Orthodox America


  A Blessed Visitation


    Last year's memorable visit to Thessalonika of the Athonite monks bearing the Icon of the Theotokos Axion Esti ("Meet It Is”) was a deeply moving and spiritually invigorating experience, described here in the words of the Russian representative from the Holy Mountain. Hieromonk Nicholas.

 

     Almost a month has passed since the day when we, members of the Kera Koinotia (the Holy Community or Kinot [1]) left Thessalonika, but the impressions and memories of our trip will forever remain with us. The city was celebrating its 2,300-year anniversary, and we came with the Icon at the request of His Eminence the Archbishop of Thessalonika and his flock. It was only the second time in its 1,000 year history that the Icon had left Mount Athos (in 1963, on the occasion of the Holy Mountain's millennium, the Icon was taken to Athens) and its first visit to Salonika. The entire Kinot accompanied the Icon during its stay in that city from October 24 until November 2, 1985.

    Long before our arrival all the church and civil newspapers informed people that the Athonites had accepted the invitation and that they would arrive on a military ship (specially provided by the Greek government) in the city harbor at the White Tower. Radio and television also carried the news. The entire Orthodox populace eagerly awaited the day and prepared to greet the sacred image. The Holy Kinot likewise busied itself with preparations, conducting negotiations with the Metropolia, while a special commission took care of making the arrangements which had been previously discussed by the Kinot. Late on the eve of the departure, the military vessel "Ierakis" already lay at anchor not far from the port of Daphne (where it was too shallow, for the ship to dock), waiting to take on board the "Champion Leader" and "Queen of the Heavenly Host."

    In the morning all the anteprosops [2], led by the head Protos, gathered in the Kinot building at Karyes. The Bishop who was the rector of the Mt. Athos school also came to accompany the icon. Everyone descended to the Protaton church where a molieben was served. There, two vested priests carefully took the holy Icon from its place at the back of the altar and, to the singing of the hymn "Meet it is..," everyone departed by car to Daphne. As we passed the monastery of Xeropotamou, all the bells rang, and the abbot came out together with the monks to venerate the Mother of God.

     The sea was covered with white caps; a strong wind was blowing at 10 knots. Sailors came in a launch to ferry us over to the ship with the Icon. With difficulty we drew alongside the ship and began the treacherous climb up a narrow, slippery ladder. The strong wind tore at the monks' riassas and kamilavkas. As the sailors helped to hoist the Icon on board, the ship's guns fired an honor salute, and the entire crew stood at attention while the icon was carried to the captain's cabin. At 9:30 AM, despite the bad weather conditions, the ship set sail, tossing about like a small toy on the rough waters. Many became seasick. So severe was the ship's rocking that the meal which had been prepared overturned. A molieben was served to the Theotokos. The captain, the monks, the sailors--all prayed. Those on board were deeply religious and they feared that the inclement weather might prevent the Icon from reaching its destination. But after the supplicatory service the sea instantly calmed down and we safely arrived on schedule in Salonika's harbor.

    There the Icon was ferried to the shore, accompanied by the bishop and two vested antepropos, of whom I was one. Again the ship's guns fired a salute and sirens sounded from all the vessels in the harbor, while on shore bells were rung in all the churches. 

Waiting on the dock to receive the Icon were both ecclesiastical and civil dignitaries, led by the Archbishop of Salonika and the minister of northern Greece, as well as several companies from the armed forces. A military orchestra played as if on parade, and hundreds of vested priests, monks and nuns from nearby monasteries, and a countless number of people--many of whom stood with burning candles--were also in attendance. After the bishop and other dignitaries had venerated the Icon, it was carried in procession to the Cathedral of St. Dimitrios while the people sang "meet it is..." and "Queen of the Heavenly Host, defender of our souls." It was all very grand and majestic and at the same time deeply touching. The Icon was taken into the Cathedral where it was placed before the Royal Doors. A molieben was served and, after a welcoming word by the Archbishop, the people began to approach the Icon for veneration. During its stay there in the cathedral, two liturgies were served daily--one at night and one in the morning.

    The day after the Icon's arrival, the eve of the feast of St. Dimitrius [of Thessalonika], a procession with the Icon and the relics of the Saint wound its way through the main 'streets of the city. Taking part in this procession were military personnel and a military band, school children in national costume, the head nurses of all the city hospitals, monks and nuns, we--members of the Holy Kinot, hundreds of vested priests and many bishops. Four priests carried the Icon on their shoulders. They were followed by others bearing a large icon of St. Dimitry, while his reliquary was carried on an open military vehicle. Once again the streets were lined with throngs of people praying.

