October 1, 2019

Saint John Koukouzelis (+ 1360)

St. John koukouzelis (Feast Day - October 1)

Saint John Koukouzelis, a native of Dyrrhachion in Bulgaria (now Durres in Albania), was born in 1280 to an Albanian father and Bulgarian mother, and was orphaned in childhood. Endowed with a very fine voice, he entered the Constantinople court school. He found favor with the emperor and became a chief court singer. The sumptuousness and luxury of the imperial court bothered the pious youth. Once, when asked what he had eaten for dinner, he replied, “Beans and cabbage.” The name Koukouzelis (Greek koukia for beans and Slavic zele for cabbage) stuck with him ever after.

John began to seek ways to escape the enticements of the court, as well as a marriage arranged for him by the emperor. By the will of God, John met the abbot of Great Lavra Monastery from Mount Athos who had come to Constantinople on monastery business. John revealed to the Elder his desire to become a monk without telling him of his office in the court. The Elder blessed John to come to the Holy Mountain. John then went to his hometown as if to get his mother's blessing for marriage. When he arrived however he had arranged with certain friends to tell her that he had died. When he overheard the news given to his mother that he had died and her lament, he was inspired to write a lamentation called The Bulgarian Woman.

Arriving at Great Lavra Monastery on the Holy Mountain, he informed them that he had been a shepherd in a village who now wanted to become a monastic. When it was observed that he seemed to young, he replied with Lamentations 3:27: "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." He was given the obedience of tending the monastery’s flock of goats. He took the flock to remote areas of the Holy Mountain to graze. There in the wilderness the youth was able to pray, contemplate God, and sing the divine hymns in solitude. Out of modesty and humility the singer did not reveal his gift to the brethren.

When he would return to the monastery with his flock, it was noticed that his flock was thinner than the flocks of the others. A monk was charged therefore by the abbot to follow John to see why this happening. It was observed that while the flock grazed, John would start chanting, and his animals would stop grazing to listen to him. When he stopped they would graze again, but then he would chant again and they would stop to listen. The monk overheard his moving pastoral songs and informed the abbot. Saint John then revealed to the abbot that he had been a court singer. He tearfully implored him to remain in the wilderness with his flock.

The abbot was afraid that the emperor would find out that his favorite court singer was on the Holy Mountain and force him to return to court. Wishing to avoid the emperor’s displeasure, the abbot wrote to the emperor in Constantinople to explain what had become of John and begged him not to hinder the young man from his path towards salvation.

Panagia Koukouzelissa

Thereafter John Koukouzelis sang on the right kleros (chorus) in the church on Sundays and feast days, while for six days of the week he lived in solitude in the Cell of the Archangels. Once, after chanting the Akathist before an icon of the Mother of God, John was granted a great mercy. The Mother of God appeared to him in a dream and said, “Rejoice, John, and do not cease to sing. For that, I shall not forsake you.” With these words she placed into John’s hand a golden coin, then became invisible. This coin was placed beneath the icon. Many miracles have been credited to the coin and the icon. Today only half remains there, while the other half was given as a gift to Russia. The icon, named the “Koukouzelissa” in memory of Saint John is located in the Great Lavra Monastery of Saint Athanasios. It is commemorated on October 1, and on the 10th Friday after Pascha.

The Mother of God appeared to Saint John again and healed him of a grievous affliction of his legs, caused by the long standing in church. Saint John’s remaining days were spent in intense ascetic efforts. He also worked hard on the discipline of church singing, gaining the title of both master teacher and regent (overseer). His musical compositions, many of which survive in manuscript, mark a decisive stage in the development of Byzantine music.

Foreseeing the hour of his death, Saint John took his leave of the brethren, and in his last wishes bade them to bury him in the Cell of the Archangel that he built. Church singers reverence Saint John Koukouzelis as their own special patron saint.

The Wheel of St. John Koukouzelis