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December 17, 2009

Saint Dionysios of Zakynthos (1)

St. Dionysios of Zakynthos (Feast Day - December 17)

                                                            By Theoharis Provatakis

St. Dionysios was born in 1547 at the village of Aigialos on the island of Zakynthos. He was descended from the famous Sigouros family and his secular name was Gradenigos or Draganigos Sigouros.

When his ancestors arrived on the island, its ruler awarded them lands in the southwest of the island, which they cultivated and where they lived contentedly. A little later the family took part in the Venetian wars against the Turks, with the result that the Venetian Senate not only recognized the award of the lands which they held, but also inscribed their name in the register of the aristocracy. The majority of the members of the family became Orthodox and were notable for their profound faith and the integrity of their convictions. Among these noble fighters were the ancestors of the Saint. His parents were called Mokios Sigouros and Pavlina Valvi. There were three children of their marriage: Draganigos (the future saint), Constantine and Sigoura. All three were brought up in the atmosphere of an Orthodox family and the principles and teaching of the Orthodox Church were instilled into them. All three of them were ever ready to do good and their lives were exemplary, as was their constant championing of the Christian cause.

The Childhood and Education of the Saint

According to a tradition, passed down from generation to generation among the people of Zakynthos, the Saint had St. Gerasimos as his godfather. His parents began his education and cultivated in him a sense of the works of God.

In a contract of 27 October 1557, which used to be kept in the Historical Archives of Zakynthos, but which was unfrotunately destroyed by a fire in 1953, the Saint's father engaged the learned teacher Kairophylas, who undertook to teach the ten-year old "the letters of the Church, that is, hymns, the prayer services, the Psalter, the Epistles and Scripture".

This elementary education was later followed by more extensive studies under pious and learned tutors. It does not, however, appear that the Saint went very far from his native Zakynthos. Perhaps he sat at the feet of the distinguished theologians who travelled about Europe and stopped off at Zakynthos. Be that as it may, he learned Ancient Greek, Latin and even Italian very well, though his principle studies were in Holy Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and "classical" Theology. It may be concluded from one of his letters that he wrote commentaries on the works of Gregory the Theologian.

Withdrawal From the World

As the Saint grew up he became increasingly spiritually attached to the immortal truths of the Christian religion. The affairs of this world meant nothing to him and nothing was capable of deflecting him from the way of God. Neither the nobility of his birth nor great riches nor the glory and honor of office could distract him. He was very strict with himself and very indulgent towards the shortcomings of others. His great zeal for the Kingdom of God lead him quickly and steadily to eternal truths.

At the age of 21 he severed all connections with the world and retired to the monastery on the Strofades islands, which lie south of Zakynthos. It appears he already lost his parents and for that reason he bestowed all his property to his brother Constantine, laying on him the responsibility of providing their sister Sigoura with a dowry in accordance with the customs of the island.

On his arrival at the monastery, he gave himself to fasting and vigils and devoted many hours to prayer. He studied the Scriptures and the lives of the saints and martyrs of the Faith day and night. Very soon, with his study and prayer, he emerged as a spiritual advisor of great stature, with the result that many of the fathers of the monastery, older than himself, sought him and endeavored to imitate him. He became a monk a little later, taking the name Daniel. His fame as a good spiritual father spread rapidly throughout the island, with the result that the community of Zakynthos, out of regard for his personality, offered him the Monastery of Panagia Anaphonitria. As soon as he arrived there, the Saint reorganized the monastery, making out of it an important training ground for the monastic life.

Strofades Monastery

Priest and Bishop

Now that he was a monk, Daniel continued to work night and day, in strict conformity with the precepts of Holy Scripture. One year later, the Bishop of Kefallonia and Zakynthos, Philotheos, in appreciation of his work, ordained him a priest, in spite of Daniel's objections that he considered the office of a priest to be a great one and beyond his capabilities. Some time later, in 1557, he set off to Piraeus, intending to go to the Holy Land, to pray at the scenes of our Lord's life and to seek His assistance in his difficult task. On his way through Athens he visited the Archbishop of Athens Nicanor to seek his blessing. As a result of their conversations, the Archbishop formed such a high opinion of the Saint that he offered him, and finally persuaded him to accept, the vacant bishopric of Aegina, which was then within the jurisdiction of the See of Athens. When the Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremiah, heard of this decision of the Archbishop of Athens, he readily assented and gave permission for him to be consecrated. Thus the monk Daniel was consecrated Bishop of Aegina and took the name of Dionysios in honor of St. Dionysios the Areopagite. His consecration took place in the Church of St. Eleutherios, which is near the present Cathedral of Athens. Following his consecration, the Saint left for Aegina, to take up his new duties.

The Orthodox of Aegina and the Saint

Upon his arrival to Aegina the new Bishop was received with joy by the inhabitants, headed by the clergy. He began immediately his work of renewal. Tireless in carrying out his duties, he worked with exactness and conscientiousness. His way of life was ascetic and he labored day and night. Wherever there was a problem, a difficulty, poverty or rejoicing, the Saint was present. He was the protector of the faithful on Aegina and the champion of Orthodoxy. The poor and destitute turned to him, orphans and widows looked to him, and even the rich and the shipowners sought his company daily in order to listen to his wise advice. He, in his turn, rejoiced with those who rejoiced and wept with those who wept. Even today there is a stone seat preserved in the old Cathedral a few kilometers outside Perachora on the island which is called by the inhabitants "the throne of the Saint". It was from this that he preached and instructed his flock with apostolic simplicity. Gradually the fame of this holy man spread not only to the neighboring islands, but further afield. There was a constant stream of admirers from Athens, Megara, Salamis, Poros and other places arriving to hear him and to have the opportunity of seeing and marvelling at this exemplary prelate.

