Dear Readers: A long time supporter of the Mystagogy Resource Center has informed me that they would like to donate $3000 to help me continue the work of this ministry, but they will only do it as a matching donation, which means that this generous donation will only be made after you help me raise a total of $3000. If you can help make this happen, it will be greatly appreciated and it would be greatly helpful to me, as I have not done a fundraiser this year. If you enjoy the work done here and want to see more of it, please make whatever contribution you can through the DONATE link below. Thank you!
(Total So Far - Day 8: $2640)

April 30, 2009

Moldavian Villagers See Image of Cross and Burning Candle in a Tree Cut

This type of unusual phenomenon is very similar to one that can be observed in the Monastery of the Prophet Elias in Patras, Greece. There Elder Gervasios Paraskevopoulos planted three trees and when they were going to cut them down years later crucifixes also appeared within all three with a Byzantine-style to them. Miraculous healings have also been attributed to those Crosses. This one is particularly unusual for being red and having what looks like a candle on top of the Cross formation. It's hard to label something like this a miracle, especially when we should avoid seeing the supernatural in things that may be natural (like an image of Jesus on a piece of toast or of the Virgin Mary on a foggy window or a Cross in the clouds) lest we be ridiculed and give forth a false testimony without discernment. But there is power in the Cross and great blessing, so at the very least I would consider this a blessed tree and, like the Crosses of Elder Gervasios in Patras, are worthy of veneration for what they depict.

April 28, 2009

A resident of the Moldavian village of Kodryany cut down an old ash-tree and in the cut he saw a drawing very similar to an image of a cross and a burning candle.

“It’s usually very easy to cut down a tree, and here I was facing a difficulty. And the inner bark wasn’t white as usual, but bright red. It was very difficult to cut it, but when I did, I looked at the cut and, oh good heaven!, there was a scarlet cross and a burning candle below it! I was shocked!” Pavel Boyko was quoted as saying by the Moldavian edition of the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily.

Members of the Boyko family are believers and frequent churchgoers and like their ancestors, they chant in a church choir.

According to Pavel’s daughter Anzhela, when they called for Fr. Sergy, rector of St. Nicholas Church located nearby, the priest stared at the drawing for a long time and then said, “It is a Theophany.”

Fr. Sergy took a picture and then sent it to his ruling bishop.

“I don’t know what to think about this phenomenon. I’ve seen this before, in Ukraine, in the Vinnitsa Region. I reported everything to the Dean, and they told me that I should keep this cut in the church. Perhaps, it’s a sign from God. We hope that it’s a good sign,” the priest says.

Meanwhile, pilgrims started coming to the Boyko house. People are arriving from neighboring villages to see the alleged miracle.

Orthodoxy or Death?

Something I thought was pretty funny, even though this came from a website determined to negate the influence of Orthodoxy in Greece and reinstate the status of paganism as it was in ancient Greece. I guess I find humor in this because it is a bit stereotypical, but there is a lesson to be learned as well - Christians must take care to not invite scandal in any form, otherwise you may become the subject of a very funny joke (or picture). Oh, and furthermore, if you hold a sign that says "Orthodoxy or Death", don't hold something in your hand that actually shows you are choosing DEATH.

April 29, 2009

The Holy Apostles Jason and Sosipater and the Island of Kerkyra

Sts. Jason and Sosipater the Apostles (Feast Day - April 29th)

These Saints and Apostles of the first century, celebrated today, I found to be interesting because of the archaeology that supports their history as enlighteners of the island of Kerkyra (known also as Corfu).

They arrived on the island of Kerkyra about 40 AD and we are told they are responsible for Christianizing the island, one of the first cities in all of Greece to be Christianized.

We are informed they built a church dedicated to Saint Stephen the Protomartyr. If true this means that even the apostles built churches and dedicated them to martyrs and saints. Possible evidence for this lies in the fact that many streets and locations in the area today are named after Saint Stephen (Agios Stephanos).

Furthermore, the church currently named after Saints Jason and Sosipater is the only church from the Roman Empire (built around 1000 AD) on the island and it is built on top of an older church built centuries earlier, probably from the first century according to archaeologists, that bear inscriptions with the names of the two Apostles. On top of that, the church claims to even contain the relics of the Saints inside the church [the heads of the Apostles are in Hosios Loukas Monastery near Thebes]. The current church was the katholikon of a monastery in Roman times. Katherine, wife of Thomas Palaiologos (brother of the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI), sought refuge in this monastery when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

The Life and Ministry of the Holy Apostles Jason and Sosipater and the Virgin-Martyr Kerkyra

By St. Nikolai Velimirovich

The first two were among the Seventy Apostles, and the last was the daughter of the king of the island of Corfu. The Apostle Paul mentions Jason and Sosipater (Rom. 16:21), and calls them his kinsmen.

Jason was born in Tarsus, as was the Apostle Paul himself, and Sosipater in Achaea. The first was nominated by the Apostles as Bishop of Tarsus and the second as Bishop of Iconium.

Travelling and preaching the Gospel, these two apostles came to the island of Corfu, where they succeeded in building a church dedicated to St Stephen the Protomartyr and in bringing some unbelievers to the Church.

The king of the island [Kerkylinus] threw them into prison, where there were seven robbers already imprisoned: Satorninus, Jakischolus, Faustian, Januarius, Marsalus, Euphrasius and Mamminus. The apostles brought all seven of them to the Christian faith, making wolves into lambs. The king commanded that these seven be put to death in boiling pitch, and they thus received the wreath of martyrdom.

When, after this, the king was in process of questioning the apostles, his daughter Kerkyra, looking through a window, saw the torture of these men of God and, discovering the reason for it, proclaimed herself a Christian and gave all her jewels away to the poor. The king was filled with wrath against his daughter and shut her up in a separate prison, then, failing to turn her from Christ, ordered that the prison be burned down. The prison burned to the ground, but the maiden remained alive. Seeing this wonder, many of the people were baptized. The furious king ordered that his daughter be bound to a tree and killed with arrows.

Those who had come to believe in Christ fled from the terrible king to a nearby island and hid themselves. The king set off in a boat to arrest them, but his boat overturned in the sea and thus the unrighteous perished, as Pharaoh aforetime.

The new king accepted the Christian faith and was baptized, receiving the name Sebastian. Jason and Sosipater freely preached the Gospel and strengthened the Church of God in Corfu to great old age [some say Sosipater was martyred before the death of Jason by being burned to death], and there finished their earthly course and went to the courts of the Lord.

Apolytikion in the Third Tone
O Holy Apostles, intercede to our merciful God, that He may grant our souls forgiveness of sins.

Kontakion in the Plagal of the Second Tone
Being illuminated with the teachings of Paul, ye became luminaries unto the whole world, O thrice-blessed ones; for ye ever shine upon the world with miracles, O Jason, thou fountain of healings, and Sosipater, thou glory of the Martyrs of Christ. O God-bearing Apostles, ye protectors of them that be in need, entreat God that our souls be saved.

The Roman/Byzantine Church of Saints Jason and Sosipater. The building dates roughly to the year 1000, but two recessed inscriptions on the two sides of the central entry tell us that it would have been constructed on the site of an older monument. The previous church may have possibly been destroyed during the Slavic invasions a few decades earlier.

The Church of Sts. Jason and Sosipater on Kerkyra (supposedly the sole church of Roman architecture on the island). Here are preserved relics of Sts. Jason and Sosipater (their skulls are in the Monastery of Hosios Loukas in mainland Greece), and I believe also the tomb of the martyred prison guard, St. Anthony, honored as one of the first martyrs of the island.

April 27, 2009

My Brief Reply to George Michalopulos' Reply to Fr. Oliver Herbel

Father Agapius Honcharenko, first Orthodox Missionary priest of the United States

Here is a link to a reply to Fr. Oliver Herbel by George Michalopulos. I will not touch upon every error I see in his reply, but I do want to point out a few errors he makes regarding the Greek presence in America and some questions he raises regarding the establishment of Greek parishes prior to 1922.

