The Great Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi and Thrace* Chapter 16- Part 130 December 2011
* A speech at Komotini on the 21st January 1994.
source: Translated by Olga Konari Kokkinou from the Greek edition: Αρχιμ. Εφραίμ Βατοπαιδινού Καθηγουμένου Ι. Μ. Μ. Βατοπαιδίου, Αθωνικός Λόγος, Ιερά Μεγίστη Μονή Βατοπαιδίου, Άγιον Όρος 2010.
It is with great pleasure that we have received the invitation by the Komotini Educational Association to participate in the convention themed: ‘The Holy Mountain and Thrace’ under the auspices of His Eminence the Metropolitan of Maroneias and Komotinis, Mr Damascene. We have been asked to speak specifically on the subject of ‘The Great Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi and Thrace’.
Pray your Excellency that our Lady Mother of God grants our pious assembly the greatest possible gain. It is obvious that the audience has eagerly responded to this spiritual stimulus, waiting to be regenerated in the fountains of our Orthodox Tradition, whose genuine representative has been the Holy Mountain throughout its over thousand year history.
We are aware, Your Eminence, that as a Bishop of the Orthodox Church, chosen by God, you firmly believe that it is only through genuine monasticism that Orthodoxy thrives and produces fruits worthy of its destiny. The time for words has passed. Now more than ever it is necessary to promote the experience of the Holy Spirit, perfectly expressed by genuine monasticism. The fact that you have placed under your wing these events once again verifies the affection which Your Eminence holds for the Holy Mountain.
Our Holy and Respected Monastery is the largest monastic complex on the Holy Mountain, hence it was named ‘great’. It ranks second in the hierarchy amongst the twenty monasteries of the Holy Mountain. According to tradition, the monastery existed since the fourth Century. However, manuscripts found at the monastery attribute its existence to the 10th Century. Such written evidence from the 10th and 11th Centuries suggests that the monastery existed long before then.
If we go back in history we find that the monastery was revived by its three Founders, Monks Nicholas, Athanasius and Antony from Andreanoupolis. These were noblemen who came to the Holy Mountain to be tonsured and devote themselves to the carefree life of the monks. They first met with St Athanasius, who was constructing the Holy Great Monastery of Great Lavra, and expressed the desire to assist the construction with their riches. However, he prompted them instead to rebuild the Holy Great Monastery of Vatopaidi, earlier destroyed by pirates. Thus, the three noblemen became the Founders of our Great Monastery. In the first preserved manuscript written in 999BC, we find monk Nicholaos from Andreanoupolis singing the letter as ‘The Abbot of the Vatopaidi Lavra, Nicholas Monk’. Because of their virtuous lives they attained to the fullness of Grace and became vessels of the Holy Spirit. They are traditionally honoured as saints by our monastery on the 17th of December. Their portraits, depicted with a halo, dating to the 16th Century, are found inside the Katholikon, on the top left wall above their tomb between the main church and the mesonyktikon, which dates back to the 10th Century. Under the custody of the Department of Byzantine Antiquities, we opened the tomb two years ago and found a two storey cenotaph harbouring the sanctified remains of all the three Founders from Andrianoupolis. After the ritual of the exhumation, their holy relics are offered for veneration inside a wooden- carved, luxurious chest. There is also a fresco depicting the three saints in the Trapeza (Dining room ) of the monastery.
The home-icon of the Most Holy Lady called ‘Vimatarissa sits on the marbled sinthronon inside the Holy Sanctuary of the Katholikon longer than a thousand years. In the 10th Century some monk threw the icon into a well next to the Altar of the Main Church to prevent the pirates from desecrating it. Out of veneration he also threw in the Cross of St Constantine the Great along with a burning candle. Seventy years later, the Andreanoupolitan monk Nicholas found the icon standing above the waters. Miraculously it was not immersed in water in order to be protected. The Constantine Cross was also found standing above the waters along with the candle which was found burning, as if it had just been lit. The candle had supernaturally been preserved blazing for seventy years. We say a Paraklisis to our Most Holy Lady every Monday and offer the Divine Liturgy every Tuesday to commemorate this miracle. As we have already mentioned, the icon sits on the sinthronon of the Holy Sanctuary. The Cross of St Constantine, stands opposite on the Holy Altar. The candle is placed to its right, adorned in a silver coating. All three are the same items which the Founder and Abbot Nicholas from Andreanoupolis discovered seventy years later.
