Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Eternal Priest

The eternal priest story has become a tradition in the Orthodox and Greek world. According to this tradition (myth), when the Ottoman Turks beat the Byzantine army and eventually entered the holiest city of the Byzantine era, Hagia Sophia, there was a Divine Liturgy taking place. The moment the conquerors entered, the priest saw them running in; he went into the holy of holies and miraculously ran through a door, which appeared in the wall. Another tradition, claims that he ran through a door, which still exists today, on one of the sides of the Church. According to this legend, when Constantinople will again become a Christian city, the priest will reappear from the wall and continue the Divine Liturgy. Despite this being merely a story, it is a belief many Greek Orthodox still have today.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Last Divine Liturgy in St. Sophia, Constantinople

Many, even Orthodox, even Greeks, believe that the last Divine Liturgy in St. Sophia, in Constantinople, was celebrated on the 29 May 1453. However, the last Liturgy took place in 1919. The priest who celebrated the Divine Liturgy was Fr. Lefteris Noufarakis, who was from Alones Rethymnou, Crete. He was an army priest in the Second Greek Army Division, one of the two army divisions which was part of the allied expeditionary body in Ukraine. This Army Division went to Ukraine via Constantinople, which then was under ‘allied sovereignty’, after the end of WW I.

A group of Greek Officers, led by the priest, General Frantzis, Major Liaromati, Captain Stamatiou and Lieutenant Nikolaou were observing the City and Hagia Sophia, keeping to themselves their secret, i.e. to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in St. Sophia – a decision taken primarily by the priest. The difficulty of this endeavour was the fact that during that period St. Sophia was a mosque, creating therefore some major issues. This could have created a diplomatic incident between Greece and Turkey. However, Fr. Lefteris had decided that he was going to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in St. Sophia, whatever difficulty came his way. 
-          If you do not come, I will go alone! I just need a chanter. You, Konstantine (Liaromati), will you be my chanter?
-          Ok Father, he replied. He had agreed to go with him.
The other officers followed too. They all boarded a small boat, with a Greek rower from Constantinople. Kosmas, the local boater, took them through a shortcut to Hagia Sophia. The doors were open. The Turkish guard was about to stop them, but General Fratzis gave him an angry look, which left the guard speechless. They all entered the Holy Church with reverence, making the sign of the cross. Father Lefteris said, quietly, with great emotion: “I enter into your house; I worship towards your Holy Church in fear…”
He quickly moved towards the Holy Sanctuary, where the Holy Table would have been. He found a small table and placed it within the Sanctuary. He had everything in a small bag; he took everything out, he put on his vestments and began:
“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages”.
“Amen”, replied the Major Liaromatis. The Divine Liturgy had begun in Hagia Sophia, for the first time since the 29 May 1453. All of them wished one thing that they could finish the Divine Liturgy, without being interrupted. Everything had happened so quickly, they could not believe what was happening.
In the meantime the church was filling up with Turks; however, they remained silent, probably not understanding or not being able to believe what was actually happening. It was, in many respects, an unimaginable reality. During this time more and more people. Among them were also Greeks who lived in Constantinople, who happened to come to Hagia Sophia by chance. They were surprised and extremely moved by what was happening. During the Anaphora, all the Greeks bowed, listening to the chanter chant: “We praise you, we bless you, we give thanks to you, O Lord, and we pray to you, our God”. The time then came, where all of the Greeks went and received Holy Communion, after 466 years. After the Holy Communion they quickly finished the Liturgy. Fr. Lefteris told Lieutenant Nikolaou “quickly gather everything and place them in the bag”.
The Divine Liturgy is finished. However, by the end of the Liturgy the church was packed with Turks, who began to get aggressive, understanding what just happened. Their lives were in danger. However, they do not hesitate. They joined together and walked out. The mob is ready to hit them. At that point a Turkish Officer told them to let them come through. He was also angry, but he understood that he had to let them go, for political reasons. It would have not looked good for Turkey to have killed five Greek officers in Hagia Sophia. Let us not forget that there were two Greek Divisions near the City, and Constantinople was under foreign occupation, under the winners of WWI. The Greek officers made it to the boat. However, a ‘giant’ Turk followed them, he grabbed a large wooden branch and tried to hit the priest, understanding that it was him who initiated this event.
The priest crouched down, but the wood hit his shoulder. Major Liaromatis and Captain Stamatiou achieved to take the wood from the Turk, who was ready to hit the priest again. They eventually achieved to reach the Greek War Ship. However, this event did create a diplomatic incident, with the allies complaining to the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who eventually had to reprimand Fr. Lefteri. Nevertheless, he contacted him privately and congratulated him, for realising in Hagia Sophia the dream all Greeks have.
The unfortunate fact about this real story is the fact that not many people know about it. Even in his home town they are ignorant about it. However, he is the only one, who after 1453, gave life to Hagia Sophia, reminded it of its past glory, and showed its true colours. We, now, can only hope that in the near future, the Turkish Government will see the significance this Church has for the Christian world, and might allow for it to become a Church again. Maybe this is an ideal thought and wish. However, it cannot and should not return to its previous status, i.e. to become a mosque, as many Turks now wish to see it[1].

