Monday, November 29, 2010

Saint Nicholas Basdanis the New Martyr of Metsovo

St. Nicholas Basdanis (Feast Day - May 17 and November 28)

Metsovo on the borders of Epiros and Thessaly was the birth place of St. Nicholas the New Martyr, often known as "St Nicholas the Vlach". The Pindos Mountain range in Central Greece has long been home to the Vlachs, a mainly Romanian speaking minority who have always lived at peace with their Greek speaking neighbors. Staunchly Orthodox, only a few Vlachs converted to Islam during the long centuries of Ottoman domination. At one point of his life this St Nicholas joined that small community of Vlach Muslims.

The Basdanis family were one of the poorer families of Metsovo, a prosperous town on an important trade route across the Pindos Mountains. By reputation they were devout and hard working Orthodox Christians, it is likely that they spoke Greek and the local Vlach dialect. At a young age Nicholas was sent to Trikala to work, here he was employed by a baker in a mainly Muslim area. Quite naturally, he made many friends amongst the Muslim community of Trikala -- people of his own age and others who frequented the well known bakery.

Certain influential and well educated Turks took an interest in this bright young man; they helped him in many ways and over a period of time they persuaded Nicholas that it was to his advantage to become a Muslim. Flattered by their attention and dazzled by the prospect of becoming associated with the elite of the ruling community he finally converted to Islam. It is recorded that the Saint was immediately struck by remorse and that he secretly left for Metsovo, his home town. Here he reverted to Christianity and took up a life of striking repentance and prayer.

Nicholas was warmly welcomed back by his family and relatives but, being very poor, they were unable to support him for very long. He soon came out of hiding and found a job that also involved him transporting pine woodtorches to Trikala. On one such journey he was inevitably recognized by a Turkish barber, an old acquaintance, who noticed that Nicholas was no longer dressed as a Muslim. This man threatened to denounce him to the authorities unless Nicholas agreed to bring him a certain quantity of pine wood torches once a year. Nicholas, knowing that the penalty for apostasy from Islam was death, left all the merchandise that he had brought to sell for his employers in Trikala with the barber and agreed to come back a year later with more.

Back in Metsovo the Saint had time to think things over. He consulted his spiritual director and after many discussions they agreed that he neither should nor could give in to blackmail. Nicholas himself was convinced that he was now prepared to make public his reversion to Christianity and face the consequences. After much prayer and discussions with the monks of the Meteora Monasteries, his spiritual director also agreed and gave the Saint his blessing.

On the appointed day Nicholas returned to Trikala to meet the Turkish barber. He refused to hand over any pine wood and invited the barber to turn him in to the authorities. Outraged, the barber dragged him before the Muslim judges. Nicholas fearlessly spoke out before the judges and the many Turks who soon gathered about. In the face of promises and threats he insisted that he had been born a Christian and so desired to die one too.

Nicholas was beaten by the mob and thrown into the castle dungeons. Here he was tortured and starved but steadfastly refused to give in. Eventually the authorities decreed that he should be burnt in the central square of Trikala. The sentence was carried out on May 17, 1617. The Saint died, praying in the flames before the assembled citizens of Trikala.

A certain potter bribed the Turkish guards for a portion of the Saint's relics. The New Martyr was soon famous across the region and numerous miracles were attributed to his intercessions. The healing properties of the few surviving relics ensured a steady flow of pilgrims from all parts of Epiros and Thessaly. These are now shared between the Varlaam Monastery of Meteora, the Eleousa Monastery on an island in Lake Ioannina and the Monastery of the Dormition in Metsovo.

The people of the Pindos Mountains revere the Saint as their special patron. In his home town, Metsovo, a church was dedicated to him in 1800 and another was erected on the site of the family home in 1959. Others can be found in the Trikala region, at Tyrnavo and as far away as Artemis in Attica. Nicholas Carcase published the Life and Office of the Saint in Venice in 1767.

The Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate formally canonized Nicholas Basdanis as a saint of the Universal Church on November 28, 1988. He is commemorated on this date and on that of his martyrdom - May 17.

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