Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Holy and Venerable Brothers Theocharis and Apostolos of Arta

Sts. Theocharis and Apostolos (Feast Day - Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers)

In every age God brings forth holy people who, though they live in the same times and ways of life as their fellow people, “fight the good fight of faith”, and as spiritual lamps enlighten everyone whom they serve in the name of our Lord.

In an era that was difficult for our whole [Greek] nation (the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century), God gave the blessing to our city [Arta] to have two brothers according to the flesh, Sts. Theocharis and Apostolos, to be born, to live, to struggle in asceticism, to teach and to become holy.

Their Early Life

The venerable brothers Theocharis and Apostolos were the children of the pious priest Fr. George Douia, from the Church of Saint Sophia in Arta, and the virtuous Presvytera Photini. God graced them with three sons (the third was named Constantine), who were raised from childhood in the law of the Lord. They took care first of all that they became men of God, and that the goal of their earthly lives should be the path towards heaven and of their sanctification. They put great care into forming their children, who ended up becoming some of the finest in their city.

The oldest son Theocharis (born around 1760) paid great attention to learning. He was taught "earthly wisdom" at the famous school of Manolaki Kastorioti, where was the great teacher and chanter Demetrios Economopoulos Vendramis from Mesollogi. St. Theocharis was taught there, but with his holy and divinely inspired life he also taught his fellow students, many of whom later followed him and became priests and monks. From this age, the power of the Saint’s words were revealed, which came from a heart aflame with the love of God.

And the "simple and pure in soul" St. Apostlos was taken under his father’s wing himself.

The two brothers Theocharis and Apostolos had a special affinity and love for the ecclesiastical life, and with unique humility and reverence they served their priest/father in his liturgical position. In fact, their whole family was an unending source of love and sacrifice, both physically and spiritually, to their fellow men and their parishioners.

The joy of their parents was great for their children’s progress and good works. The heart of this most pious priest danced at the notion and promise of seeing his two sons liturgizing at the most-heavenly altar. Such a holy love of the faith this virtuous priest had! Indeed, with great care he advised his two sons to become priests, of which there is nothing more holy or blessed on the earth. He also made requests to the Metropolitan of Arta to ordain his sons in the Church of Saint Sophia where he liturgized.

The response of the wise youths was: “Don’t rush father. Everything is in God’s hands.” The Saints saw the height and grandeur of the Priesthood of Christ, and did not seek it, but like the great Fathers of our Church, fled with awe and reverence from this great honor.

This blessed priest wanted his first son Theocharis to get married and afterwards to become a priest. God had arranged something else for him. Theocharis made the decision to follow the angelic state, in other words, the path of asceticism and the monastic way of life, and he related with great seriousness: “I am thinking that when I finish my studies and reach the legal age, I will go where Divine Providence will enlighten me to go and what to do.”

Along with their parents, the Metropolitan was proud in their progress and looked forward to enlightening the local church with the decision to ordain them.

When Theocharis finished his studies, the family of the holy Priest George Douia, according to the consent of God, was tested. The two parents, Fr. George and Presvytera Photini, fell asleep in the Lord. They left peacefully from the world however, because they did all that they could do to pay back their debt to God and their fellow men by offering back to their children their notable estate and inheritance.

This estate, which they tried to give to their children, was their true and authentic faith, their holy lives, and their path according to God on the honors of faith and country.

Theocharis and Apostolos, as good older brothers, took care of their younger brother Constantine. When he became a man, they saw to his marriage. From this marriage with Sossani, they had two sons: George and Theocharis. When Theocharis and Apostolos saw their brother establishing a family, they withdrew to a small house near Saint Sophia’s Church and fled from worldly things.

Bell Tower of the Church of Saint Sophia in Arta

Of the Same Blood and the Same Dwelling

The two brothers, far from the things of the world, continuously threw themselves into great ascetical struggles with courage and bravery. Unceasing prayer, meditation on the word of God, all-night standing, soul-strengthening fasting, silence, perseverance, repentance and all-fervent love towards God were their daily occupation and life.