[1] For a more elaborate version, in Greek, please look at: Σπουδάγματα, Τεύχος 11, Πάσχα 2004, pp. 58-62

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Immortal Emperor, last Emperor of Byzantium

The Immortal Emperor, who was the last Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Constantine XI Paleologus, isbelievef to have died in battle, 29th May 1453, when the Imperial City fell to the Ottomans. However, his body was never found, creating a number of myths around his life and his death.

The last confirmed sighting of the Emperor was near the Gate of St Romanus. Constantine was fighting next to common soldiers. It is believed that he died there and then; however, what happened to his body, no one knows. After his death, it is believed that he was beheaded. Was it brought to the Sultan? Apparently he had cast off his emblems of rank before the battle, therefore his body would not be distinguishable from that of any other soldier. Even the statue, depicted here – which stands in central Athens -, has an imagined face, since no authentic picture of Constantine survives.

There are, of course, legends that Constantine did not die at all. Some mystical accounts whispered among the Greeks in the decades and centuries after the fall hold that Constantine is “sleeping,” in some sort of suspended animation in a secret chamber near the Golden Gate of the Theodosian Walls, a gate that was bricked up long before the fall. The legends go that if Byzantium rises again, Constantine XI will “wake up” and come out of his prison to rule again. Many songs and traditions in Modern Greece refer to the immortal Emperor, awaiting his awakening, to create, a new, the Byzantine Empire. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Saint John the Russian, Euboea – Greece

One of the most famous modern saints in Greece today, who is venerated by hundreds on a daily basis, is St John the Russian, located in New Prokopi on the island of Euboea (the second largest island of Greece).

Saint John was born in the Ukraine in South Russia (end of the 17th century). During the Russian-Turkish war (1711-1718) he was in the imperial army of Peter the Great. As a soldier, St John fought to protect his country; however, due to his Orthodox upbringing, he was appalled by the reality and cruelty of war. Unfortunately, during the battles for the recapture of Azof (Black Sea), he and thousands of Russians fell prisoners to the Turks. He was moved to Constantinople and then to Prokopi, near Caesaria of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. He was given to an Aga who had a camp of Janissaries.

Because he was a Christian, John was tortured; he was beaten with sticks, kicked and spat on. A tremendous torturous act was when they placed a red-hot metal bowl on his head, burning his hair and scalp. He was then thrown into a stable, to live with the animals. He accepted the tortures; this acceptance impressed his tormentors, making them cease their brutality, giving him the name ‘veli’, which means saint.

On the 27th May 1730 Saint John passed away. After his death and his burial, in 1733, the old priest who every Saturday had listened to his sufferings and tortures and who had given him Holy Communion, saw a dream. In the dream the Saint explained that God had preserved his body entire and uncorrupted. He asked that they retrieve it and keep it as a blessing for the Christians to have.
In one of the conflicts between Ibrahim of Egypt and the Sultan of Turkey, Osman Pasha set fire to the holy relic of St John, as revenge against the Christians. Amid the flames, the Turks saw the body moving. Terrified, the abandoned this act. The next day, the Christians dug and amid the ashes they found the body blackened, but nonetheless intact and whole.

