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Greece

Abbot of the Holy Trinity Monastery of Tzagarolon Bishop Damaskinos Speaks to TNH

BOSTON – A pioneering and unique institute-museum that will preserve the archives and significant items belonging to His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is being established at the historic Patriarchal and Stavropegial Holy Trinity Monastery of Tzagarolon in Chania on the island of Crete.

The National Herald has learned that His Eminence Metropolitan Emmanuel Geron of Chalcedon will be the president of this ecclesiastical institution for the preservation of historical documents and promoting research and learning.

His Grace Bishop Damaskinos of Dorylaeum, the youthful, learned, able, and visionary Abbot of the monastery, has assumed the historic responsibility for the creation of this archive and Patriarchal institute.  

Bishop Damaskinos, who is dedicated to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Mother Church of Constantinople, is a rising hierarch not only in the Archdiocese of Crete but of the Orthodox Church as a whole.

In an exclusive interview with The National Herald His Grace Bishop Damaskinos spoke about the Patriarchal Institute, the history of the Holy Trinity Monastery of Tzagarolon, the daily life of the monks, the role of monasticism in the life of the Church, the pandemic, and the Orthodox Diaspora.

The entire interview follows:  

TNH: What is the Patriarch Bartholomew Study and Research Foundation, what will it consist of, and what will its mission be?

Bishop Damaskinos: It is a pioneering and important work supporting our historical heritage that will preserve archives and items of our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The ultimate goal is to deliver this valuable historical material to future generations.

This is the essence of the project and we are all very proud to be leading it to its immediate implementation. The Foundation will be run by the Council which will consist of influential people from the Orthodox Church and society in general.

TNH: What prompted you to establish it?

Bishop Damaskinos: We created it based on the proposal of the Minister of Culture, Mrs. Lia Mendoni, and with the approval of the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Their contribution to the establishment of the Foundation has been decisive. We think it is very important to identify something that does not yet exist and to create it. When we received the blessing and approval of His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew, we were delighted and certain that it would be an essential institution for our history and beneficial to the local area.

TNH: Is there anything similar in the Archdiocese of Crete or in another part of Greece or the world?

Bishop Damaskinos: It is the only historical institution that will preserve such a global religious and cultural heritage of our Orthodox Faith. That is why all preparations are being made with the necessary care so that the result is what we have envisioned. The answer to your question is, therefore, that it is the first institution created for this purpose and we are looking forward to launching it.

TNH:  When do you anticipate its completion?

Bishop Damaskinos: With the systematic actions are planning and the help of God we are striving to have this unique institution inaugurated by the Aristoteleion University of Thessaloniki and the Ecumenical Patriarch in October, 2023. God willing! We pray that He will allow us to experience this joy.

TNH: Your Grace, what is the climate in the ecclesiastical life of the monastery during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Bishop Damaskinos: The functional life in our Monastery has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the contrary, the prayer life of the monks has become stronger by begging the Lord to help make this deadly virus disappear quickly. The believers, after all, require that from us, and this is also the duty of the monk, to pray, as always, that God will have mercy on us. Now that human life has been put in so much danger, we all need it more than ever.

TNH: Tell us about the Holy Monastery of Tzagarolon, its foundation, its historical course, its testimony and contributions, its uniqueness.

Bishop Damaskinos: The Holy Monastery of Aghia Triada (Holy Trinity) of Tzagarolon was built on the site of the church of St. Paul, which belonged to the family of the Murtari. In the census of 1637 it is referred to as the monastery and church of St. Paul. The Murtari were one of 63 noble refugee families who fled to Crete from Constantinople after 1453. Ioannis (Jeremiah) and Luke (Laurentios) were brothers from the family of Tzagaroli, Orthodox nobles of Venetian origin. Jeremiah in 1589 was a simple monk in Gderneto, probably along with Laurentios, but they left the monastery because they were displeased.

Then they decided to build the Holy Trinity monastery and Jeremiah went to Mount Athos to find a design for the building.

Initially he stayed in the monastery of Vatopedi, where he was appointed a carpenter (to transport wood for the monks) and copied some designs of its buildings. Then he went to Lavra, took on the same project, and had been secretly drawing up designs for some time. During an argument between the fathers about a phrase in Holy Scripture, it was found that he was not some simple monk and he was forced to reveal himself. He was subsequently allowed to copy the designs.

