October 4, 2017

Saint John the Lampadistes, the Saint of Three Churches

By Philip Stylianou

Cyprus is often referred to as the island of saints, having since the advent of Christianity attracted many locals and strangers to seek God in the seclusion of its mountains and steep rocks. The youngest of them all is probably Saint John the Lampadistes, who, since the tenth century, has been venerated in a monastery bearing his name in the Marathasa valley, by the village of Kablanayiotis. His is one of the first Byzantine churches in Cyprus to be put on the Unesco list of protected World Heritage monuments. In fact, it is not one church but three, spanning many centuries of the island's religious history and art, all richly decorated with perfectly preserved frescoes, old icons and other sacred relics.

Having three churches under one roof is unique for Cyprus, as is the rectangular courtyard paved with the same local stone used to build the churches and the monastery. Although the monastery has long ceased to function, the monks' cells and auxiliary buildings, including a stone oil-press, survive intact.

The only modern feature, though hardly distinguishable from the ancient complex, is the iconophylakio, an icon museum, built just outside the southeastern side of the monastery with a generous donation from the late benefactor Constantinos Leventis. It houses a treasure of Byzantine icons and other religious objects which were thought too precious to leave in surrounding unattended chapels.

St. John Lampadistes

St. John's story is a very personal and sad one. What we know of him comes from a now lost 1640 manuscript written by a priest named Savvas from the village of Agios Theodoros Agrou. The work was copied by Monk Kyrillos of Stavrovouni Monastery in 1903. The manuscript comprises of the life of the Lampadistes and the prayer said in church on his feast day on 4 October. It was published for the first time in 2003 by the Metropolis of Morphou in the jurisdiction of which the Lampadistes Monastery is situated and is used here as the main historical source, along with the testimony of the Kalopanayiotis priest Father Andreas.

John took his sanctified name from his birthplace Lampadis, a now extinct village somewhere between the mountain resorts of Galata and Kakopetria. He was the last offspring of Papa-Kyriakos, the priest of the village, and his wife Anna who lived in the time of Archbishop Nikephoros. When John was a child, his father sent him to learn how to read and write through study of the Holy Scriptures, and the amazing aptitude he had shown was an early indication of what his true vocation would be.

When he became a young man, his parents decided it was time to find him a nice girl from a nearby village to settle down with. Not much is known about John's fiancée, but his future in-laws turned out to be an wicked lot. For reasons not recorded in the manuscript, they served the promising lad poisoned fish, causing him to lose his eyesight. They then sent for his father to come and take his son away because he was no longer suitable marriage potential. One can well understand the pain and suffering of the poor village folk upon seeing their brilliant son in such a sorry state. But John didn't seem to share their grief. His physical blindness had opened wide his spiritual vision and he spent his days in prayer. He even gave most of the food provided by his parents to the poor, keeping barely enough to sustain himself.

[In another source in Greek, St. John and his fiancee are described in greater detail. St. John (who was 18 years old at the time), upon being pressured to marry, but also drawn to serve Christ was unsure about what to do, knelt and prayed for divine illumination. At this point, he heard a voice within him saying: "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37-38). He hastened to share his desire to live in virginity with the girl with whom he was engaged. She however, did not wish to share in this life, so their engagement was dissolved. This enraged the girl's parents, and they turned to poisoning Saint John, who then lost his sight.]

He lived like this for twelve years, until the day he saw his end approaching and summoned his household servant, also named John. He told John that he would be surrendering his soul to the Lord the next day at noon, and asked for a bunch of grapes from his father's new crop. The servant found himself in a difficult position. It was unthinkable for anyone to cut even a single grape from the vineyard before Papa-Kyriakos had been there to bless it. But John insisted, telling his namesake not to fear. The latter gave in and brought a succulent bunch of fresh grapes to John, who said a prayer and started to eat.

When his father saw him, he was furious at what he regarded as irreverence, and slapped his blind son across the face. John quietly handed the bunch back to the servant and told him to return it where he had taken it from. The servant again obeyed and, to his amazement, the bunch of grapes rejoined the vine at exactly the spot from where it was cut. (Since that day, bunches of grape have a sensitive knotty spot at which they snap easily away from the plant). By the time the servant returned to tell him about it, John the Lampadistes had died.

