|The tears of Panagia|
I was at Mount Athos in order to purchase handmade items from the Monks.
The handmade objects I am referring to are items which the monks make for example, incense, prayer ropes and other items which they sell or exchange in order to get by.
I was told in Karyes, the capital of Mount Athos, that I would find the “Tears of Panagia” and small portable Icons made from bees wax in Kapsala (a remote area of Mount Athos, near Karyes). They showed me a cell on a local map where I could purchase “Tears of Panagia” (Virgin Mary).
Tears of Panagia are prayer ropes (Komposchini) or if you like worry beads (kompologion) made from the fruits of a certain plant which is called the tear of Panagia.
Gerasimos Smyrnakis, in his book titled Mount Athos, which was published in 1903, writes the following:
“The tears are harvested from the fruits of a bamboo like plant from the months of July until October. The fruit is like a hard pip which they call on Mount Athos the Tears of Panagia. These plants are farmed in a limited quantity and thrive in areas that have much water.”
“They were called Tears of Panagia, as is said by the monks, when The Holy Theotoks appeared to an elder at the Cell of Saint Panteleimonos and showed him how to farm and use the plant in order to make a living.”
Kapsala is an area of Karyes with many cells. Living in this area is considered by monks very difficult due to high levels of humidity and cold, especially in the winter.
Imagine two mountain arms hanging vertically in the sea, high above Karyes, and one of these arms folded over the other. In the naturally deep valley created by this fold, you will find Kapsala. The area collects most of the water from the surrounding areas, and is not exposed to much sunlight, due to the obstruction of the vertical mountains. It is considered deserted and highly ascetic by the fathers of Athos.
After the difficult downhill trek of an hour and a half whilst being surrounded by a dark and overgrown forest, I arrived at the Cell of St. Nikodimos [photo], the place where I was told the monk lived and sold the tears of Panagia. The Cell of St. Nikodimos was quite small in size, built in the traditional stone built method of Mount Athos and had two levels, a ground level and a first floor. On the ground floor, as I had observed later, was split into two areas, a sitting room and a small church. This small church was dedicated to the memory of St. Nikodimos the Hagiorite, a stand out figure in the spiritual movement of the Kollyvades, the movement which gave Orthodoxy a renaissance in the 18thcentury.
I knocked on the door. No answer. I noticed that the door was rotted and was being supported by two rusted metal hinges. I knocked again carefully in order not to destroy the door and heard a sound coming from inside. I said “your blessings father” and received a response “May God bless you” and the door was opened.
A relatively young monk appeared at the door. He was tall, un-kept, and looked quite run down and sick from the hard life in the area. I bent forwards toward him to kiss his hand as a sign of respect, but he refused. (This is quite common for monks to do on Mount Athos; it is considered a sign of humility). He asked me what I wanted. I explained to him that I buy Mount Athos handicrafts, which I resell outside of Mount Athos, and make a living. I further explained that I was told to come to him because he made “worry beads” (Kompologion) from tears of Panagia. He responded abruptly, “Prayer ropes, not worry beads” and his demeanour changed and he was ready to end the conversation and close the door. I then started talking about other monks that sell me handicrafts mentioning many names and at the same time I was apologising for my mistake. He calmed down somewhat, maybe he recognised one of the names I had mentioned. He asked me “How much do you buy them for?” I asked him, “How much do you sell them for?” I noticed he was unwilling to answer the question. My response to his question with a question was wrong.
With a somewhat lowered tone of voice I told him that it was very rare for someone to make prayer ropes from “tears of Panagia” because it required much effort to make a hole through the naturally hard beads. At this point, I was ready to pay him whatever he wanted and any price. I explained to him that my profit was a small margin from the actual price I would buy them for, and that I take all the risk. The prayer ropes may not sell, however, I would not return them. He continued to be unwilling. I again changed the discussion and asked him if the Cell was indeed dedicated to St. Nikodimos the Hagiorite [photo]. He answered, “Yes, St. Nikodimos also stayed in this Cell for some time”. Upon his answer to my question, I joyously responded by telling him that «Unseen Warfare (Αόρατος Πόλεμος)» written by St. Nikodimos and originally published in 1796 was one of my favourite books and I began talking to him with enthusiasm about the book. I thought to myself, would he allow me to enter the church and Cell where the Saint stayed? That was it; the monk smiled and invited me in.