The Saint was venerated in all of Asia Minor. After the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1922) and the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, the local population from Prokopi took with them the holy relics of Saint John the Russian to their new home, New Prokopi in Euboea. A new church was built in his honour, where his relics are to be found to this day, being one of the greatest Christian attractions of Euboea. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

St John Chrysostom on Marriage

What is the right relationship the couple, the man and the woman, should have upon entering the new stage of their life? Married life has been understood by many in a number of ways, according to their beliefs, their philosophical, ideological, social, economic, traditional and religious beliefs. However, the Orthodox Church shows the richness of this relationship through its Marriage Service, found in the Euchologion of the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, St John Chrysostom below gives a revolutionary understanding of marriage, which applies not only in his time, but also today:

‘Through fear you may bind a servant, though he will not be long in escaping: but it is not by fear or threats that you can bind the companion of your life, the mother of your children, the well-spring of your happiness, but only by love and affection. What is a household where the wife trembles before her husband? What joy is there for a husband when he lives with his wife as with a slave and not with a free woman?’[1]

[1] Quoted by Jean Meyendorff in Le marriage dans la perspective orthodoxe, YMCA Press/O.E.I.L., Paris, 1986, p. 120. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

The 175th Anniversary of the Penny Black – Royal Mail First Day Cover

The new Royal Mail First Day Cover is dedicated to the 175th Anniversary of the Penny Black. Before 1840, postage rates in the UK were very high and postage was normally paid by the recipient. Charges were based on the distance a letter travelled and the number of sheets in contained, and there were also numerous extra fees. As a result, few people could afford to send letters. At the same time, a lot of mail was carried free. Members of both houses of parliament had franking privileges, and newspapers were also carried without a charge. With a mixture of paid, unpaid and free letters, the system was complicated and expensive.

In 1837, teacher and innovator Rowland Hill proposed sweeping changes: he recommended that postage should be reduced to a uniform one penny, based on weight rather than distance, and that it should be prepaid. Merchants supported Hill’s ideas and set up a committee to campaign for cheap postage. They were successful, with an Act passed in 1839 to introduce Hill’s reform.

One of Hill’s ideas for implementation of the reforms which was agreed after a public competition organised by the Treasury was that of adhesive labels to indicate prepayment. These eventually came to be known as postage stamps. For the design, Henry Corbould was commissioned to draw the Queen’s head based on the ‘City’ medal by William Wyon, which commemorated Queen Victoria’s first visit to the City of London in November 1837. The Penny Black, as it came to be known, became valid for postage on 6 May 1840. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

God Created Us

In the book of Genesis we read about the creation of the world, the creation of every living being. This creation established a relationship the Creator and the Created. God is the eternal Creator and source of Creation. St Maximus, talking about creation, claims:

‘God has created us in order that we may become partakers of the divine nature, in order that we may enter into eternity, and that we may appear like unto Him, being deified by that grace out of which all things that exist have come, and which brings into existence everything that before had no existence.’[1]

[1] St. Maximus, ‘Epist. 43, Ad Joannem cubicularium’, P.G., XCI, 640 BC.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Spanish Synagogue, Prague

The Spanish Synagogue located in the heart of the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) in Prague, Czech Republic, is known for being the most beautiful synagogue in Europe. This synagogue was built in 1868, on the site of the oldest Prague Jewish house of prayer, the Old Shul. The beautiful interior decoration features a low stucco arabesque of stylised Islamic motifs, which are also applied to the walls, doors and gallery.

Under both Nazi and Communist rule, the Spanish Synagogue was neglected, leading to its eventual closure. Nevertheless, it was re-opened on the 130th anniversary of its establishment, forming part of the Jewish Museum in the Czech Republic capital. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Lost professions

Every epoch brings new professions. However, due to the technological advancement of human civilisation we also observe the extinction of a number of professions. The pictures below show professions which have been lost for more than a century. They might seem funny now, but then they were part of daily life. The professions depicted below are:
a.       Pinsetter. Young children used to place the pins back in their place after each game.
b.      The human alarm clock. A man used a wooden stick or small stones and tapped the bedroom window or their doors in order to wake them up.
c.       Ice cutters. Before our modern cooling systems there were people who cut ice and place them in the house.
d.      The radar-man. The military used acoustic systems in order to determine, through sound, what aircrafts approached the area. 
e.      Rat-hunter. This was a profession which was widely spread in many European metropolises, due to the great dangers of spreading infections to the human population.

