By John Sanidopoulos
Yesterday I received a few inquiries concerning an alleged miracle of an Athonite monk named Stephen, whose body was found to be incorrupt by other monks some time between four and six weeks after his repose. I was sent an article which describes this titled "Miracle on Athos: incorrupt body of ascetic found", which is a translation of an article found here. Both of these are dated January 3, 2017, giving the impression this is a recent "miracle". But as I responded to my inquirers, this is actually something that took place in 2013, which I was aware of at the time, but decided not to translate and publish for a few reasons.
First of all, this is not the first time this event has been reported in English. In fact, I was asked about it two years ago when it was published under the title "Incorrupt body of a reposed ascetic discovered on Mt. Athos". At that time I was asked why I had not published it, and responded with the reasons below. The reason I am now writing something on it, is because it seems this time the story has more widely circulated.
The main reason I initially did not translate and publish this story is because I wasn't satisfied with the initial report. To find someone incorrupt after a month or month and a half is not really unusual. It could take several weeks for a body to decompose, especially if it is exposed to cold weather. My own grandmother, who was buried in Greece, at her exhumation after three years, was not entirely decomposed, so they reburied her for another year until she did decompose. The fact that the story does not give us any details of what his body looked like after four to six weeks left the case open for me, but I could not prematurely call it a miracle.
Then further information came out in Greek news sources. Monk Stephen lived in the Cell of the Three Hierarchs, which belongs to Great Lavra Monastery. The reason it took the monks four to six weeks to notice that he was dead was because he was a zealot monk that refused to commune with the other monks. We are not told the exact reasons for this, but we know that he lived alone and refused communion with the monks for forty years. The fathers of Great Lavra let him be and looked upon him as a deluded monk, yet one with simple faith who lived a life of strict poverty and asceticism, so they showed compassion towards him and left him alone as he wished. In fact, when his body was discovered, the abbot of Great Lavra allowed him to have a proper funeral and to be buried with the other monks. The reason for this was "judge not, lest you be judged."
Indeed, we should not judge this monk. Throughout Church history there have been many who were sanctified that did not show exactitude in their expression and confession of the Orthodox Faith. However, they had a simple faith with great love for Christ, and that was enough to make them vessels of the Holy Spirit.
Yet nothing in all this indicated to me in 2013, nor today, that this is a miracle that should be proclaimed.
Lastly, we should also take note of the following.
One of the criteria of sainthood is indeed incorrupt relics, though this should be accompanied with them being fragrant and miraculous. Although such relics point towards sainthood, they are not a necessary criterion for sainthood. In some cases liturgical practice has proved that it can be a result of excommunication or cursedness, or disregard of the Holy Canons. A typical example is the so–called Third Synod of Moscow in 1666, which involved five bishops of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Patriarch Paisios of Alexandria, Patriarch Makarios of Antioch and hierarchy from the Church of Jerusalem, Georgia and Serbia also took part in addition to the Russian hierarchs. This Synod decided:
"Let no one dare henceforth to honor and revere the bodies of the dead which even in these times are found whole and incorrupt as being holy, without a credible witness and Synodical Approval; for many bodies are found whole and undecayed, not because of holiness, but because they were under the ban and curse of a bishop or priest when they died, or because they transgressed and despised the divine and sacred canons, they are found whole and undecayed." (Delekane, Patriarchal Documents, Vol. 3, Constantinople, 1905, pp. 136-137.)
The reason such an incorruption takes place in the case of a curse or excommunication, among other things, is because it is considered a physical manifestation of a soul that has not found peace, and by concession of God has not decayed to manifest the need to have a prayer of forgiveness read on their behalf by a cleric. This results in immediate decomposition. There are many examples of this in our Orthodox tradition.