How the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi is helping people at Porto Lagos11 December 2011
St Nicholas Metohi at Porto Lagos
The recipient of human suffering
Human pain and the numbers of people who lack even the most basic goods have increased because of the economic crisis. Many people seek refuge in the Church. This is what people do in times of hardship. On the day of the feast of the miraculous icon of Pantanassa, Fr. T talked with Fr. Nifon, who heads the Porto Lagos Metohi,
Firstly this discussion gives some historical details and then it refers to the service which the monastery provides to ease the hardships of those who seek refuge there. “Love in real terms”… This is a story brimming with the presence of the Lord…
Fr T: Let’s start with the history of the Metohi of St Nicholas
Fr. N: The church of St Nicholas was built in order to cater for the worshiping needs of the monks since the place was a metohi. Earlier there was a church dedicated to the two Saints Theodores and its ruins have been found outside Porto Lagos. It is for this reason that there is the icon of the two saints on the Templo (icon stand) in the church. Tradition has it that St Nicholas appeared in person and said that from then on “he would be the patron saint of the metohi, since he was the patron of the seas”. Thus the church was renamed after him. The present church was built in 1904 on top of the ruins of previous churches. This is attested by the fact that the icons, which we have recently restored, date around 1850. The monks from Vatopedi would visit the metohi regularly to attend to its needs since it has been owned by the monastery since the 11th Century. On this basis we guess that the metohi was created on the small island many years ago, but the church is more recent. We have also recently built the bridge connecting the mainland with the small island which houses the chapel of the Most Holy Lady Pantanassa. Earlier people would use small boats to visit the chapel. Indeed we will need many hours to describe how many miracles were performed here not only to Christians but to Muslims too.
FR. T: Is the chapel more recently built?
Fr. N: The chapel was built eighteen years ago. Our Elder, Blessed Joseph built it and brought over from the Holy Mountain the miracle performing icon of Pantanassa. This icon has since become the consolation of the people in Thrace, not just because of the many miracles the most Holy Lady performs but because of her perceptible presence. We will need many hours to account for all those miracles. Today, a Muslim lady came and crossed the bridge kneeling instead of walking, carrying two planted pots. She said that two months ago she had pleaded for her grandson who had a tumour and now the tumour has disappeared.
Fr T: How was the metohi populated over the years?
Fr. N: Occasionally the Vatopedi monastery would send over somebody as an overseer while the monks would visit on the feast days. They would also cooperate with the local fishermen in benefiting from the pond. Many monks, who served here, like Ignatios hieronmonk, are remembered in inscriptions seen on the bell tower and the icon stand. The last fifty years however, because of the peculiar status of the monastery and the fact that it was sparsely populated, no fathers resided here. However, there was always a paid keeper in view of the political situation which prevailed in the area. During the civil war, a wonderful incident took place which was described to us by the couple who was looking after the metohi. Now that they are old came recently to see me. They stayed at the metohi as soon as they got married. However, since it was isolated and remote they had decided to send a letter to the monastery offering their resignation. They were about to send the letter the following day. On the same night they saw a priest walking on the bridge who was covered in bright light, even though it was already dark. He was holding the Gospel in one hand and had a white omophorio on his shoulders. When they went to ask who he was, he told them not to leave and that he was going to look after them. “I am the owner of the place. My name is Nicholas of Myron” he said and disappeared. It was St Nicholas and thus they took heart and stayed.
We, the brotherhood of Elder Joseph, assumed the responsibility of the Vatopedi monastery at a time when only ten elderly monks were living there. We had our hands full in trying to restore the ruined monastery and as we were only eighteen monks, had no time to deal with outside affairs. At the time there was an elderly priest living at Porto Lagos with his wife, who had subsequently left. Then another priest was appointed and was guarding the place with his family. When Vatopedi was re-established as a coenobium and regained its former glory, more monks joined the brotherhood and thus the monastery decided to deal with Porto Lagos. Elder Joseph started coming here and gained first hand experience of the desolation and poverty in the area and ached for the hardships that people faced. He then decided to revive it, since God’s providence wished to keep our presence in these lands, bordering with Turkey. Thus he built the chapel to Pantanassa and fervently wished to populate it and establish it as a tiny monastery. This happened in 2003 with the blessing of our Abbot, Elder Efrain. Thus a small brotherhood of three was sent here, which resumed the liturgical services daily. I think this is the greatest gift we could offer to people; namely, to hold the divine service daily. There is no greater value than that derived from the Divine Liturgy since the whole place is sanctified and thousands of names are being read during the paraklisis and the liturgies. We firmly believe in God’s providence and we do not lose our hope…
FR. T: We hear that ever since you came here you have been busy…
Fr N: As soon as we arrived we met with many difficulties but with God’s help we survived. We have been trying with our limited abilities and the assistance of the monastery and the blessing of our Elder Efrem, to stand by the people who suffer and share in their pain, which is overflowing.
Everyday, more and more people arrive here, wanting assistance and we have reached the point where we can not cope. With God’s help we have also started assisting people in jail. Every Saturday we hold meetings with students. On the 24th September we will start again and Elder Efrem will come and speak. Even though we are far away, the youngsters visit us every week. Every Sunday afternoon, we hold meetings open to everyone and every Wednesday night we hold a night service at the chapel of St Nektarios. This chapel was miraculously built despite the strife that was started against its establishment. They have even imposed a fine on us for building it. I do not mind that our Muslim brothers build their own mosques since they live here. But I object to the double standard imposed by the authorities. They have withdrawn the 700,000 Euro fine imposed on the Mosque which was built but they insisted that we paid our own fine. Nevertheless, we place our faith in the Lord and we are not overcome by these things. However, it is quite hard, when one is facing such temptations…
Fr T: A lot of things have been said about the Vatopedi Monastery. How did you deal with all these?
FR N: This last temptation was substantial and especially hard for our Abbot. I have been in Greece for almost thirty years and have never heard such insults thrown against anyone in so many television shows, in so many newspaper articles as was done against our Abbot. Nevertheless, no one speaks about it any more. It has blown over. If people knew what Vatopedi does for people, they ought to be grateful. During the military disaster in Asia Minor, the monastery gifted 35,000 acres in Halkida to the Greek state, on condition that it will abandon its claim on the Visthonida pond and the surrounding areas. The monastery out of sheer love for the refugees gave all its property at the time. Only 3% of its assets are left outside the Holy Mountain nowadays. Unfortunately the authorities wanted to oust the monastery from here. They wanted us out of here and this was strange. The monastery did not want to proceed with the land exchanges because it did not wish to abandon the pond and the surrounding areas; the state decided to do this. We should be concerned about the condition imposed that the areas to be exchanged should be outside the Thrace area. Why? Is it to obliterate the memory of the monastery from the area? Is it because they did not want the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate here? Therefore, whom did they want to leave Thrace to?
The monastery does not belong to Elder Efrem or to Fr Arsenios or Fr Nifon. It belongs to the people. They said that we had accepted bribes. However, the monastery is a public institution and not private. Renowned lawyers like Konidaris said that the state took money from one pocket and put it in the other. This is where misinformation and wickedness lead one. Nevertheless, we take no heed. We look ahead. Many, friends and foes alike, used to say that the monastery waw going to be dissolved. I must say that we are more united than ever and our bond has been strengthened. We must all bow our heads in front of our Abbot who lasted for so long under such slanderous onslaught. He lasted because he is a man of prayer and humility. Camera crews were camped here permanently. We made the front pages in the newspapers. All television programmes would start in the morning and not stop even in the evening talking about this issue. They even caricatured him in the carnival. Nevertheless, he lasted without holding grudges against anyone; he continues to love them all, and we get on with our jobs. We could just stay put inside the metohi. But we do not do it. We continue to fight to save the young and all those who ask for our help. Occasionally we are upset because we do not have anything to give to the people who ask for our help.
