September 20, 2016

Saint John the Stranger, Enlightener of Crete (+ 1031)

St. John the Stranger (Feast Day - September 20)

The Cretan Saint John the Stranger (or the Xenos), as we learn from his will, was born in the village of Makra Siva of the Pyriotissa Province in Messara, in 970, ten years after the liberation of Crete from the Saracens.

Crete has been under the occupation of many conquerors throughout history. For 133 years, from 828 until 961, the Arab Saracens had transformed the island into a center of pirate raids in the Aegean. Many towns and villages were virtually destroyed and the Christians who had escaped the massacres and Islamization had a problem of survival. So when Crete was liberated in 961 by Nikephoros Phokas, there was an urgent need to re-evangelize the inhabitants.

Although his parents were wealthy and pious, Saint John loved Christ from a young age and dedicated his life to monasticism and asceticism. For a while he lived in a cave on Mount Raxos, where he built a church after a divine revelation dedicated to Saints Eutychios and Eutychianos, and was tonsured a monk there by a certain elder.

Saint John the Stranger is the successor of the missionary action of Saint Athanasios the Athonite and Saint Nikon "Metanoeite", after preaching for fifty years and building temples and monasteries, going from place to place throughout the island. The two former Missionaries had taken on the mission of regenerating the Orthodox faith and life on the island. But neither of these men remained in Crete. Saint Athanasios stayed for a while in Crete and fled to Mount Athos where he founded the Monastery of Great Lavra, while Saint Nikon "Metanoeite" remained in Crete for seven years, where he was active mainly on the central-eastern part of the island and then went to Laconia, where, today, he is honored as patron saint of Sparta (he is called "Metanoeite", because in his sermons he repeatedly told people to repent). Only Saint John the Stranger remained on the island until his death.

Our Venerable Father, apart from his great missionary activity, also had great and deep knowledge of Christian philosophy. Not only was he methodical and practical, but also a scholar, as he wrote discourses on Matthew’s Gospel. He was also probably a hymnographer and translator of works of Aristotle. This is why he is praised by hymnographers as "wise, all-wise, great luminary, God-bearer, judicious, experienced, desert-loving, boast of the ascetics, boast of the venerables, the boast of Crete."

The center of the missionary action of Saint John was the Holy Monastery of the Panagia in Myriokephala which the Saint founded in a miraculous way (like most of his shrines) after being commanded to do so by Panagia herself. Nine buildings of the Saint can be found in his will and his biography:

1) The Church of Saints Eutychios and Eutychianos

2) The Holy Monastery of Panagia Myriophefala

3) The Church of Saint George Douvrikas in Melikas

4) The Church of Saint George the Fisherman (Psaropiasti)

5) The Holy Monastery of Saint Patapios

6) The Church of the Life Giving Spring of Koufos (known as Saint John Koufos)

7) The Church of Saint Paul in Sfakia

8) The Church of Saint George in Azogyres

9) The Church of Saint Eustathios on the Coast of Kissamos

This is the chronological order in which the buildings as well as the building action of the Saint is placed. According to his will, all his foundations in Crete were dedicated to the Holy Monastery of the Panagia of Myriokephala and may, therefore, be classified as parts or chapels of the Monastery of Myriokephala.

It is worth mentioning some information about the establishment of the Monastery in Myriokephala. Tradition and also the life of the Saint tell us that the Monastery was founded by order of the Panagia herself. The ascetic John, going from place to place, arrived in Tourma in Kalamona, on Mount Myriokephalon. The winter was harsh and John lived in a cave in Koumaro praying and eating weeds. Once he entered the cave he became blind for seven days, yet he ceased not to pray. On the seventh day he heard a voice saying to him: "John, go out and look east." Obeying that voice, he went out and having turned to the east, his eyesight returned and then he saw a great light. The voice continued: "John, in this place, build a church in the name of Panagia the Antiphonetria." He arrived a little distance from the place where he had seen the light and there, tired and thirsty, he surrendered to a deep sleep.

In his dream he saw an angel who told him: "John, do not come back. Make the sign of the cross to the east and place your hand in the earth and water will spring right there for you to drink and continue your work." Immediately he made the sign of the cross and put his hand in the earth using all five fingers. Immediately, water started to spring out of five sources (preserved until today). He washed and rested. Then, he began looking through the brambles for the icon, but it was to no avail. Then the workers set fire and, while the forest was burning, a voice was heard: "Here I am." John immediately ran and found the icon of the Panagia in flames, burned a little on the edge (this survives today). He bought the place and with the help of the Christians, he built the Monastery in the name of Panagia the Antiphonetria (named so because the voice commanded him).

John then left the monk Luke to continue building and he went to various places to preach the word of God. When he returned, the church was not finished and he began fundraising in monasteries for its completion. In 1025 he went to Constantinople to Emperor Romanos and the Patriarch Alexios to ensure stavropegic value (ie. that the Monastery would be subject to the jurisdiction of the Patriarch), bringing icons of sacred vessels, etc. Another version of how the icon came to the Monastery is that it is the work of the Evangelist Luke, and was brought by Saint John from Constantinople when it been given to him by Patriarch Alexios, along with the document, "sigillium", which secured the independence of the monastery.

The reputation of the shrine of the Panagia is maintained until today and particularly on 8 September, which is the feast day of the Nativity of the Theotokos. The Monastery continued to operate until the second Byzantine period, while there is no information about the period of the Venetian rule. It was renovated in 1755 and later suffered damage from the Turks, only to be restored again in 1840 by Abbot Matthew. In 1852 it was recognized as being subject to Patriarchal jurisdiction and thus custody of the Monastery by the Monastery of Roustikon was terminated. In 1900 the Monastery was dissolved and since 1961 it has been a parish church - a holy shrine of the Holy Metropolis of Rethymno and Avlopotamos.

There are many legends, traditions and detailed descriptions of the temples, monasteries, foundations and every shrine founded by Saint John the Stranger. From his life it is obvious that he is a great figure of our Church. Mission was the basic and main purpose of his life. He dedicated his life to spreading the gospel, to the consolidation of national and religious consciousness, the organization of ecclesiastical life as well as monastic life and the construction of dozens of temples and monasteries. He reposed in peace in 1031.

The holy skull of the Saint was moved and is now kept in the Church of Saint John, which is located in a village of the same name, in the province of Kisamos. Since then, his skull has been gushing forth remedies as gifts to believers who ask for his help. The official recognition of John the Stranger as a Saint, was made by Patriarch Cyril Loukaris on 29 April 1632. He is celebrated on September 20.

Apolytikion in the First Tone
The offspring of Crete and the prize of ascetics, founder of many churches, let us faithful honor the Venerable John with hymns, crying out to him harmoniously: Glory to Christ Who glorified you, glory to Him Who works wonders through you, glory to Him who through you works healings for all.

Kontakion in the Fourth Tone
Venerable One, as a great star of the island of Crete which is enlightened by the rays of your miracles, we cry out to you: Save O John those who with faith honor your memory.

Rejoice, divine offspring of Crete, and the help and guardian of those in monasteries; rejoice, Venerable John, the divine founder of the Monastery of Myriokephalos.