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.