The Saint's Second Sight

Among other gifts of the Saint was that of second sight. Once, when he was hearing the Confession of the hieromonk Pankratios, the latter concealed a sin from him and the Saint reminded him of it with the words: "Do you not remember when you were celebrating the Eucharist, that you let fall some fragment of the Host, because you were not showing sufficient care?" The hieromonk Pankratios was astonished at this revelation on the part of the Saint and with tears of repentance confessed that he was guilty of this serious lapse in his priestly duties and sought forgiveness. The Saint counseled him to approach the Heavenly King with reverence, fear and trembling, since the angels themselves cannot look upon him.

The Resignation of the Saint

In 1579 St. Dionysios resigned from his office as Bishop of Aegina and returned to Zakynthos. The reason for this was that he was afraid lest the praises of men, which had raised him to such heights, should plunge him down to the abyss of vanity. This fear lead him to resign from his episcopal throne, much to the distress of the people of Aegina, who thus lost their spiritual father. The Saint, however, reassured them and took care to provide them a successor.

The people of Zakynthos were glad to welcome him back. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremiah, now appointed him suffragan Bishop of Zakynthos and President of the Community. Here also the Saint went to work immediately. He ordained clergy, presided at feasts, services, funerals, memorial services, etc. He accepted money from no one, with the result that the interests of the Bishop of Kefallonia were adversely affected. Some of the latter's fellow-islanders went to Venice and complained about Dionysios to the Doge, alleging that he was interfering in another's jurisdiction. As a result of these complaints, the Doge of Venice, Nicholas Daponte, sent orders in 1581 to the Provisore of Zakynthos, Contarino, that "the Very Reverend Dionysios Sigouros shall abstain from any ecclesiastical function falling within the jurisdiction of Kefallonia and Zakynthos, rendering up to the Bishop...whatever of his jurisdiction he has usurped."

Dionysios, in spite of the fact he had been appointed by the Patriarch, announced his resignation and thus scandal and quareling were avoided. However, the love and respect of the people of Zakynthos for him was such that the next year he was elected parish priest of the Church of St. Nicholas.

The Saint Shelter's His Brother's Murderer

There was at this period, as confirmed by the records of the Republic of Venice, a deadly enmity between the Mondinos and the Sigouros families. The efforts of the Saint to effect a reconciliation had been in vain. Things had reached a point where murders had been committed and the population was divided into two factions.

The incidents between the two families continued to the point where in one of them the Saint's brother, Constantine, was killed. The murderer, in despair, sought refuge in the Anaphonitria Monastery, without knowing that the Abbot was the brother of his victim. In reply to the Abbot's questioning, he admitted the murder and told him that Sigouros' relatives were pursuing him. Dionysios was plunged into the most profound sorrow, both as a man and as the brother of the murderer's victim. His grief was all the greater because Constantine had been his only brother. However, he said nothing of all this to the murderer, asking him only, in a fatherly way: "Tell me, what wrong had that noble man done to you that you should unjustly slay him?"

The Saint, when he had shed tears for the cruel loss of his brother, gave the murderer food and water and spoke to him in an effort to induce him to repent of this grave crime and so escape eternal punishment. Then the Saint lead him out of the Monastery and down to the seashore. There he provided him with the necessary supplies, giving him money and food, and put him on a boat for the Peloponnese. Thus the Saint rescued the murderer of his own brother, demonstrating at the same time his own great forbearance.

The Death of the Saint

The days passed, the years rolled by and the Saint tirelessly continued his work for the good of souls. He was the protector of the Orthodox and the champion of Orthodoxy. At a great age - for those days - he perceived that the time of his departure was at hand. He summoned his followers and revealed to them that he was soon to leave them for the next world. Thus, calm and serene, he rendered up his soul on 17 December 1622, at the age of 75. He left all that he had to the Monastery. His last wish was that he should be buried in the Church of St. George on the Strofades islands, where he had been a monk. His wish was carried out.

Three years later, when the remains were to be disinterred, they found the whole of his body incorrupt, exhuding the odor of sanctity. For this reason they placed the body in a coffin and afterwards upright on the bishop's throne. The historian of the period, Ferrari, notes that, "I saw the sacred relics on the episcopal throne, intact, apart from the teeth and the tip of the nose".

Although he had not yet been officially proclaimed a saint by the Church, the faithful honored him as such, as a result of the miracles performed daily at the behest of those who had recourse to him with faith. His many miracles established his position in the hearts of the Orthodox, with the result that he was later officially canonized by the Orthodox Church by a decree by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1703, signed by ten synodical bishops.

Procession in Zakynthos

Procession in Aegina

Apolytikion in the First Tone
The offspring of Zakynthos and bishop of Aegina, protector of Strophades Monastery, Saint Dionysios, O faithful, let us all with one accord now honor and sincerely cry to him: "By your fervant prayers save us who are observing your mem'ry and who cry to you: Glory to Christ who glorified you; glory to Him who made you marvelous; glory to Him who gave you to us as a sleepless advocate."

Kontakion in the Third Tone
On this day doth Zakynthos call all the faithful together, rousing them to offer praise in songs and hymns of thanksgiving to our great and fervent helper in needs and sorrows, who doth swiftly rescue them that are caught in perils. And she honoureth him, crying: O Dionysius, boast of the faithful, rejoice!

Part Two - The Miracles of Saint Dionysios of Zakynthos