Tradition has it that three sisters from Tripotamos dreamed of the Virgin Mary inviting them to become nuns high in the hills of Kechrovouni. Historians date the foundation of the monastery “Our Lady of the Angels” to the 11th-12th centuries. Radiating throughout the Christian world, it nearly closed many times, but resisted and withstood the trials of time. A story about Reverend nun Juliana Rigopoulou, told from the heart.
Beloved Kechrovouni. The only name worthy of a village you have deeply loved. The place you grew up. The place where, like a child, you learned to fill your palms with jasmine from the monastery courtyard, using it to decorate the icon of Our Lady Katogiotissa and sometimes our Lady of Kolona. It is a deeply beloved place, where your joy transforms into a ball, bouncing about the nuns’ feet, they rejoicing as they rejoiced when lifting the vines and honeysuckle to hide you in a round of hide and seek. You can – indeed, you feel the need to – call it your favorite place, for here you not only learned the names of the stars, when your elderspointed them out to you, but also where you listened in awe at the wonderful stories of the Bible and the Apophthegmata Patrum.
But Kechrovouni is not only the strong memory of various riches and beauty, which managed to impart on the soul of a child the possibilities of a magnificent and authentic lifestyle; it is not just a monastery with uniquely simple and spare architecture, with its arches and transoms, cellars with the smell of damp incense, with stone steps and windless courtyards sprouting geraniums and basil, it is not only adrift in the four winds, as the close friend of the monastery A. Moraitidis described; Kechrovouni is life lived over time within a long, sacred tradition of silence, prayer and practice. Kechrovouni is a history embodied by humble nuns who lived and passed away without anyone taking notice of their presence or learning of their ascetic and virtuous lives.
Us younger nuns lived this experience closely. We experienced their humbleness. Their whole life was grounded in love for Christ and in the traditions of their elders, which they respected and upheld. Without being rigid with the letter of the law, they were open to the messages of the times. Their faithfulness and loyalty, along with their dedication to a particular lifestyle, touched our souls. We thank the Lord because without deserving it, we broke bread with them and shared with them the holiness in simple, everyday life. Their lives were a continuous course of praise and thanks. The morning bells always found most of the nuns at the monastery chapel. As they themselves said, they didn’t want to miss their prayers. They considered being at church from dawn a particular blessing. The elder nuns told of how there was an angel standing every morning at the door of the church, ready to crown the first one to cross the threshold. Many of the nuns slept with their clothes on so as to be ready for the toll of the morning bell. Those who arrived later would whisper their prayers on the way to the church. Those who were sick or unable read attentively in their cells and used their prayer ropes. At night, Kechrovouni was filled with prayer, and nuns alternated rounds at the chapel of Katogiotissa, and Faneromeni the elder spent hours and hours kneeling in front of the Virgin Mary. The oil lamps of the Sacred Katogiotissa and the Virgin Kolona burned tirelessly, as tirelessly as their praying souls. Throughout the day Salutations to the Virgin were alternated successively with prayer to the Virgin Mary, her canon and the Theotokari. Ceaselessly, they read or chanted their prayers. Their books were the New and Old Testament, the Theotokari and the Psalter, the only property in their cells, the tips of the pages worn thin from many years of use like their prayer ropes. Leafing through these books from so many years ago, or touching their sacred prayer ropes with immense respect, our thoughts are put at ease, we feel their prayers guiding our life, constantly protecting us and distancing us from the danger of secular monasticism which seeks to take advantage of a way of life based in a timeless tradition. Practice, isolation, prayer and poverty cannot be secularized; they sanctify and turn nuns into agonists and viastes of nature. There were nuns that repented over 1000 times in a single day, while elders Stefania and Christonimfi Barbari did so over 3000 times in twenty four hours. They ipopiazan and doulagosan their bodies with humility and silence. Some slept in narrow beds, others with a stone headrest, others sleeping on a chest, while the elder Veroniki Vekiou slept sitting on the pew she had in her cell.
