A touch of grace
When the service was over, we went to the monastic refectory and were impressed by its sheer size and the splendor of its decor. To us, it looked like a royal chamber. The food, on the other hand, was quite ordinary but very good, pretty much in the style of Mount Athos.
Then we went to see the relics and icons, and that is where the interesting part begins. At our monastery, the relics are kept in a separate chapel. But because we were new here, we did not know where to go and when. We lingered in uncertainty outside the Church of the Great Martyr Panteleimon amid a crowd of our fellow travelers. But while we were venerating the icons inside the church, a confession began for those who wished to receive communion during the next Liturgy. Silently, we walked out to take some fresh air. A priest from Russia came up to us and asked:
“Have you venerated the relics?”
I shrugged my shoulders and asked, “But where are they?” The priest pointed in the direction of the large monastery building, where we had been during the evening service.
“They are over there, in the chapel on the upper terrace,” he said and walked away. I took my friend Vladimir Georgievich and together we went towards the chapel, as if in a dream. We walked up the stairs and pulled the door handle. It was closed! I sat down on the parapet near a palm tree, and my friend leaned against the railing and looked away – somewhere in the direction of the clocktower. We were both in a state of confusion. Suddenly, I spotted some movement. I looked up and saw the priest from Russia in the company of some unknown monk. The monk was holding a bunch of keys with which he unlocked the doors of the chapel and let us in! We had the privilege of entering the small space with so many treasures in them. Above the door was the icon of the Mother of God “Blessed Heaven”, with the infant Christ standing, with his arms open, ready to embrace everyone who came before the icon. It was as if He was ready to say to us, “We have been missing you! We are so glad you came!”
In Russia, people would line up for hours to see these relics, but here, they were only an arm’s length away. We gasped in amazement and disbelief. Involuntarily, we crossed our hands on our chests. We almost cried with endearment. The relics were on a stand. We were given plenty of time to sense the invisible presence of the saints: the Apostle Andrew, the Venerable Silouan of Athos, the Apostle and Evangelist Luke, the `Apostles Peter, Bartholomew, Philip, Thomas, Saint Barnabas, and St John the Baptist, among others. As I was leaving the chapel, I was surprised to see a lineup of worshippers when the whole monastery was supposed to be resting after the evening meal.
We, the Orthodox, have a special reverence for the honorable relics of God’s saints. The triumphant Church sends us, the members of the Militant Militant, the grace-filled intercession of its saints. Many examples show how this intercession makes a difference.
Here is one that happened in my life. We were visiting St. Seraphim’s Cemetery near the Church of St Seraphim of Sarov in Saint Petersburg. Father Vasily Ermakov blessed us for the journey home with these words, “Beloved, do come back, but do not forget to pray together on your journey. Bring the light of the faith in Christ to the people; tell them that our faith is 2000 years old and theirs is just 200 …”. We did not dare to ask to whom we were supposed to say that. Instead, we bowed to the famous Russian Russian elder and embarked on our homeward journey. We were traveling by car, an Old Soviet Lada with the popular name “Copeck”. We were two young men and their wives, one of whom was seven months pregnant. On our way to Saint Petersburg, we spent a night in a tent which we pitched up in a picturesque spot. But on the way back from St Petersburg, it rained all the time. We could not imagine putting up a tent and spending a night in a wet forest. Finally, we turned off the main road hoping to drive into a village and ask the people there to let us sleep in a hayloft. It was getting late, but it was the white nights season, and we could see very well around us. We were roaming through the forest, but could not find any signs of a human dwelling. One of us remembered the elder’s advice, so we said the Lord’s Prayer together. No sooner had we finished than we noticed two people in mackintoshes with a dog. They crossed the road right ahead of our car. I jumped out of the car and ran up to them to apologize. I told them about our problem. I also mentioned that we were Christians returning from a visit to a holy site. They were holidaymakers, and one of them had keys to an empty cottage that they said we could use. They gave us the key. I asked them to let us use their gas cooker to warm up the porridge left over from that morning. And then the woman asked us,
“You said you were Christians. Which denomination?”
“Orthodox,” I exclaimed.
I could not understand why she was asking. Did we not look Orthodox enough? Then the woman said:
“My husband and I are Pentecostals.” An awkward moment of silence followed. Only then did I realize who Father Vasily had meant. I was waiting for the right moment to give them his message, but it was not coming.
“But there is one thing I cannot understand,” said the woman, breaking the silence. “Why do you Orthodox honor the dead?”
She was referring to the veneration of the holy relics. I had neither the energy nor the desire to start a dispute. But, I repeated the elder’s words to her and left her puzzled. Still, she treated us with great kindness throughout our stay. End of story.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds
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