October 7, 2010

Saint John the Hermit and the 98 Fathers of Crete

The 99 Holy Fathers of Crete (Feast Day - October 7)

Regarding these 99 Holy Ascetics, what little we do know about them comes primarily from a manuscript of Church Services printed in the Great Lavra on Mount Athos by Monk Joseph Kapetanakis Gavala and the copies made of this by an Athonite monk named Daniel. In 1879 the Church Services were published in Herakleion.

By tradition what we do know of these Saints is that they most likely lived in the 14th century (though some sources go as far back as the 11th while others go up to the 16th) and were associated with what is now known as the Monastery of Holy Fathers. "Narrow is the gate and full of sorrow is the road which leads to life" is written on top of the gate of this holy monastery.

The story of the 99 Holy Fathers tells that the 99 fathers came from Egypt, Cyprus and Turkey under the leadership of St. John to Azogires. St. John was born and grew up in Egypt. Along with 35 other pious men he went to Cyprus to live in asceticism. There they became known for their abilities to cure sicknesses. The stories of St. John and his men reached the other ascetics on the island, and 39 of these joined the group. After a while all of them went on to Attaleia (Antalya) in the present Turkey, where another 24 ascetics joined them.

The ascetic community, now consisting of 99 men, prayed to God to show them a place in which they would be able to live a secluded life. God told them to go to Crete, and so they sailed from Turkey towards Crete. Because of a violent storm they turned around to put into port on the island of Gavdos. When the storm had died down after 24 days, the ascetics set out again. But, according to tradition, when they were about to board the ship, God had made John invisible to their eyes, so by mistake they left without him. On their arrival in Crete the ascetics found that John was not among them. They realized that he must still be on Gavdos, and from the beach they called for him to come. On the island John heard their call. He said a prayer, threw his tunic into the water and sailed - standing on the tunic - to Crete in three hours.

In Crete the ascetics now went up into the land, and they settled in the caves of Zoures and Characas near the village of Azogires, a little north of Paleochora. The first place where they settled was under a large plane tree. They wished that the plane tree would always remain green, in summer and in winter, and its branches should form into crosses. Both had actually occurred. Moreover, they said, the tree should not die before it has 99 crosses. St. John also built a church, which eventually came to be known as the Monastery of the Holy Fathers.

In the beginning, the holy fathers slept in the cave near the plane tree, while John stayed in the cave above the village. One day, he decided to go north to the remote peninsula Akrotiri near Chania in order to live as a hermit. The holy fathers settled down in the cave in which their leader had stayed. Before John left, they swore when one of them dies, the others should die too.

At Akrotiri John survived by eating fruits and vegetables from gardens. To protect against the cold he wore a sheepskin. He knelt so much in prayer that he was not able to walk, and had to move about on his knees. One of the farmers spotted him in a crawling position one day when he was out picking herbs and thought that it was a wild animal that ate his stocks. The farmer took a bow and arrow and shot the supposed animal. John crawled, seriously wounded, back into his cave. The next day the farmer followed the blood traces. In the same moment in which he entered the cave, a bright light began to shine. He saw John dying on the ground, and realized that he had hit a holy man. He asked John to forgive him. John forgave him, but only on the condition that the farmer go to Azogires to tell his 98 brothers that he was dying and they should die with him. The man did so, but when he arrived in Azogires, the 98 holy fathers had died all together the day before.

The Patriarchal Seal of their recognition as Saints was accomplished in 1632 by the Cretan Patriarch Cyril Loukaris with 21 Synodical Hierarchs. The following is what we officially know about them:

"In the most well-governed island of Crete, Devout John the Hermit shone in asceticism; and the 98 lived ascetically with the same zeal and way of life together harmoniously. And the Lord glorified their lives with wonderful miracles."

Apolytikion in the Third Tone
The great island of Crete rejoices that in its mountains the supremely divine Fathers defeated their crafty adversary with tears, fasting, prayers and supplications. Therefore your spirits rejoice with the angels, and with your sacred relics grant healing to those who are suffering.

Kontakion in the Third Tone
Today Crete is joyously celebrating the most brilliant of the God-bearing Fathers, and invites every city and country to this commemoration. For Crete rejoices that she possesses a great treasure in its sacred reliquaries. O Fathers, the pride of Crete.

