The Great Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi and Thrace* Chapter 16- Part 3

5 January 2012

* 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

Let us now refer to the Holy Belt of the Mother of God, which is treasured at the holy monastery of Vatopaidi as our most valuable spiritual relic, which is particularly venerated by the people of Thrace. This is attested by the invitation extended to us by his Eminence the Metropolitan of Maroneia and Komotini, Mr Damascene two years ago and by the fervent welcomes the Holy Belt received by the flock of the Church. However, before citing historical evidence on the importance of the Holy Belt for the people of Thrace and its presence here, we will refer to its origin and generally to its history.

 The most venerable and most holy Belt is the only garment preserved by the Church, belonging to the Mother of God and the only piece from her garments which offer sanctification. It was woven with camel hair by the Mother of God herself, as it usually done by maidens those days.

The Belt sends a secret spiritual message to the faithful. It has always had a symbolic meaning both in the Old and the New Testament for the people of God and generally for the life of the Church. The Belt is the symbol of prudence and chastity. It attests to the readiness in obeying the divine commandments. The outcome of such obedience is the sanctification and deification of man. The Belt also symbolizes the overwhelming force of the Holy Spirit.

According to the tradition of our Holy Church, the Mother of God, three days before her dormition, was transposed- that is, she rose and ascended with her body  to meet Christ, her Son and her Lord. During her ascension to heaven she met with Thomas the Apostle, whom divine grace had lifted to heaven to verify the metastasis (transposition) of the Mother of God with his own eyes. During this meeting, the Mother of God handed over her belt as a blessing and asked him to let the other Apostles on earth know what he had seen and show them her belt as evidence of her metastasis. When he did, all the Apostles went to her tomb but when they opened it they did not find her body there. Thus, the Holy Belt became the evidence of the transposition of the Mother of God not just for the Apostles those days but for the entire Church in all eras.

The Holy Belt remained in the Church of Jerusalem as a consolation and became a pillar of strength for the Christians who worshiped and preserved it meticulously. During the 4th century, Theodosios the Great found the Holy Belt in Zelia of Kappadokia and returned it to Jerusalem. A little later, 395BC, his son, Arcadius, brought the Holy Belt to Constantinople with great honour and placed it inside a beautiful chest called ‘Soros’. Initially it was placed in the Church of the Mother of God ‘in Chalkoprateiois’.

Four hundred years later, Emperor Leon the 6th, the Wise, opened the chest and found the Belt sparkling as if it was divinely weaved. It was also sealed and accompanied by a short memo indicating the time, day and year it was transferred to Constantinoupole by Arcadius, who had also sealed it himself.  Leon had opened the chest because his wife was suffering greatly, having been demonized. His wife had a vision to the effect that if the Holy Belt was placed on her, she would be freed from her terrible predicament. The miracle indeed took place! Out of gratitude the Empress embroidered the belt with golden threat, seen to this day.

In 1342, the Byzantine Emperor, John Kantakouzinos, wrote in his personal archives, that he had visited our holy monastery and gifted a large number of invaluable relics. Indeed, to this day he ranks among the greatest benefactors of our monastery. His gifts include handwritten holy codes and various other invaluable holy relics- among them The Holy Belt and the kara of our Holy Father, Saint Chrysostom, one of the Three Hierarchs- which are safely kept to this day.  The Emperor abdicated and became a monk, named Ioasaf. He remained at Vatopaidi until his repose. It is worth mentioning that on the chest where the Holy Belt is kept, which was constructed during the last century, Emperor John Kantakouzinos is depicted lifting the Belt with both hands and offering it to Vatopaidi. On the side, there is the inscription: ‘Lady Pantanassa, may you favourably allow Your most venerated Holy Belt gifted by the former faithful kings Konstantinos Theodosios and Arcadius, to be the protector and defender of the holy monastery of Vatopaidi’.

Indeed, the Holy Belt is without any doubt the source of endless wonders, the fountain of divine Grace and a consolation to us.

As it is mentioned in a manuscript preserved at our monastery, the miracles performed by the Most Precious Belt of the Mother of God are so numerous that if its accompaniers were to describe them they would have filled several volumes.

There is one miracle which is being performed continuously: Namely, a ribbon which we keep inside the chest with the Holy Belt is distributed to those women who wish to have a child. If they have faith they get pregnant. We have witnessed countless such wonders.

Letters sent to us by Bishops of Thrace attest to the miracle performing attribute of the Holy Belt either by requesting us to grace them with the Belt’s presence in their region or thanking us for the wonders it had already performed to them. They mostly ask for the Holy Belt to stop deadly diseases, especially pestilence, to free the land from agricultural calamities and to stop the onslaught of locusts.  The liturgy written by St Joseph the Hymn- writer in honour of the Holy Belt frequently refers to its miraculous force against the plague and other diseases.

In 1803, the Holy Belt was taken to the Enos and Maronias region. In today’s Komotini, the residents welcomed the Holy Belt with candles and lanterns and immediately began performing the services of the Holy Water. The deadly plague stopped even amongst the Turks.

It is worth considering the fact that the plague was stopped even amongst the Turks. Our Lord is showing His Fatherly providence to all His creatures. Being Love Himself, the Lord is not able to take the suffering of His people and shows His mercy even to the Turks, who are infidels according to the dogma of the Orthodox Church.  This phenomenon is more readily witnessed on other occasions when the Sultan himself, other Pashas and Turkish notaries appeal to the monastery to send the Holy Belt to them in order to absolve them either of personal calamities or of hardships afflicting their subordinates, because they have already had experience of its wondrous force. Our Lord’s fatherly providence expressed via miracles to the infidels is also met in several biographies of various saints, as in the case of the recently recognized saint, Arsenios of Kappadokia. This saint, who lived in Farassa of Kappadokia, having the gift of healing, would place his petrachili over sick Turks, read prayers from the prayer books of our Church, and heal them. He also performed several other miracles to them and benefited them in various ways.

In 1812, the Holy Belt was again taken to the Maronia region. The following year, the residents asked for the Holy Belt again because of the existing plague. In 1814, the Holy Belt was again welcomed in the region of Komotini, Xanthi, Andrianoupolis and Enos. In a letter expressing his gratitude, the Metropolitan of Enos, Matthew, thanked the monastery for the Holy Belt and informed the elders that the monks have returned with the offerings given in its honour. He also asked the brotherhood to pray so that the region is freed from the plague. Often, monasteries which faced financial hardship pursued such outings in order to be able to meet their needs from the offerings given by the faithful who worship the holy relics.

Perhaps it would be an omission not to mention the following event which the Metropolitan of Enos, Dionysios, mentions. In 1784 when the Holy Belt was taken in the Enos region, the accompanying monks having been tired with the performance of the services of the Holy Water handed over the Holy Belt to Fr Daniel so that he would perform some of the services. The priest stole two threads. The Metropolitan informed the monastery that ‘the priest had died as a result of his sacrilege’ and that the bishop himself ‘had handed over the two threads to Elder Paul, who was sent by the monastery for this reason’. Here we have the phenomenon whereby a priest is justly punished because he stole the two threads. One may ask why such a small piece taken from the Holy Belt did bring forth such a punishment since the motherly affection of our Lady mother of God and her infinite mercy are well known, and especially since he did this out of veneration. Despite the reason behind his act, the priest had stolen the two threads and had performed a sacrilege, something which the Lord does not approve of. Moreover, we humbly believe that if he was moved only out of veneration for the Holy Belt he wouldn’t have been punished so severely. The fact that he may have had other, more sinister reasons is attested in the wording the Metropolitan used in his letter: Namely that he received ‘his fair dues for his malice’.

In 1820, the Holy Belt was taken to a region of Maronia.

In 1827, the Metropolitan of Enos, Gabriel invited the Holy Belt along with the Holy Cross to free his region from the plague. ‘Earlier when the Holy Belt had arrived in the region it had freed it from the plague’, he wrote. Maybe he was referring to the aforementioned visits in 1803 and 1814.

In 1829, the Holy Belt visited the Xanthi region.

We are in a possession of a letter dated 1832, by Abbot Nicholas, head priest of St Nicholas, who is visiting Komotini and describes the pilgrimage of the Holy Belt ‘from Thasos to Karagats (Porto Lagos), to Abdera and Xanthi. Then he refers to an invitation he had received to return to Genisean and from there to Iasmon and Komotini. He often writes the phrase ‘the Holy Belt has done what it wished’ possibly referring to the wonders performed by the Holy Belt.

The Petropolitan of Andrianoupolis, Gregory invited the Holy Belt to his region in 1836 and wrote that ‘he had dispatched the spiritual father and hieronmonk, Ilarion, along with a layman to accompany it to Andrianoupolis’. The following year the metropolitan thanked the monastery for the visit and informed the brotherhood that the faithful had received the Holy Belt with veneration and faith and through its grace had been absolved of the deadly plague. As an expression of gratitude the metropolitan had gifted a silver incense holder to the Holy Belt and requested that the Holy Belt be incensed with it both inside and outside the monastery. The notables of Andrianoupolis have also expressed their gratitude to the Holy Belt. In a letter they mentioned that the Holy Belt had visited almost all the parishes and churches and that numerous services of the Holy Water had been held their homes. They also said that they had witnessed several miracles performed by the Most Holy Lady Mother of God.