      After a festal Liturgy on St. Dimitry's day, a Molieben was served, occasioned by the city's jubilee and its liberation from the Turkish yoke. The President of Greece himself was in attendance, accompanied by other high ranking officials, all of whom venerated the Icon and the relic s upon entering the cathedral.

    For ten days the enormous cathedral was open day and night to accommodate the thousands of pilgrims. The long line of people moved without interruption, never breaking even for a minute in spite of the face that in order to venerate the Icon one had to stand for 3 to 4 hours in a line which began at some distance from the cathedral. People came from everywhere to venerate the Theotokos: from the States, Canada, Australia and all the European countries. It seemed as if the whole world knew in advance about the Icon's arrival.

     On the night of October 28-29. the vigil was served according to the Mt. Athos typicon, Through the night and into the morning the harmonious voices of the Athonite monks uplifted the worshippers who were so numerous that even the vast cathedral could not hold them all. The Liturgy was celebrated by Archbishop Panteliemon and clergy from the Holy Mountain.

    The Icon was surrounded by fresh flowers. At all times there stood nearby two of the Athonite monks (anteprosops and acolytes). Many healings took place which were later recorded in the newspapers. The possessed were granted relief and in some cases complete healing; the screaming of the demons was frightful. During my watch before the Icon there were several incidents which I should like to relate.

    Liturgy was in progress one night when a shrill cry was heard on the street, followed by such shrieking in the church itself that everyone's hair stood on end. The crowd made way for a woman of about 45 who was brought in shouting and beating herself convulsively. Four of us men tried in vain to bring her to the Icon. Then a number of vested priests came out of the altar; one carried a lance, another a cross, another the Gospel, while yet another began to read the prayers of exorcism. For a long time the woman continued her screaming, but gradually she began to calm down and was at last able, although with difficulty, to kiss the Icon. Her relatives said that after her mother died this woman had joined some sect, and thereafter became possessed. During the reading of the Gospel and the singing of the Cherubic Hymn she again began screaming and writhing about. When it came time for the Creed, we brought her to the Icon and commanded her to repeat the Symbol of Faith. When she came to the words "...and He rose from the dead on the third day," she insisted on saying "on the fourth day" and began laughing wildly, a horrible look in her eyes. At the words "in the Holy Spirit ," the scene was repeated: she laughed and shook her head, denying it emphatically: "No!" But after the concerted and tearful prayer of everyone present, the woman managed to recite the Creed to the end. At the Lord's Prayer she was again brought before the Icon and asked to repeat the prayer. On reaching the words “as we forgive our debtors” she again began screaming: “No! we won’t forgive!” But after more prayer on the part of the faithful, she was finally able to get through it.

      That same night a young woman of about 25 approached the Icon. I noticed that when she bowed down before it she shrank back, and I knew that something was wrong. When I tried to bend her head to the Icon, she burst out: "Blessed One! forgive me! I offended you by saying that the monks brought the Icon to trick simple-minded people and collect their money, and that the Icon was not wonder-working at all. What I have had to endure because of this! Now I am horribly tormented." And then: "St. Dimitri! Since yesterday you have been dragging me to this church! You are scorching me, torturing me!" Her hand flapped about unnaturally as if it didn't have a bone in it. She went on shrieking while the prayers of exorcism were read. When she was again brought before the Icon, she came to herself. She said that she was exhausted and began to confess aloud her sins: that she had dabbled in the occult and had engaged in fortune-telling, etc. And she asked for prayers.

    During the Consecration and the singing of "It is truly meet..," there was screaming from all sides as many of these spiritually sick people were present. They felt better after being in the church for 24 hours or more.

 

      The day before our departure, when I came to the church, one of my brother hieromonks called me and said, "Fr. Nicholas, it's good that you've come. Take the large service book; here's an epitrachelion, and go read the prayers of exorcism. There are no other priests and I'm already tired." I began to excuse myself but he insisted, and out of obedience I took the Cross and the lance from the altar and went to read the prayers. The possessed individual was already screaming that "they" were again coming to torment her, although she could not have seen me as I was still in the altar. In spite of her youthful age it took several men to hold her. She was cursing and screaming that the Athonite monks had come down from the Holy Mountain "to torment us." After I finished reading the exorcism prayers, I closed the book and began to whisper in Russian: "O Most Merciful Master and Lord..." and to name all the saints which came to mind. But she was already shouting: "Thecia, you are burning me! Cyprian, you are torturing me! Haralampie, you too have risen up against me! Marina, why are you beating me! Dimitri, woe is me on account of you!" And then, as loud as she could, she screamed: "Nicholas! even you are here!!!" She pronounced the names of the saints (without calling them saints)which I then simply repeated, having forgotten that each of these particular saints is like a scourge to demons. There came another priest. The girl continued her yelling, but the demon began to succumb and said that he would leave since the saints were chasing him out. He shouted: "You stinkers! You came down from the Mountain to torment us! I’ll come out, but I’ll enter again – I’ll enter into Vassily! I'll dance, sing, drink! There were many of us here, but now I alone remain! But I too shall depart! I'll depart on December 15th. My friends left, and so what? They re-entered, and I too shall leave --and then re-enter Vassily!" Directly confronting the demon, the priest commanded him: "Depart, and never enter again. And how will you leave?" The demon answered in his crude, masculine voice: "I'll leave just as I came in--through the mouth." But the priest forbade him: "No! demon, you will depart through the toe of the left foot." (Later he explained that he did this because when demons exit through the mouth the vocal chords are often damaged, causing speech impairment.)

