11 December 2008

The Miracles of Ag. Demetrios-Karakalas

Nuns from an icon since the nuns of Ag. Demetrios Karakalas are not to be photographed, although the nuns of Ag. Demetrios Karakalas could never show the grimness on these faces.
One of our visits was on the twenty-sixth of October, the Feastday of the saint,
and the road was clogged with pick-up trucks and small cars and ery small donkeys. The crowd had clotted at the convent gates, waiting to pass the gauntlet of gypsies, beggars, and pretty girls who sold lottery and admission tickets. Inside the gate we were snatched by Sister Akakia who rushed us into the parlour calling ahead to the others that we had returned and calling back to us that she wanted us to see their miracle.
On each visit the nuns told us stories of miracles, in the matter-of-fact way in which children discuss Christmas presents: one feels a certain confidence in their reports. On this visit they introduced us to a woman who had experienced a miracle in the convent three years earlier. She was a thin woman with large tranquil eyes, though pain had clawed deep lines in her face. She told her story.
For some years, she had been depressed, finally, to the point of anorexia and aphasia. Her family was in despair. They brought her to the convent for help, and their whole village came with them. At night they came to the chapel with its great double doors, a dark sweet church smelling of incense and lemon oil and fresh flowers and bread, and they knelt and prayed together all night long.
In the night, Agios Demetrios rode into the church on his red horse, and pointed his spear at her and said, "Speak."
She said, "I can't speak."
He said again, "Speak."
She said, "I can't speak."
He said, "Speak."
She said, "I don't have anything to say." And then Panagia, the Mother Holy above All, came and put her arms around her and patted her, saying over and over again, "Everything will be all right."
She and her family and her village prayed in the chapel for three nights. Each night Agios Demetrios rode in and commanded her, "Speak," and each night Panagia came and held her and said, "Everything will be all right."
And everything was all right. She was able to speak, and at the convent she was helped to eat again. For the first year after that, she wore black; in part to honour the miracle, but also to bury the sickness, and because even in healing, a certain loss must be acknowledged.
The nuns were delighted with this miracle, but not boastful, for the roses were blooming exceptionally well for the end of October, and a child was playing in the courtyard who was expected to die. These women all assumed that miracles are reasonable happenings. They radiate good health, bodily and mentally, all of them moving not as women who have made sacrifices, but as women who are constantly receiving abundance.
On this feastday they went about their duties, embracing women and children, cooing over each little Demetrios or Demetria, or Mimis or Dimitri or Demetra or Dimitraki, the new crop of babies since last feast day, all fat and engulfed in hand-embroidered baby clothes and clouds of blankets. The sisters applauded other women's pregnancies, exclaimed over this year's new engagement and wedding rings, passed out plates of candied apricots, relayed messages, complimented each other, and carried stacks of handwoven and embroidered linens to the guest rooms which were crammed wall to wall with pallets for the pilgrims.

We had met other miracles there, such as Sister Paraskevi, thin and precise like the point of a librarian's pencil. She was, for a Greek, tall and thin; her triangular face barely visible under her wimple; a prominent nose and chin. She had a masculine walk and a masculine handclasp, meaning that she showed great self-possession, confidence, authority.

She described herself to us, on her arrival at the convent, as sickly, scrawny, mean, complaining, depressed, unloveable, and so nearsighted as to be nearly blind. She chose Paraskevi as her convent name, for the saint who has particular responsibility for eyes. She bathed her eyes regularly with water that had been poured over a miraculous icon of Agia Paraskevi, and wore a scapular with a piece of cotton soaked in the miraculous oil from the tomb of Agios Demetrios.
She had a nervous habit of doodling. Someone, she said "the convent," saw that what she did was good, and encouraged her to draw. She drew constantly, losing as she did so her tendency to whine and to feel poorly, and her eyes were not so weak. The convent bought her books on art and painting, reproductions to study, and she gradually trained herself as an icon painter. She became widely known; the convent had a long backlog of orders for her work from churches all over Greece.
Sister Akakia was another example of this particular intelligence in the convent. She had come to Ag. Demetrios Karakalas after living in Crete for twenty years as a weaver. In the first months she was depressed and lonely, and "the convent" asked what made her happy at home. When she spoke of weaving, they provided her with a loom and the necessary materials, and she delightedly taught Sister Christoforo and some of the others how to weave. All the hangings in the church and the convent were of their own weaving, as were the vestments of the priest of the Evangelistria in Nauplion. When he stood among the brocades and samites of the other clergy in a simple white cotton sprinkled with blue flowers, he had the appearance of the true prince among the false claimants.

The convent -- a monastery until the end of World War II -- has survived Venetians, Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Egyptians, and Germans, all of whom harassed and burned and killed. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the monastery gave refuge to klefts from the mountains, and some said that the monks were themselves klefts. It was dynamited by the Germans under the assumption that it was sheltering andartes from ELAS in the sick bay; in the depredations of the Civil War, it was fired by Communists who claimed that it was aiding the Government troops, and fired by Government troops because it was hiding Communists. They were both right: the monks were never particular about the political views of the wounded.

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