One point he raises is the lack of a Greek episcopal presence in America prior to 1922. Of course, Michalopulos has an agenda which implies that a lack of such a presence means an uncanonical presence of Greek parishes in America. As a historian of American Orthodoxy, however, he should know better.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia published in 1909 which records the statistics of 1908, there were 130,000 Greeks in the United States with 32 parishes in the United States and 2 parishes in Canada. The clergy consisted of 7 archimandrites, 3 celibates, and 25 married priests. Of the Greek clergy, 15 were subject to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and 20 to the autocephalous Church of Greece. We are also told why there was no Greek episcopal presence in America - because some Greeks had come from Asia Minor and some from Greece and there was no agreement as of yet as to who should have jurisdiction in America. It is also stated that neither the Ecumenical Patriarchate nor the Church of Greece recognized the authority of the Russian bishops over the Greek parishes in 1908.

What happened after 1908? Under an agreement made in 1908 between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Holy Synod of Athens, jurisdiction of the Greek churches in America was given to the Church of Greece under Archbishop Theoklitos I. However because there was still disorder the new Archbishop of Athens, Meletios Metaxakis, tried to bring healing and unity to America. He visited America in 1918 to survey the situation, and upon his return to Greece three months later appointed Bishop Alexander of Rodostolou as his resident American legate. Alexander was delegated the unenviable task of initiating canonical order among the independent Greek parishes throughout North America.

Due to political intrigues, Meletios was exiled from his position in the Church of Greece and came to America on February 21, 1921. On September 15, 1921 he incorporated the Greek Archdiocece of North and South America which was recognized by the state of New York in 1922. Two months later on November 27, 1921 he was elected Ecumenical Patriarch. One of his first decisions was to get the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to repeal the Tomos of 1908 and on March 1, 1922 transferred the jurisdiction of the Church of Greece in America back to Constantinople based on Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod.

Now what does this say concerning the points brought up by Mr. Michalopulos? First, there was a Greek episcopal presence in America in the representation of the priests who presided over the Greek churches in America. A priest is never a priest based on his own authority, but exists as a representative of his bishop. These priests either represented the Synod of the Church of Greece or the Ecumenical Patriarch himself. Second, a parish does not require the physical presence of a bishop for consecration, but this can be done through a priest with the proper antimension from his representative bishop. No doubt this was done and there is no evidence to suggest anything to the contrary.1

Michalopulos goes on to make some very foolish remarks regarding the Greek parishes of America, even going so far as to suggest the possibility that these parishes are uncanonical, the Holy Mysteries invalid, and the priests of dubious backgrounds. Again, as a historian of American Orthodoxy, he should know better. Each Greek parish established before 1922 has very good records of their history, and if he had looked to the right sources he could get this accessible history.

One example he brings up is Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in New Orleans. He writes as if he researched its history, but all he did was hear from a friend who talked to the secretery of the parish who probably had no idea of these historical matters. A Google search would have served him better which reveals that the church was consecrated by a Greek Orthodox priest, Father Agapius Honcharenko, the confessor of Leo Tolstoy, who was of a Ukrainian background and had immigrated to the USA via Athens, Greece in 1865 while under the Church of Greece. He came to America via Boston on January 2, 1865 to serve as a missionary to the Orthodox by establishing churches and feeding the faithful with Holy Communion. As far as the antimens is concerned, one should keep in mind that the original church was demolished with a new edifice constructed in its place in 1950 and consecrated as a Cathedral in 1960 by Bishop Silas. It could also be possible that the early antimensions belonged to the priests for the purpose of serving the Divine Liturgy and never actually belonged to some parishes.

The other great error of Michalopulos is his assertion that the Russian mission was the only canonical presence in America prior to 1922. From the information above alone his conclusion is clearly faulty. There is no excuse in making such an ignorant statement such as: "There were no non-Russian bishops in North America prior to 1922 nor were there any non-Russian exarchates, dioceses, eparchies, or jurisdictions on this continent before this time." I already gave two examples above and there are a few others, such as Metropolitan Germanos from the Patriarchate of Antioch who served the Antiochian community in New York after 1915 and presided at the funeral of St. Raphael of Brooklyn in 1915.

There are very few valuable points in Mr. Michalopulos' reply to Fr. Herbel. As far as I'm concerned, the two letters could have been reversed with Fr. Herbel's reflection being a response to Mr. Michalopulos. The former still refutes the latter.

1. We know from a Russian text written in 1868 that Fr. Agapius understood the importance of the antimension and it seems that the missionary priests carried them. See:

Jurisdictional Disunity and the Russian Mission

Jurisdictional Disunity and the Russian Mission

Orthodox Christians for Accountability

April 22, 2009

After thinking and praying about some of the discussion on OCANews about the history of Orthodoxy in America, I decided to present an overview of the history of the Russian Mission in order to show that we should be careful about the claims we make based on that history. Specifically, I wish to address the misconception that the presence of the Russian Mission on the North American continent precludes the canonical presence of any other jurisdiction in North America. Often this belief is paired with a belief in Orthodox unity prior to the Russian Revolution, a simplistic view unsustained by the actual history of the Russian Mission itself. Typically, this is argued in response to the manner in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate interprets Chalcedon canon twenty-eight, in order to argue for the right to oversee Orthodox Christians in the New World, but I will not argue for such a misapplication of the canon. I do not think we should place our hope in either error (that from history or that from the canon). I realize that some may be concerned about the upcoming meeting in Constantinople in June and where that will leave the OCA in relation to worldwide Orthodoxy, but I do not think it is healthy in the long-run to base our position on a faulty argument from history.

It is correct that Russia established a diocese on North American soil. In 1840, St. Innocent (1797-1879) became the bishop of Kamchatka and the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, the latter of which are on North American territory. A separate diocese for The Aleutian Islands and Alaska was later formed and moved to San Francisco (1870, officially by 1872) and later renamed and moved to New York (permission granted to do so in 1904), being known as the diocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America.

When discussing the history of this expanding diocese, however, we must distinguish between a vision promoted by a person or persons within this diocese and the actual context of such a visionary. A vision is something someone has because he or she is looking ahead. A vision is not something like the Encyclopedia Britannica, where we record current facts. I am not using such an analogy to offend the intelligence of the reader but only to show very bluntly and clearly that there is a big difference between current circumstances and someone’s vision. We need to keep this in mind, even when we speak of the vision of St. Tikhon (1865-1925), who oversaw the Russian Mission from 1898 to 1907. He was fully aware that there was not jurisdictional unity and yet he did not treat such people as uncanonical. He wished them the best. One easily attested example of this occurred in 1903 when Fr. Sebastian Dabovich (1863-1940) informed him of the Greeks in San Francisco having a priest and antimins from Greece. He wanted Russia to establish an autonomous diocese, perhaps with autocephalous-like powers, in order to bring order to the chaos he saw around him.

Furthermore, in the report to the Holy Synod of Russia, which was published in November 1905 and in which St. Tikhon proposed an autonomous diocese, he was simply making a proposal, hoping to address what he saw happening. Nowhere in that report to the Synod of Russia did he treat the Orthodox who were not part of the Russian Mission as schismatics, or uncanonical.

He did not complain about foreign bishops adversely affecting his own ecclesiastical prerogatives. He was aware of the relative independence of St. Raphael (1860-1915), who was the bishop of Brooklyn from 1904 until his death in 1915, and oversaw the Syro-Arab community. St. Tikhon also explicitly noted that the Greeks were asking for a bishop from Athens. Tikhon was optimistic and considered it possible that America could become an exarchate of national churches. He did not claim such was already the case. What Tikhon was attempting to do was create canonical order out of a non-canonical situation. For possibly the first time in the history of the Church, several different autocephalous Churches simultaneously viewed their immigrant flocks as missionary outposts in a new land.