The said miracle-performing icon was stolen during the raid launched by John Vekkos, Patriarch of Constantinoupole. It was later found in Kallipolis of Thrace and was returned to the monastery by the King of Serbia, Stefan Dousan. He had decorated it in gold and one can see the signature of the craftsman on it. Thus Thrace was able to receive the blessing of the home-icon of our monastery, the Icon of Vimatarissa.
It is worth taking a pause here, in order to mention the calamities which the pro-Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, Vekkos, brought on the Holy Mountain. Most of the fathers at the Holy Mountain were slain and became martyrs because they had not accepted the pseudo-unification which the synod in Lyon, France, had agreed upon in 1272. The First of the Holy Mountain, holy martyr Kosmas from Vatopedi, the holy martyr Euthymios, Abbot of Vatopedi (who was drowned in Kalamitzi) and twelve other monks who were hanged, ranked among the dissidents. Throughout the Holy Mountain, all monks who did not attend the Divine Liturgy jointly with the Catholics were slaughtered in various ways.
Saint Filotheos Kokkinos, Patriarch of Constantinople, was a former member of our brotherhood. The Vatopedi fathers, recognizing his multiple talents, ordained him a priest. This is indicated in the Hagiorite Volume in which he signed as ‘the least of all, hieronmonk, Filotheos’. ‘He was voted to the post of Metropolitan of Erakleia in Thrace and was ordained against his wishes in 1347, when Patriarch was Saint Isidoros’. His entire life and written legacy substantiate the fact that he was a great spiritual figure equal to the great famous hierarchs of the past; he was a theologian and a writer of ecclesiastical documents, equal to the most legendary and prominent Fathers and Teachers of our Faith. He was able to combine his duties to his flock with a hesychastic, mystic life, as well as humility and simplicity in Christ with the grace of theology and literary fluency. He predicted the dangers posed by Catholicism and became a relentless opponent. He compiled numerous theological dissertations responding to and denouncing the delusions of the western heresy. He studied under the Vatopaidi Saints, Savva the Crazy for Christ( dia christon salos), and Gregory Palamas, writing their biographies. Throughout his term as a Patriarch, he promoted their niptic teachings, enlightening the entire Orthodox Church. He stood as a pillar of strength and bravery against the heresies of modern Aryanism, who in the face of the pro-western Barlaam, deviously advocated that the Grace of the Holy Spirit was created by God. Barlaam’s followers also sided against the orthodox hesychasts and argued that the perception of God which the purified monks had acquired, if not a figment of their imagination, was something created by God. The two Saints, Palamas and Gregorios Kokkinos, as modern Atlantes, were able to carry on their shoulders the genuine orthodox dogma. They themselves had the experience of the Divine Light, which they argued was Uncreated and the only route through which man may be united existentially with God, in order to accomplish his deification. He so excelled during his term as a Metropolitan and so helped the flock of Thrace that he was voted to the Patriarchate throne. ‘It must be noted that Filotheos made certain that the entire Church was immersed in the spirit of hesychasm, through which the path to deification becomes feasible and man as a person is able to meet the personal God in spirit and in truth.
Orthodoxy means the deification of man. Anything less or similar either becomes a heresy or relegates the Church to the level of a man-made institution, far removed from the genuine essence of salvation offered in the Gospels. Our deification is accomplished through our unifying participation in the Uncreated and eternal Light of Mount Tabor. According to saint Filotheos Kokkinos our participation in the uncreated divine Grace is accomplished if we manage to control the part of the soul which has to do with desires, harness the senses by practicing comprehensive self-control, turn the passionate part of the soul towards loving God and other people and concentrate on the mental prayer and the name of Jesus. Thus all three parts of the heart are cleansed- the passionate, the rational and the part which has to do with desires. As a result, the devout man is made worthy of perceiving God in accordance with the Words of the Lord: ‘Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5, 8).