The construction of the monastery of the Holy Trinity seems to have already begun by the end of the 16th century and the abbot was Laurentios, who died of poisoning in Aghia Kyriaki in Aleppo and was buried in Aghia Triada before the construction of the monastery. He was succeeded in the abbacy by Joachim Sofianos, the offspring of a family from Chania, who finished much of the courtyard by 1610. He died leaving considerable property, but set out in his will that the income be distributed to the monks according to the standards of their particular way of life and left the management to secular administrators.

The immediate consequence was the neglect of the property of the monastery, resulting in its destruction. That is why the Venetian State Commissioners of Chania in 1610 assigned the abbacy to Jeremiah, who was a monk of Aghia Kyriaki.

Jeremiah suggested that Holy Trinity become a commune and he was entrusted with its abbacy for six years, beginning in January 1611. The main construction work took place between 1622-1634. The cistern east of the courtyard and the ground floor buildings were constructed in 1613 (according to inscription in the warehouse), along with the ‘klaustra’ (arched two-storey cells) and the abbey – the reconstruction of the church began as well. The façade of the Katholikon bears an inscription dated 1636, so is was completed after Jeremiah's death in 1634.

The edifice was unusual and imposing for that era and it was constantly under construction for half a century thanks to the efforts of man, aristocrats, priests, humble laity, and monks. However, the Katholikon was not totally completed, since the Turks conquered Chania and for this reason only a wooden dome was constructed.

In the first hundred years of the Turkish occupation the monastery progressed, but the depredations of the Janissaries, the taxes, and the debts brought it to bankruptcy. At the end of June, 1821 the Turks attacked Akrotiri – the monks fled to the mountains and the Turks set fire to the monastery. The wooden dome, an impressive Venetian chandelier with double-headed eagles and other emblems of the royal family of Austria, a tribute to a consul, the rich and gilded iconostasis, and the canopy over the Holy Altar, were burned. The Turks destroyed and grabbed icons, two silver gospels, crosses, silver candles, lamps, chalices, censers, ecclesiastical medals and staffs, mitres, heirlooms, codexes, books, part of the archive, the venerable icon of the Presentation of the Trimartyri/Mary – and they desecrated the tombs in the Chapel of the Metamorphosis and the ossuary.

The monastery was deserted and it was not until 1827, with the written permission of Mustafa Pasha, that the priests Kalliopios and Gregory, originating from Akrotiri, settled in the monastery. They found out, however, that their habitation was not safe, since Turks from Selino had settled in Akrotiri and distributed the estates of the monastery. Thus, they abandoned it and returned with written permission (May 11, 1830), along with those monks who survived the Greek revolution. They assigned the management of the monastery to the elder Hilarion Stratigakis, they repaired the premises, the monastery became habitable, and they restored the dome of the Katholikon.

In 1832-33 a Greek school was founded in the monastery and in 1862 another Greek school led by the monk Jeremiah Vernadakis and one in Chania was funded by the monastery, which in addition, supported students and sponsored scholarships. Furthermore, Aghia Triada gave 30,150 grosia (the currency of the time) for schools, out of the 60,000 grosia given annually by the four monasteries of Chania. In 1892 the Seminary for the Education of Priests and Teachers was founded here, which was developed into a Seminary in 1930.

During the revolution of 1866 many monks abandoned the monastery, fearing attacks by the Turks although the monastery was protected by a Turkish guard and suffered no damage. In the summer of 1889 2,000 Christians took refuge in the monastery to protect themselves. On January 24, 1897 the rebels raised the Greek flag in Aghia Triada. During the revolution the monastery was a guesthouse, warehouse, and hospital for the rebels, and was the main source of food for the Akrotiri revolutionary group. It also provided food for the people of Akrotiri and the approximately 2,000 hungry women and children who had taken refuge in the nearby valleys.

