wife, is a part of my being, of my flesh, of my soul. He or she complements me. He or she is the thought of my mind. He or she is the reason for which my heart beats.

The couple exchanges rings to show that, in life’s changes, they will remain united. Each wears a ring with the name of the other written on it, which is placed on the finger from which a vein runs directly to the heart. That is, the name of the other is written on his own heart. The one, we could say, gives the blood of his heart to the other. He or she encloses the other within the core of his being.

“What do you do?” a novelist was once asked. He was taken aback. “What do I do? What a strange question! I love Olga, my wife”. The husband lives to love his wife, and the wife lives to love her husband.

The most fundamental thing in marriage is love, and love is about uniting two into one. God abhors separation and divorce. He wants unbroken unity (cf. Mt 19.3-9; Mk 10.2-12). The priest takes the rings off the left finger, puts them on the right, and then again on the left, and finally he puts them back on the right hand. He begins and ends with the right hand, because this is the hand with which we chiefly act. It also means that the other now has my hand. I don’t do anything that my spouse doesn’t want. I am bound up with the other. I live for the other, and for that reason I tolerate his faults. A person who can’t put up with another can’t marry.

What does my partner want? What interests him? What gives him pleasure? That should also interest and please me as well. I also look for opportunities to give him little delights. How will I please my husband today? How will I please my wife today? This is the question which a married person must ask every day. She is concerned about his worries, his interests, his job, his friends, so that they can have everything in common. He gladly gives way to her. Because he loves her, he goes to bed last and gets up first in the morning. He regards her parents as his own, and loves them and is devoted to them, because he knows that marriage is difficult for parents. It always makes them cry, because it separates them from their child.

The wife expresses love for her husband through obedience. She is obedient to him exactly as the Church is to Christ (Eph 5.22-24). It is her happiness to do the will of her husband. Attitude, obstinacy, and complaining are the axes which chop down the tree of conjugal happiness. The woman is the heart. The man is the head. The woman is the heart that loves. In her husband’s moments of difficulty, she stands at his side, as the empress Theodora stood by the emperor Justinian. In his moments of joy, she tries to raise him up to even higher heights and ideals. In times of sorrow, she stands by him like a sublime and peaceful world offering him tranquility.

The husband should remember that his wife has been entrusted to him by God. His wife is a soul which God has given to him, and one day he must return it. He loves his wife as Christ loves the Church (Eph 5.25). He protects her, takes care of her, gives her security, particularly when she is distressed, or when she is ill. We know how sensitive a woman’s soul can be, which is why the Apostle Peter urges husbands to honor their wives (cf. 1 Pet 3.7). A woman’s soul gets wounded, is often petty, changeable, and can suddenly fall into despair. Thus the husband should be full of love and tenderness, and make himself her greatest treasure. Marriage, my dear friends, is a little boat which sails through waves and among rocks. If you lose your attention even for a moment, it will be wrecked.

As we have seen, marriage is first of all a journey of pain; second a journey of love; and, third, a journey to heaven, a call from God. It is, as Holy Scripture says, a “great mystery” (Eph 5.32). We often speak of seven “mysteries”, or sacraments. In this regard, a “mystery” is the sign of the mystical presence of some true person or event. An icon, for instance, is a mystery. When we venerate it, we are not venerating wood or paint, but Christ, or the Theotokos, or the saint who is mystically depicted. The Holy Cross is a symbol of Christ, containing his mystical presence. Marriage, too, is a mystery, a mystical presence, not unlike these. Christ says, “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am among them” (Mt 18.20). And whenever two people are married in the name of Christ, they become the sign which contains and expresses Christ himself. When you see a couple who are conscious of this, it is as if you are seeing Christ. Together they are a theophany.

This is also why crowns are placed on their heads during the wedding ceremony, because the bride and groom are an image of Christ and the Church. And not just this, but everything in marriage is symbolic. The lit candles symbolize the wise virgins. When the priest places these candles into the hands of the newly-weds, it is as if he is saying to them: Wait for Christ like the wise virgins (Mt 25.1-11). Or they symbolize the tongues of fire which descended at Pentecost, and which were in essence the presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.1-4). The wedding rings are kept on the altar, until they are taken from there by the priest, which shows that marriage has its beginning in Christ, and will end in Christ. The priest also joins their hands, in order to show that it is Christ himself who unites them. It is Christ who is at the heart of the mystery and at the centre of their lives [6].

