If you are an Orthodox Christian, you know that August is the month of the Panagia. Of course it is also the zenith of the summer season—full of indulgence and taking it easy with the sea and the sun at your back and front. In my life I have been blessed to walk in the footsteps of the Panagia: I worked as a teacher and tutor on the mystical island of Tinos where the Cathedral of the Megalochari hosts thousands of pilgrims for the Dekapentavgousto (the 15th of August). As a journalist in the Holy Land, I was able to document the procession of her “epitafios” from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Church of the Dormition near Lion’s Gate. For this post, I am going to describe what I witnessed during my stay on the island of the Panagia, Tinos.
I wound up on Tinos through pretty fortuitous circumstances. I was taking a taxi near Kanigos Square when the cabbie stopped to take another customer. This was a common practice for taxis in Athens in those days as there were not enough cabs to serve single passenger, especially during the perpetual “apergies” that had brought buses, the Metro and the trolley systems to a halt, literally immobilizing the city of Athens. The Army had to be called to use old-fashioned fatigue-covered trucks to double up as public buses when hope for a resolution to the strikes, now in their third week, proved elusive.
Taxis doubled or tripled up if the patrons were at least heading in the same direction.) The customers screamed out their destinations, “Philadelphia,” “Dafni,” “Byronas,” “Omonia,” to zipping cabs to lure them into stopping, not the other way around. The man, Kirios Dionisis, dark-browed with a heavy moustache but otherwise attractive, started to chit chat with me in the back seat. Invariably, we started to complain about our woes and the country’s “chalia” (mess); this is totally in keeping with Greek character. (We are always complaining to perfect strangers.) It turned out the small, privately-owned college I was working for (by now defunct) had not paid me for three months—“I am a volunteer at this point.” The President of the college, who had been a newspaper man before this, had been paying off his bankruptcies and back loans with the professor’s salaries. Kirios Dionisi, on the other hand, who was a successful head of a chain of English language schools or frontistiria, was having problems with a specific teacher in one of his schools in Tinos. The teacher in essence was sabotaging the success of the students so that they would deliberately fail the Cambridge Lower and Proficiency exams in Dionisis’ school. That’s because The teacher had plans of opening his own rival English academy on the small island.
“The last time I went there in secret, I passed under the window of the school and the kids were bursting out laughing! He wasn’t teaching them English, he was telling them jokes,” Mr. Dionisi shouted, his bushy moustache jumping like a marionette with a life of its own.
“Let me make you an offer,” he continued. “I will pay you double if you can go to my school in Tinos and save the students. They have to take the exams in half a year. My entire reputation is riding on their test scores. I will be ruined if they all fail.”
In true Greek style, I accepted the job in the backseat of the cab. I figured fate (I wasn’t religious at the time) had united us for mutual benefit. I didn’t even bother to give two weeks’ notice to the university. Instead I boarded the Panagia Tino, the large ferry docked in Pireaus; come Monday morning I was teaching and living on Tinos island.
[tabs type=”horizontal”][tabs_head][tab_title]The Cathedral of the Panagia Megalohari [/tab_title][/tabs_head][tab][/tab][/tabs]
On descending from the port in Tinos, the Cathedral “tis Megalocharis,” beckons on a hill high up the island. Clearly it is the center point of the entire island. The taupe fascade of the 19th century multi-story cathedral draped with white marble porticos and repeating arches resembles an overly rich wedding cake. Tinos is renowned since ancient times for its marble, some of the milkiest, purest in the world. (The Parthenon was made from Parian marble.) The long central avenue, or Evangelistria Street, that starts from the port leads straight up the hill to the cathedral.
During the Feast of the Dormition, ferries bearing pilgrims from as far away as Ethiopia spill thousands onto this main avenue from which they make their way to its pinnacle. So many miracles have occurred on the island from the intercessions of the Theotokos that many faithful make “tamata” or “vows.” In return for answered prayers, they make a promise that they fulfill in honor of the Virgin. I have seen troops of pilgrims drop to their knees from the moment they get off the boat ramp and start crawling the long half mile to the church in 95 degree heat. Most people during the 15th of August crawl while others walk while carrying 5 foot “lambades” or candles in penance or as fulfillment of a vow.
