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Saint Porphyrios

Saint Porphyrios: “You can become a saint anywhere”

The most-holy temple of the Comforter,
and the beloved of the all-pure Theotokos.
Let us praise Porphyrios from our heart,
for he loves and heals all, and protects,
and intercedes, that we be granted theosis.
Therefore, we cry out: Rejoice, O Father Porphyrios.
(Kontakion, tone 4).

On December 2, the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of the Venerable Elder Porphyrios of Kavsokalivia. An ascetic, similar in spirit to the ancient fathers, was born in the 20th century. This miracle of God’s mercy to the human race continues to amaze and inspire thousands of people from across the world to work for the salvation of their souls.

The future saint was born in 1906 in a small Greek village of Agios Ioannis in the province of Karystia on the Greek island of Evia (Euboea), into a poor family of Leonidas and Eleni Bairaktaris. At baptism he received the name Evangelos. The boy’s father, a church singer, often accompanied St. Nektarios of Aegina when the Metropolitan served in distant parishes.

The family had five children. Eventually, Leonidas was forced to travel to America, where he worked in the construction of the Panama Canal. Like all village children, Angelos (as the boy was affectionately called by his relatives) grazed cattle and helped around the house. The boy managed to finish only two grades of elementary school, when at the age of eight he began to work in a coal mine, and then behind a store counter.

Having barely learned to read, Angelos became acquainted with the life of St. John the Hut-dweller, which sparked in the boy’s soul a desire to pursue the monastic life and to imitate the Saint. Having learned from one of the customers about the Holy Mountain, the boy started to dream about serving God in the monastic rank on Athos. Several times Evangelos boarded a ship to the Holy Mountain, but every time his love for parents forced him to return home. In 1918, the 12-year-old boy finally overcame his hesitation and settled on Mount Athos where he began living in obedience to the elder Panteleimon, whom he met on the ship. Children were not allowed on the Holy Mountain, so the elder took the boy into his custody, calling him his nephew. Later Venerable Porphyrios recalled his arrival on Athos in the following way:

“Father Panteleimon said, ‘Minor children have never been accepted on Mount Athos. You are still too young to come here, but do not worry. We will have to tell a lie, but God will forgive us for it. In the face of God this lie will become truth, since you love Christ with all your heart and wish to come to the Holy Mountain to bow down before Him. If someone asks you about your “relation to the elder”, tell them that I am your uncle. I will say that you are my nephew, my sister’s child.’ So we got to the Daphni pier. After we disembarked, the elder stepped away from me a little. At that point, a soldier wearing a puffy skirt and a cap with a tassel came up to me. He grabbed me and threw me back on the ship, which had already started to pull away. “What are you doing here? Get out!” he shouted to me. I cried, as I watched the ship begin to move away from the Holy Mountain. When the elder saw that, he spoke to the soldier in a loud voice, telling him to turn the ship around, because I was his nephew.”

The Cell of Saint George in Kavsokalyvia
The Cell of Saint George in Kavsokalyvia

The elder Panteleimon lived in Kavsokalivia, an Athonite hermitage with about 40 cells. At the beginning of his monastic path, Evangelos was guided by two experienced mentors: Father Panteleimon lived at St George’s Hermitage together with his natural brother Ioannikios. The young novice devoted himself to his spiritual fathers with great love and in a spirit of utter obedience. He selflessly and humbly followed their instructions, walking barefoot all year round and living in a cold cell. Evangelos tried to pay maximum attention to prayer and followed the daily cycle of services, memorising troparia and the Holy Gospel. In his own words, in those years he was “a perpetual motion machine”.

Saint Porphyrios in his youth on Mount Athos
Saint Porphyrios in his youth on Mount Athos

At the age of 16 he took his final monastic vows of the Great Schema with the name Niketas. The Lord, in His grace, vouchsafed to the young monk supernatural gifts, such as understanding the meaning of sounds made by birds and animals, distinguishing shades of aromas produced by flowers at great distances and “reading” some of the most subtle signs of nature. The grace of God revealed to his pure soul the knowledge that no university in the world would teach. Father Niketas could “see” the depths of the earth, such as oil deposits, underground springs and buried ancient cities. He saw places consecrated by prayer and knew about past events as if he were a direct witness to them.

Most importantly, however, he could see the depths of a human soul and its secret thoughts. By looking at a person he was able to immediately diagnose his physical and mental illnesses. His touch healed many people, although he himself was sick all his life and never asked the Lord for personal health. He never sought anything for himself, but only for the glory of God and the benefit of his neighbour. Geronda was meek and humble, increasing in himself these gifts of grace over the years and never attributing them to himself, but only to God.

One rainy day, contrary to Father Panteleimon’s blessing, Father Ioannikios sent the young novice to gather snails. Descending through impassable terrain, Father Niketas was crossing a ridge littered with broken stones and rubble. When he reached the middle, the scree began to move down from the top of the mountain, dragging stones, blocks and everything else on its way. The monk’s feet sank into the stones up to his knees, and he could no longer walk. Facing this mortal danger, Fr. Niketas shouted, calling upon the Mother of God. A second later, an invisible force threw him to the massive rocks on the opposite side of the gorge twenty meters away. That was a rescue performed by God. Due to hypothermia, Father Niketas fell ill with pleurisy, and the elders were forced to send him home for treatment. Despite having recovered, Father Niketas could no longer return to the hermitage of St. George. His disease returned every time after two weeks on Mount Athos. With tears the elders gave him their blessing to leave for the monastery of St. Charalambos near his native village.