Thier food consisted of a little bread and water, which they ate after sundown. Sometimes they also ate fruit. Their first biographer, Archimandrite Constantine, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Kato Panagias, remarked that the bread they placed in an earthenware container with a small opening (such that only one hand could fit into) to limit the amount of their food. But when some pious and merciful Christians brought them food, they would thank them, and received it with good wishes and prayers, not to savor it — not in the least — but to show mercy to their many fellow men who were found in poor and difficult states. When they would take the food to them, they would remark that they had already eaten enough, and that they should take the rest. Naturally, they would tell those they would help not to tell anyone of their actions.

And though they did not have the monastic schema and were not tonsured monks, they followed the canon of the Great Monastic schema with exactitude. They communed the Holy Mysteries once per week, and followed the life and example of the fathers and ascetics of their day, the spirit of which was also passed to them by the teachings of St. Kosmas Aitolos.

They did not leave their small house unless there was a serious need, or when their love towards those who sought them required service and sacrifice. In this way, Theocharis first began to teach elementary school in Artinopoula in the small and grace-filled Chapel of Panagia Kassopitras (Kassiope) until 1818. There he taught not only secular letters without imparting stale ideas, but chiefly he cultivated the soul, watering with the clear waters of faith and of the Gospel, and established in them love for and service to their country. It is not surprising that from this teacher came many excellent students, including the head of the Society of Friends (Filiki Eteria) Nicholas Skoufas from Kombotiou. Truly, who can count the heartbeats of the student and the teacher in transmitting teachings about life? Who can outline here in so few words, what occurred in the soul of the young Skoufas, hearing this fiery teacher?

The work of the venerable Theocharis was notable, and great was the spiritual profit of the faithful of Arta from his godly homilies in the Church of the Holy Unmercenaries.

The venerable Theocharis offered his untiring services to the Metropolis of Arta without seeking recognition, during the time when Metropolitan Benedict, “the magnificent and merciful," was the Abbot of the Holy Monastery of the Theotokos. Benedict, honoring this great and holy person, called him to work as his secretary. Theocharis, despite the burden and the trouble of this work, never complained or refused anything, except in cases of divorce, defrocking and the punishment of priests. His holy soul and conscience could not take this, so he pretended to be sick and took refuge in his beloved cell, where he found solace in the Prayer of Jesus and in many prostrations.

Benedict, after entreating the Saint many times, understood that this work wouldn’t suit Theocharis, and he excused him from his position to dedicate all his time to prayer and meditation on the word of God and of the holy Fathers. On this ascetical path his fellow traveler and fellow ascetic was Apostolos, his brother according to the flesh and the spirit.

The venerable brothers loved the solitary life completely. Only Apostolos would leave from their small ascetical dwelling in the heart of the city to purchase their necessities and to work their small vineyard.

It is mentioned that the Saints had two jugs for water. During the night they would go to the fountain to refill them where the women would fill theirs during the day. This they did because they were lovers of silence and prayer. With such a stance and prayer they strengthened the faithful of the city during the period of the great and fatal plagues which hit Arta, the first on May 2nd of 1816, and the second in 1823.

The two brothers did not distance themselves from the city, but day and night locked themselves up in their cell and prayed for God through the intercessions of St. Bessarion (whose skull the people of Arta brought and processed with in litany) to drive away the plague, while the faithful held processions around their houses. With their stance, the holy brothers gave strength and courage to the inhabitants of the city who honored them with much reverence.

Interior of the Church of Saint Sophia in Arta

The Dormition of the Venerable Theocharis

When you live a venerable and God-loving life, there will come to you a venerable and peaceful end.