However, the degree to which one participates in the divine Grace relates to the fervour of his intention, which is expressed through his self-denial and carrying of his cross by obeying the commandments, without ignoring how one lives his life. Anything more is up to the Lord; whatever He wishes to give and how much of it, if at all. These additional trophies, which are not up to man, cannot become the purpose of the spiritual struggle of either the monk or of anyone else who desires his deification by experiencing his participation in the deifying Grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit. This harsh struggle only aspires to remove all flawed thoughts first from one’s mind and then from his heart, as soon as they are formed. Human nature which has been deified because Word God has taken it, has acquired the ability to become the vessel of the light of the anticipated deification during the Transfiguration. From then on, the Kingdom of God has become able to be participated in. The light of the divine Transfiguration of our Saviour is none other than the light of His Kingdom, which continues to be handed over to people through the Holy Spirit. This light is perceived by all monks who have been cleansed and by other Christians, who have gradually ascended the steps of repentance and who with the grace of God have been illuminated by receiving the divine illumination of the energies of Grace.
Even nowadays we have met people who live an ascetic life outside in the world and have attained to divine levels. Thus, both St Filotheos and St Palamas argue that both laymen and monks must practice the niptic way of life. St Filotheos immersed the Church in this hesychastic spirit during his time.
St Theophanis was another saint from Vatopaidi (14th Century). He became a hieronmonk and Abbot before his ordination as Metropolitan of Peritheoriou. St Maximus Kausokalyvytis foresaw and prophesised this promotion. It is worth mentioning here St Theophanis’ own account of these events. He calls upon God as a witness to his words. Both the vision and the prophecy bear witness to his virtue, since he was made worthy of experiencing such signs. ‘When one day I left the Vatopaidi monastery to go to my cell I became distressed since I didn’t find him there even though I was looking for him. I went up behind his hut towards the path of St Isaiah and there he was by the basin of Agelariou, two miles away at a difficult and rock-strewn place! I saw the saint ascending on the air like an eagle, flying over the forest and the great rocks and coming towards me. I was petrified and shouted ‘Great, are thou Lord’ and stepped back in fear. At the bat of an eyelid the saint came near me, chanting. I could not tell what he was chanting because of his astonishing appearance, but I welcomed him on my knees. He was asking me: How long have you been here? Then, he took me by the hand, ushered me in his hut and warned me: ‘Be careful not to tell anyone what you have seen while I am still alive’. Then St Maximus went on: ‘Let me tell you that you will become Abbot and Metropolitan Achridos and must suffer a lot. But you must show patience, imitating the crucified Christ, who will come to your assistance during the many tribulations, which will bear testimony to your struggle’. Later on, St Theophanis was ordained Metropolitan of Peritheoriou.
As we will see thereafter from the manuscripts held at our monastery, Vatopaidi was present in the town of Peritheorioiu earlier than the beginning of the 10th Century (from the 4rth Century according to tradition). Therefore it is not a coincidence that the aforementioned Vatopaidi saint was ordained Metropolitan of Peritheoriou- a Byzantine town by the Visthonida pond where Vatopaidi owned a metochion (dependency) at the time.
When monks come out to the world it is only because dependencies exist. These were gifts given by Byzantine emperors, who were establishing holy monasteries on the Holy Mountain because of their love for Christ. At the same time they were gifting land and other chattels to the monasteries so that the monks would have the necessities and be free to get on with their spiritual mission by extricating themselves from the world and practicing the incessant prayer which enables them to participate in the Divine Grace of the Holy Spirit. Let us see what Emperor Nikiforos Votaniatis says in a golden seal in 1080: ‘…because of their anxiousness for spirituality, (the monks) prepare for the higher things; nothing, which they think will contribute to their deliverance, is beneath them, neither do they believe there is anything which equals these aspirations. Yet they make allowances for food, so that malnourishment does not place obstacles in their spiritual effort …’ Therefore the monks came out to those dependencies in order to collect the necessary supplies for their monastery, since the dependencies served just this purpose. In this way they also come into contact with lay people who assist them in their material needs. In return the monks offer them handouts from their spiritual wealth amassed in their hearts as a result of their isolated lives. The monks are particularly helpful when they are cleansed and illuminated through the Grace of God and stand between the heavens and earth. They sometimes reconcile men with the Lord either by mediating in favour of the entire world or of individuals. At other times they reveal God’s will to people- something which is their most important mission and most necessary duty. Thus, the monks become compasses for the laymen in their trip to the harbour of the Kingdom of heavens. According to St John Climax ‘The angels are the beacons for the monks, while the monks are the beacons for the laity’. At the same time, the monks offer the holy relics to people to worship at the dependencies since these relics, being precious possessions, are treasured at the holy monasteries of the Holy Mountain. Similarly priests officiate at the Holy mysteries of the liturgical life and as genuine teachers of the spiritual life, are preferred as spiritual fathers and confessors. Apart from the spiritual benefit, the monks have always provided for the material needs of the people. Thus the dependencies became the fountains of everlasting spiritual consolation and the source for material assistance at times of need.
