18 April 2010

'We Long for Your Church'—Saints of Thessaloniki

Today, the Third Sunday of Pascha, besides the well-known commemoration of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, the great city of Thessaloniki also commemorates the Synaxis of her many Saints. Among these, she counts first of all the holy Apostle Paul, who exhorted the Thessalonians to ‘stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle’ (II Thess. 2:15). But immediately after St Paul comes Thessaloniki’s Great Martyr, St Demetrius the Myrrh-gusher, whose relics continue to pour forth miracles even to this day. Perhaps next in fame are the great Apostles to the Slavs, Ss Cyril and Methodius, to whom all Slavs are eternally indebted for bringing them the Gospel in their own language. Finally, we must not neglect to note the great Archbishop, St Gregory Palamas, who so courageously defended the Faith against the heresies of Barlaam and Akindynos. But these five are only the most renowned of a multitude of cœlestial luminaries standing before the throne of God in intercession for Thessaloniki. As Sophia Ahtaridis writes:

Thus, this city justifies the boast of the Apostle Paul when he wrote in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians: ‘We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth; so that we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all the persecutions and tribulations that ye endure’ (1:3-4). [1]

In his fascinating book on Ss Cyril and Methodius, Professor Emeritus Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki writes:

Apart from bathing in the fount of Greek education at the houses of their teachers, Drungarius Leo’s remarkable children also acquired further knowledge from their life in the ‘Thessalonians’ great and noteworthy city, protected by God’, where they gradually became acquainted with the burning issues of the Empire. Thessalonica was a school in itself—the Empire’s second city after Constantinople, with the marks of each historical epoch deeply etched upon its face. Thessalonica was Byzantium’s gateway to the West, the Empire’s eye, which was firmly fixed upon the ‘Western regions’—that is, the vast expanse of its dominions extending from the Macedonian capital to Sirmium and Dalmatia, or in other words the whole of Illyricum. Thessalonica stood upon the road which linked ancient Rome with the new Rome, Constantinople, and indeed, until 732 the city came under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Rome itself. Within its walls profound deposits and traditions had been laid down and survived at successive notional levels. Beginning at the time of the illustrious Macedonian Kings, and continuing on through the Hellenistic and Roman eras, they passed on to subsequent generations Greek and Latin memories and wisdom, which were all fused together by a common catalyst, the Greek Christian tradition. Their enduring symbols, the city’s magnificent monuments bore living witness to these traditions. All this, together with the contemporary historical events that were being acted out in the broader environs of the city, formed another kind of school for Constantine [St Cyril] and Methodius. [2]

As a resident of this God-protected city for two years, this commemoration of her Saints has special meaning for me. It was one of my great pleasures to walk up and down the streets of Thessaloniki, stopping at her many churches, old and new, [3] to venerate the relics of her Saints—St Demetrius, St Gregory Palamas, St Theodora, St David, St Basil the Confessor, and others—and to encounter there the pious clergy, monastics, and simple faithful, many of them perhaps modern Saints in their own right. Profoundly moved by these experiences, I wrote the following poem (dated 15 February 2002), which stands as my humble attempt at a tribute to the heavenly beauties of this city:


Encircled by ancient walls,
On the slope of a hill by the sea you lie,
Your dazzling churches and ruined mosques
Sleeping in a garden of our vain edifices.
You’ve stood firm, lady,
Since the days of Philip and Alexander,
Since your Apostle’s letters,
Since your emperor’s palace,
Through invasions of Avars and Bulgars
And your fall to the Turk,
Since the welcoming of Abraham’s children
And the horrors of your occupation.
And even now the ghosts of your Roman splendour
Haunt your little old streets,
Hallowed by centuries of faith,
And the uncreated light of a spiritual aristocracy
Gleams in the eyes of your merchants,
And you live still
Under your martyred Patron’s spear
And your holy Archbishop’s prayers.