All the elements of the marriage ceremony are shadows and symbols which indicate the presence of Christ. When you’re sitting somewhere and suddenly you see a shadow, you know that someone’s coming. You don’t see him, but you know he’s there. You get up early in the morning, and you see the red horizon in the east. You know that, in a little while, the sun will come up. And indeed, there behind the mountain, the sun starts to appear.

When you see your marriage, your husband, your wife, your partner’s body, when you see your troubles, everything in your home, know that they are all signs of Christ’s presence. It is as if you’re hearing Christ’s footsteps, as if he was coming, as if you are now about to hear his voice. All these things are the shadows of Christ, revealing that he is together with us. It is true, though, that, because of our cares and worries, we feel that he is absent. But we can see him in the shadows, and we are sure that he is with us. This is why there was no separate marriage service in the early Church. The man and woman simply went to church and received Communion together. What does this mean? That henceforth their life is one life in Christ.

The wreaths, or wedding crowns, are also symbols of Christ’s presence. More specifically, they are symbols of martyrdom. Husband and wife wear crowns to show that they are ready to become martyrs for Christ. To say that “I am married” means that I live and die for Christ. “I am married” means that I desire and thirst for Christ. Crowns are also signs of royalty, and thus husband and wife are king and queen, and their home is a kingdom, a kingdom of the Church, an extension of the Church.

When did marriage begin? When man sinned. Before that, there was no marriage, not in the present-day sense. It was only after the Fall, after Adam and Eve had been expelled from paradise, that Adam “knew” Eve (Gen 4.1) and thus marriage began. Why then? So that they might remember their fall and expulsion from paradise, and seek to return there. Marriage is thus a return to the spiritual paradise, the Church of Christ. “I am married” means, then, that I am a king, a true and faithful member of the Church.

The wreaths also symbolize the final victory which will be attained in the kingdom of heaven. When the priest takes the wreaths, he says to Christ: “take their crowns to your kingdom”, take them to your kingdom, and keep them there, until the final victory. And so marriage is a road: its starts out from the earth and ends in heaven. It is a joining together, a bond with Christ, who assures us that he will lead us to heaven, to be with him always. Marriage is a bridge leading us from earth to heaven. It is as if the sacrament is saying: Above and beyond love, above and beyond your husband, your wife, above the everyday events, remember that you are destined for heaven, that you have set out on a road which will take you there without fail. The bride and the bridegroom give their hands to one another, and the priest takes hold of them both, and leads them round the table dancing and singing. Marriage is a movement, a progression, a journey which will end in heaven, in eternity.

In marriage, it seems that two people come together. However it’s not two but three. The man marries the woman, and the woman marries the man, but the two together also marry Christ. So three take part in the mystery, and three remain together in life.

In the dance around the table, the couple are led by the priest, who is a type of Christ. This means that Christ has seized us, rescued us, redeemed us, and made us his. And this is the “great mystery” of marriage (cf. Gal 3.13).

In Latin, the word “mystery” was rendered by the word sacramentum, which means an oath. And marriage is an oath, a pact, a joining together, a bond, as we have said. It is a permanent bond with Christ.

“I am married”, then, means that I enslave my heart to Christ. If you wish, you can get married. If you wish, don’t get married. But if you marry, this is the meaning that marriage has in the Orthodox Church, which brought you into being. “I am married” means I am the slave of Christ.

Endnotes

 

I.  i.e., “Spiritual Life”, which appears below, on pp. 147-163.

2.  See, for example, John Chrysostom, Homily on Colossians 12.6 “What shame is there in that which is honorable? Why do you blush over what is undefiled? In so doing, you slander the root of our birth, which is a gift from God” (PG 62.388).

3.  Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Polycarp (PG 5.724B).

4.  Symeon of Thessaloniki, Dialogos 277 (PG 155.508B).

5.   C. Kallinikos, The Christian Temple and its Ceremonies (Athens, 1968), 514.

6.   St. Gregory the Theologian, Letter 193: “I place the hand of the one in the other, and place both in the hand of God” (PG 37.316C).

 

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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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