f.        The person who lit the streetlights. This was a profession for the cities, before we all started using electricity.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Enoseos Monument, Corfu

This monument is dedicated to commemoration of the unification of the Ionian Island with Greece in 21 May 1864. Etched on the monument are the emblems of all seven Ionian Islands (which are Corfu, Paxi, Lefkada, Ithaki, Kefalonia, Zakynthos, Kythira). Corfu Town being the capital of Corfu and the largest city in the Ionian islands, is the best location for such a monument. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The human spirit and the divine Spirit

The word spirit (πνεύμα) can be explained in various ways, according to the philosophical and theological beliefs one has. Can we apply this word to both the humans and the divine? Can the word Spirit be used for the soul, the spirit of man and the Holy Spirit (Άγιο Πνεύμα)? We tend not to use the same words for the created world and the uncreated one, in order to show a distinction between the two; however, language – which is a created entity – can only go so far. Therefore terms such as Father, Son and Holy Spirit can also be applied to our created life and form. Below, John Meyendorff examines the issue of using the word spirit for both the human and the divine:

‘. . . Interestingly enough, there was never a debate in the East concerning the Pauline use of pneuma and its application to both the human “spirit” and the divine “Spirit”, coming from God. This usage, which embarrasses so many modern theologians because it goes against their presuppositions on “nature” and “grace” as distinct realities, was not a problem at all for Irenaeus, who simply affirms that man is by nature made up of “Spirit, soul, and body,” meaning by that that a divine presence is indeed what makes man truly himself (Adversus haereses V, 6, 1). Whether later theologians adopted a more Neoplatonic language to define the same reality (Gregory of Nyssa, for example, spoke of the “divine spark” in man), or whether they started to distinguish between the human pneuma and the Holy Spirit in order to maintain the original “parenthood” between God and man, they developed the theology of the imago Dei as living communion and always took for granted that man’s nature and ultimate destiny is life “in God,” or deification (theosis).’[1]  

[1] Meyendorff, John, Living Tradition, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), p. 134.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pontos in Nafplio

Following a previous blog-post, this is a second dedication to the Gaudi of Greece[1], i.e. my uncle Paraskevas Konstantinidis. He is himself from Pontos (the northern part of modern Turkey, which was Greek for thousands of years). 

Current living in the Peloponnesian city of Nafplio (in Southern Greece) he has maintained his heritage, by dedicating one of his latest works to Pontos,  by creating the eagle that is the symbol of the Pontian Greeks, as seen on the flag of Pontos. Therefore, in his own artistic way he brings a Pontian Greek presence to the first capital of Modern Greece, to Nafplio.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow Cathedral was at the very heart of the early development of Glasgow as a city. Dedicated to St Kentigern, the first bishop of Strathclyde, the awe-inspiring edifice attracted countless pilgrims to his shrine. Originally built in the 1100s, and substantially enlarged in the 1200s, it survived the Protestant Reformation of 1560 almost intact and stands today as the most complete medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland. Currently it is under the Church of Scotland.

At the crypt of the church one can find the chapel and tomb of St Kentigern, also known as St Mungo, the ‘dear beloved;’ he was a much revered bishop of Glasgow who died in about 612. Tradition says that he was buried at the spot where the Glasgow Cathedral was built.  St Mungo was a missionary in Strathclyde and may have built his church on this site. His sanctity was promoted by later bishops and he became a cult figure in the Scottish church. The tomb, located in the crypt, attracted many pilgrims, who followed a stage-managed route to get there. They prayed for salvation, confessed crimes and sought cures. Their offerings helped to swell church funds and the cathedral developed around the tomb.

Stories about St Mungo are largely the creation of enthusiastic biographers in the 1100s. Important saints were promoted by the church to bolster the faith of believers. Mungo’s legendary deeds were exploited during the early days of Alba, the unified Scottish kingdom in the late 9th century. This was repeated, 500 years later, to reinforce the identity of the Scottish church after the Wars of Independence.