March 26, 2016

St. Gregory Palamas and the Chanter with a Withered Hand

By St. Philotheos Kokkinos

The lead chanter (protopsaltis) of the Cathedral at Thessaloniki was also the choirmaster (domestikos). He would intone the first few notes of the hymn to give the other chanters the melody. He was foremost in his field, instructing and guiding others in that sacred art. He was also skilled in the art of chironomy, a method of conducting with the hand dating back to the times of the brothers John of Damascus and Kosmas of Jerusalem. The choirmaster would direct the singers with certain gestures of his right hand, raising or lowering his fingers, making signs for the melodic movement of the notes.

Now it happened that this lead chanter fell ill to a toxic substance that had entered his body. He languished for a full year, lying nearly motionless in bed. In time, however, most of the toxic substance dissipated and passed through his system. This may have resulted because of the strict regimen prescribed or in response to other forms of medical treatment. The residue in his bloodstream settled in his extremities, resulting in paralysis of his arms and legs. However, this complication was not permanent. In a few days, the poison also left his arms and legs, except the three digits of his right hand (the thumb, the index and the middle finger), rendering them useless. The fingers stood straight and stiff, with no movement. The physicians could not recommend any treatment or therapy for his affliction. This brought about deep anguish for him, because he could not resume his position among the chanters. Moreover, he could not write or transcribe hymns and notes. Hence, the lead chanter abandoned all hope in any medical expertise, surgeons and medicines. He resolved to appeal entirely to the mercy of Christ and His servants.

That night, after praying to all the saints to intercede on his behalf, who was it that appeared to the lead chanter in a divine and wondrous way? In a moment we shall see. It seemed to the lead chanter that he was in the huge Church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. On the right hand side of the church, he met the great hierarch Gregory. Indeed, the tomb of Saint Gregory was located in that very spot. "It seemed," said the chanter, "that the hierarch was caressing my forehead in a fatherly manner." The hierarch then spoke to the chanter in a kindly and agreeable voice, saying, "Go, chief of the melodists, from now and henceforth you shall be well."

Dawn was approaching and the lead chanter arose. He hastened to the church which housed the relics of the Saint. Kneeling before the tomb, he shed abundant tears, uttering words of repentance. He begged the Saint to intercede for him. In the past, this same lead chanter had sinned greatly by uttering impertinent words against Saint Gregory. He implored the Saint for forgiveness and begged him to heal his hand. As he did this, he repeatedly rubbed his right hand across the tombstone. After making a long entreaty, he then decided to return home. Then, suddenly, the inert fingers came to life and moved with great dexterity. O the wondrous and supernatural grace Christ has bestowed upon Gregory! When he finally reached his home, he took a pen and wrote properly with precise control. He was also able to resume the hand movements of chironomy, in accordance with the melodies of ecclesiastical music. Then, with a resounding voice, the chanter praised and glorified the tenderhearted servant of God, Gregory.