He took me to the church so I could venerate the Icons. The church was small, dark and very damp. After we venerated the Icons of Christ and Panagia, me just doing my cross, the monk with big prostrations, he took me to an Icon of St. Nikodimos the Hagiorite. We venerated the Icon and stood in front of it for a little looking at it in silence. We then returned to the sitting room. He left me there, without telling me to take a seat, and went off to get his handicrafts. I was looking around the sitting room whilst standing. There was a wooden table with two chairs and a bench. The area was not heated and smelt like mould. There were a few faded, printed Icons on the walls and a few books quite high on some makeshift shelves. I noticed that a few of the books were in Russian.
The monk returned to the sitting room and brought with him quite a few prayer ropes. He showed me and told me that he did not know what they were worth, “give me as much as you like”. I was in a bad position, what could I give him for them? I asked him, how much do you sell them to others? He responded “I give them to other Cells and Monasteries and in return they give me food and necessary items for the upkeep of the Church”. It was the first time that he would sell anything to a person from outside Athos. I continued to be in a difficult position because it was the first time I was buying prayer ropes as such; I had no method of comparison. I then took all of the money I had in my wallet, gave it to the monk and told him “take as much as you want”. He was now in a difficult position, I sensed that he was about to gift them to me, however I knew that he was in need of some money.I them asked him if he knew Russian, due to the fact that I had seen Russian books on the makeshift shelves. He replied telling me that he was self taught in Russian and that he was learning through these books. I asked him if I could see the books. He asked me surprised if I knew Russian. I told him yes, I am completing my Russian language studies from the school of Balkan languages. His eyes shone with excitement and he spoke to me in broken Russian. I immediately answered him in fluent Russian which I learnt from my teacher. He brought me a letter written in Russian in order for me to read, told me to sit, apologising that he had me standing all of this time and brought out a tin of hazelnuts and almonds. As it seemed, that would be our dinner.
“Do you know the magazine Russian Pilgrim (Православный паломник)” he asked. “A Russian monk made me and some other monks subscribers, and I decided to learn Russian in order to read it”. He explained. “My relatives sent me a dictionary, grammar book, a learning guide and I began learning”. He went on telling me that he would choose easy articles from the magazine, beginning from the correspondence section in which letters of anonymous readers with questions, queries and feedback were published.
One day he read the letter of a female reader of the magazine from a distant city of Siberia. In the letter she was complaining that God does not exist, since she was alone in life, an unmarried single mother of an 18 year old boy. The time came and her son died in an accident. A drunk driver struck him whilst he was crossing a road. She said, if God existed, he was bad. He took away her only son, the only happiness in her life. She raised him with many trials and tribulations, protecting him from evil habits and in a Christian manner, and look how God rewarded her. He took him so young, why? He left her alone in life without any support. What meaning did her life have now? She concluded that she would take her own life.
“I was shaken from the heartfelt letter of this mother” he told me when I finished translating the letter. He continued by telling me that he prayed all day to God for her. “Holy Mother of God, console this soul, do you miracle” he prayed. He wrote a letter immediately to this Siberian mother with very broken Russian. The letter of the mother in the correspondence section only had her full name and the city she was from published, but he thought to himself that the city was small and the postman would find her. He wrote to her that he was a monk at Mount Athos that lived in remoteness. “The letter you sent to the magazine touched me deeply and I pray day and night for you” he wrote. He continued telling her that life does not end in this world; it begins in the next and other words as such. In a little while, he received a letter. It was from her! “This is what you are reading at the moment” he told me.
She was ready to take her own life by jumping from the window of the tall building she was living in, when someone rang the doorbell from downstairs. She got down from the window ledge and asked who it was via the intercom. It was the postman and he was bringing her a letter, a letter which was written by an unknown monk from Mount Athos, thousands of kilometres away! A letter without her full address, but after the efforts of the postman it had reached her.
She cried and sobbed, it was God who had sent her that letter.
I continued reading and translating her letter. “God did not forget me, he showed me that the path of a heavy Cross also exists” she wrote.
“Lord, from the multitude of grief in my heart your supplications have rejoiced my soul” (Κύριε, κατά το πλήθος των οδυνών μου εν τη καρδία μου αι παρακλήσεις σου εύφραναν την ψυχήν μου) the monk chanted. May His name be glorified! He explained that they have continued writing each other and now no word of suicide.
Outside it was already very dark. It was impossible for me to leave. The monk seen me looking outside at the darkness restless and he suggested I stay the night. Upstairs he had two rooms, in one he stayed and I would stay in the other. He told me that tonight after midnight another four or five monks were coming so that they could conduct a vigil. “Do you want to join us” he asked. Yes of course I answered. He guided me to my room. The room was small, the wood was rotted and eaten by termites, and an oil lamp was there which I lit. The monk told me that the toilet was outside of the Cell in the forest. When I opened the door to go, I saw such darkness covering everything out there, I decided to hold it and not go.
The cold was unbearable, the monk brought me four thin blankets, unwashed and worn out from excessive use. The next day I found out that these were all of the blankets he had. I lied down fully clothed, wearing my jacket and wrapped in the four blankets and I was still freezing. I was unable to sleep from the cold; dampness from the ground floor was seeping up the walls of the room as time progressed. The room also had a wooden window with a very slim glass pane, without a curtain or outer shutter.
I looked out from the window into the darkness. My God, the cold darkness was like a live beast prying on me from the darkness. Unconsciously I was saying the Jesus Prayer in order to console myself. The hours were going by painfully slow. The unbearable cold was getting worse by the hour. I heard a knock at the door and then the voice of the monk asking me to come down to the church for the vigil. I went down immediately. The other monks had arrived, amongst them an elder, which all the others were showing respect to, and kissing his hand. I went also to get his blessing; he looked at me slightly smiling and blessed me.
The vigil began; the small church was lit with a few candles. The monks were chanting slowly and the Icons were barely visible. There was warmth in there, more than likely from the body heat of so many people. Time was passing and I began to get drowsy. Suddenly there were large bangs heard at the outer door of the Cell. A strong wind blew and created a loud whistling sound from the gaps around the door.
The monks looked at each other puzzled, who would be in the wilderness at this time of night in this darkness? The bangs at the door happened again impatiently and harder, the wind did not cease. If it was someone they would have to open for him, he might have been in need of something. “Your blessings” exclaimed one of the monks (Ευλόγησον) which is a customary term used in Mount Athos by the monks. Silence ensued. Again large bangs were made on the door which at this stage was ready to break apart. All of the monks, including myself, looked at the Elder. The Elder got up from his chair and approached the door. He stood in front of it. “Repeat after me” he shouted at the door. “By the blessings of the Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us Amen, and I will open for you” (Δι' ευχών των Αγίων Πατέρων ημών, Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ ο Θεός, ελέησον και σώσον ημάς, αμήν).
There was silence for a while, and then someone was clearly heard saying by the blessings, mmmmmm and continued with gibberish and un-comprehensible sounds. The monks withdrew toward the small church. The Elder remained in front of the door and repeated “if you are human, say, By the blessings of the Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us Amen, and I will open for you” Again the same was heard by the blessings, mmmmmm and then the same incomprehensible sounds but this time they sounded beast like. The third time the Elder whispered some prayers of exorcism. Then something foreign, un-human (that’s what it seemed like) hit the door powerfully making beast like sounds. After that, there was silence, the wind stopped and we did not hear another noise at the door. We were restless however the fear in us slowly started to reside. I think that all of us, that night, prayed with such vigilance like no other time in our lives. The vigil ended brightly with the Divine Liturgy. Dawn broke, a bright sun made its appearance and ridded us from the darkness of the night. In the morning I heard the Elder, from a distance, talking to the other monks, I heard him say “he (the demon) walks around like a lion, looking for something to devour, but due to his pride he cannot ask for the mercy of God, neither mention the name of Christ because he is tortured” (ως λέων ωρυόμενος περιπατεί ζητών τίνα καταπιεί, αλλά ως υπερήφανος που είναι δεν μπορεί να ζητήσει το έλεος του θεού, ούτε να προφέρει το όνομα του Ιησού, γιατί μαστιγώνεται).
Later the Elder and the other monks departed, the monk and I agreed to a price for the hand crafted prayer ropes and I returned to Karyes. The monk and I continued to have a good trade relationship for years, although I never returned to his Cell or Kapsala in general. He would send me his handicrafts via the post office in Karyes.
Translated by George Frangos.