Orthodox America


   Icons of the Most Holy Mother of God "Of the Myrtlewood"


Commemorated September 24

Some time in the fourteenth century, a shepherd on the Greek island of Cythera was pasturing his sheep in a deserted valley which, being covered with myrtle bushes, was called "Myrtlewood." Forty days after the Feast of Dormition, he was there with his flock, when he saw a vision of the Most Holy Mother of God and heard a voice: "If you seek me, walk until you find my icon, which came here many years ago to give help to this place." The shepherd fell to the ground and with tears prayed to the Mother of God. When he arose, he turned around and, O, the miracle! he beheld an icon of the All-pure Theotokos nestled in the branches of one of the myrtle bushes. Weeping for joy at finding such a treasure, he thanked God for it and took the icon home to his hut after sharing the news of its discovery with his friends and relatives.

On awaking the next morning, the shepherd was grieved to find that the icon was missing. Perhaps, he thought, a jealous neighbor had taken it while he was asleep. He was very downcast as he led his flock to their usual pasturage. Coming to the spot where he had discovered the icon, he was astonished to see the icon resting in the very same bush. His joy knew no bounds. Glorifying God, he took the icon home, just as he had the previous day. That night, however, the icon again disappeared, and again he found it in the myrtle bush. When this happened a third time, the shepherd realized that that it was the will of the Mother of God that her icon remain there where it was first revealed. On that spot the villagers built a small church, which they called Our Lady of the Myrtlewood, or Myrtidiotissa, in honor of the icon. Later this small church was replaced by a larger one, and accommodations were built nearby for pilgrims. Still later, in 1838, a large basilica-style church was built above the old one, and the complex was further expanded with the addition of more guest quarters, an underground cistern, and a garden.

Among the numerous miracles related to this icon, we have the following accounts.

The Healing of a Paralytic

At the end of the sixteenth century, there lived on Cythera, in the village of Kousounari, a paralytic, a descendent of the very shepherd who had discovered the icon "Of the Myrtlewood." This man, Theodore Koumprianos, was very pious and firmly believed that through the intercessions of the Most Holy Theotokos he could be cured of his illness. Every year since his paralysis, on September 24, he would send a member of his family to the church of "Our Lady of the Myrtlewood" to light candles. One year he decided to have his family carry him to the shrine in order that he might venerate the holy icon himself. During the vigil service, there was a great commotion coming from the direction of the sea. Fearing a pirate attack, the worshipers fled, leaving the paralytic alone in the church. He prayed fervently to the Mother of God for protection and, O wonder, he heard a voice coming from the icon, "Get up and flee!" Slowly and rather uncertainly, his joints creaking, the paralytic rose from his bed. He left the church, gaining strength with every minute, and very soon he was able to run so fast that he caught up with his relatives. All rejoiced greatly on seeing this proof of a miracle. It was later determined that no pirates had landed on the island; the only explanation for the noise was that it was divinely purposed that the paralytic might be left alone with the wonderworking icon. In memory of this miracle, Koumprianos ordained that he and his descendents would hold a special celebration on the icon's feastday, September 24, the day he was miraculously cured of his paralysis.

A Plague Averted

In 1816, when Cythera was being annexed to the British Empire, the holy icon "Of the Myrtlewood" was being kept in the chapel of the guardhouse in the main village of the island. One night, an English soldier on guard duty saw in the air a huge flame approach the island from the direction of Crete. When this flame neared the south-east corner of the guardhouse, a lady in black suddenly appeared, and the flame rapidly retreated in the direction from which it had come. This venerable lady then vanished from the eyes of the astonished Englishman.

By the following day, news of this extraordinary incident had spread through the whole garrison. Its meaning was made clear when, a few days later, some people came from Crete and reported that that island was being ravaged by a terrible plague, claiming scores of victims daily. The pious Orthodox of Cythera immediately realized that the "lady" was none other than the Mother of God, and that the flame symbolized the approach of the plague. In spite of the frequent contacts between the two islands, the plague never did reach Cythera. And to this day, Cythera has been spared from epidemics that spread through the rest of Greece, a mercy that the people of Cythera attribute to the intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God, who protects them even as she promised.

Healing from Barrenness

A Jewish woman from Alexandria had suffered from barrenness for many years, when an acquaintance, a woman from Cythera, told her about the miracleworking icon "Of the Myrtlewood." Desperate for a child, the Jewish woman prayed to the Mother of God, and, a miracle: nine months later she give birth. In gratitude, the Jewish woman visited the church of the Myrtidiotissa on Cythera, and presented a gift of a precious pearl necklace, which now adorns the icon on great feasts.

A Soldier's Life is Spared

During the disastrous retreat from Smyrna in Asia Minor by the Greek Expeditionary Forces, a soldier of Cythera, Spyridonos Haios, experienced a miracle. His company and another were ordered to attack a certain hill on which a Turkish artillery unit was stationed, so that the retreating Greek army would not be bombarded from the rear. As these companies charged the hill, Spyridonos, knowing that he would certainly be injured or even die, took out the medallion of the Myrtidiotissa icon that he always kept with him, and begged the Most Holy Mother of God to spare his life. And lo, while two-thirds of the attacking Greeks were killed and another third were wounded, he came out of the battle unscathed. Survivors later attested that Spyridonos was in the vanguard of the attack, and the military awarded him three medals for bravery. None of these, however, meant a millionth as much to him as the medallion of the Mother of God "Of the Myrtlewood."

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