Fr T: Has the number of those who seek refuge here increased under the present economic conditions?
FR N: Where else are people going to get assistance if not from the Church at times of crisis? Our people come here, at the monasteries, and that’s why it is imperative that monasteries own property so that they are able to help our aching brothers. Where else can they go? Even Muslims come here. The numbers went up dramatically and as I see it, this trend will continue. Many times we cannot cope and we are upset. This is what the monastery and Elder Efrem wanted to do in the area. That’s why there were companies who wanted to get involved in developing the place. Even Prince Charles wanted to contribute in creating bicycle lanes and developing the pond, even building a byzantine village, but the authorities could not appreciate it.
Last year, we had to pay 8600 Euros in rents for destitute students. We also paid for the schooling of needy children and supported the families of those in jail. This is part of the welfare aspect of Vatopedi. All these are possible because the monastery and ordinary people assist us. A lot of Cypriots contribute to the expenses of various children and thus we are able to help them. The monastery also assists us since it is very hard to offer hospitality to thousands of people. Two days ago a father who was made redundant told us that he was feeding his small child water with sugar because he had no money to buy milk. Is this imaginable in Greece in the 21st Century? Monasteries and the monks become the recipients of human suffering.
We are also sending many young drug addicts to the recovery centre which our own brother, Metropolitan Athanasios, has built in Cyprus: “Ayia Skepi”. We have already sent over fifty kids from the area and there are currently twenty five attending at the centre and more are outside recovering from their addiction. These things are only known to the parents who come here in anguish.
We have also taken over the Institution of Saint Theodores. When the kids, drug addicts, die, the parents have nowhere to go. They often are old and they may get sick. Who is going to look after their child, who is addicted? The centre owns a plot of land and we are trying to build it. It is being difficult. I told them that I will become a beggar for these kids. With God’s help we managed to collect some money. Unfortunately there is a delay in the issue of the building permission. We are not seeking recognition. We do it for love and for our Lord’s command. But we are facing a lot of obstacles. “One hand must not know what the other hand is doing”. However, we have to talk about this task, which is not ours, but the Church’s, so that people now that the Church is working quietly and is not publicizing its work.
Fr T: Who supports this work?
Fr N: It is not carried out solely by us because our means are limited as a result of the closure of the monastery’s bank accounts. The love of people supports us. We will not stop, we go on. It is not right to talk about such things, but we must fight for the prevalence of the truth. People in Thrace know about these issues.
Fr. T: What you are doing with the people in prison is also well known. What exactly is your mission there?
Fr N: For the last seven years I have been visiting the prisons. I also invite imams and muftis to come along to help their own people. But, I am alone. I do not discriminate when I go there. There are about 300 prisoners, mostly foreigners. They do not have a shaver, or soap, or a phone card to call their children. There are people in prison for the last six years and no one visits them. There are people who come to me and say: “I do not need anything. I only want to speak to someone!” You get really emotional when you meet them. Last year they were feeling the cold since the prison authorities were cutting back on costs. Who wants to know what needs these people have? Christ says: “I was in prison and you did not visit me.” Of course it is not Christ who is in prison. They said to Him: “When did we see you in prison and did not visit you?” Those jailed, for whatever reason are described by Christ as His brothers. “Since you did not do it for my brothers, you did not do it for me either”. Anyone of us can find himself in this position. Not all of them are murderers or thieves. There are people who owe monies to the state, whom we release by paying for their debts. Many people do not like this. This week a boy of 18.5 is coming out. He was put in jail for one month for begging. It cost 600 Euros to buy his sentence. This is how Greek justice is satisfied: to put a youngster 18 years old in prison because he was selling balloons without permission. His mother came to us crying. We went and paid off his sentence.
