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

 

The ‘Trash Can’ Rescue

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The Trash Can Rescue was the code name for an undercover operation aimed at smuggling out Jewish children headed for the death camps in Paris. “The story occurs after Mother Maria had established the house with the blessing and help of her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy Georgievsky, on rue de Lourmel.  Word got out that something was happening at the stadium, not far from the house. “. . .There was a mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to the Velodrome d’Hiver  . . . Held there for five days, the captives in the stadium received water only from a single hydrant, while ten latrines were supposed to serve them all. From there the captives were to be sent via Drancy to Auschwitz.”

Mother Maria of Paris wrote both poetry and religious essays in addition to running a soup kitchen and community center in a ghetto of Paris

Mother Maria of Paris wrote both poetry and religious essays in addition to running a soup kitchen and community center in a ghetto of Paris.

Because Mother Maria was well-known to the police and sanitation crews as she would scour the back alleys of Paris and the central market gathering day old food and recyclables for the poor of her community, she was granted access into the stadium.  She quickly sized up the situation.  The stadium had become a central transfer and processing hub for the thousands of Jews of Paris.

She prayed for assistance.  The idea came to her.  By employing the confidence of the local sanitation workers in charge of hauling the garbage from the stadium, Mother Maria perpetrated a plot that would at least save the children from the gas chambers: stuff them into the garbage bins, haul them out on the trucks from the stadium, and then under the cover of night, sneak the children to the house on rue de Lourmel where she then could orchestrate their continued passage to the south of France, an area outside of Nazi control, and to safety. The chronicle of the Trash Can Rescue has been memorialised in the children’s book Silent as Stone written by Jim Forest and beautifully illustrated by Dasha Pancheshnaya (St Vladimir’s Press: http://www.svspress.com/silent-as-a-stone/ )“It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing toward the city, or even to leave the country to go to America. Her decision was not to budge. “If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?” http://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door

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No one is sure how many children Mother Maria and her garbage crew saved.  But what is certain is that she eventually was found out by the Nazis. (When Nazis interrogated her about whether she had seen any Jews, she would point to an icon of the Mother of God or else point to the body of Christ on her crucifix.)  The priest, Father Dimitri Klepinin who had served alongside her in the “monasticism in the world” and her son Yuri were arrested.  They had been guilty of forging fake baptismal certificates for Jews who came begging for help.  Yuri and Father Dimitri eventually died in Buchenwald camp while Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbruck. … It was Good Friday, March 30th, on the eve of the liberation of Paris, 1945, that Mother Maria was one of those chosen for death. According to other accounts, she took the place of another prisoner who was marked for the gas chamber that day. …

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For the rest of the article go to http://greekamericangirl.com/mother-maria-of-paris-says-oxi-to-the-nazi-mass-murder-machine/

For more information about Maria’s activism, inspiration, grace, heroism, and hope-filled commitment, so needed in our world today, go to my earlier posts “Like a Russian Novel” at https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/09/23/mother-maria-of-paris-saint-of-the-open-door/ and “Solitary and Naked Before God” at https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/09/23/taking-up-the-cross/

Remove The Sandals From Your Feet

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Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees.

— Revelation 7:3

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The saints embrace the whole world with their love.

— St. Silouan the Athonite

On the Holy Mountain of Athos, the monks sometimes put up beside the forest paths special signposts, offering encouragement or warning to the pilgrim as he passes. One such notice used to give me particular pleasure. Its message was brief and clear: “Love the trees.”

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Fr. Amphilochios, the geronta or “elder” on the island of Patmos when I first stayed there, would have been in full agreement. “Do you know,” he said, “that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment “love the trees.” Whoever does not love trees, so he believed, does not love God. “When you plant a tree,” he insisted, “you plant hope, you plant peace, you plant love, and you will receive God’s blessing.” An ecologist long before ecology had become fashionable, when hearing confessions of the local farmers he used to assign to them a penance, the task of planting a tree. During the long summer drought, he himself went round the island watering the young trees. …

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Fr. Amphilochios was by no means the first spiritual teacher in the modern Greek tradition to recognize the importance of trees. Two centuries earlier, the Athonite monk St. Kosmas the Aetolian, martyred in 1779, used to plant trees as he traveled around Greece on his missionary journeys, and in one of his “prophecies” he stated, “People will remain poor, because they have no love for trees.” We can see that prophecy fulfilled today in all too many parts of the world. …

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“Love the trees.” Why should we do so? Is there indeed a connection between love of trees and love of God? How far is it true that a failure to reverence and honor our natural environment — animals, trees, earth, fire, air, and water — is also, in an immediate and soul-destroying way, a failure to reverence and honor the living God?

