By Archbishop Stylianos of Australia
I had mentioned recently, in a previous issue of our magazine, that it would sometimes perhaps be more edifying and consoling (for the majority of readers) to present some specific descriptions of the astonishing examples of ‘holiness’ among our people here, whom I have known personally, rather than go through theoretical analyses of ‘abstract concepts’ or introverted ‘philosophising’.
I will narrate such an instance at present, without at all altering the persons or the events. For, my motive is not to write a literary short story, nor a fictional novel. Only the names will be slightly changed, so as not to upset (on account of their modesty!), the ‘protagonists’ who are still alive.
It was during the first months of my appointment as Archbishop in the vast continent of Australia (April 1975).
Given my understandable concern to fulfil as soon as possible, not only the expectations of the Church, but above all the pressing needs of the faithful flock who had faced many difficulties (for entire decades), I considered it my first obligation to gather, from among the existing human resources, a sufficient number of worthy co-workers.
I therefore let it be known more broadly that, on account of the great distance from our country of origin, our Clergy would have to be not only ‘wise’ and ‘Godfearing’, but also fundamentally educated. In any case, Australia in 1975 had begun to develop rapidly, thanks to the hard work and diligence of many immigrants.
Unofficially, I had placed as a minimum basis for the ordination of new Clergymen, their six years of study at high school. However what surprises was I, the naïve one, in for (not only due to educational levels, but also the ‘piety’ of certain theologically trained Clergymen)!
On one blessed morning, there arrived at my office, on the recommendation of my Episcopal Vicar in Queensland, a respectful family man, who was also known to be a very good chanter. He was an honourable professional (in the field of printing) who hailed from the Dodecanese islands.
As we were drinking our coffee together, and I asked the necessary questions so as to ‘glean’ the honest patriot who had responded immediately to the call to Priesthood, I could discern with sincere emotion a truly God-fearing and upright person.
Yet the more he moved me and won me over by the straightforwardness of his glance and words, the more difficult it became for me to raise the question I wanted to ask at the beginning, but did not dare to:
What was his ‘educational background’?
When I finally posed the sensitive question, that is when we were both ‘hit by a lightening bolt’! But each for a different reason. He, on the one hand, because he did not imagine how much the ‘educational level’ could effect the task of a devout Clergyman. And I, on the other, because it became apparent that I had ‘placed the noose around my own neck’ (as the saying goes)!
I had to be considerate and lenient, so as not to ‘alarm’ this good man, nor perhaps ‘scandalise’ his unshaken (until then at least) fervent faith. The challenge therefore was to ensure that I secured the necessary information, without misjudging the situation. It was even more important that I should avoid creating a precedent case that I could not ignore thereafter.
Fortunately, his own humility and purity assisted him to ‘sense’ things in advance, i.e. to understand more quickly where I was coming from. And in seeing my perplexity, to lead me out of the impasse. He wasted no time in adding – and in fact asking forgiveness for not having mentioned this earlier – that he unfortunately received little education (barely completing Primary School in Kalymnos, given the well-known terrible conditions during the war and occupation!).
In spite of this, the good S. (his full name was at that time Skevofylax) managed to reassure me, saying that the realisation of his own lack of credentials in this regard made him even more careful in everything he chanted or read during the Church’s worship services.
He had learnt (practically by heart) entire sections of the Gospels, the Epistles and the Readings from throughout the Church calendar! It must also be said at this point that the interviewed ‘candidate’ did not try, to his credit, to even hint about his highly melodic and prayerful voice, or any moral gifts in his character, or those of his Kalymnian wife Asimina (while these were extensively mentioned in the recommendation letter that he brought to me from the Episcopal Vicar in Queensland, Fr G.S.). Regardless of the above, when he saw that I continued to be silent in a fairly glum state, he could not bear to see my cloudy expression any longer, so with genuine concern he tried to rid me of my agony:
“Don’t worry, Your Eminence, I thought that perhaps I could offer something as a Clergyman in this difficult country we came to, but if it is not God’s will, we will continue the efforts we have begun until now. Give me then your blessing, and I’ll take the next plane back to Brisbane.”
Literally dumbfounded, I managed only to say, with contrition that could not be hidden, that he should ‘forgive’ me for making the effort and expense of the trip, without fulfilling his sacred desire after all.