As an aside, the issue of the use of English in Orthodoxy is sometimes raised as part of St. Tikhon’s vision for America. Even if one considers the translation work of Isabel Hapgood, however, we are left admitting that St. Tikhon’s vision was good but English was not the dominant liturgical language. That was something for future generations to achieve.

As important as St. Tikhon was and still is for Orthodoxy in America, we often treat him as though he were the only visionary or that all other visions are to be subsumed under his. Why is this? Is it because we fear that if we let St. Raphael step forward as a visionary, we would learn that he considered himself the head of a diocese that was somewhat beholden to both the Russian Mission and Antioch?

Or, let’s take another visionary, one not as well known: Nicholas Bjerring (1831-1900). I’ll mention Bjerring later for other reasons, but I raise him now because he published English translations of liturgical texts. He had converted in 1870 and established an Orthodox chapel in New York later that year (after spending a short amount of time in St. Petersburg earning a doctorate and getting ordained). He was the first convert-priest for the Orthodox Church in the New World and published many English translations of liturgical services. In this way, he envisioned an English-speaking Orthodoxy that could relate to the American setting. Ironically, his translations were hardly used (if ever at all) beyond his own chapel. I have not yet found anyone later in American Orthodox Church history who credits him and his translations (though I’d be greatly obliged if someone were to correct me with an exception or two).

Or, let’s take Fr. Nathaniel (Ingram Nathaniel Washington) Irvine (1849-1921), a Protestant Episcopal convert in 1905. Upon ordination, he headed an English department at St. Nicholas Cathedral and in 1909, petitioned to have an English language chapel. He was finally granted that in 1920. Both Bjerring and Irvine were visionaries with respect to the use of the English language in worship but the reality of their times was not what their vision entailed.

We might even think of St. Alexis Toth (1853-1909), and remember that he was a Russophile and helped establish Russian language schools for parishes. The Eastern Catholics were the main focus of evangelism for the Russian Mission early on, not the surrounding Americans who were already established in the New World. In fact, Fr. Benedict Turkevich (1873-1928), brother to Fr. Leonid Turkevich (1876-1965), the future Metropolitan LEONTY, thought the converted Eastern Catholics should leave America and help settle Siberia, the settlement of which Russia was actively promoting at the time. The Russian Mission had not yet fully expanded her view of the evangelical potential in America.

Visions are one thing. Certainly, the visions of St. Tikhon, Fr. Nathaniel Irvine, and Nicholas Bjerring on the issues of an autonomous diocese and the use of the English language are ones we would still promote to this day. As forward looking as these visions may have been, they were not the only visions and were responding to the surrounding reality, not reflecting it. So, we need to remember that visions are responses to one’s context, not a direct reflection of what one’s context actually is.

As important as it is to distinguish between the vision and the actual context of the visionary, history allows us to go further and state that the establishment of a diocese on North American soil did not necessarily create sacramental and administrative unity for any and all Orthodox people living in North America. Under proper, canonical procedures, one would hope that would be the case, but the American context did not present that.

Even the territory claimed in the name of the Russian missionary diocese expanded and changed over time. We need to remember that initially, the territorial denotation of the diocesan name was Irkutsk and the Kurile and Aleutian Islands. That was in 1840. Alaska was still part of Russia at this time. Alaska was sold to America in 1867 and there was no doubt that the Russian Orthodox Church was the Orthodox Church in Alaska. The treaty made that clear as did the continuation of the diocese. The diocese did move to San Francisco, a move completed and approved by 1872. It had already been renamed in 1870, when the diocese became called the diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow by this time, did envision this as an opportunity to spread Orthodoxy throughout the rest of America, but that was his vision, not what was actually yet happening and not a claim denoted by the diocese’s name.

At this juncture, it is worth asking: how many parishes in what are now called the lower forty-eight states were in the Russian Mission prior to St. Alexis Toth and John Mlinar, one of Toth’s parishioners, seeking out Bishop Vladimir beginning in December, 1890? One. Ft. Ross, which had never been anything more than an outpost chapel, had been abandoned in 1841. By the time John Mlinar visited Bishop Vladimir (bishop from 1888 to 1891), the Russian Mission had had Bishop John (1870-1876) and Bishop Nestor (1879-1882). Bishop Nestor spent most of his time in Alaska even though the diocesan seat was in San Francisco. Bishop Vladimir set liturgical compositions to English and Fr. Sebastian Dabovich preached homilies in English, but the Russian Mission’s presence outside of Alaska before St. Alexis Toth’s conversion was really no more than the cathedral in San Francisco.

What had happened to Nicholas Bjerring’s chapel in New York? Well, in 1883, the chapel was closed and Bjerring was offered a teaching position at St. Petersburg Academy. He declined, though, became a Presbyterian, and then died a Roman Catholic layman, which is what he had been prior to becoming Orthodox. The Russian Mission had established a chapel to New York but it was closed only thirteen years later. For a diocese that only designated the territory of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, this might not seem like a big deal, but it is a small fact we should keep in mind when considering the ecclesiastical prerogatives of the Russian Mission at the time. It must also be noted that the purpose of Bjerring’s mission was not to evangelize fellow Americans. Bjerring actually publicly discouraged visitors through newspapers at the time and noted that the chapel’s main purposes were to serve the Russian Orthodox in New York and foster good relations with the Protestant Episcopal Church in order to assist in uniting the Episcopal and Orthodox Churches.

There was a Greek Orthodox parish in New Orleans from the 1860s and in the early 1890s, before the Russian Mission returned to New York, Greek parishes were established in New York. For this reason, we need to be very careful with both the “who was in America first” argument and the argument that might claim “there was a diocese on the continent dedicated to evangelizing the whole continent and, therefore, all Orthodox anywhere on the continent were to be subject to that diocese.”

Also, we would do well not to mischaracterize the Greek Orthodox presence. Early on, the Greeks were willing to be open to those who were non-Greek. In one case, Robert Josias Morgan (ca. 1869-1916), a Jamaican from Philadelphia, was ordained in Constantinople in 1907 and later in 1911 tonsured in Athens as Fr. Raphael. He was commissioned to evangelize fellow African Americans. He does not seem to have been successful, but one should not think that only people in the Russian Mission were capable of envisioning the spread of Orthodoxy.

The case of the Serbs and Montenegrins also does not entirely support the idea of early jurisdictional unity despite Fr. Sebastian Dabovich’s efforts on behalf of the Russian Mission. In 1897, Bishop Nicholas and Fr. Sebastian asked the Serbian Orthodox Church to oversee the Serbs in America. The request was refused not because of concerns for Russian diocesan authority over North America, but because the Serbian Orthodox Church could not sustain the infrastructure at that time. Despite this, Serbian parishes would seek Serbian clergy from Serbia under the supervision of Serbian bishops and in 1913, they pursued the logical conclusion of such autonomy and appealed again to the Serbian Orthodox Church for a bishop.

In addition, the continuity between the Russian Mission and the Metropolia did not remain so neat and tidy in the aftermath of the revolution. In 1924, the former Russian Mission declared itself self-governing, thus becoming known as the Metropolia. Moscow, however, cut off communion, and in 1933 re-established the diocese of the Aleutians and North America under Bishop Benjamin.

It is unfair to discount the perceptions others would have had about the status of the Metropolia based on Moscow’s own actions in 1933. Even for those who accepted the idea of pre-Revolutionary unity under the Russian Mission, the recreation of the diocese in 1933 could affect perceptions. The notion that all Orthodox were united under the Russian Mission before the Russian Revolution was first publicly expressed in writing in 1927 by Fr. Boris Burden (1898-1973), an Episcopal convert. At that time, Burden was part of an attempt to create a single jurisdiction, known as the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of North America, under Archbishop Aftimios, St. Raphael’s successor. In the jurisdiction’s journal, Orthodox Catholic Review, Burden argued that all jurisdictions were under the Russian Orthodox Church prior to the Russian Revolution. Therefore, in keeping with the rift at the time, he considered the Russian Church Abroad, aka Karlovtsy Synod, schismatic. By 1933, however, the attempt at creating a unified jurisdiction had failed miserably and Fr. Boris Burden joined the recreated diocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America in 1933 under Bishop Benjamin. At this time, Burden, the first to claim publicly in writing that there had been pre-Revolutionary unity, considered the Metropolia schismatic.