In 1837, the Holy Belt again visited the Enos region. After its return to the monastery, the Metropolitan Cyril wrote that ‘the inhabitants had devoted a ship in honour of the Holy Belt’ and were asking the fathers to pray so that their city is feed from the terrible diseases, meaning perhaps the plague.

When Gabriel, metropolitan of Enos found out that the Holy Belt was in Ganochori in 1858, he asked the monastery to give permission to the accompanying fathers to pass through his region to absolve the land from a disease afflicting the vineyards.

In 1865, Cyril, Metropolitan of Andrianoupolis, invited again the Holy Belt to visit his region ‘in order to stop the many hardships’. He also requested that ‘a hieronmonk, speaking Bulgarian and Turkish, accompany the Belt in order to benefit the faithful spiritually and bring considerable financial assistance back to the monastery’. We may infer that the Metropolitan’s reference to ‘the many hardships’ meant the various diseases and other natural disasters afflicting the region those days. It is also obvious that Bulgarian and Turkish speaking Christians were among his flock and for this reason he had requested the dispatch of a hieronmonk versatile in those languages.

In 1895, the Metropolitan of Kalliouploleos, Dorotheos, had invited the Holy Belt to Madyton of Asia Minor to absolve the land of the locusts. Elder Arcadius who was accompanying the Holy Belt, testified that as soon as the ship approached the harbour he had noticed that even the sun was hidden behind a cloud of locusts. All the locusts fell into the sea besides the ship.  Such was their numbers that the ship was not able to sail to drop anchor. The people who had been waiting to welcome the Holy Belt at the beach, witnessing the miracle, dropped to their knees and were constantly chanting ‘Lord have mercy’.

In 1899, the Metropolitan of Ganou and Choras, Constantine, had invited the Holy Belt because calamities had been afflicting the vineyards of his region.

The Holy Belt was again taken to Madyta, at the invitation of the Metropolitan Kallinicos, to free the region from locusts.

In view of the above facts, we may deduce the following: in 127 years, from 1784-1911, the Holy Belt visited the Thrace region 16 times. From 1812-1837- 25 years- it visited the region nine times. It is obvious that the region was cruelly afflicted by various calamities especially by the plague, which was the main reason why the holy Belt was invited the visit the area, particularly from 1812-1837. The faith of the people of Thrace to the Most Holy Mother of God is most praiseworthy and has forced the Mother of God to perform wonders to such a great extend.  As an expression of gratitude the residents of Komotini do not consume meat on the feast Day of the Holy Belt. This custom is preserved to this day particularly by the elderly, who have kept in their hearts the many wonders they themselves had witnessed or have heard from their forefathers.

Our holy monastery, being always favourably predisposed towards education, has always assisted most Greek schools financially.

In 1880, it gave 1370 gold pounds for the construction of the Great School of the Nation. Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III, through a letter by the synod, expressed his appreciation and praised our monastery, describing its gift ‘as an indication of obvious love for the nation and of great devoutness’.

In 1908, this great monastery assisted financially another spiritual establishment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the prestigious Theology School of Halki. It gave the large amount of five thousand gold pounds. Christ’s Great Church thanked our monastery through a letter written by the Patriarch assuring it that ‘both Mother Church and the beneficiary, The Theological School, are greatly indebted to the monastery for its timely and generous gift’.

In 1912, our monastery had agreed to undertake the construction of the Greek School of Languages and Commerce in Constantinople.

Our monastery’s philanthropic undertaking towards education extended further than Constantinople and therefore Thrace was no exception. Several educational institutions in all outposts of Hellenism in the Balkans and Asia Minor benefited from Vatopaidi. The assistance constituted either financial aid or ceding plots of land or converting its own monasteries into schools, so that Vatopaidi’s love for the nation and its fervent wish to educate the Greek children with the Greek letters and Orthodoxy is realized. Even nowadays our monastery continues this tradition in advancing the standards of education. It has established ‘the Vatopaidi prize’ -50,000 Drachmas- to promote the advancement of education through the genuine competition among school leavers who will attain to the highest over-all grade at the Ecclesiastical School of Xanthi.

In our archives we possess a letter sent by the Metropolitan of Kallipoli, Gregory, dated 29th July 1842. He was asking for permission to convert the monastery’s dependency into a school. His wish was granted.

The Metropolitan of Andrianoupolis, Neophytos, expresses the gratitude of the community of Filippoupolis in a letter dated 19th September 1882 for the plot of land gifted in order to build the Greek School. This particular plot housed the dependency of the monastery, burnt to the ground during the Russian-Turkish war.

Those generous gifts closed the last chapter of the monastery’s presence in Kallipolis and Filippoupolis. The dependency at Filippoupolis was gifted by the residents of Haskoy in 1835, as we will see later on. Therefore the monastery was present in the region for fifty years.

End of part 3