In conclusion, here are two troparia from an Old Church Slavonic canon for St Demetrius believed to have been written by St Methodius, Equal-to-the-Apostles. As Thomas Butler notes, ‘The poet is evidently a native of Thessaloniki. He is homesick for his city, as he recalls its annual celebration of Demetrius’s feast day, October 26.’ [4]

Hear now your poor supplicants, O glorious one, and heed our prayers, as we have become separated far from your radiant shrine, and our hearts burn within us as we long for your church, holy one—to worship there again some day through your prayers.

Why, O wise one, should we—your miserable slaves—alone be deprived of your beauty, travelling through foreign lands and towns for the love of the Creator, blessed one, warriors for the humiliation of the cruel trilinguals and heretics? [5]

(The painting of Byzantine Thessaloniki is the work of Thanasis Bakogiorgos, who to my knowledge still runs his beautiful shop, Porphyra, near the Plateia Navarino. Incidentally, on the right side of the centre wall, just opposite the large domed church of St George’s Rotunda, is where the modern Aristotle University of Thessaloniki is.)

[1] Sophia Ahtaridis, Foreword, Byzantine Monuments of Thessaloniki, by Constantine Cavarnos (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1995), p. x.

[2] Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 6.

[3] Constantine Cavarnos notes, ‘Thessaloniki, the second city of Greece from the point of view of size and importance as an administrative and cultural center, is the most glorious one from the standpoint of Byzantine monuments. It boasts of more than a dozen beautiful, awe-inspiring Byzantine churches’ (Cavarnos, p. 19).

[4] Thomas Butler, Monumenta Bulgarica: A Bilingual Anthology of Bulgarian Texts from the 9th to the 19th Centuries (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic, 2004), p. 31.

[5] Ibid., p. 41.


elizabeth said...

Is this the St David that is spoken of in the book _Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit_ ?

aaronandbrighid said...

No, that's St David of Euboia, this is St David of Thessaloniki.

elizabeth said...

Ah, thank you! I loaned my copy of _P.V._ out and had been wanting to know more about the St. David!

Christ is Risen!

Mark Montague said...

Hi Aaron - thanks for this post. I enjoyed your poem. I'm no poet, I haven't written a poem since grade school, probably. But after reading yours, I thought I'd write one, too. So here goes.

For Aaron, remembering Thessaloniki

Σαλονίκη μου ποτέ δεν θα ξεχάσω
τους δρόμους σου κατηφορίζοντας στην παραλία,
τις εκκλησιές σου φωτισμένες με ψαλμωδία,
την σχολή σου όπου ορκίζουν οι θεολόγοι,
τους αγίους σου παραμένοντας μεσ᾽ στα τείχη,
τους κατοίκους σου φιλοξένους στους δικούς σου.
Σταυροδρόμι θάλασσας και βουνών, ηλίου και αιώνων,
ήσυχη, Σαλονίκη, λαμπρή, πασχαλινή.
Ζούμε και τώρα στο φως σου ανακλώμενο,
απόσταση δεν μειώνει τα χρώματά σου,
τις φωνές, μυρωδιές σου στην καρδιά μου.
Θεσσαλονίκη, όχι δεν σε ξεχνώ.

Vermont, April 19, 2010.

aaronandbrighid said...

Very nice, Mark! I'm glad to have inspired you to try your hand at some poetry! And in one way, it's very daring to have attempted it in Greek. I myself would not have been nearly as capable--I even had to look up a couple of words in yours. But of course, on the other hand, you are immune from the criticisms of most of my other readers, who don't read Modern Greek!

By the way, your use of απόσταση here reminded me--once I was with Herman & Philip at Serrai, & when we mentioned to one of the fathers that we were from America, he said something about a 'great απόσταση'. At first we thought he was making a profound comment on the said spiritual state of our country, but then we realised he was only saying that it was far away!

Mark Montague said...

Right - there's a big απόσταση between απόσταση and αποστασία. :)

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Aaron, I just started that Mazower book you recommended, Salonica - City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950. Although I wasn't quite pleased at his skipping over the entire 1700-year period of the city's initial history, what he has written is very well done. It's very nicely written. It's my current springtime in Berkeley outside reading book!

aaronandbrighid said...

Glad to hear it. Yes, Mazower focuses on a very specific period. He's mostly interested in the Ottoman years. Springtime in Berkeley outside reading sounds nice!