St Nicholas of the Oyster and the “Ochi-ochi”
Reaching the monastery, I felt a surge of fatigue, probably caused by the recent overcoming of the impassable thickets. The sun was already approaching the horizon. Its rays were reflecting from the sea surface, doubling their intensity. I squinted my eyes, and it seemed like some unearthly light broke into our sinful world through a gap in space, making even opaque objects shine through.
I fell in love with the monastery at first sight. I knew it before I even entered this heavenly place of monastic exploits. It was not much different from other monasteries here on Athos, except it was miniature and toy-like. The aqueduct resembled a sleeve of a monastic robe. Goldfish were swimming in the artificial ponds underneath. Tangerine and persimmon trees were bending under the abundant fruits to the right of the monastery pavement. The heavy clusters of grapes hanging down from a canopy, arranged over the main entrance to the monastery, were almost black in color. We were glad that our journey had ended for the day. Entering into the shadow of St Nicholas monastery, we shucked off our backpacks right at the entrance, placing them on a bench in a niche under the ancient frescoes. Removing my heavy burden, I suddenly felt the lightness and freedom that made me want to jump.
We greeted the monk in the arkhondarik with a smile, and he smiled back at us. Water and lokum… Believe me, there is hardly a more delicious treat for a tired traveler in the heat! Coming to our senses after the hike, we were yapping, joking and making fun of one another. The monk in the arkhondarik smiled at us, and we smiled back at him. Finally, we were about to sink into the prayerful atmosphere of this monastery and gain strength before tomorrow.
– Cyril, tell this dear brother that we would like to stay overnight. – I asked, slightly regretting that the water and lokum were already gone.
Our young companion said something beautifully in English. Still smiling, the monk replied with the familiar Greek words, “Ochi-ochi!” Knowing the meaning of these words, I had a feeling that instead of water we were treated to vinegar. Cyril’s translation of the further tirade said by the smiling Greek did not bring any relief.
– He said that he is sorry and that they have no places available. And he asked to call ahead next time…
– How can we call ahead, – I was struggling to restrain myself, – if the Mother of God rules everything here on Athos, and we never know where we will be in the evening? Cyril, translate that we can sleep here if there’s no other room; we aren’t picky.
Cyril translated, while I examined the little room, in which we were being received. It was a small porter’s room with a door leading to a kind of a utility room with water, a coffee maker and something else. It had a low ceiling, a curtain on the window and a table covered with a tablecloth. It was in fact quite cozy and home-like.
“Ochi-ochi!” – the guestmaster’s smile became somewhat guilty, but my attempt to persuade him was to no avail.
“Sad” doesn’t even begin to describe how we felt. The sun was already very low. There was nothing nearby, judging by the map. Surely, I didn’t feel like spending the night somewhere among the asps, which, I was sure, were scurrying back and forth in search of pilgrims from Belarus. Our gloomy thoughts were suddenly interrupted by an invitation into the church. The evening service had just ended there. It was certainly a consolation. Holding my forehead against the cool surface of the famous icon called St Nicholas of the Oyster, I asked for his blessing on my pastoral labors, prayerfully remembering those back home. I sighed, realizing that Saint Nicholas was sending us further and still not understanding why. Then I went to venerate the relics brought out for worship. I saw a table with silver reliquaries and relic-holders containing a particle of the True Cross, particles of the relics of Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian, Archdeacon Stephen, Saint Ambrose Archbishop of Milan, the Great Martyr Theodore Stratelates and the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. At such moments you forget about yourself.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds