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

 

Gateway to Heaven

 St Nicholas Cathedral

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Standing in the Cathedral after Sunday Liturgy on August 12, 2012. In addition to its magnificent and historic iconography, completed in the 1990s following the dissolution of the USSR, the Cathedral houses the relics of many saints, including St John of Kronstadt, St Elizabeth the New Martyr, St Herman, apostle to Alaska, St Innocent, metropolitan of Moscow and apostle to Alaska, St Tikhon, and St Daniel of Moscow.

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Gazing up at the dome with the image of Christos Pantokrator (Christ as Ruler of All, or Lord of the Universe) offering all worshipers His benediction.

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The choir gallery overlooking the nave, with beautiful frescoes of the Russian New Martyrs on the left and right as well as many of the North American saints. Note the magnificent fresco of Christ’s Resurrection on the wall hanging over the gallery as well as the ceiling icons of the Great Feasts of the Dormition of the Theotokos (L) and that of Pentecost, the Decent of the Holy Spirit (R). Symbolizing the triumphant restoration of Orthodoxy in Russian life, the fresco of Moscow’s rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral – initially demolished under Stalin’s orders in 1931- crowns the beautiful choir gallery.

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The four writers of the Gospels are depicted on the pendentives supporting the dome. Higher up, closer to Christ, are depicted the cherubim and seraphim and other angelic powers of heaven. The red fire symbolizes the Holy Spirit descending to and filling the earth.

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The frescoed icons on the Cathedral’s north wall depict the life and deeds of St Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of Myra (located in modern day Turkey), and patron saint of Greece, Russia, and many ancient cities. Can you find the picture of the saint rescuing a drowning man?

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A reliquary of St Herman of Alaska (1756-1837), patron saint of Orthodoxy in the Americas and peaceful evangelist to many native Alaskan tribes.

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Relics of the Romanov Imperial Family of Russia, who were murdered on Lenin’s others on July 17, 1918: the Emperor or Tsar Nicholas Alexandrovich II, his consort the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and their children. Orthodox Christians venerate them as “Passion-bearers” who graciously and courageously bore many sufferings and imprisonment and went to their deaths with great fortitude.

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Relic of Saint Sergius, fourteenth century Wonder-worker and deeply beloved Russian saint (d. 1392).

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Looking toward the iconostasis and the apse above the altar. Along with most of the interior fresco work, after the fall of the Soviet Union expert Russian iconographers completed the beautiful iconostasis (icon stand) which separates the altar area from the main part of the Cathedral. This evokes the Temple at Jerusalem which had a ‘holy of holies’ in which the Tabernacle was kept.

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Relics of many ancient and new Russian saints, including St Elizabeth the New Martyr (front right).
Saint Elizabeth (1864 – 1918) was the wife of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, fifth son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and Empress Maria Alexandrovna (born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she was the sister to Alexandra who became Queen of the United Kingdom as consort to Edward VII). Princess Elizabeth and her sister Alix, who in 1894 became the wife of the new Russian Emperor Nicholas II as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, were granddaughters of Britain’s Queen Victoria.
After an anarchist assassinated her husband, Grand Duchess Elizabeth visited the man, offering him her forgiveness, but he refused her offer to intercede with her brother-in-law for a reprieve from execution. She went on to found a convent dedicated to ministering to Moscow’s poor, and as part of her efforts she petitioned the Russian Church to restore the historic female diaconate. She opened the Martha and Mary Home in Moscow to utilize the prayer and charity of devout Russian women. For many years she helped the poor and orphans through this Moscow home.
In 1918, the Communist government exiled her to Yekaterinburg and then to Alapaevsk, where she and several other members of the Imperial Family were violently killed by the local Bolsheviks on July 18, 1918. She was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1981, and by the Russian Orthodox Church as a whole in 1992 as New-Martyr Elizabeth.

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Reliquary of the Great Martyr Saint Catherine of Alexandria (287-305), an Egyptian princess and scholar whose erudition and learned arguments inspired the conversion of thousands. She was brutally put to death on the orders of the pagan Roman Emperor Maxentius, whom Constantine defeated in October 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome. In the fifteenth century another virgin saint, the young Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) received visions of St. Catherine exhorting her to drive the English out of France.

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Fragrant double icon depicting two pillars of the Orthodox faith in Russia. Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), shown offering the Communion chalice and a benediction, is one of the most beloved Russian saints to whom thousands would come seeking his ascetic and pastoral advice. He wrote widely on many topics, especially on the profound existential need to cultivate transcendent Christian love and forgiveness.
He is shown with Saint Matrona of Moscow (1885-1952) because when he saw her as a young, blind girl in a crowd, he predicted she would be his spiritual successor. Blessed Matrona healed many people of their spiritual diseases and predicted numerous marriages, events and deaths- including her own.

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Standing in the choir, looking toward the iconostasis and the apse icon of the Panagia Theotokos (All-Holy Mother of God, the Virgin Mary). The elaborate chandelier, lit at various points of the divine offices, symbolizes the eternal presence of God’s grace in His Church, the radiance of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the abiding light of the Holy Spirit.

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Gazing down over the nave from the choir gallery. Approaching the central icon stand before the iconostasis, worshipers first venerate the cathedral’s principal icon of the holy person or God. Upon entering any Orthodox church, worshipers bow before the divine presence in the altar where the Eucharist is offered as the mystical transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord.

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Standing in the lofted gallery where I sing with the choir. This is one of my favorite pictures of the Cathedral interior because one really has a strong sense of the iconography- the ‘image writing’, as the term means from the Greek- as a powerful tool for the theological education of the faithful who see and comprehend the many magnificent images depicting the saints.

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Centered shot of the dome and its supporting columns and pendentives.

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The Cathedral shining in the late summer sunshine! Russian and American architects designed the Cathedral to evoke a twelfth century church in Vladimir, an ancient Russian city on the Klyazma River some 200 km (120 miles) east of Moscow. In 1988 the bell tower was erected as a gift from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Cathedral commemorating the one thousandth anniversary of the conversion of St. Prince Vladimir of Kiev and his people to Eastern Christianity.