Based on all of this, there are a few things the historical evidence does not allow us to claim. We cannot reasonably uphold a simplistic view of unity, whereby we claim that everyone (or nearly everyone) was under the jurisdiction of the Russian Mission. By the time the Russian Mission did return to New York and claimed (at least in name) to be a diocese of all of North America, the immigration floodgates had opened. By about 1906 and certainly by the time of revolution itself, approximately half of the Orthodox population did not fall under the auspices of the Russian Mission. Further, we cannot claim that the Russian missionary diocese saw itself as the normative diocese for all Orthodox Christians before the 1904-5 move to New York under St. Tikhon. Even then, St. Tikhon himself realized he was trying to make the best of an exceptional situation. The Serbs maintained ecclesiastical ties to the Serbian Orthodox Church and early on, Bishop Nicholas supported their attempt to create an official Serbian presence separate from the oversight of the Russian Mission.

I believe an honest look at the history should cause those of us in the OCA to be humbler in how we state our claims. To call the other jurisdictions uncanonical is unfair in light of the complicated history of the Russian Mission. Such an argument risks being heard and read as nothing short of inflammatory and should that happen, we are likely to hinder the kind of dialogue many of us would wish to see in order to obtain a united American Orthodox Church.

The reality is that America was a place in which Orthodox Christians of different communities formed their Churches and have had to begin working toward unity. That work has been ongoing. It was attempted with the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of North America in 1927 and later with the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America in 1943. More recently, SCOBA established itself and pan-Orthodox services and ministries have increased. It may not be as romantic to think of ourselves as a group of separate clusters working toward the goal of full administrative unity, but I think it is more truthful with respect to the history of the Churches in North America and less divisive in spirit. Perhaps such a reconception of American Orthodoxy could help us break the gridlock between a misinterpretation of Chalcedon twenty-eight and a misguided perspective on the history of the Russian Mission in North America.

May the Lord grant us the spirit of humility so that someday we all may be able to cry aloud together as a single, fully united American Orthodox Church:

Christ is risen!

Fr. Oliver Herbel

April 26, 2009

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, Mount Athos and America

I think it is important to understand that the model the Ecumenical Patriarchate proposes for America has a firm foundation in the tradition of the Church. For those with a more traditional bent, I like to bring up the example of Mount Athos. Mount Athos is self-governed (autonomous) and part of the Hellenic Republic, but it is also under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. This is basically the same model that is being proposed for America.

Ignorance and fear have created a lot of misunderstanding however. One fear is that the jurisdictions in America will lose their identity (whether it be jurisdictional or ethnic) and be swallowed up into the culture of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This is a rhetorical lie being pushed by people who have other agendas opposed to the tradition of the Church. Again, when one looks to Mount Athos it is observed that there is not only Greek-speaking monasteries, but there is also Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian and Romanian speaking monasteries that follow their own traditions as well, even though they all fall under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. No identity is lost, no languages lost, and there is no authoritarian rule that all the monasteries must do as directed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has gone so far to accommodate the style and traditions of Mount Athos, in that it even allows them to use the Old Calendar even though in Constantinople the New Calendar is used. It is this similar open-minded model that is proposed for America and will hopefully be discussed in the upcoming Pan-Orthodox Synod.

April 25, 2009

Writings of Saint Neophytos Presented At Conference

Monastery of Saint Neophytos in Cyprus

Ancient Works by Paphos Saint Presented at Conference

Bejay Browne
23 April 2009
Cyprus Mail

Six volumes of work by Saint Neophytos, which took scholars 15 years to collate, were presented to the public yesterday, at Ayios Neophytos monastery’s first international conference at the Coral Beach hotel in Paphos.

Saint Neophytos was born in 1134 in Lefkara and came from a large, poor, rural family. Since he was a small boy, he was drawn to religious teachings and monastic life. As a hermit, he wrote on the subjects of history, theology and civilisation, and these are included in the first of his completed written works, which premiered at the conference, and are being analysed by learned professors during the five-day event.

Among those invited to the opening ceremony were President Christofias, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, Education Minister Andreas Demetriou, the Dean of Neapolis University in Paphos and representatives of Athens Academy. There was also a brief address by Eleni Glykatzi Arveler, the Dean of the University of Sorbonne.

Neophytos founded the monastery in 1159 and he wrote a large number of theological works, including his Ritual Ordinance for Monastic Life and his view of the history of Cyprus, Concerning the Misfortunes of the Land of Cyprus. Neophytos was also a vocal critic of the Byzantine tax collectors.

The monastery is steeped in history and the building as well as the man himself have been of interest to scholars and the public for many years.

The Egkleistra is a cave that Neophytos carved out of the mountainside and made his home for 45 years. Inside are a number of fine Byzantine frescoes dating from the 12th to 15th centuries. It’s now open for public viewing. He spent the remaining five years of his life in a cave higher up the mountain.

The monastery in Paphos is still home to monks today and contains a collection of icons and the remains of some 16th century frescoes. The views from the monastery are spectacular as the site is 412m above sea level and looks out across Paphos.

The main part of the monastery was built in 1500 and the monastery also has a church and an ecclesiastical museum. Saint Neophytos’ bones are kept in a box in the church close to the iconostasis.

Atheist Delusions Regarding Human Violence and Religion

Below is a brief quote from the latest book by David Bentley Hart titled Atheist Delusions, pp. 12-13. It presents an argument which is self-evident regarding the new dogma fashionable among the New Atheists today that "religion is the cause of all violence" and thus is more of a danger to society than an aid to progress.

"Some [men] kill because their faiths explicitly command them to do so, some kill though their faiths explicitly forbid them to do so, and some kill because they have no faith and hence believe all things are permitted to them. Polytheists, monotheists, and atheists kill – indeed, this last class is especially prolifically homicidal, if the evidence of the twentieth century is to be consulted. Men kill for their gods, or for their God, or because there is no God and the destiny of humanity must be shaped by gigantic exertions of human will....

Men will always seek gods in whose name they may perform great deeds or commit unspeakable atrocities ... Then again, men also kill on account of money, land, love, pride, hatred, envy or ambition.

Does religious conviction provide a powerful reason for killing? Undeniably it often does. It also often provides the sole compelling reason for refusing to kill, or for being merciful, or for seeking peace; only the profoundest ignorance of history could prevent one from recognizing this. For the truth is that religion and irreligion are cultural variables, but killing is a human constant."

HELLENIC GENOCIDE: Was it a "Catastrophe" or a "Devastation"?

By Stella L. Jatras

There is an effort by the Greek government to remove the offending word "Genocide" and instead referring to the massacre of Greek martyrs in Asia Minor at the hands of Turkish forces during the early part of the last century as a "Catastrophe." Other reports state that the term "Genocide" would also be referred to as a "Devastation." Does the Greek government actually believe that by doing so it will incur the appreciation of the Turkish government? And which is it to be? Is it a "Catastrophe," or is it a "Devastation?" Either way, the fact that Greek Christians also bore the wrath of Muslim Turks and were slaughtered under hideous and barbaric conditions, "Catastrophe" or "Devastation" is merely a slap on the wrist and an insult to the memory of the Greek martyrs.