Our dependency of St Nicholas, this unmoving ship in the Visthonida pond, the jewel of the Visthonida gulf, the pride of our great monastery, situated on the national path between two capitals in Thrace- Komotini and Xanthi- throughout its century-old history continues to stir our historic memory for the Palaiologian dynasties and Byzantium and rouse our conscience to the Greek character of our Thrace.
According to historic sources the monastery’s presence in the area dates back to the 11th century. However, tradition has it that this presence coincides with the establishment of the monastery on the Holy Mountain back in the 4th Century. This does not constitute a discrepancy since historic sources confirm its earlier presence. King Theodosios the Great built the first monastery because his son, Arcadius, was miraculously rescued. When Arcadius was sailing from Byzantium to Rome, he accidentally fell into the sea. He called upon the name of the Most Holy Lady and was miraculously found lying on some land next to a push (vatos). There he heard a voice telling him that on this place- where Vatopaidi is situated today- they should build a monastery. This was accomplished by his father Theodosios the Great. Years later, when Arcadius was grown up he gifted to Vatopaidi ‘the most beautiful dependency at Peritheorion, along with a quarter of the lake and all the workshops in the castle’. However, Vatopaidi’s ownership over the dependency of Peritheorion is historically established in 1080, when emperor Nikiforos Votaneatis upheld via a golden seal, the existing property rights on this area along with other places. From this document it becomes obvious that there was a metochion( dependency) inside the castle and another one outside, called ‘Salamas’ metochion’. Also from the phrase written in Nikiforos’ document ‘plus the metochion inside the castle’ we detect that the monastery was present in the Peritheorion area earlier than 1080, through its dependency ‘metochion tou Salama’ inside and outside the castle. However, it is not yet clear where exactly this Salama’s metochion at Peritheorion is.
In 1308 Theodora Komnini Synacherina humbly gifts the ‘chapel dedicated to St George in Kalamitzion, along with all its land and my parents’ land of more than 300 modia in Sellario… I also give my parents land on the mountains of Xanthia called bull’s well’’… She gave this land ‘to be absolved of her sins’ and in memory of her royal parents. Apparently Theodora must have belonged to the royal line of the Komninon dynasty. From archaeological and historic sources we deduce that the chapel of St George is situated in the Peritheorion area (Anastasoupoleos), which was a byzantine town on the Visthonida Lake. The chapel has not yet been discovered since no archaeological excavations have taken place. Let the present reference cause an interest in this respect. Archaeologists’ believe that ‘Sellarion’ is today’s ‘Selinon’ village.
Twenty one years after Theodora Komnini gave the land there is another golden seal by emperor Andronikos III Paleologos. He also gifts the ownership of several other dependencies to the monastery, including the St Panteleimon metochi at Xanthi together with the vineyards, the orchards and the lands ‘given by Acropolitissa’, also the ‘metochion at Peritheorion in the name of St George along with its lands and the surrounding area called ‘Sellariou’’.‘The monks also own the Planinin area on the Xanthi mountains called the ‘the bull’s well’’. Acropolitissa must have been a wealthy woman who had gifted the area to the monastery. It is worth mentioning that the byzantine emperors held monks to a very high esteem and were trying with all available means to provide the essentials for them so that they were free to devote themselves to prayer. The emperors believed that monks who were God’s chosen people, pray and offer supplications to the Lord to absolve them of their sins, as they mention in their golden seals, and also ‘ to help them in their decisions and affairs of the state’.
Another golden seal by Emperor John Σ, Paleologos in 1356 upholds the ownership of the lands and metochia to Vatopaidi. It refers to most dependencies and ‘on the Peritheorion metochion in the name of St George, also called Kalamitzi, along with the land inside and outside the castle’. This document is a mixture of the earlier seals by Nikiforos and Andronikos, already mentioned, which prove that the Vatopaidi dependencies in Peritheorion , namely St George’s and the Salama area inside and outside the castle, were near each other and were regarded as one by John Paleologos: namely the dependency in Peritheorion. A note in the Vatopaidi archives clarifies the issue: ‘The entire area in Porto Lagos was called ‘Peritheorion’ and the Metropolitan of Xanthi was called ‘Metropolitan of Xanthi and Peritheoriou’. Only some ruins are left today of the ‘castle’ referred to in the Paleologo’s document. They are found at the entrance of the lake by the coast. The area mentioned as ‘outside’ of the castle is the land occupied by the lake.
