Saint Paraskevi from Epivates, the Patron Saint of the Balkans

25 April 2013

Blessed Paraskevi.  The fragrant blossom of the desert

“God is marvellous in His saints” are the words of the Prophet of God (Ps. 67, 35). He’s wonderful in the whole of creation, in all the other creatures, magnificent in people, as His most accomplished creation, but most wonderful and best among the children of God, His saints. The saints of God are the most blessed fruit that is borne on earth, the most closely related to God Himself, and at all times and in every age, God gives such fruit to other people to enlighten them and show them the way to salvation from the darkness of the world, which lies in evil. The saints are people who’ve perfected themselves, who haven’t buried in the ground the gifts which God entrusted them with. With their unceasing prayer and their vigilance, they have increased those gifts by hard work, holding fast to God’s will in all things. Where there are no saints of God, there are no real people, either. Where there’s no sanctity, there’s no humanity.

Sorin Efros, schitul Icoana, Gorj 2014 Cuv Parascheva IN

Venerable Paraskevi, fresco by Romanian artist Sorin Efros

In every generation God raises up and places His luminaries on the lamp-stand, to light the way of salvation for people, both during their life on earth and also, more powerfully and successfully, after that. So for the Orthodox in the Balkans, more than ten centuries ago, He sent our blessed mother Paraskevi-Petka, a heavenly person and earthly angel. This wonderful benefactress is glorified by all nations, in the Balkans and beyond, by all nations who have chosen to live on earth as in the heaven of Christ.

Not much is known about this blessed saint: the details of her birth, her childhood years and her early youth are all shrouded in mystery as far as we’re concerned. The most important event of her life is that, when she was still young, she offered her whole being, body and soul, youth and beauty, as a gift to God, receiving from Him much more than a “hundredfold” return. She didn’t receive this in public, however, in the eyes of the whole world, so that she’d by praised by everybody, but rather  in secret, living for years in the wildernesses of the Balkans, unknown to anyone. She lived in solitude there, for the sake of her ascetic life, far from her birth-place at Epivates, on the Sea of Marmaras, a day’s walk from Constantinople. Given that her elder brother, Efthymios, who was the bishop of the town of Madytos, fell asleep in the Lord between 989 and 996, we may conclude that blessed Paraskevi lived in the second half of the 10th century and the beginning of the 11th.

She lived as a hermit in the wilderness, first in Thrace, in its impenetrable forests and inaccessible caves, and then in the stony and parched deserts of Palestine. She remained there until God called her to return to her own country. First she hastened to Constantinople, where she prayed to her protectress, the Mother of God of Vlakhernai and then returned to Epivates, where no-one even recognized her any more. She continued her ascetic life on plains and mountains. When she departed this life to go to the Lord, some good people buried her as a stranger, not in the village cemetery, but where she fell asleep in the Lord, near the sea.

But the secret of her sanctity, which she took with her into eternity, was revealed by God soon after her demise. The ground where she was buried began to give off a divine fragrance, the eternal and indescribably sweet aroma of the Godhead. An Athonite elder tells how, when he was walking in the forests of the wildernesses of the Holy Mountain, he would feel a fragrance beyond words. He was asked if it was the scent of the flowers, the trees and everything that grew there. “No” he replied, “this isn’t from plants. I know the smell of plants and flowers and this is another fragrance altogether. People of God lived here, they walked in secret before God and they fell asleep in secret, so that no-one would know. And they were buried in this earth. And the earth can’t  hold back and retain this torrent within its depths and so releases the redolence of their sanctity”. So even the earth knows how to exhale the fragrance of the sanctity of human remains. And this is what happened in the case of Saint Paraskevi, blessed by God, on the shores of the Sea of Marmaras, when her relics were raised from the mud-flats there. They cleaned them, brought them in splendour to a reliquary, to the church of the Holy Apostles, in the town of Kallikrateia, which was famous for the healings which occurred there of the blind, the crippled and the possessed.

Saint Paraskevi in Trnovo. Celebration in Bulgaria

After almost a hundred years, in 1231 or 1238, at the height of the Crusader occupation of ransacked Constantinople, the Bulgarian Tsar, Ivan II Asen, father-in-law of the Serbian Kral Vladislav, nephew of Saint Savva, exploited his military successes against the Crusaders and removed the precious relics of the saint from the besieged town of Kallikrateia and took them to his own capital of Trnovo. Tsar Ivan II and Patriarch Vasili received the precious relics of the saint with great ceremony and placed them in a church specially built for the purpose, the church of Saint Paraskevi of Trnovo, in Tsarevets. In the 13th century, in official documents, the Bulgarian emperors swore by this saint before their European overlords. And wherever she passed on her way from Kallikrateia to Trnovo, churches were built and dedicated to her, attracting a great number of pilgrims.

After the fall of Trnovo to the Turkish armies, the relics of Saint Paraskevi were translated to Vidin, in 1393, thanks to the efforts of the Prince of Vidin, Strasimir, who was first defeated and then executed by the Turks in 1396.

Saint Paraskevi in Belgrade. Celebration in Serbia

In 1396 or 1398, according to Leontije Pavlović, thanks to the efforts of Princess Milica, wife of the Serbian martyr Prince Lazar, who was killed at Kosovo in 1389, and the former Vasilissa of Serres, Jefimia, both of whom later became nuns at the Monastery of Liubostinja (Milica as Jefgenia and then Abbess Jefrosina; Jefimia retaining her secular name) the relics of Saint Paraskevi were taken to Serbia. As the Bulgarian Grigorije Camblak notes in 1402-1405 in his speech on the transfer “the whole of the glory of Saint Paraskevi was taken from Bulgaria and given to the country of Serbia”.

Camblak’s moving testimony, that these two Serbian widows, “most wise in word and deed”, with the assistance of Milica’s daughter, Olivera- who sacrificed herself for the salvation of her land and people by becoming a wife of Sultan Bayezid I- managed to acquire the holy relics from the sultan. As Camblak mentions, when they came to Bayezid, he asked Milica, as Olivera’s mother, what favour she would like to ask of him, and she replied that she’d like him to give her the relics of Saint Paraskevi. The Sultan was taken aback. “Why do you want dry bones”… I thought you’d ask me for gold…”. But the powerful ruler, being a Muslim, couldn’t understand that she had, indeed, asked for gold unadulterated that had been fired by the Holy Spirit, brighter and purer than earthly gold and beyond price, beyond tarnish, and wonder-working throughout the centuries: the relics of the saint.

They were given the relics and took them first to Smederevo or, perhaps to Kruševac, before Prince Stefan Lazarević and the Metropolitan of Belgrade ordered them to be transferred and deposited initially in the church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in the Metropolis of Belgrade and then in the new church of Saint Paraskevi, built next to a wonder-working spring below the fortress in Belgrade, some time before 1417. The prince’s driving interest in the renovation of Belgrade, which  had begun as early as 1402/3 is recorded in the historical documents of the city: “Returning from Kosovo, I found a very beautiful, ancient location, a large city, Belgrade, which had been destroyed and deserted. I rebuilt it and dedicated it to the Holy Mother of God”. These two churches underneath the battlements were destroyed by the Turks, perhaps in 1521, but veneration for the Holy Mother of God and blessed Saint Paraskevi remained as strong as ever throughout the years of enslavement to the Turks. This is attested by Western travellers and diplomats who visited Belgrade and described the fenced-in spring on a slope below the battlements, around which hundreds of devout pilgrims from Belgrade would gather on a daily basis. Both churches had been renovated by 1937; not, it must be said, restored to their former magnificence, but with the old symbolism of their sacred purpose: a kind of shrine to Saint Paraskevi and a church to the Mother of God Ružica in Kalemegdan. According to Leontije Pavlović, in the ’60s of the 20th century, a small piece of the wonder-working relics of the saint was kept there, having been brought from the Monastery of Petkovica, not far from Sambac. More recent documents declare that in the church of Ružica today there is a portion of the relics of the saint which was given to the Serbian Church by that of Romania after World War II. And so, even today, Saint Paraskevi attracts not only the locals but all the Orthodox who come to Belgrade, with the holy myrrh from her relics.

After the fall of Belgrade to the Turks, the majority of residents were forced to relocate to areas around Constantinople where, to this day, there are place-names such as Belgrad, Belgrad Forest, Belgrad Gate and so on. Sacred objects from the church in Belgrade, among which were a wonder-working icon of the Mother of God, the hand of Emperor Constantine, the unaltered relics of Saint Theofania the Empress and those of Saint Paraskevi, were taken there and later placed in the church of the Holy Mother of God of Belgrade, under the responsibility of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Later, because the church was destroyed by the Turks, the Patriarch redeemed the relics of the saint from the sultan, at a price, and placed them  in with the other precious relics in the Patriarchal church of Saint George, in Fanari [1].

Celebration in Moldo-Wallachia

parascheva, teodora Nicolae Balan IN

Venerable Paraskevi, fresco by Romanian Deacon Nicolae Bălan

In the 17th century, the Patriarchate of Constantinople succumbed to the difficult economic conditions and debts occasioned by the onerous taxation imposed by the sultan. In 1641, Voievode Vasile Lupu [2] of the only Orthodox country not yet defeated by the Turks, Moldo-Wallachia (today’s Romania and Moldova), where, until the 20th century, large numbers of Serbs and Bulgarians lived, offered Constantinople considerable financial assistance to cover its debts. In return, as the Mother Church, it responded by giving his people the uncorrupt relics of Saint Paraskevi. According to the testimony of Nikodimos the Athonite, Lupu gave Patriarch Parthenios a great deal of gold, and the Patriarch offered him the relics of the saint, which they secretly lowered from the Fanari rock down to the sea, where a boat was waiting to take them to Moldo-Wallachia. According to other evidence, the relics were fetched by a delegation of three metropolitans and an Ottoman military unit as far as the borders of Wallachia, where Voievode Vasile and his entourage awaited them. The holy relics of Saint Paraskevi thus reached Iaşi, the capital of Moldavia and were laid in the imposing church of the Three Hierarchs.

In the great conflagration in 1888, when the whole church and the sacred objects were destroyed, and despite the fact that the lavish reliquary melted completely, the bones miraculously suffered not the slightest damage from the inferno. They were then transferred to the even more magnificent Cathedral of the Reception of the Lord, where, to this day, thousands of the faithful from all over the world congregate to reverence them and to pray for a gift of grace. From Moldo-Wallachia, where she became the most glorified saint and where hundreds of churches have been dedicated to her, veneration for her has spread to Russian, especially large parts of Ukraine and Belarus, where she is called Saint “Petka”, “Paraskevi” and “Praskovia”.

And in Iaşi, Belgrade and Trnovo- though not, unfortunately in ethnically-cleansed Kallikrateia- the faithful gather to pray to the saint and find cures. The same is true in those places where the largest portions of her unaltered relics lie at rest.

May blessed Saint Paraskevi, who became and remained the “fragrance of Christ”, bring delight into the souls and hearts of those unknown people who are thirsting for sanctification and the joy of the salvation which God offers us.

[1] Usually rendered in English as “the Phanar”. The scene for some of the most inventive and preposterous “travellers’ tales” in the English language.

[2] Son of an Albanian refugee, he was a brilliant financier and, at one time, the richest man in Eastern Christendom.