Their food was simple and humble, they made three and nine day fasts,and avoided eating anything they particularly liked. The head elder Efpraksia Vasilikou ate tahini and greens for every day of Lent, and the elder Agathoniki, a former muslim, porridge with flour.
But their temperance was not only limited to food. They sacrificed even the most unlikely small pleasures with natural simplicity. They offered the first flowers springing up in the courtyard to God, and didn’t even smell them out of complete deference. Their sparse cells were never adorned with flowers. If you were to give some sisters flowers to smell, they would discreetly turn their heads, saying “Send those to paradise, my child.” Most of the sisters’ cells were always open, and even when the occupants were away they wouldn’t lock them. No one would ever pass by their cells without receiving some offering. They mostly helped the poor, whom they were particularly sensitive to, being poor themselves.
Theophano Stamboulis the elder would collect money in matchboxes and share them out amongst the poor, while Theophano Vidali the elder placed her offerings in bouquets of flowers, so the poor would take them without perceiving it as charity. Theodosia Karditsa the elder would receive dozens of poor and sick villagers in the late 19th and early 20th century, back when there were no rural doctors. From the monastery door all the way to the abbey, there stretched a line of villagers waiting patiently to ask for advice, to receive some medicine, for some small operation, to inquire about a visit to someone gravely ill back at their house. Everyone called her the “Doctoress,” and revered her as a saint.
Friganades, grocers, xortaroudes, logis logis girologoi and the poor always found something to eat or drink when they arrived at Kechrovouni, though the sisters never kept anything for themselves.
But the sisters did not only experience poverty, temperance and devotion. Isolation and silence were inextricably tied to their blessed lives. Some never even left the monastery. They lived within it, serving the lord, without ever wanting anything more. Their silence was exemplary. After holy mass, the rite continued all the way to the cell, and they did not allow themselves unnecessary discussions, hoping to keep the flame they had received alive until the next mass. Mitrodora the elderly had said how sisters must speak only seven words a day. They did not like noises, and sought to work quietly, since, as they liked to say, the angels themselves served the Lord silently.
Remembrance of death was constant. Death did not frighten their spirits at all. Many times, we would see them taking their shrouds out into the air to freshen them. Then, they would fold them and arrange them as if they were to “travel away” that very next day. One morning, Theodosia Katsiadaki the elder washed her shroud, and that very night her soul left her. Theokliti Papadaki the elder prayed to God that her disease might last three days before she passed away, and God heard her and obeyed. Shortly before she died, after communion, Theophano the elder proclaimed, “Jesus, remember us in compassion..” and as soon as she crossed her arms she passed away. All the nuns arrived serene and peaceful at death’s door, and talked of it as if it was the surest fact of life. Their whole life was one long course of preparation.
They respectfully attributed this blessed path to the protection granted by the Lady of Angels, who with special care and attention stood by and protected Kechrovouni – and each individual sister.
The Virgin Mary would come and go from their cells, since she was the mother of the monastery and the housekeeper, as she herself has said. One night, when Theophano the elder was incensing the priory, she saw a lady sitting on the sofa of the lobby. Concerned, she asked her how she could be in the monastery at this hour, and the woman responded: “But I am the housekeeper here.” Since then the elder never sat on the couch again, and often said: “This here is the virgin Mary’s seat.” But what truly astonished the nuns and demonstrated how truly beloved Kechrovouni was to the Mother of the Lord was the extreme charity bestowed on them. Her divine command to the nun Pelagia on the morning of July 23, 1822 became a reality. Saint Pelagia implemented the will of the Lady of Angels with humility, and since then the island of Tinos has become a center for deeply religious Christians. Today in Kechrovouni, pilgrims may visit her humble cell, receive her blessing and be sanctified in the same space that the very same virgin Mary visited years ago. For us, this cell is our house of Nazareth, it is the entire history of Kechrovouni, it is what makes it beloved, because within is the present and future of monasticism, the counter-forces seeking to salvage what precious elements we have left from the jaws of the present so-called spirit of secularism. It is the skylight which continues to let the dim light in from the sky, it is the balcony from which, if each of us wants, we may catch a glimpse of God.
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