The Venerable lived in the monastery of St. Charalambos from 1925 to 1940. Archbishop Porphyrios of Sinai ordained the 21-year-old monk to the priesthood and gave him his own name Porphyrios. Soon Father Porphyrios became a confessor and spiritual father. In 1932, the 32-year-old hieromonk became an archimandrite, and in 1940 he was appointed rector of the St. Gerasimos Church at the Athens Hospital. Here, in the midst of worldly turmoil, the Venerable served for 33 years.

Imitating the life of the apostles, calling upon the name of Christ without ceasing, and proclaiming the love of God to all, you have always been abiding in this love, healing many souls and leading them to the risen Lord. Therefore, dwelling with the saints, hasten and guide us so that we too may come into the arms of God, joyfully crying out to you: Rejoice, venerable Father Porphyrios (Troparion, tone 8)

The elder believed that a simple, rural lifestyle was the best way to live. He advised overcoming the spirit of despondency with prayer and walking in the open air. When one of his spiritual daughters told the Elder that she often fell into depression, he asked her, “Why are you staying at home?” “Where would I go?” she asked. “Take a walk, go to the mountains. It really helps.” Encouraging his spiritual children to go skiing in the mountains, he said, “In the mountains, you can contemplate the sky and snow, and all the beauty of the landscape, thinking of the One who created all this.”

Thanks to his gift of discernment, the Venerable never strongly urged a person to make a particular decision. He was always guided by his listeners’ ability to perceive what he was about to say. If he realised that the person was spiritually immature, he spoke very briefly or gave various examples so that the questioner could answer his own question.

When talking about the upbringing of children, Father Porphyrios always put prayer in the first place. He used to say,

Mothers know how to worry and give advice. They talk a lot, but they do not know how to pray. Too much advice and guidance is harmful. Children do not need many words. Words hit their ears, but the prayer goes to the heart. Raising children takes prayer without stress, but with faith and a good example. Become holy and your children will grow up to be kind people.

Elder Porphyrios with spiritual children
Elder Porphyrios with spiritual children

In 1973, Father Porphyrios retired. He settled in the monastery of St. Nicholas in Kallissia where he continued to serve and instruct his spiritual children. In 1978 with the help of close friends, the elder founded a female hermitage in Milesi, consecrated in honour of the Transfiguration of the Lord, where he lived until the early 1980s.

Striving to reveal to his spiritual children the beauty of life in Christ, Father Porphyrios once said,

“Poor people… We live, we read books […] and yet we remain in a relaxed state, recklessly living without Christ. Christ is different. When He comes to a person, entering his soul, the soul changes. A soul [that knows Christ] lives everywhere: on the stars, in the spiritual world, in the Universe. Life without Christ is not real life. It is over. If you do not see Christ in all your deeds and thoughts, you are left without Him. It is like the children’s song that goes, ‘With Christ you are everywhere, and there is no fear anywhere.’ Christ is never gloomy, sorrowful or withdrawn. Christ is the new life. Christ is everything. He is joy. He is life. He is the light, the true light, allowing a person to rejoice, to fly, to see everything and everyone, and to hurt for everyone, wishing that everyone would be near him and near Christ. Love Christ and prefer nothing to His love. He is the source of life, He is everything. Everything most beautiful is in Christ.”

Elder Porphyrios in the final years of his earthly life
Elder Porphyrios in the final years of his earthly life

In 1984, anticipating his imminent departure from this world, Venerable Porphyrios asked permission to return to Athos and stay at the former place of his solitary life in the hermitage of St. George. He sent a few of his novices there and founded a small brotherhood. In 1991 the Elder moved to Athos, where on December 2, 1991 he ended his earthly journey.

Instructing his disciples, the elder advised in spiritual warfare to focus not on the enemy and his wiles, but on being with Christ:

When it dawns and a ray of sunlight enters our room, the darkness inevitably recedes. Why are we chasing darkness? Let us turn on the light, and the darkness will go away by itself. Let us let Christ dwell in our souls, and the demons will be certain to leave. Christ is waiting for us to open our hearts to Him albeit a little. The minute we do, He immediately enters and gives us everything.

He often said that holiness does not depend on the time and place of our ascetic deeds:

One can become a saint anywhere. At your work, whatever it may be, you can become holy through meekness, patience, and love. Every day, make a new beginning, a new disposition with enthusiasm, love, prayer and silence.

Elder Porphyrios was added to the calendar of saints on November 27, 2013 and he is commemorated on December 2.

O faithful, let us praise the son of Evia, the initiate of divine vision and a true friend of Christ: Porphyrios, who from childhood was filled with divine gifts. Glory to him who gave his might to you! Glory to him who made you holy! Glory to him, who, through you, grants healings to all (Troparion, tone 1).