Even from the port the sweet fragrance of jasmine-Byzantine incense wafts from the many souvenir shops that line the avenue. Tinos unlike the other Cycladic islands known for Dionysian indulgence centers on religious pilgrimage. During the 15th of August, the head count jumps from 2 to 3,000 thousand to 20 to 50,000. No number of hotels and rooms can handle that capacity. It is common practice for those who make the pilgrimage to sleep on grey blankets right on the sidewalk. In fact, on the ground floor of the Cathedral, a blanket storage room holds approximately 10,000 of these grey blankets folded in half from bottom to ceiling in neat stacks each separated with layers of scattered moth balls.
That’s how I spent the night on the Vespers before the feast. I remember falling asleep in the pavilion of the church to the gong of the huge central clock.
[tabs type=”horizontal”][tabs_head][tab_title]The Miraculous Icon of the Theotokos[/tab_title][/tabs_head][tab][/tab][/tabs]
The Cathedral is an icon of the island, a reliquary for its collective history and its miraculous icon of the Panagia of The Annunciation. Miracle upon miracle is marked in the thousands of silver “tamata” or vow offerings that dangle from the walls of the many chapels attached to the main cathedral. Rows and rows of candle-lamps emanate in the red glow of the olive oil wicks burning within. The church is crowded—with lights, with incense, with pilgrims—yet there is a hushed silence, like a blanket. The stillness is punctuated only by the shrill voices of the choir and deacons who drone in Byzantine chants the troparia and kontakia to the Panagia magnified by the booming speakers tied to the columns all around the church pavilion.
There is one offering near the candle stand, a bonfire of melting gooey honey wax seeping into globs of congealed sand. It is a solid silver orange tree about two feet high with small orange globes made of pure gold. “Every tama here tells the story of a miracle,” the grandmother dressed in black kerchief who works the candles with wrinkled hands tells me. The orange tree is really a nerantzia, a bitter orange tree that grows popular all over Greece. The pilgrim had come to the Megalochari blind and had made a vow—“In gold and silver I will present to the Theotokos the first object I set my eyes on when I regain my sight.” And so, after falling asleep in the church courtyard in the hazy afternoon, he awoke to see the first thing in his view—the nerantzia tree under whose shade he had slept.
Silver and gold tamata in the shape of baby bodies, arms, legs, eyes line the icons in the church strung on long strong cords hiding saint’s faces from their collective weight. A long silver sailing ship suspended from a strong chain from the middle of the ceiling of the church catches my eye. If you look closely to the side of the hull of this silver ship, you will see half a fish, or a fish tail, coming out of its side.
Apparently, the ship had run into rough weather that had gouged a hole in its hull. It was sinking fast. The captain and crew without any other recourse fell to their knees and implored the Virgin for safety. After an hour of a most certain doom, they discovered the ship had stopped sinking. When they safely rowed to shore, they witnessed the miraculous way the Virgin had answered their prayers: a giant swordfish had become lodged in the hole plugging it more or less snugly so that no sea water could rush in. This was the token they gave as a testament to the Panagia.
The founding of the church is connected to the finding of a miraculous icon. According to the site of the Greek Ministry of Tourism, “The Church was built immediately after the discovery of the Holy Icon; its massive construction (including iconography, and the surrounded buildings) was concluded eight years later, in 1830. The Church is actually a monastery complex. Excavations showed that it was originally built on the site of an early-Byzantine church dedicated to Saint John, which was previously built on the site of an ancient temple of the ancient god Dionysus.”
The story told in detail by fellow Orthodox blogger John Sanidopoulos goes something like this: A pious elderly man Michael Polyzoes kept having a dream of a woman dressed in white telling him to dig in a field outside the city to uncover her icon. He thought it a temptation so he told the village priest and other workmen about the dream. Most laughed at him, but two believed. Secretly, they dug in the field in many places under the cover of night so as not to be found out by the occupying Turks, but they uncovered nothing.
Years later, a pious, gentle, 80-year-old nun named Pelagia who had been a monastic at a women’s monastery about an hour’s journey from the central village, started to have dreams. She too witnessed the Theotokos telling her to go to a prominent man in the village and tell him to start excavating to uncover the church of St. John the Baptist.