Further historical evidence indicating that the monastery owned the Visthonida pond is given by a golden seal issued by the Serb ruler John Ougglesis in 1369 at the request of Abbot Theodosios and the Vatopaidi brotherhood. With this document, the Serb ruler returned to Vatopaidi the yearly tax of 120 yperpyra which the monastery was paying for the Mpourou Lake as an expression of gratitude to the Lady Mother of God. He also added: ‘If anyone decides to overturn this seal let the curses of the 318 Fathers of the Nikaia Synod fall upon him’. Therefore it is obvious that the monastery owned the lake before the seal was issued since it was paying taxes which the ruler decided to return. After visiting the monastery two years later (1271) he issued another golden seal, saying (roughly translated): ‘I have found the monastery glorious and promising and not at all relinquishing its greatness. Having received plenty of spiritual supplies, I wish to repay them through this seal. I order that the ownership of the fishing area at the Mpourou lake, also named after St Theodore, be passed on to the monks, including the entire coastal area of the pond and any produce from the lake … they should have this property to enjoy without disturbance.. if anyone tries to disturb them will have the Lady Mother of God opposing him in this life and in all eternity…’’
It is worth noticing how devoted the king was to the Most Holy Lady Mother of God. He hoped that with her alliance he would be able to safeguard his kingdom and win over the rebelling Muslims as his forefathers did. ( rough translation)‘My forefathers did not protect the kingdom and win over the enemies without the perfect alliance with the Most Pure Lady, the Mother of God. Therefore my kingdom also places its hopes in her, who is the one to take up the arms against the infidel Muslims and out of gratitude we will approach the Holy Mountain and offer loyalty, thanks and servile veneration to the Mother of God in order to receive from her plenty of mercy…’
The generous gift of the fishing area along with the ancient lands by Ougglesis, served as an affirmation of the gifts offered by the byzantine emperors and includes the entire area of the lake and whatever has been built on its shores to this day. This gift became the reason why Vatopaidi is present in the Komotini-Xanthi region-through its dependency of St Nicholas- to this day. The fish hatchery was named after St Theodore because of a byzantine chapel dedicated to the saint; its ruins exist to this day. Later on, a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas was built and the hatchery was renamed after him. We must assume that the chapel of St Nicholas was built at the same time the monks inhabited the lake. This is verified in a letter send by Patriarch Gregory V to the Metropolitan of Xanthi on the 16 August 1808, when the latter disputed the ownership of the dependency of St Nicholas. The Patriarch said: ‘The Mpourou and Peritheoriou area of the lake has been devoted to the monastery of Vatopaidi along with the church of St Nicholas… from time to time the monks would instruct one of them to come out to the area in order to administer the holy mysteries to the inhabitants or to those who stayed there…’ After many years ‘the old chapel was demolished and another one was built out of canes in the Vatopaidi place’. ‘Those working at the pond, being Christians and moved by divine zeal, built another church so that they did not go without the holy services when they were working there. After it was constructed out of canes, the Vatopaidi fathers, who were sent there from time to time, were officiating at the services, since the area belonged to Vatopaidi from antiquity’. The Patriarch also appealed to the Metropolitan of Xanthi not to thwart the Vatopaidi fathers from carrying out their duties, but rather ‘to protect and assist them because everybody must show devoutness to the holy monasteries and especially to Vatopaidi ‘. In this letter the Patriarch’s devotion to the monasteries is clear and ‘especially to Vatopaidi’. Patriarch Gregory has suffered martyrdom and has recently been recognized as a saint by the Orthodox Church.
Why the Patriarch did show such favourable disposition for the monastery of Vatopaidi? Was it because Vatopaidi was as Evgenios Boulgareos said, one aspect of ‘the triptych of the nation after the Parthenon and Hagia Sofia’, because of its great benefits to the nation and the great role it played to ensure its survival during its occupation by the Turks?
End of part 1