     Before the Icon there occurred an amazing miracle: a young girl, suffering from extreme flaccidity in all her limbs, received complete healing upon venerating the Icon. During vespers that evening a priest came out onto the ambo and, showing the girl to all the people in the church, described the miracle. (it was also reported in the newspapers.)

      Seeing and bearing all this, the people were inspired with awe; not a single soul was left unmoved. From all corners of the crowd exclamations were heard: "Great is the grace of the Most Pure One!" Hundreds of women came out of the church without their gold jewelry, having left it all on the Icon. Even those among the police (there to maintain order) who had previously been indifferent, confessed themselves as truly believing. Reverently they asked if they could have even a small flower from the Icon to take home to their families as a blessing.

      Never before had the city experienced such' a spiritual exaltation and such a confluence of people. From distant parts of Greece people hired buses and traveled at night to venerate the Icon and return in time for work the next morning. Many, for lack of time, parted without having had the opportunity to venerate the Icon. In these cases they requested a small piece of cotton which had been used to wipe the Icon, or a flower from the Icon. Those with small children passed them over the fence to us. We carried them up to the Icon and then returned them to their overjoyed mothers. This went on day after day, For us it was all a very moving experience, especially the sight of tired, sleepy little children standing in line with their mothers late at night. (On account of the great crowds exceptions were made only in the case of the very ill and the possessed.) People of all ages came; it was particularly heart-warming to see so many young people.

     The days flew by and we had to leave. As it was, our departure had been delayed: we came for a week but the people entreated us to stay another three days because not everyone desiring to venerate the Icon had had the chance to do so. (To please everyone we would have had to stay another month!)

Saturday, late evening. Again crowds everywhere--all were awaiting the bringing out of the Icon. The Archbishop gave a final word, the people wept, and the Icon was carried out of the church to the singing of the hymn: "Meet it is..." It was placed in an open military car and slowly began its departure. The route was lined with people, some holding candles or hand censors. From balconies people showered the Icon with flowers and sprinkled it with perfume as it passed by.

      Many people made their way on foot to the pier. When the Icon arrived and was taken from the car, the whole crowd surged forward. There could easily have been a disaster: it was night, there were no rails on the pier, people were packed tight--and the police force would have been powerless to check such a wave of people, many of whom could have fallen into the sea if the Mother of God had not wrought a miracle. All of a sudden there was a deafening clap of thunder and a torrential rain lasting 10 minutes. People ran for cover. This gave us enough time to carry the Icon safely onto the boat. Soaked to the skin (no one had expected rain), but grateful to God for everything, we ferried over to the awaiting ship. as we pulled away from the dock we saw the crowd standing and loudly expressing its joy at having received such a heavenly blessing. Among them stood the above-mentioned Maria, now completely delivered from demon-possession. Her relatives shouted after us, asking that we pray for her.

     Early Sunday morning we arrived on Athos. It was a glorious autumn day, exceptionally clear, and the sea was perfectly tranquil. The forest was dressed in gold. On the way to Karyes we stopped at Xeropotamou where the abbot and brethren came out to greet the Icon. And right thereon the road a tooliebert was served. Arriving in Karyes, we carried the Icon into the Protaton, returning it to its place of honor at the back of the altar. Here ended what was a great event not only for the Holy Mountain but for all of Greece.

    Glory and thanks be to God and His Most Holy Mother for everything!!! Amen.


(Translated from Vestnik, No. 3-4, 1986, a publication of the German Diocese of the Russian Church Abroad, printed by the St. Job of Pochaev Brotherhood. Munich,)


[1] Described briefly in OA #55.

[2] The central governing body of Athos, consisting of 20 monks, each of whom is annually elecected representative (anteprosop) of one of the 20 Athonite monasteries.

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