The nun terrified about the vision decided it was a product of her imagination. But the next week, she saw the Theotokos again in her dream telling her the same instructions. After receiving the blessing of her abbess, she contacted Stamatelos Kangades, the prominent man to start excavations. Kangades told the Bishop about this and the Bishop who had heard the dream of Polyzoes realized it was the same instructions. He sent a letter to all the churches of Tinos to help with the effort of finding the icon.
Excavations began in September 1822. The efforts uncovered the foundations of the church of St. John, destroyed by Arabs in 1200, but no icon was found. Money ran out and the project was abandoned.
For a third time, the Mother of God appeared to Pelagia urging that the excavations continue. The inhabitants, mostly poor, managed to scrape up enough money and dedicate their own labor to creating a new church that was dedicated on the old one. In January 1823, the same year the newly-emancipated Greek state was being established, a worker was leveling the ground inside the church in preparation for laying a new stone floor. He struck a piece of wood with his pickaxe, splitting it down the middle. Upon examining it, he saw it was an icon. Miraculously, when he united the two pieces of wood, the image formed an icon of the Annunciation but the split was in the middle between the Theotokos and the Archangel Gabriel.
The inhabitants filled with zeal built a magnificent new church, the current Cathedral of the Evangelistria, to house the icon in just two short years.
[tabs type=”horizontal”][tabs_head][tab_title]The Procession of the Holy Icon[/tab_title][/tabs_head][tab][/tab][/tabs]
No one can really see what The miraculous icon looks like nowadays because it is completely covered in gold and silver jewelry, tokens of thanks to the Theotokos. On vespers of the great feast, the icon is brought from the top floor of the Cathedral to the ground floor close to where it lay buried for centuries. On the day of the feast, the icon is brought out and carried through the decorated streets of the town in its gold and silver canopy supported by the church wardens. The streets are lined with souvenir shops full of baskets of incense, wooden crosses and miniature icons, an array of plastic holy water bottles stamped with the picture of the Annunciation, candles, and candle lamps, boxes and boxes of pink and yellow wicks, incensors in clay and silver, and a thousand reproductions of the Holy Icon from postcards to posters. There are white doves that fly across the azure sky as Tinos is also a place that breeds and welcomes them by constructing “peristerones” or dove huts, geometric white pigeon homes perched as architectural hats on top of buildings.
A long red carpet is strewn along Evangelistria Street where thousands of ill and paralyzed, children, adults and elderly lie, waiting for the Holy Icon to pass over them. Each year, like the paralytic waiting for the waters to churn in the Pool of Silouan, the ill take their places on the red carpet, knowing that each year the Lady will perform miracles. Every year a miracle is bound to happen, guaranteed.
“Megali I chari tis,” (Great be her grace,) the middle-aged lady on line next to me says as she crosses herself the Orthodox way. “Megali ti chari tis.”
The Church collects stories of these miracles in a huge book somewhere in the sanctuary.
Indeed, the Panagia of Tinos is a miracle in itself. The 15th of August is not only the day of the Panagia but a day that honors the Navy and other armed forces. In fact, a fleet of navy ships crowd the small harbor at the port on that day and each fires in heart-throbbing salute punctuating the resonant melodic chanting of the liturgy from the Cathedral.
One of the museums on the ground floor of the Cathedral houses the Greek war ship Elli. The naval carrier was bombed by Germans during WWII, thrusting Greece further into the war.
I lived on Tinos for eight months at least. I would take walks beyond the central avenue and meander through fields sprouting pomegrenate overlooking cliffs of majestic blue. Once I stumbled on a pasture where two magnificent chargers, one white, one brown, were grazing. I thought it was out of a dream. The beauty and peaceful serenity of the place seeped into my soul. I stumbled upon a cave-like sanctuary, all white with those white plaster stalagmites painters make on ceilings. In a crook was a long statue of the Virgin Mary white and light blue much like the garden fixtures my Italian neighbors placed in their front lawns in New York. Turns out, there is a large Catholic population on Tinos, a vestige of the Venetian empire that had laid claim to the Ionian islands, Crete and some of the Cyclades during the 17th century.
I did not know it then, but Tinos helped me heal of psychic trauma I had held onto in my very cells. It was, I think, a way the Panagia placed her mantle over me. She was guiding me in a very loving, gentle way, the way that works for all good mothers, to Christ.
May the Panagia draw you if you are perhaps carousing on the nearby islands of Mykonos or Paros to Tinos to light a candle in her sanctuary this August.