I thanked him and assured him that my personal acquaintance with him brought me much joy. Indeed, I requested to see him whenever I might come to Brisbane, or he to Sydney.
He promised to keep this communication with me, since I asked for it. As he bowed and moved towards the door, I watched him with undefinable remorse.
His movement towards the door was (or at least seemed to be) in ‘punctuated’ footsteps. Like an injured turtle dove!
I could not endure such a scene, and told him to return. I asked him to describe in more fully his family background, and the work that his father did.
He complied immediately, and from that very moment I sensed that a mystical power ‘opened my eyes’, to see and evaluate more deeply this person of prayer.
He commenced with these indicative words:
“What profession would my father have had, Your Eminence. Nearly all of us in Kalymnos were sponge divers. Whoever had his own boat reserved a seat for the strong but poor workers, and they usually went together (for a long time) close to the shores of Crete, where the sponges are good and expensive. But it could also cost the life of an unfortunate diver.”
I remembered the book ‘The Sponge Divers of the Aegean’ by Angelo Tanagra, which I read with tears as a high school student, on account of all the harsh customs it described.
I said nothing about it, to enable him to continue. He began, without hesitation, to recount briefly the tragic circumstances of the sudden death of his paternal grandfather, which ‘scarred’ them all. I shall convey it here, just as I recall it so vividly. Yet, because it shocked me greatly, I will describe it in my own words.
When they arrived at the spot to fish (for the famous sponges!), the weather was rather appropriate. However it was so bitterly cold that no one from the small crew of the boat dared to dive to the necessary depth. The captain, on seeing the day pass ‘fruitlessly’, even though the ‘wages’ were prepaid, entreated them to make a special effort, but still none dared.
Then ‘granddad’ – who must have been more compassionate and adventurous than the others – took the decision to begin ‘the harvest of the sea’! He made the sign of the cross and went down. Dazed, his fellow seamen secretly hoped and waited for when they would applaud him as he rose up from the hunt. But later they were to lift him out of the frozen waters, almost in a coma. Such ‘surprises’ were not uncommon in the lives of the poor during those cruel times, and with such primitive means!
When the honest and brave ‘battler’ eventually gave up his soul, they had no choice but to bury him with a heavy heart (without a priest and without a funeral!) at the nearest ‘rocky-island’. When the days that they had agreed to work and get paid for had passed, they returned to Kalymnos, which all too- often received such unsung heroes dressed in black.
Every night, Skevos’ father saw his unburied father state his grievance in a dream:
“Come and take me quickly, because I am continually wet and cold”!
They then went back and exhumed him, bringing him to rest next to them. Only in so doing could the late grandfather and his relatives find peace. In closing this true story, so instructive for us all, Skevos wiped the tears with some relief, and lowered his head.
Also in tears, I told him without any further reservation:
“You, my child, are someone sacred, because of your descent. Coming from a family with ‘visions’ and ‘experiences’ such as these, it is impossible for you not to become a priest. Go and prepare your cassock and vestments, and I will ordain you myself very soon. I see that ‘Skevos’, your name up until now, has showed you to be truly a ‘skevos eklogis’ – a chosen vessel! I will name you Synesios [the prudent one], keeping your initial letter, as an obligatory reward of your prudence, faith and humility, and as an example to others.”
These things I announced, and with the Grace of God they soon became reality.
The degree to which that humble Levite’s journey among us – as a Clergyman – has, to this day, a missionary character, borders literally upon the legendary and the miraculous.
Only those who have had the privilege and blessing to know him intimately could speak more comprehensively about him at some later time. Even though some people are speaking about him considerably from now, which causes him child-like speechlessness.
And yet, how could they not speak:
- Concerning the family that he made
- Concerning his Wife-Presvytera who passed away long ago
- Concerning his absolutely long ascetic and admirably conducted widowhood
- Concerning his diabetes which, although already at a forbidden level, does not stop him from constantly working and encouraging the faithful ‘with a light heart’, until…God shows us his ‘successor’ in due course
Our only wish and prayer is:
THAT GOD GRANT HIM MANY YEARS TO SUPPORT AND INSPIRE US Amen!
From Voice of Orthodoxy, v. 26(8), January-March 2009
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia