June 24, 2009

Jesus Christ Walks By, And The Dog Does Not Bark

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Feast Day - June 24)

The Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist always reminds me of an incident that happened to me while on vacation in Greece when I was fifteen years old back in the summer of 1991. I had traveled to many places throughout Greece that summer with my mother and two grandmothers, but for one month I was alone with my grandmother Anastasia mainly spending our time in the city of Patras. During my travels that summer in many places the Greeks would keep unleashed wild dogs to protect their property. A few times these dogs came very close to attacking me if I overstepped near a property by mistake, and as an American where we have laws against this stuff it frightened me to travel through certain areas - especially in the villages.

One day I told my grandmother that I considered walking with a large stick in case I was attacked by dogs. My grandmother, being a pious and saintly woman, said it was unnecessary. She taught me instead to just pray the following prayer: "Ιησους Χριστος περναη και σκηλος δεν γαβ-γαη" or "Jesus Christ walks by, and the dog does not bark". In Greek the prayer sounds a bit poetic so I thought it was kind of funny, but I took her advice.

My grandmother lived in Agiou Ioanni Bratsika (Saint John District) and a block away from her apartment was a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist that celebrated its feast day on June 24th every year. In fact, the only time this church ever opened was on June 24th in order to celebrate its feast, remaining closed the rest of the year. I had always wanted to see what this church looked like inside, but when the feast day arrived there were so many people that I ended up listening to the service being blasted over an outdoor speaker from my grandmother's balcony.

This church was a special place to my grandmother. One day we went for a walk and as we passed the church she stopped and showed me a memorial stand* that she had placed at the front entrance of the church. She had placed it there as a memorial for my deceased grandfather whose patron Saint was St. John the Baptist, after whom I was named also. I never met my grandfather since he passed away about a year before I was born, so this was a special moment for me that I got to share with my grandmother.

Unfortunately I never found out the details behind the history of this church, but it is considered by locals to be a special shrine that contains a miraculous icon of St. John the Baptist. This icon was discovered in some miraculous manner in a cave that the present church was built over upon its discovery. After my grandmother and I lit the oil lamp in my grandfather's memory, since the church remained locked, we walked around to the side of the church where there were steps that descended into the cave under the church in which the miraculous icon was discovered. Today the cave has been transformed into a chapel and always remains open for the faithful to pray. The side of the chapel is on a private road and at the far end of this road were a pack of wild dogs barking like mad. Thank God they were leashed.

My grandmother lighting my grandfather's memorial box

In the chapel my grandmother told me about a local priest who served at the Church of St. Paul. She knew him as a young boy growing up in the area, and he was respected by all including my father with whom he grew up. Often at night this boy would come to this chapel and pray, sometimes keeping vigil all night. No doubt he was inspired by Elder Gervasios Paraskevopoulos who inspired a revival in the city of Patras back in the 1960's. When he got older he became a monk then was ordained a priest and became a fiery preacher very much loved and respected in the area and known for keeping strict order in his church during the divine services. This priest would never sleep the night before serving a Divine Liturgy, but instead kept vigil. I was told that in his zeal he was skeptical when the Pope returned the relics of the Apostle Andrew to the city of Patras after many centuries in 1966. After the procession with the relics through the streets of Patras lead by the King of Greece, they were interred in a very large cathedral built specifically to house these relics. That night this priest (he may have been a monk at the time) with others attempted to break into the church and verify if the Pope gave the real relics of the Apostle Andrew. Before he could do so he was apprehended by police and censured by the local bishop. I had a chance one Sunday to attend a Divine Liturgy served by this priest with my grandmother. He kept the church in traditional order with the men seated on the right and the women on the left. During the Axion Estin hymn he swung a very large chandelier with icons in the middle of the church to express the joy of the Saints in the Theotokos. And during communion he made sure the unruly Greeks were in proper order and that no woman was wearing lipstick as she partook of the Holy Gifts.

Since the Church of St. John the Baptist was only a block away from my grandmother's house, one late night I decided to go there by myself to pray. As I turned the corner towards the private road to get to the cave, the quiet night was suddenly interrupted with loud barks - but the dogs were not leashed and the barks were getting louder and louder. Panicked I ran towards the chapel, but the door was wired shut and it was too dark for me to untangle it. As the dogs got closer, I had no choice but to pray the prayer my grandmother taught me in Greek: "Ιησους Χριστος περναη και σκηλος δεν γαβ-γαη". As I was stuck in a corner I was easy prey for the dogs, but immediately after I said the prayer the dogs stopped barking, turned back and walked away. I was a bit amazed and thanked God when I fnally entered the chapel to pray.

One day we had the opportunity to visit the Monastery of St. Gerasimos in Kefalonia. We decided to spend the night in the hospitality rooms of the monastery since early the next morning was the Feast of the Transfiguration (Aug. 6). Because the Divine Liturgy was going to start very early I decided to not sleep that night. The monastery itself was locked so I just walked around the area all night. However the nuns of the monastery kept about 3 or 4 dogs for protection, but they seemed locked away behind the gates. They were barking all night though. At some point during the night as I stood in an open field near the monastery, these dogs were so determined to come after me that they somehow escaped from inside the gates and terrified I saw them running towards me barking at the top of their voice. As they got closer I prayed the prayer my grandmother taught me: "Ιησους Χριστος περναη και σκηλος δεν γαβ-γαη". Again, the dogs just stopped in their tracks right at my feet and stopped barking. One dog became as a puppy and just rolled on its belly pretty much asking me to pet it, while the other dogs just ran away. I petted the dog and it became like a protector to me and would not leave my side the rest of the night. At one point the dogs came back after me, but this dog chased them away. Now if I didn't believe in the power of this prayer before, I certainly believed after this.

And I offer it to those who may find themselves in a similar situation.

* In Greece, pious Orthodox place memorial stands, usually a metallic box with a small glass door sometimes standing on four thin legs, as memorials for loved ones in public places. These memorial stands usually contain an icon of the patron Saint of the deceased along with an oil lamp and maybe incense. Family members usually maintain these memorial stands, and other pious Orthodox make sure to keep the oil lamp lit as they pass by and make a prayer for the deceased as they cross themselves.