Let all the faithful praise the Holy Fathers who shone so wonderfully; for we have these ardent protectors before the Creator, and we honor them with faith. The ever-vigilant guardians of Crete are her saints. They stood on the top of her mountains like immovable towers, and from these heights protected the people of Crete with her hundred cities. They guarded Crete's citizens both day and night. Their caves were their bases of operation; and in their caves their relics nurtured the countryside. And since then, Crete has been fertile with roses and lillies of the wilderness - our very own saintly fathers.

The Plane Tree of Azogires

It’s interesting that the Holy Fathers founded their monastery in a lush area with its own spring and stream marked by an astonishing centuries-old plane tree (platanos) that continues to flourish to this day.

It is a mutation of Platanus orientalis - one of 50 such plane trees in Crete. Azogires is blessed to enjoy its evergreen glow; it never loses its leaves. They cling to their gnarled branches throughout the entire year.

Uniquely wondrous are the 99 crosses that appear in this Azogires plane tree. The tree’s gnarled branches form a criss-cross pattern.

The Holy Fathers' Monastery in Azogires and the Feast of the Saints

St. John the Hermit built a church near the caves that eventually became the Monastery of the Holy Fathers. It was however destroyed during the rebellion against the Turks, but was later rebuilt. The Historical Museum of Azogires – once the Monastery of the Holy Fathers - houses memorabilia pertaining to Cretan resistance against the Turks and the Germans with explanation in Greek only.

Every year on the 7th of October the memory of Sts. John and the 98 Holy Fathers is celebrated according to a ruling by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Loukaris, in 1632. Though the Saints were said to have died on October 6th, the celebration is delayed one day, otherwise it would coincide with the Orthodox holiday of Thomas the Apostle.

Elder Gabriel Papagrigorakis

The Holy Fathers' Monastery in Azogires, once dormant after the Holy Fathers arrival, continued to flourish under the humble guidance of Father Gabriel Papagrigorakis (1875-1930) from the village of Rodovani.

He managed to restart the monastery, populating it with nuns and monks. He moved into its meter-thick stone walls and for the next several years, he worked putting Azogires back on its feet. He started an olive oil factory - still in situ near the monastery, as well as two flour mills.

He was a tireless giver who fed others before nibbling on his own meager pieces of bread. He fought the Turks also, and was wounded in his groin.

His saintliness accounted for saving the monastery when a huge rock over its roof tumbled and swerved into the air thereby missing the people praying inside.

One nun who was particularly close to the holy Elder stated she wished to die on his 40th memorial anniversary, if – she said- this miraculous event of saving the people in the monastery was a sign from him. Her life came full circle, meeting its end the day of Father Gabriel Papagrigorakis 40th memorial anniversary.

His marble tomb lies next to one of the monastery’s external walls. Father Gabriel Papagrigorakis is deemed the guardian of the monastery, and among villagers he is at the top of the list of saintly people as confirmed by his countless miracles.

The Church of St. John the Hermit

The church behind the Alfa Hotel is the Koukoutsakis family private burial ground and is built on the cave of St. John the Hermit, part of which is actually inside the church.

Originally the church had mosaics inside; beautiful frescoes depicting the 99 Holy Fathers and much more, but unfortunately, during the 2nd World War, the church committee thought to make the church prettier so they white washed the walls, destroying the frescoes.

Today all branches of the Koukoutsakis family have one John in the family named after the Saint. They protect the Church of St. John and in turn they ask for his help. One member of this family has a blog here in which he writes of a few miracles associated with this church.

The Cave of the 99 Holy Fathers

The original cave of the holy fathers is situated below today's cave. Twenty years ago the last inhabitant, who knew the entrance of the cave, died.

People said, some a hundred years ago, there was a table-shaped stone in front of that entrance. In a radius of the table other stones were arranged like chairs and the skeletons of the holy fathers were said to be sitting on them with walking sticks and all their belongings. For fear of the Turks, the entrance had been closed.

Until today the cave system is not fully explored.

To reach this cave, go to Azogires, a small village about 6km northwest of Paleochora. There you’ll find a sign Spileo/Cave. Follow the sign up the concrete road about 2km. The first few meters are very steep, but the rest gets better. Park your car at the end of the road. The path will guide you to the mouth of the cave. It takes about 30 minutes walking at a slow safe pace to reach the cave area.

But accessing this cave has its own obstacles. Only the most determined will attempt to enter the cave. There are no stairs to assist you towards its rocky, steep opening, but if you do manage to arrive at its entrance, you may turn around and head back.

Interestingly, it said today 99 pigeons inhabit the cave.

Below is a map of the cave.