Day 52. Confession & Vigil.
Tomorrow is the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist on the Old Calendar. When I was at the Monastery in Essex, which is on the New Calendar, this was the first Liturgy I concelebrated with Igumen Kyrill. Now it will be the last Liturgy I attend on Mt Athos. Given my love for the Forerunner, somehow it seems an appropriate beginning and end of this trip abroad.
9th Hour and Little Vespers were served late today, at 7 pm. I asked after the service, when there was a break before Vigil, what would be necessary to receive Communion. I was told I needed the blessing of the Spiritual Father of the monastery, Fr Makary.
Fr Makary is a true Elder in the Athonite tradition, meaning that, not only is he a generally-recognized holy man, but he is also gifted with discernment and clairvoyance, meaning he can see right through you and tell you your sins without you having to open your mouth. Elder Sophrony in Essex was like that. Now if you stop to think about it, the prospect of meeting with someone who can do that is downright terrifying, but I had said I wanted Communion, so I was committed to seeing him. Fr Zadok received a blessing from Fr Makary to serve as a translator for me during my Confession, which he did.
I don’t know why I get all worked up over this sort of thing. Of course, my dread was unfounded. Fr Makary was the icon of meekness and love, and why should I have been afraid? But, I think, if you don’t approach a clairvoyant Athonite Elder with a little bit of fear, you probably don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.
After the Confession and absolution, I asked a blessing to receive Communion at the Liturgy the next morning. He asked my jurisdiction. I told him, the Orthodox Church in America, with Metropolitan Jonah. At the mention of Vladyka Jonah’s name, Fr Makary smiled broadly and nodded his head. “Good. He is our friend,” he said.
To get an idea of what the Vigil was like, I have to describe the church, as best I can. (And the monastery is using only one of the three churches here.) I’ll leave aside the narthex, which is simply big, with four great square pillars holding up the dome, and everything covered in big, golden Icons, and the walls lined with monk’s stalls.
The Iconostasis is five levels high, soaring up near the ceiling of the church. The main Icons are probably 3’ x 4’, all with silver covers. The Royal Doors are solid, some 15’ tall. The altar is square; with a baldachin/canopy over it that reminds me strongly of Bernini’s canopy over the high altar of St Peter’s in Rome. This one also has twisty columns and is covered with gold leaf (in fact, most everything in the church is covered in gold leaf).
In front of the Iconostasis are two large shrines, on the right, St Panteleimon, the Greatmartyr, Wonderworker, and Unmercenary Physician, the patron of the monastery; on the left, the Mother of God. Both Icons are about 3’ x 4’, with silver covers, and the shrines are about 25’ high.
In the center of the nave, there is hung a polyeleios, a kind of candelabrum shaped like a giant circle or a bracelet. It is made up of ten flat panels and is suspended from the ceiling by several chains so that the panels hang straight down. I figure the circumference is somewhat over 50’ around. It is gold –plated and has double-headed eagles and Icons on it, it has forty candles along the top side, and there are ten ostrich eggs hung around the bottom of it. It is immense.
The only thing bigger than the polyeleios is the sterling silver chandelier that hangs in the middle of it. Just say it’s huge and be done with it. It would have made a fine accessory in the Grand Duke’s ballroom in old St Petersburg, but here it is.
The rest of the nave is cruciform, with wings on each side for the two choirs. As I said in an earlier post, I was placed in the left choir, where visiting clergy go.
Vigil was preceded, of course, by a monk walking around the church, beating on hand-held wooden semantron with a mallet. He then beat on the big wooden semantron that hangs outside the church with the same mallet. He then beat on the big metal semantron with a metal mallet.
And then the bells began to ring. You know Russians are famous for the bells, and rightly so. The first to ring was that big one I was telling you about. You heard it, yes, but you also felt it all the way to your marrow. Then all the other bells began to ring. Nearly deafening. And really swell, too. I had to laugh it was so delightful.
Now, if you’ve ever attended a Vigil in the Russian style, you’ll have an idea of what went on. It lasted only 5 ¼ hours. I was expecting something much longer, what with an Archbishop-Abbot, a couple of priests and deacons serving, two choirs, a medium-sized feast to celebrate, and nothing else to do but praise God.
I have never heard such singing before in my life. These men have voices like angels, except for the basses, who have the voices of archangels, and maybe even the archangels are jealous.
So we served Compline, then Vespers with Litya, and began Matins. The most spectacular thing happened during Matins. I have to tell you about it.
We came to sing the Polyelei. The choirs are belting it out, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy is forever, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” While they’re singing, one of the monks comes out with a long stick and begins to swing the polyeleion candelabrum. It oscillates back and forth, like the mainspring of a watch, until it’s going pretty well. Then the monk grabs the bottom of the silver chandelier and gets it to swinging around in a big circle, too. (Remember, these are the biggest things in the nave, and not that far overhead, so this is almost scary and a little disorienting, too.)
So the choirs are singing their hearts out, one side and then the other, the polyeleion is rotating back and forth, the chandelier is swinging round and round, and in the middle of all this delicious delirium of music, light and motion, the clergy come out from the altar bringing not an Icon of St John the Baptist, but a relic. I didn’t even know there were relics of St John the Baptist. It was in a reliquary of gold and enamel, like a little toy church; it even had a little onion dome on the lid.
Well, this about did me in right there. Sensory overload and astonishment over encountering my favorite Saint of all time: open-mouthed stupefaction. Unlike St Vladimir’s envoys to Constantinople, there was no question as to whether I was in heaven or on earth.
Of course we got to venerate the relic. It was a piece of bone about the size of the middle joint of your index finger. I had but a moment, since the church was packed with monks and pilgrims waiting to do the same, and the Abbot was waiting to anointing everyone with oil. (Note to the faithful: when you get too much oil on your forehead, rub it into your hands, face and hair; it’s what the monks do.)
When we got to the canon of Matins, the clergy went back into the altar, but, God bless ‘em all, every one, they left the relic in the middle of the church, so everyone that wanted to—and there were many of us—went back and venerated it again, taking more time, praying, making prostrations, all the usual stuff. Such warmth of piety I saw: men pressing their lips and their foreheads fervently to the relic, laying the side of their heads on it and praying, prostrating for minutes at a time, some so humble they barely dared to approach.
When the service ended at 2 am, I didn’t know how the night could get any better, but it actually did. There is no light pollution on Athos, so the stars blaze out overhead and are breathtaking. Just before I went into the guest house, a green meteorite streaked brightly through the sky: a final, cosmic doxology to the Maker of all.
Glory be to God for all things!