If The Good Nous were to have a patron Saint, it might very well be Saint Demetrius. He has been present throughout each of our lives. Some of us even call his city our home. However, his importance to us and our little project go far beyond Thessaloniki.
Everywhere we go across the Orthodox world, we find St Demetrius. Whether in the old world or new, irregardless of calendars, dioceses, or cultures, his strength, courage, gentleness, and above all his faith, serve as a living portrait for us to emulate.
In honor of the feast of our beloved commander and comforter, we are sharing two unique perspectives of his home city.
- Boosalis Brothers
Embroidered Icon of St. Demetrius by Amfion
St Demetrius: Leader of the Liturgical City
By Ioannis Koutsousimos
In Thessaloniki, the Feast of St Demetrius on Oct. 26th is also a celebration of the Saint’s liberation of the city from Ottoman rule and foreign invasion in 1912. Ioannis Koutsousimos, an Orthodox theologian from Thessaloniki with a PhD in Pastoral Psychology from Aristotle University interested in Greek literature and the arts of painting and engraving, shares with us a reflection on St Demetrius as a ‘military saint’ who leads the Church first and foremost in liturgy and prayer, and points us to Christ; a saint who, while being a Christian of impeccable repute in secular society, was willing to give it all up for Christ’s sake.
Thessaloniki is not simply the co-capital of Greece in modern times, nor was it only the imperial co-capital of the Byzantine Empire in history. To this day it is essentially a “liturgical city” that exudes the fragrance of the Church’s unceasing liturgical life. Her parishes are abundant and filled with life. And needless to say, there is also St Demetrios. Not only is there the church that stands in his memory with its lovely architecture, but the Saint himself stands in representation of Thessaloniki as an existing city: as an inhabitable space within a country, and within a world, brimming with tension. The city remains bound to this Saint, since he, Demetrius, the beloved of God, is the pillar, the heart, the eye at its center. Most people, as they cross themselves and take a deep breath the moment they set out to begin a new job, a new journey, or to endure a time of trial, will take recourse to a Saint: to speak to him, to ask for help, and seek his aid, to lay down their life at his feet. And that is what St Demetrius is for us, the “Commander of the Liturgical Battalion,” who takes on himself the heart and soul of every person in the entire inhabited earth.
It may seem here as if this particular Holy Saint were gradually replacing the first and only truly Holy One, our Lord Jesus Christ, but that is not at all the case. It is from the grace of God that St Demetrius has received his rank as Thessaloniki’s “strategic eye” and his recognition as the miraculous Myrrh-Streamer. This is an indication that God does not so much want to make a demonstration of His own invincible power, as to glorify His own creation, man, whom He honored with “His image” (Gen. 1:26): to glorify this man, Demetrius, who surrendered his will to conform to the “likeness” of the Crucified God-Man. St Demetrius streams forth the fragrance of sanctity and life precisely because he lived his life as another “crucified one”. Thus, the first and preeminent Crucified One took joy to look upon him, to see how he loved life and loved Him who “first loved” Demetrius (Jn 4:19).
St Demetrius does not mandate anything. Rather, by his example, his life, and his will to live as an authentic “icon” of the God-Man, he draws all the people of Thessaloniki that hunger and thirst to see themselves and their own personal path in the light of the Divine Liturgy. Demetrius, although he held a high secular rank that granted him a tremendous amount of authority and power, resigned therefrom —giving it all up— for the sake of Christ and His gospel. He hands down to us as an endowment and rightful inheritance the ‘art of giving up one’s life’ —when the proper moment comes— for the sake of the beloved Bridegroom; for the sake of the Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8); for the sake of Him who became incarnate that He might allow incarnate people to celebrate their own birthday into life everlasting on the day of their biological death. (1) Thus, on the 26th of October, the Saint invites all of Thessaloniki —every single person— to join in the festivities of eternal life. And even if Thessaloniki does not always showcase its best and brightest at the time of the feast, the Saint nevertheless continues to do his work of offering radiant myrrh, not just to be kept as a sacred memento, but as a beacon that points to the Star of the life we have long hoped for: to Him who Is and who Was and who Is to Come (Rev. 1:4,8). (2)
Translated by Ignatius Gardner
- The days on which martyrs died were commemorated as their “birthdays” in the early Church, cf. Tertullian, De Corona 3.3.
- In Thessaloniki and, more generally, in the Balkans, the Feast of St Demetrius marks the transition from fall into winter, pointing forward to the Star of the Messiah to be celebrated at Christmas.
When the Bell Tolls
By Nicholas Dudler
Nicholas Dudler, an American student of Modern Greek at Aristotle University, shares fresh insights on the language and culture of Thessaloniki; he has been immersing himself in the language for the past year and here offers a tasting menu of some of the Greek words that illustrate the inner dynamics of social and spiritual life: logismoí, katányxi, ýphos. They’ll surely prove helpful for pilgrims to Greece, or to any Orthodox monastery in the world for that matter!
As we reflect on the feast day of St. Demetrius, the protector of Thessaloniki, one can’t help but reflect on the spiritual life of the city. Like the best things in life, the Orthodox core of the city is hidden, and requires seeking out. Like the prayer of the heart, it needs to be experienced — not from an external, descriptive lens, but through personal experience.
When I first arrived in Thessaloniki, I took an hour-long walk through town. In that time alone, we passed no fewer than a dozen churches. I was personally able to venerate the relics of St. Demetrios, St. Anysia, St. Theodora, St. Gregory Palamas, and St. David in a matter of minutes. Within the inner city walls alone, there are 22 Orthodox churches. Walking past the Rotunda, I asked a friend when services were held. “Every day.” I raised an eyebrow — ‘Church every day? Isn’t that something they only do on Mount Athos?’ Another friend from our paréa chimed in: “There are vigils every Friday night into the early morning. Want to join this week? There’s a gathering for young adults after in the church hall.” Both of my eyebrows raised this time.
Strolling down Agia Sophia street, a quick glance at the outside of the Agia Sophia Cathedral reveals a somewhat mundane scene. A group of schoolchildren kick a ball around the Agia Sophia square, and the yiayiádes (grandmas) lug mountains of tomatoes and eggplants from the local market, presumably to craft their grandkids’ favorite moussaka. From the exterior, the visual appeal of the Orthodox churches are captivating. The Byzantine iconography and architecture, preserved in many cases from before the Ottoman occupation over 500 years ago, are certainly an object to marvel at.
Agia Sophia Cathedral and Square, its current structure dating back to the 7th century.
Stepping into the church is like stepping into a relative’s home. It welcomes us immediately with familiar smells, faces, and a seat at the table. The Saints are omnipresent, always in anticipation of the glorious Liturgy. Even on the nights we stay out too late drinking retsína, a local resinated wine, with paréa at the Bit Bazaar (which hosts antique shops by day and crowded tavernas by night), the Saints are attending to us, interceding in our lives, waiting for us to enter and join in their prayers.
Understanding the tradition of the Orthodox Church is more than visual, however. Sight is just one of the senses engaged. For the full effect, you must be present in the nave during the Liturgy. In other words, you must sit with your elbows draped over the stasídi arms, and with ancient Byzantine hymns caressing your eardrums — with perplexing scents of incense hovering and the silent embrace of a prayerful atmosphere softening your consciousness. This quiet beyond quiet — this pervasive silence that can be felt but not seen — is known as katányxi. It comes from the Greek word for “pierce”, indicating a sort of soft silence that pierces the heart.
St Paisios’ stasídi, or seat for standing and sitting during prayer, in his kellí at Panagouda, Mt Athos
The paradox of katányxi is that it doesn’t always lead to a peaceful mind. As we learn from the holy fathers on Mt. Athos, the mind is full of logismoí— thoughts, either good or bad, which pervade our mental space. When our surroundings are silent, our mind darts back and forth looking for stimulus. Like a child who is easily distracted, our mind flitters about with trivialities, like the beets we forgot sitting on the counter, the message we need to send to our work colleague, or the slight dryness in our throat because we ate one too many gyros last night. ‘Oh, if only I had a refreshing frappé right now.’
In the chair adjacent, a slim figure rests his head on his hands. He might be asleep. Or praying. ‘The holy fathers say that sleeping in church is better than sleeping at home— so does it really matter? He’s there in the same chair every Tuesday morning for Orthros, but what is his daily life like? What does he eat for breakfast? Is he really a lazybones taking advantage of the church’s central heating so he can avoid paying for Greece’s skyrocketing natural gas prices? Or is he some kind of Saint just pretending to sleep?’ … Focus, the logismoí are back!
A young mother enters the nave with a stroller. I’m surprised, given that it’s past midnight and the baby is still awake. Pulling out her young child, she moves in the direction of an icon of the Virgin Mary. The baby reaches out its stubby arms and lets out a gargle, pointing in the direction of the icon. It wants to kiss it. I quickly scan the rest of the room, noting the young people who know the tropária by heart. It’s no wonder so many Saints came from this city, when they are exposed to Orthodoxy from such an early age.
I recently heard from a theology student that he started Liturgy one morning at the St. Gregory Palamas Metropolis church and then went to the Virgin Mary Achieropoitos church up the road an hour later to take communion. We are truly spoiled for choice in Thessaloniki! Finding a home church here is like dating. Each parish has its own personality and quirks. Each church also has a unique chanting ýphos that varies from a booming Constantinople style to a penitential monastic style. This is not to say that some are “better” than others or that they contain “more katányxi.” Each holds immeasurable value, but we are drawn to certain churches because they bring out the best in us.
May St. Demetrios intercede for us all! Chrónia pollá to all those celebrating today. Join us next time as we resume our series: The Liturgical Year: A Living Commentary. Please share with others you think may enjoy this too!
paréa: group of friends and companions; a word that comes from Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish.
logismós (plural: logismoí): thought, mental distraction
kellí: a small monastic dwelling or monastic cell.
katányxi: pervasive inner silence, a feeling associated with the interior of churches in Greece; literally, a “piercing” of the heart; the warmth of compunction and repentance.
ýphos: spiritual manner or style of expression; a word used to indicate the unique manner in which someone “weaves together” (yphaino) their words and phrases, whether in chanting or speaking.
tropária: short hymns in honor of a saint or feast day; the most popular tropária are the apolytíkia, or “dismissal hymns”.
chrónia pollá: “[May you have] many years”, a common blessing wished for those celebrating their name day or birthday.
*Pronunciation: y, i, and oi all pronounced “ee” as in bee, while í shows where the stress falls.