Theocharis foresaw the hour of his death, and called his brother and fellow athlete Apostolos to bring the priest to come and commune him at noon on Holy and Great Friday. The priest, troubled and reverent, came to the small house where the venerable Theocharis with a special reverence communed of the Holy Mysteries for the last time. After he gave his final instructions and wishes to the "simple and pure in soul" Apostolos. He urged him first of all to continue with the same zeal the same God-loving and philanthropic ascetical life. His wish was that the Metropolitan of Arta be at his funeral and that he be buried in the Church of the Holy Unmercenaries and that his remains never be unearthed. Their house, in the end, should be given to the holy Church of Saint Sophia, where their father himself had his first and notable spiritual experiences.

The news of his death on Holy and Great Friday of 1828 brought pain and sorrow to the faithful of Arta, who with reverence and piety all hastened to the funeral service, which was presided over by the Metropolitan of Arta Neophytos. Neophytos, with a few simple and moving words, delivered the eulogy, presenting the virtues, the faith and the ascetical life of Theocharis, and challenged the faithful to imitate his holy life. He himself prayed for himself to be granted these great blessings and to pass away on such a great day. In reality, the following year, 1829, this pious hierarch left for the Lord on Holy and Great Friday.

At the funeral of this Venerable One many “unspeakable and great miracles” occurred. The four lamps of the casket, which because of the funeral procession were extinguished, spontaneously lit up, and an indescribable fragrance enveloped his holy body. This fragrance filled the Church of the Holy Unmercenaries and the small house where the Saint lived. Another witness mentions that at the hour of the funeral service, the candles of the polyeleos [the large chandelier in the center of the church] in the Church of the Holy Unmercenaries lit on their own, a miracle from God to testify to the Saint’s holy and illuminating life. The Saint was buried in the cemetery of the Holy Unmercenaries, in the place across from the south entrance to the church.

In 1866, when the Abbot of the monastery, Hieromonk Cornelius, was restoring the monastery, he found in this place hidden underneath a plaque, the “grace-filled skull giving off an indescribable fragrance." He therefore venerated it with piety, and hid it as it had been originally, respecting the wishes of the Saint. Thus, the location of the Saint’s tomb remains untouched to this day.

The Dormition of the Venerable Apostolos

Apostolos continued to live according to the final advice of his older brother - monastically, ascetically, philanthropically, and ecclesiastically. Every day he cared for his fellow men who came to him, and his charity towards all was exemplary. Being close to the displaced, the orphans and the poor, they found consolation and hope.

Seventeen years he lived after the dormition of his holy brother, Theocharis, and was close to his other brother Constantine, who shared a God-loving life.

When he foresaw his death, he asked his younger brother to bury him in the cemetery of Saint Sophia without any honors. Indeed, when he surrendered his soul to the Lord in the year 1845, his remains were buried in the cemetery of Saint Sophia in a place behind the Holy Altar of the church. Three days after the death of the venerable Apostolos, pious women went to the tomb — as it is the custom until today — to wash and decorate the tomb. They were astounded to see before them an incredible sight. They found “coming from within the tomb, an unprecedented wonderful flower giving off an indescribable fragrance," which revealed the holiness from God of the venerabe Apostolos.

The Honor of the Saints

The memory of the venerable brothers was celebrated by the inhabitants of the city of Arta, who from the day of their deaths, honored them as Saints, commemorating them on the Wednesday of Renewal Week.

With the efforts of the ever memorable Fr. Stavros Papachristou, the leader of the holy Church of Saint Sophia, their feast was commemorated.

Their memory is today celebrated magnificently on the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers in the holy Church of Saint Sophia.


Apolytikion in the First Tone
The dyad of common brothers let us honor, the divine Theocharis and the like-minded Apostolos, venerably they persevered in life, and were numbered in the choir of the saints, and they ceaselessly intercede for us who ever cry out: Glory to Him who crowned you, Glory to Him who sanctified you, Glory to Him who is glorified by you in these latter days.

Megalynarion
Of one soul and of the same manner, blessed Theocharis and Apostolos, truly you were seen in Arta living venerably, and were given the glory of the saints.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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