[The Greek source places this story in Saint John's youth. Saint John picked the grapes to show his father the divine blessing of the harvest, but his father thought that he meant to eat them before they had been blessed on August 6th (the Transfiguration of Christ) and punished and slapped him unjustly. Saint John then went and put the grapes back, which were miraculously rejoined to the vine.]

After John was buried, people saw light beaming from his grave. They informed his father, who disregarded it as light from candles. But word spread and individuals who were known to be possessed came to the village, saying they were seeking John's body in order to venerate it and be cured. When Papa-Kyriakos saw that nothing could dissuade them, he agreed to open his son's grave. They found his relics, but his heart was preserved "like a dry fig". The possessed were indeed cured and it was then decided to deposit John's remains in the existing Church of Saint Herakleidios at Kalopanayiotis.

The Churches

Saint Herakleidios was the island's very first prelate, also from Lampadis, who followed the Apostles Paul, Mark and Barnabas (the latter was the founder of the Cypriot Church) when they were journeying through the Troodos Mountains during their visit here in 45 A.D. The church was built in the early tenth century to commemorate Saint Herakleidios’ baptism here, in addition to another one at Politiko, his place of martyrdom near ancient Tamassos.

The many miracles soon earned John a reputation as a saint. One day, as Papa-Kyriakos was standing close to his son's remains in Saint Herakleidios' Church, he heard a voice telling him to build a church dedicated to John. The priest wasted no time and, in the late tenth century the Church of Saint John Lampadistes went up adjacent to that of Saint Herakleidios. The miracles attributed to Saint John Lampadistes were so frequent and so impressive, that the inhabitants of the area soon came to regard him as their patron saint.

The third church on the site was added much later, in the fourteenth century. Unlike the other two which each feature a unique altar screen, this one had none. This was due to the fact that it was not built as an Orthodox church, but as a Latin chapel by the Frankish rulers of the island in their drive to westernize the religious dogma of the Cypriots. The chapel was later dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with a fourteenth century copy of her famous icon that can be found in the Kykkos Monastery.

Father Andreas and Basil Barsky

Father Andreas has been a permanent figure of Saint Lampadastis Monastery for the past 45 years. According to him the last monk, Chariton, died in 1926, to be followed by a resident priest who died in 1945. After this, the place remained empty, although the two parishes of Kalopanayiotis alternated holding church services there.

Further information about the history of the monastery has come down to us from the Russian monk and scholarly pilgrim Basil Barsky, who toured the island in 1735. Barsky stayed in the monastery for three days, out of religious curiosity as he said, but also because "of the beauty of the landscape". He counted about twelve monks, noting that they did not strictly observe the monastic rules due to "repeated violent acts by the Ottomans.”

Indeed, Barsky's is the most famous signature on the stone niche containing Saint John Lampadastes' sacred skull. This is kept in a pyramid-shaped case, gilded in gold and silver, which dates back to 1641. The collection of autographs engraved or hand-written around the Saint's reliquary is a signed testimony to the repute of the monastery as a pilgrimage site through the ages. Most of the signatures belong to Orthodox Greeks who in older times inhabited the southern coast of Asia Minor and took religious excursions to Cyprus by boat. Father Andreas noted that the signatures have been preserved as part of the religious monument, although present-day pilgrims are not allowed to imitate the example of their predecessors.

One Roof and Many Icons

The three churches were brought under a tiled roof in the middle of the eighteenth century, according to Father Andreas, and there are no walls or other partitions separating one from the other. Visitors enter through Saint Herakleidios' Church, which is cross-shaped with a painted dome, and simply walk through to the other two.

Once inside, the most impressive element is probably the image of a youthful, clean-shaven Lampadistes. He is set apart facing the entrance from a gilded icon dated 1776. He is portrayed full size, holding a scroll in his right hand and a cross in his left surrounded by Orthodox prelates and other saints. A small opening is left on the exquisite relief cover for pilgrims to kiss the icon in the Orthodox fashion. A much smaller and older icon, from which the gilded one was probably copied, can be seen close by. Right next to it, resting against a supporting column, is the niche holding the gilded case with the Saint's skull. Behind the column there is an upright rectangular ossuary with a pyramidal top, strongly reminiscent of the skull reliquary. According to Father Andreas, this is known as the tomb of Saint John the Lampadistes, which has remained sealed ever since its discovery.