In her book, Not Even My Name, Thea Halo writes, "But the most dramatic change in Turkey was the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Assyrians, and 353,000 Pontic Greeks, and the cruel death marches to exile of 1.5 million more Greeks from Turkey; death marches on which countless other Pontians lost their lives, all between 1915 and 1923. This genocide, euphemistically termed "ethnic cleansing", and "relocation", eliminated most, if not all, of the Christian minorities in Turkey, and brought to a tragic end the 3,000 year history of the Pontic Greeks in Asia Minor." Extermination of an entire race of people, as were the Pontic Greeks, is not a "Catastrophe," nor a "Devastation." It is a "GENOCIDE." Yet the slaughter of Greek martyrs in Asia Minor is mostly ignored even by Greek-American politicians who plead on the floor of the House of Representatives for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but make no mention of the fact that the Greek population in Asia Minor also suffered cruelly at the hands of the Turks. Sadly, I have spoken with Armenians who didn t even know that their fellow Orthodox Christians were also being slaughtered during that horrible period in history.

On Sunday, September 7, 1997, I attended the 75th Anniversary of the Destruction of the City of Smyrna which was sponsored by the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater Baltimore-Washington Region (in cooperation with The Council of Hellenes Aborad (SAE), The American Hellenic Institute, The Greek American Monthly, Diaspora, and The Asia Minor Holocaust Memorial Society.) According to their estimates, 3.5 million Christians were martyred. Of those, 1.8 were Armenian and 1.7 were Greek. However, we may never know the true number of Christian martyrs.

In his book, Passage to Ararat, Michael Arlen writes that Turkish women were given the dagger (Hanjar) to give the final stab to dying Armenians in order to gain credit in the eyes of Allah as having killed a Christian.

Another interesting note in history is that during the Asia Minor genocide, there were ships in the Smyrna harbor from Great Britain, the United States, France, Japan and Italy, among others. To escape the massacring Turks, the Christian population swam out to these ships.

The ships' crews, however, hit the hands of those trying to board so that they would fall back into the sea or literally push them back into the sea. Their excuse? They did not want to offend the Turkish government. Only the Japanese captain took pity on the victims and allowed them on board. To confirm this tragic event, author Nicholas Gage writes in his book, Greek Fire, and gives the following account: "Foreign battleships [i.e., warships] - English, American, Italian and French - were anchored in the harbor, sent by the major powers initially in support of Greek forces but later told to maintain neutrality. They would or could do nothing for the 200,000 refugees on the quai. The pitiful throng - huddled together, sometimes screaming for help but mostly waiting in a silent panic beyond hope -- didn't budge for days. Typhoid reduced their numbers, and there as no way to dispose of the dead.

"Occasionally a person would swim from the dock to one of the anchored ships and tried to climb the ropes and chains, only to be driven off. On the American battleships the musicians onboard were ordered to play as loudly as they could to drown out the screams of the pleading swimmers. The English poured boiling water down on the unfortunates who reached their vessel. The harbor was so clogged with corpes that the officers of the foreign battleships were often late to their dinner appointments because bodies would get tangled in the propellers to their launches."

Gage also describes how a young Aristotle Onassis later "walked through the city to find his father's warehouse at Daragaz Point burned to the ground, though the office on the Grand Visier Hane still stood, despite the fires, guarded by Turkish soldiers. Mutlilated corpses were everywhere. A cluster of women's heads bound together like coconuts by their long hair floated down a river toward the harbour."

An especially moving portrait of the genocide is the account of the mutilation of Greek Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Smyrna. According to eye-witness testimony from G. Mylonas, of the academy of Athens, "the mob fell upon Chrysostomos," and committed some of the most horrendous acts of cruelty. "All the while, Chrysostomos, his pale face covered with blood, had his face turned upward, continuously praying, 'Holy Father, forgive them, for they know not that they are doing.' Every now and then, when he had the strength to do so, he would raise his right hand and bless his persecutors. A Turk realized what Chrysostomos was doing, and got so furious that he cut off the Metropolitcan's hand with his sword. Metropolitan Chrysostomos fell to the ground, and was hacked to pieces by the angry mob."

The Armenian community is to be commended for its dedication and passion in remembrance of their Armenian martyrs. It is past time for the Greek community to show the same dedication and passion. They can start by calling or writing our congressmen and senators.

The American Hellenic Media Project (AHMP) is one of many organizations circulating a petition protesting the Greek government's denial of the Hellenic genocide. AHMP ( writes: "Greece's current administration is planning to remove references to the word "genocide" from a parliamentary law already in existence that recognizes the genocide of Asia Minor's Greek communities by the Turkish state during the early part of the 20th century." For those of you who have the capability and wish to sign the petition, please go to: and to and your vote will be electronically recorded by the Hellenic Electronic Center. For further information, you can also write them at P.O. Box 596, DE, 19703-0596, or to ask a question, you can e-mail them at If you prefer, you can send a brief note directly to:

"A cluster of women's heads bound together like coconuts by their long hair floated down a river toward the harbour," is not exactly my idea of its being just a "Catastrophe," or a "Disaster." Indeed not.

To read about the Author Stella Jatras
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April 24, 2009

Elder Paisios the Athonite on the Old Calendarist Zealots

Elder Paisios dealt with the Calendar issue too. He was really worried for the division the issue has caused and he was praying about it. He was really worried for the groups formed by Old Calendarists behaving independently by having no communion with the Orthodox Patriarchates and the local Orthodox Churches. Some of these groups that were in Athens and Thessalonica were united under his instruction with the Church of Greece, keeping at the same time the Old Calendar.

The Elder said: “It would have been good if this calendar difference did not exist, but it is not a matter of faith”. In the objections that the New Calendar was done by a Pope he would reply: “The New Calendar was made by a Pope and the old one by an idolater,” meaning of course Julius Caesar. In order to understand the position of the Elder more clearly on the matter, the following incident is mentioned.

An Orthodox Christian who was Greek in origin had lived with his family in the USA for many years. He had a serious problem, though. He was himself a “zealot” (Old Calendarist) whereas his wife and children followed the New Calendar. “We could not celebrate a Feast together like a family”, he used to say. They would celebrate Christmas when for me it was St. Spyridon’s Feast. When I had Christmas, they had St. John’s. And that was the least of our problems. The worst thing was to know, as they had been teaching us, that the New Calendarists are heretics and will be damned."

"It is no little thing to keep hearing that your wife and your children betrayed their Faith and went with the Pope’s side; that their mysteries have no grace; etc. We would talk for hours on end but without coming to a conclusion. To tell you the truth, there was something I did not like with the Old Calendarists too, especially when some of our bishops would come to talk to us. They were not talking with love and pain in their heart for the deceived New Calendarists (as they considered them to be). But it was as if they had hatred and were happy when they would proclaim that the New Calendarists would go to hell. They were very fanatical. And when their speech would end, I would feel inside me an internal agitation. I was losing my peace. But I would not even think of leaving our tradition. I was greatly distressed with the whole issue. Surely something would happen to me from the constant worry.

"In one of my travels to Greece I mentioned my problem to my cousin Yianni (John). He told me about some Elder Paisios. We decided to go to the Holy Mountain, in order for me to meet with him. We arrived at “Panagouda” (where the Elder was living). The Elder offered us something and with a smiling face made me sit next to him. I felt at a loss with his behavior. I felt that he was acting as if he had known me forever, that he also knew all about me.

"'How are things going there with the cars, in America?' were his first words.

"I was taken aback. I had forgotten to mention that my job was at a parking lot, and of course I was dealing with cars all day long. 'I’m doing well', was the only thing I could falter, looking at the Elder with surprise in my eyes.

"'How many churches do you have there where you live?'

"'Four', I replied and a new wave of surprise came over me.

"'With the Old or with the New' (calendar)?, came the third thunderbolt which, however, instead of increasing my surprise, somehow made me feel more at ease with the Elder’s charisma.

"'Two with the Old and two with the New', I replied.

"'Which one do you follow?'

"'I with the Old, and my wife with the New', I replied.

"'Look, you should go where your wife goes', he told me with firmness, and was preparing to give me explanations.

"But for me the matter was already closed. I did not need more explanations or arguments. Something unbelievable had happened inside me; something divine. What was torturing me had gone away. All the arguments and all the threats and anathemas against the New Calendarists that I would hear for years now had been vanished. I felt the grace of God who through His Saint was acting on me and filling me with a peace that I had long longed for. My internal situation was evidently seen through my eyes. What I remember was that my situation may have made the Elder to stop for a wile. But then he continued to give me some explanations. Perhaps for me to tell others, and also so that I could use them for myself in a time of temptation, when that divine situation would have passed.

"'We too of course follow the Old (calendar) on Athos. But this is a different situation. We are united with the Church, with all the Patriarchates, both of those that follow the New and of the Old calendar. We recognize their Mysteries as valid and they recognize ours. Their priests make service with our priests. Whereas these poor folk (the Old Calendarists) are cut off. Most of them have piety, accuracy (in following the canons) and a fighting spirit and true zeal for God. But it only happens inexplicably and not because they have knowledge of what they do; others due to simplicity, others due to lack of knowledge, and others due to selfishness have gone astray. They considered the thirteen days as a dogmatic issue and all of us deceived, and thus we left the Church. They do not have communion with the Patriarchates and the Churches that follow either the New or the Old Calendar because the latter ones supposedly became contaminated through their communion with the New Calendarists. And this is not the only thing. Even those few that have remained (as Old Calendarists in Greece), have become … even I don’t know how many pieces! And they keep being cut off into smaller pieces all the time and they keep anathematising each other, excommunicating each other and defrocking each other. You do not know how much I have grieved and been saddened by this situation. I have prayed a lot. It is important that we show love towards them and feel for them and not to condemn them; and more importantly, for us to pray for them so that God illumines them, and, if once in a while one of them asks help from us in a good-natured manner, we could say a word or two', the Elder concluded."

More than five years passed since the Elder’s repose. Mr. X. returned to “Panagouda” to thank the Elder, because after that time when he first met him, he found his spiritual but also familial happiness, and with tears in his eyes described the above events. With his love, prayer and discernment, the Elder knew when to speak, how to act, and how to help Mother Church quietly, avoiding extremisms and healing the wounds that torment the Body of the Church and scandalize the faithful.

Taken from the book Life of the Elder Paisios the Athonite (in Greek) by Hieromonk Father Isaac (pages 691-696).

April 23, 2009

A Miracle of Saint George the Trophy-bearer

Church of Saint George in Langoura, Patras, Greece

By John Sanidopoulos

My grandmother Anastasia had a special devotion to St. George. Often in her prayers I would hear her chant his Dismissal Hymn from memory. I'm not sure where her devotion originated, but it was the only hymn to a Saint I ever heard her chant.

My grandmother eventually married my grandfather John (who was originally from Nicomedia, the place where St. George was martyred in the fourth century) and they bore eight children, five of whom survived beyond infancy, and they settled in the city of Patras in a small one-bedroom apartment. My father, Panagioti, was the second youngest, and as a young child developed a bed wetting problem that stuck with him until he was around ten years old. This caused him and my grandmother especially great distress as there was no medical explanation for it at the time.

One day my grandmother stood before her icons and made a supplication before St. George to heal my father of his bed wetting. In her prayer she made a vow on his behalf that if the Great Martyr healed her son, she in turn would send him to the nearby church dedicated to St. George in Langoura to clean the entire thing. She never told my father this, yet still that night her prayers were answered, his bed was dry and he never had the problem again.

The next day my grandmother contacted the priest and told him of her vow. He allowed my father to come and fulfill the vow his mother made on his behalf. My father did it gratefully.

When my father got a little bit older he took on his fathers trade as an Electrician. When the church dedicated to St. George, which years before he had cleaned, requested to be wired for electricity, my father went and did the entire job for free, still showing gratitude to the Great Martyr George who healed him years earlier.

April 21, 2009

My Pilgrimage To The Monastery of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene in Lesvos

In the summer of 2001 I had the opportunity to travel to the island of Lesvos to visit one of the most sacred shrines in all of Greece - the site of the horrific martyrdom of the newly-revealed Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene. I was with my wife Maria at the time and for us this was a special pilgrimage, however for me it was especially a must on our extensive itenarary that took us to many holy shrines of Orthodoxy throughout Greece and Turkey over a six-week period of time.

I first heard of the glorious martyrs Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene in the summer of 1991 when I was 15 years old. That summer my mother and I travelled to Greece and along with visiting family our primay focus was to visit as many holy shrines of Orthodoxy that we could over a period of one month. When the month ended she left me alone in Greece to stay with my family there for another month, spending most of my time with my grandmother Anastasia in the city of Patras with whom I continued my pilgrimages. My grandmother came to Greece as a child with my great-grandmother from Nicomedia in Turkey in 1922 after the expulsion of the Greeks when most of the men in her family, including her brothers and father, were brutally massacred in Orthodox churches. She was herself a saintly and very pious woman. Every morning friends would come over her house to check in with her, and most were very pious women themselves whose life centred around the church and family.

One day a woman stopped by and she had a look on her face as if she had just seen a ghost, but in a good way. She came to tell my grandmother that she had just come back from a pilgrimage with her church to the island of Lesvos and she had a life changing experience - she along with dozens of other pilgrims saw St. Raphael at his monastery standing at the bell tower blessing the crowd. As she related the story with tears in her eyes I was intrigued and wanted to visit right away. Unfortunately Lesvos was very far off and my trip was ending, so I had to save that pilgrimage for another time.

The next time I encountered these Saints was around the age of 17 or 18 after reading one of my favorite modern Orthodox books, Modern Orthodox Saints, vol. 10 "Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene of Lesvos" by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos. The first Orthodox book I ever read (which I devoured in one night) was by this same author titled Anchored In God about his pilgrimages to Mount Athos. Dr. Cavarnos' books appealed to me very much because he lived in the same town I grew up in (Belmont, MA) and wrote easy to understand books that presented the Orthodox way of life and tradition very faithfully and most compelling. It was the fact that he wrote the first Orthodox book I ever read along with his most fascinating account of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene that prompted me a few years later to kindle a friendship with Dr. Cavarnos visiting him in his humble home a number of times.

Dr. Cavarnos' book is astonishing to say the least. In the "Introduction" which runs nearly 100 pages he recounts his own investigation into the miraculous events that took place just a few years before in Karyes near the village of Thermi on Lesvos. Photios Kontoglou, the famous iconographer and writer and close personal friend of Dr. Cavarnos, encouraged him to interview the key persons to whom the Saints manifested themselves and to take their accounts as well as those he had collected and place them in chronological order. Dr. Cavarnos even relates his own personal vision of Saint Irene during the investigation. I will avoid a biography of these Saints because I encourage the reading of his fascinating account. Until then, however, I will give a very brief overview from the Synaxarion which is read during the Orthros service every Bright Tuesday (Tuesday after Pascha):

"On the island of Mytilene (Lesvos in ancient times), near the village of Thermi, the villagers had a custom of ascending a certain hill on this day to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the ruins of a small chapel, although no one knew whence the tradition sprang. In the year 1959, certain villagers began seeing persons who spoke to them, first in dreams, then awake, both by day and by night. Through these wondrous appearances, which were given to many people independently, the holy Martyrs Raphael, Archimandrite of the ancient monastery, and Nicholas, his deacon, together with other Saints who had been martyred on the island, told the villagers the whole account of their martyrdom, which had taken place at the hands of the Muslim Turks ten years after the fall of Constantinople, in 1463. The twelve-year-old Irene had been tortured, then burned alive in a large earthenware jar in the presence of her parents. On Tuesday of Renewal Week, Saint Raphael had been tied to a tree and his head sawn off through his jaws; Saint Nicholas had died at the sight of this. Although the feast is celebrated today because it is the day of their martyrdom, through the appearances of the Saints as living persons five hundred years after their martyrdom, it is also a singular testimony to the Resurrection of Christ."

After reading about these glorious Saints who play a key apocalytpic role in contemporary Orthodoxy which should not be overlooked, I made it a personal goal to one day visit their monastery and venerate all the sacred sites associated with one of the most remarkable events in human history.

In the meantime, little did I know that I did not have to go far to venerate their holy relics. When I entered Hellenic College/Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, MA in 1994 to my great delight I discovered that we had been given fragments of the relics of these three Saints years before and were always available to us for daily veneration. I even recall back then how on Bright Tuesday the chapel was filled with visitors to participate in the celebration of these Saints.

While in Seminary I was also very good friends with a fellow Seminarian also named John from North Carolina who experienced healing by Saint Irene and a vision of her after suffering a prolonged "thorn in the flesh". Later he travelled to the monastery in Lesvos. He recalled to me how he gathered with fellow pilgrims outside the walls of the monastery near the bell tower where many people reportedly have visions of Saint Raphael, and while there he grew tired and lay down to take a nap. When he awoke he saw that dozens of people were awe-struck with tears in their eyes because they had just had a vision of the Saint. This would cause him to later chuckle at the fact that all these people around him had an otherworldly experience while he lumbered for a nap.

In 1997 I met my future wife Maria. She was a recent convert from Roman Catholicism and we became the closest of friends after a visit to a monastery of Elder Ephraim in New York with a bunch of friends. We met during the Triodion period that year and decided we would help each other complete a strict fast and increase our prayer rule for the upcoming Great Lenten season by going to the Seminary Chapel of the Holy Cross every night at midnight to pray the Midnight Hour service. We would also stay up even later and initially began reading the Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Klimakos, but this proved to be too difficult for her newly-converted ears so I stepped it down and began reading to her the inspirational tale of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene by Dr. Cavarnos. It was during these times that our love blossomed and she desired also to meet Dr. Cavarnos, whom we visited together a few times for her to be instructed by him as well.

In May of 1998 we married and moved to North Carolina. After three years in the summer of 2001 we decided to move back to Boston so I could complete my Seminary studies, but before that we found an opportunity to go on a six-week pilgrimage throughout all of Greece and much of Turkey. From Turkey we made it a point to re-enter Greece by taking a ship to Mytilene with the specific purpose of fulfilling my personal longing (which had become mutual back in 1997) of visiting the Holy Monastery of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene along with another very holy shrine dedicated to the Archangel Michael of Mandamadou on the opposite side of the island.

We arrived in Mytilene late in the evening and without hesitation jumped on a bus that took us to Karyes. After an approximately thirty minute bus ride up the mountains we arrived at the monastery, but unfortunately the gates were locked due to the late hour. There were many pilgrims there already, and it was on our agenda to stay the night in the rooms provided for hospitality instead of getting a hotel room. After knocking on the gate and getting permission to stay from the nuns, we found two beds and settled our things. That night all we could do was walk around and take in the surrounding area as well as the bell tower area, since we were in the middle of nowhere up in the mountains.

Soon enough a bunch of faithful pilgrims flocked to the bell tower. A few there had seen Saint Raphael before and were hoping to get another glimpse. It is said between 9PM and midnight he appears. As we were waiting one middle aged woman began screaming that she could see Saint Raphael up in the bell tower and had tears in her eyes, but no one else could confirm this. For about a half hour she kept saying she could see him, but nobody else could and after giving her the benefit of a doubt it seemed to me and to everyone else that she was probably seeing something that possibly looked like the Saint but wasn't. Then a teenage girl began screaming she could see something as tears ran down her eyes. Others started yelling at the older woman to stop stirring things up because her hysteria began to spread. I thought it all interesting and just observed the situation. It was a bit disappointing that something so distracting was happening and it seemed pretty obvious that these two were not really seeing the Saint, though for all I know I could be in the wrong. My wife turned to me after a while and started to discount the tales of all the visions of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene all together. When she made this extreme statement that basically bordered on throwing out the baby with the bathwater, I became a bit disturbed and felt a demonic presence in the air which I had experienced before at other holy shrines. At this time I decided it would be best for us to go to bed.

The next day, which was a Sunday, we were able to enter the monastery very early and participate in the Divine Liturgy for a bit. Because there were hundreds of pilgrims, the tiny church hardly fit us all so we participated from the outside over the loud speakers. We were able to enter and venerate all the relics and it was a very moving experience. Through the iconography on the church walls one could also read the entire story and trials of the Saints as they had revealed to the locals in dreams and visions. Because there were so many people it was difficult to get focused and meditate on the significance of the place, and we were in hurry to catch a taxi to Mandamadou then take a boat later that day to Chios.

Deep down inside Maria and I had a deep longing to experience what hundreds had experienced, and that was to experience a vision of at least one Saint. But I should have been wiser at the time and remembered what I had read hundreds of times in the writings of the Church Fathers - that we should never pray for visions or seek them out. By opening the door to spiritual experiences we run the risk of opening the door to the demons and deception. If I learned one lesson on my pilgrimage that day, it was precisely the fact that I believe our longing for a spiritual experience outside the will of God opened us up to a demonic experience. I regret it all to this day and hope that one day God and his Newly-Revealed Saints will make me worthy to transform my immature experience into something more humble and profound the next time around, not looking for visions and signs but humility, self-awareness and compunction.

Last night I attended the Great Vespers service at Holy Cross Chapel. It was a beautiful service and the procession of the holy relics took place after which everyone gathered to venerate. I was saddened that there were not nearly as many people as there use to be. Hence my purpose in writing this. Saint Raphael asked that his memory be celebrated on this day every year by Orthodox Christians and it is my desire that we all gain a knowledge of this divine command and become better acquainted with three of the most significant Saints of our times.

Below is a video in Greek about Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene that can also be enjoyed if you do not understand Greek as it also shows the site of their Holy Monastery in Karyes.

April 17, 2009

Metropolitan Jonah Apologizes For Vespers Comments

SYOSSET, NY (OCA Communications) - On Great, Holy and Good Friday, April 17, 2009, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, issued the following statement in response to recent commentary on his April 5, 2009 sermon, delivered at Saint Seraphim Cathedral, Dallas, TX.

“I greet you in a spirit of repentance and forgiveness as we celebrate the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Certain comments that were made in the course of my sermon have provoked a reaction from my Orthodox brothers that I did not intend or foresee. I regret making those comments. In particular, I realize that some characterizations regarding the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarchate of Constantinople were insensitive. As the Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, I am motivated only by the desire to underscore our fervent hope that future discussion about the so-called Orthodox Diaspora will include the Orthodox Church in America and other Orthodox jurisdictions in North America. It is also my purpose to affirm our Church in the face of those who would question our presence as a local Orthodox Church in North America.

“It is now clear that I made statements that were uncharitable. I do apologize to His All-Holiness as well as to others who were offended. I also hope that through personal contact and acquaintance we might be able to overcome any misunderstandings that might arise or have clouded the relationship between our Churches in the past. My hope is that we might cooperate in an attitude of mutual support in our common mission, to spread the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the spirit of this Great and Holy Friday, I sincerely pray that as we contemplate Our Lord, Who ascended the Cross to “bring all men to Himself,” we will see in His patience and long-suffering the way to continue our work together for the witness and mission of Orthodoxy in the world and for Orthodox unity in North America.”

April 15, 2009

Making Comedy of the Cross of Christ

By John Sanidopoulos

Wittiness has become something of a virtue in our day. Wit combines cleverness and humor to offer amusing insights. Though entertaining and often insightful, sometimes wittiness enters the realm of the ridiculous which could also be amusing, yet essentially pointless.