This is not all we do for the prison system. With the permission of the prison director we have renovated the whole institution. When I first went there, the state of the buildings was abysmal. We managed to take off the iron bars from the meeting room, since children would visit their parents in prison and it was not right to have bars on the windows. We replaced the glazing and tiled the yard. We had managed to buy the tiles but did not have the money to pay for the cement. I went everywhere but no one was interested. If they do not wish to thank us, at least they should not place obstacles in our way.
Fr T: With all that has been happening, there is a lot of talk about Paisios’ prophesies. How should we deal with them?
Fr N: Both Elder Paisios and our elder Joseph and all the Fathers look for the cause of the economic crisis. It is the result of a spiritual crisis. Our Elders used to warn us about these consequences. They used to urge us to return to our roots, to our values, to repent. We were in awe of the European culture, which we had given them, and now we are left behind. We omitted giving our Children the faith in Christ and the love for our country. All our values, our customs, which St Kosmas was calling upon us to safeguard, have been abandoned. Does anyone dare speak about chastity, humility or prayer? When there is a spiritual crisis there is a financial crisis as well. This crisis is not doing us any harm. It will wake us up. As a nation we have been used to lavishness. We had it all and threw it away. I believe that if all these people who are protesting at Syntagma square, and they are correct in doing so, were to lift up their hands in prayer just as they did at Nineveh , the Lord would change His plans. We have the Lord who is Love and we have abandoned Him, we run after different gods. If we return to our base and show repentance and cry for our sins, you will see that everything will change. Our nation has gone through many occupations and times of poverty, but because we believed and fought for Christ and our country we survived as a nation and as people. Let us now proceed to the giver of Life and not lose hope. We must not discourage our young people either; but on the contrary we must urge them to have hope and tell them that the Lord is with us; He will not abandon us.
Fr T: Doesn’t the Church bear any responsibility for what is happening?
Fr. N: Of course it does. We are not free from blame. When there is a cultural and material crisis everyone is to blame, the Church, the educators, the state. But we must all assume our personal responsibility for what is happening rather than blaming others. If each and every one of us says that he is to blame and tries to become a better person, then the whole will become better as well. The Church must be the bearer of Light. Unfortunately people do not see the true beacons that light up the Church. If there is something wrong in the Church or if a clergyman, as human has made a mistake, then this is publicized. Are there no priests who do good for the Church? We do not see that. But, nevertheless, we are all to blame. We must all drop to our knees, cry and plead with our Most Holy Lady to help us and our nation. We are going through tough times and we do not know what tomorrow will bring. We must all painfully cry and pray and plead and give a helping hand to those who are in need, if we are to be able to go on.
A letter- testimony written by a hooligan follower of AEK.
This letter is found in the book kept at Porto Lagos for those who wish to leave their thoughts in writing. We copy it here.
“ I thank the Lord because I am healthy and I am free and out of prison. My name is G. G. and I stayed 11 months at the Komotini prison. The reason was the violence I did in the name of my great love- the football club- AEK. I was set free yesterday but decided to come here first in order to thank the young man who stood by my side all these months in prison and who with his love and his kindness gave me courage and taught me to view the world and life in a better light.
He taught me that my primary love should be God from now on. I promised him I will not get into trouble and instead of being a hooligan I will become a good person and a good Christian. Thank you, Fr Nifon, for what you have done for me. I will never forget you. I cannot express my heartfelt feelings for you, who are such a kind person. But also no one can understand what it means for a prisoner to find love and consolation in one man. Fr Nifon, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you did for me. I have found at last someone who loves and helps all people. He is the consolation of all the prisoners. In the jungle of Athens I only met with hatred and wickedness. I thank the Lord for going into prison and meeting you, Fr Nifon, because I was able to discover that there are people who are able to offer love. You will always be my father and my supporter.
The AEK- hooligan from Athens, G.G. 23.2.2007.”