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Let us begin with two visions of a tree. Edward Carpenter, in Pagan and Christian Creeds [records] a partial vision of a tree. “It was a beech, standing somewhat isolated, and still leafless in quite early Spring. Suddenly, I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and up-turned finger-tips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them far into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots plunged in the earth and drawing the same energies from below. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of Earth and Sky, and full of amazement.”

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… Two things above all are noteworthy in Edward Carpenter’s “partial vision.” First, the tree is alive, vibrant with what he calls “energies” or “electricity”; it is “full of most amazing activity.” Second, the tree is cosmic in its dimensions: it is not “a separate or separable organism” but is “vast” and all-embracing in its scope, “ramifying far into space … uniting the life of Earth and Sky.” Here is a vision of joyful wonder, inspired by an underlying sense of mystery. The tree has become a symbol pointing beyond itself, a sacrament that embodies some deep secret at the heart of the universe. The same sense of wonder and mystery — of the symbolic and sacramental character of the world — is strikingly manifest in Peaks and Llamas , the master-work of that spiritual mountaineer, Marco Pallis.

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Yet there are at the same time certain limitations in Carpenter’s tree-vision. The mystery to which the tree points is not spelt out by him in specifically personal terms. He makes no attempt to ascend through the creation to the Creator. …

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Let us turn to a second tree-vision, which is by contrast explicitly personal and theophanic: “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”  (Ex 3:1-6)

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Comparing the experience of Moses with that of Carpenter, we observe three things: in the first place, the vision described in Exodus reaches out beyond the realm of the impersonal. The burning bush at Horeb acts as the locus of an interpersonal encounter, of a meeting face-to-face, of a dialogue between two subjects. God calls out to Moses by name, “Moses, Moses!” and Moses responds, “Here I am.” “Through the creation to the Creator”: in and through the tree he beholds, Moses enters into communion with the living God.

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In the second place, God does not only appear to Moses but also issues a practical command to him: “Remove the sandals from your feet.” According to Greek Fathers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, sandals or shoes — being made from the skins of dead animals — are something lifeless, inert, dead and earthly, and so they symbolize the heaviness, weariness, and mortality that assail our human nature as a result of the Fall.

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“Remove your sandals,” then, may be understood to signify: Strip off from yourself the deadness of familiarity and boredom; free yourself from the lifelessness of the trivial, the mechanical, the repetitive; wake up, open your eyes, cleanse the doors of your perception, look and see! And what, in the third place, happens to us when in this manner we strip off the dead skins of boredom and triviality? At once we realize the truth of God’s next words to Moses: “The place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Set free from spiritual deadness, awakening from sleep, opening our eyes both outwardly and inwardly, we look upon the world around us in a different way.

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So we enter the dimensions of sacred space and sacred time. We discern the great within the small, the extraordinary within the ordinary, “a world in a grain of sand … and eternity in an hour,” to quote Blake once more. This place where I am, this tree, this animal, this person to whom I am speaking, this moment of time through which I am living: each is holy, each is unique and unrepeatable, and each is therefore infinite in value.

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Combining Edward Carpenter’s living tree, uniting earth and heaven and the burning bush of Moses, we can see emerging a precise and distinctive conception of the universe. Nature is sacred. The world is a sacrament of the divine presence, a means of communion with God. The environment consists not in dead matter but in living relationship. The entire cosmos is one vast burning bush, permeated by the fire of divine power and glory. …

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For more Orthodox ecology of Transfiguration, theophanic transparency, pellucid double vision and Zen ‘haeccitas’, read the full article THROUGH CREATION TO THE CREATOR by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia

 at http://incommunion.org/2004/12/11/through-creation-to-the-creator/

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.