An example of such ridiculousness can be found in the April 10th edition of The Huffington Post in an article titled "Killing Jesus For Today's Market" by Spencer Green. The article is based upon the popular quote attributed to H.G. Wells that basically states: "If Jesus Christ had been hanged, the symbol of Christianity would be a noose." The author tries to make the point, albeit in a humorous way, that the cross of Christ has become too commercialized in our day and has become a symbol that may be powerful yet is unrelateable to the contemporary age. He then proceeds to give alternate tools of suffering and death Christ could have gone through to make the story more attune to twenty-first century ears. In doing so, he proposes alternative symbols for Christians that would make the story more relateable, such as the hammer and nails instead of the crucifix itself. Green further elaborates the hypothesis of H.G. Wells with a bunch of "what if's". For example, what if Christ had been hanged by a noose? "Would Christians today wear little nooses around their necks?" Green asks. Or if he was killed by a firing squad, would we wear little guns. After being creative with a bunch of death scenarios that could have been used for Christ, such as tying him to a boulder and pushing him off a mountain, or being kicked in the balls by Roman guards in a cage fight and other such tortures involving the penis, or tearing him to pieces in the arena which would make for a "kick-ass resurrection", the author then asks what symbol would Christians use if Jesus never died at all. His answer: not much, which means Jesus would get depressed, drunk and probably hang himself.

After reading this article which aimed at being witty, I just thought it was ridiculous and pointless. I can't say I was offended, because such sarcasm about Christianity has become common in today's media, and as Oscar Wilde said: "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit". In other words, it's nothing new under the sun, nut just told a different way. And with the rise of atheism, such boring and dark sarcasm has become a staple of entertainment and comedy in our day.

Take for example two of the best and most influential comedians of the twentieth century, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, who also elaborated on the line of H.G. Wells. Lenny Bruce joked: "If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses". And Bill Hicks said: "Do you think wearing a cross is really a good way to make Jesus happy? Maybe that's why he hasn't returned yet. 'Once the fish comes back in I'm there'. Kinda insensitive really. Like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant and saying 'just thinking of John, Jackie,... we loved him'."

Now when I hear all these jokes which try to make the Christians devotion to the cross seem ridiculous, I wonder who really is ridiculous? Granted, if one doesn't understand the significance of the cross for Christians and is not a Christian himself I can see the ridiculousness of it, but it doesn't make the joke itself any less ridiculous because it is pointless and only shows the ignorance of the one trying to be funny instead of his cleverness. I will also grant the fact that many crosses, especially in the Western art, are repulsive and scary, but this only merits a joke about its repulsiveness or scariness, which in turn could also merit the title of being witty.

One could even examine the same type of joke in the Monty Python comedy, Life Of Brian, in the scene where Brian is running away from a bunch of self-deceived hysterics who believe him to be the Messiah, and as he runs away he loses a sandal which they begin treating like a relic or cross in an over-exagerated way.

In all these instances, we are not merely presented with irony to evoke petty laughter. Rather, I believe it goes back to a proverbial truth known for centuries and first articulated by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales (c. 1387): "A man may seye full sooth [truth] in game and pley"; then by William Shakespeare in King Lear (1605): "Jesters do oft prove prophets"; and also by the more well-known version from Roxburghe Ballad (c.1665): "Many a true word hath been spoken in jest". Oscar Wilde gives the most modern rendering: "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." In other words, some truths, too painful or too likely to provoke, can be spoken only when the listener has been disarmed by laughter. In all these sayings laughter is the means to an end, the end being truth. However, just because we laugh at an apparent truth does not mean it is the truth. And what all these comedians are doing is leading the cynics in their audience to the illusion of an apparent truth by means of laughter to appear clever.

I understand that sometimes we have an urge to laugh at something funny and not think too hard about it. In so doing we make the truth (or apparent truth) as the means to an end, the end being laughter. But this is how entertainment distorts our sense of what we normally classify as sacred and holy. And for Christians, this is exactly what the cross is for us. The cross is Christianity's most sacred and holy symbol and we should be watchful and diligent lest it becomes anything less. Since the cynics are trying to instill truths through laughter, it is necessary to examine how true the claim may be that if Jesus had been hung by a noose instead of crucified, would the symbol of Christianity really be a noose instead of a cross?

This question (or remark) evokes similar questions once addressed to Scholastic theologians by fellow Scholastics of the Middle Ages and Humanists of the Renaissance. One question was: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Another is: "Can God create a stone so big that he cannot move it?" Both of these questions have been answered ad nauseum, but what it basically comes down to is that the questions make logical fallacies, thus making them self-refuting. The same is true with the question: "If Jesus died by hanging, would the noose become the new Christian symbol?" Among logical fallacies this is called a "Hypothesis Contrary To Fact" where you argue from something that might have happened, but didn't. And that is the whole point - Jesus did not die by any other means but by crucifixion, no matter how outdated and unrelateable this fact is to contemporary ears.

To answer the question more objectively and seriously so even the cynics can understand, I would say that Jesus died on the cross because he had to die on the cross. It was God's will that he died specifically on the cross. If Jesus did not die on the cross and instead died any other death, then he would have died as a charlatan and a false messiah. Therefore, the assumption that Jesus even could have possibly died another death except by crucifixion is a false assumption, irrelevant and even impossible.

To a non-Christian this may all sound absurd, until the evidence is examined as to why Jesus indeed had to die by crucifixion in order for his claims as to his person to be taken as true. The evidence comes from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament we see many times the cross being prefigured as the instrument through which death would be destroyed and demons vanquished, which is exactly what Christians believe about the cross.

In Genesis 3 we are told about the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. By the latter came the curse of death through the devil. The Tree of Life becomes the cross of Christ through which we enter into God's glory. We see this typified in the crucifixion of Jesus where one man crucified next to him ridicules Jesus and dies (Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) while the other man hanging on the cross accepts Jesus and enters into eternal life because he partook of the Tree of Life. Thus, as the Apostle Paul says, by one tree came death and by another tree (the cross) came eternal life.

There are many other places throughout the Old Testament where specifically the cross is revealed to be a source of life and a source of the power and salvation of God. We see this in Exodus 15:29 where the bitter waters of Marah turn sweet after Moses throws a tree by God's command in the water. In Exodus 17:8-13 we witness the Israelites defeat the Amalekites by the power of God which worked through the wooden rod of Moses that he was commanded to hold up with his arms in the form of a cross. In Leviticus 9:22 Aaron brings forgiveness of sins and peace to the people by lifting his arms in the form of a cross. In Numbers 2 we read how the camp of the Israelites were to be divided by tribes around the Tabernacle in the exact position of a cross, and this prevented Balaam the Prophet from cursing Israel when he looked at their formation from the mountain and blessed them saying: "How shall I call down a curse upon whom God did not curse? For from the top of the mountains I see him, and from the hills I envision him" (Number 23:8, 9). When we read in the Book of Judges that Sampson was tied to two pillars in the form of a cross, and how through this position his strength returned to him and he destroyed his enemies, we are reminded of the power of the cross. Also in Ezekiel 9:4 God sends an angel to mark the foreheads of all his people before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem; the literal translation says to "mark a tau" which is the letter "T" which is in the shape of the cross. And there are other such stories in the Old Testament in which the cross is a source of life, a source of power and a source of salvation and protection.

There are also a few prophecies which foretell the cross as being a source of salvation for Israel. Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus on the cross, foretells the death of the Messiah which can only best be described as a crucifixion. This is especially evident in verses 17-19: "For many dogs surround me, an assembly of evildoers enclosed me. They pierced my hands and my feet. I numbered all my bones. And they look and stare at me. They divided my garments among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." In Deuteronomy 21:23 God commands that all those who are put to death on a tree should not hang there overnight, and he curses all those who hang on a tree to die. The Apostle Paul explains in Galatians 2 that God did this to show by what sort of death the Messiah was to die.

To conclude, what we get from all this is that if Jesus was to die the death of the Messiah of Israel, then his only choice was to die by crucifixion, which was clearly foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament. There was no other option for the legitimate Messiah, and there is no other option for his followers but to look to the cross as the source of life, the source of power and the source of salvation for all mankind. And it should not surprise us that the world ridicules the cross. This was done in apostolic times as well, as St. Paul writes: "We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to all those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 23, 24).