By the Law 276/1900 the monastery was classified as dissolved. Bishop Nikiforos ordered the monks to settle outside the monastery so that the seminary could be housed there, but they refused, citing its stavropegial status, and a dispute began. On one side, the monks were supported by the newspapers and the deputies of western Crete and on the other side were Nikiforos and the Education and Justice Advisor A. Voreadis. The newspapers of Chania and the deputies of western Crete supported the monastery’s preservation, citing religious, national, historical, social, and environmental reasons. And they disputed the conversion of rooms at the expense of the monks for the seminary. The issue concerned the Synod of Crete and the Patriarchate, so official minutes and numerous documents were drawn up, but the monks persisted and the conflict ended after the reconstitution of the monastery by Law 553/1903. Overall, the contribution of the monastery to the nation and to education was impressive.

As a building, it is the most impressive monastic complex of Chania. It is of the fortress type, forming a large quadrilateral, and its center is dominated by the impressive Katholikon. The church is tri-conch in form with a dome and a pronaos, and two small chapels. The southern one is dedicated to the ‘Taxiarches’ – the Archangels Michael and Gabriel – and to the north is one for John the Baptist. There are two more above them,  to the south is one dedicated to the Holy Cross and to the north there is one for the Holy Apostles that were inaugurated in 1863. Southeast of the church there is the chapel of the Metamorphosis. Built in 1612, it is one of the most important examples of the Cretan Renaissance.

The monastery combines elements of Orthodox monastic practice with Western architectural forms and thus expresses the convergence of Byzantine art with Renaissance trends. Its characteristics are the strict symmetry and the use of forms from classical antiquity. On the façade, the doric columns are impressive, and there is an inscription on the front door that reads: "ΕΙΣ ΘΕΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΡΙΣΙ ΚΑΙ ΤΑ ΤΡΙΑ ΕΝ" (One God in three and all three in one). On the templon’s entablature are the letters ΒΓΥΘΤΠ and at the entrance there is an inscription that mentions the founders, Jeremiah and Laurentios, and the year ΑΧΛΔ =1634 – that is the western-style year in Byzantine numbers.

For the construction of the monastery, the families of Murtari and Tzagarolon, the abbot Joachim Sofianos, and priests and landowners in various areas of Chania donated large amounts of property.

Tournefort states that the monastery sometimes had 100 monks but in 1700 only 50, in 1778 it had 12, while in 1794 many monks are mentioned. Before 1821 there were 50 monks and 13 deacons, about 30 in the period 1838-1866, and 22 in the census of 1881.

The museum exhibits the heirlooms that were preserved and are mainly icons, vestments, sacred utensils, manuscripts, old books, and official documents.

TNH: Would you describe to us how you spend your day in the Monastery?

Bishop Damaskinos: The day in our Monastery begins with the Service of Orthos and the Divine Liturgy. Afterwards, the Monks are employed in various forms of service, including cooking, the care of crops and livestock units, the hospitality of visitors, cleaning, etc. They also deal with viticulture, olive cultivation, beekeeping, and livestock farming – these are the efforts of our Monastery that highlight the agricultural work of our country. At noon it’s the Gathering, the sacred hour of eating that finds all the monks around the table to communicate and organize the other tasks that are necessary to be done while dining with the food prepared by the brother who has undertaken this job for this week. In the afternoon, Vespers is held, and the evening dinner is eaten. When the brothers have free time, they usually spend it in the library of the Monastery, a place of study and research.

TNH: Given that monasticism is the joyful sadness of the Church, the witness of the last in the now and the present, what message do you think monasticism has to give to the modern world?

Bishop Damaskinos:  Die before you die so that you won’t die when you die. The monk's life is this expression daily. When you die every day to earthly and material things, you experience afterwards the mental resurrection. The mental resurrection is what we pray for every day. Full devotion to this destination does not allow any attachment to material goods and that is why the monk tries with prayer not to need any material and earthly pleasure.

TNH: What are some of the questions that people and especially young people ask you about the Orthodox Faith? What issues concern them not only now because of the coronavirus, but more generally?

Bishop Damaskinos: Questioning is an excellent and timeless activity that has always been a big concern. The big “why should all this be happening to the world?” “How are we going to get out of this?” “Why do the churches shut their doors to the people…” We are very happy when young and old people visit us in the Monastery and are willing to communicate to us their anxieties, their problems, their joys and sorrows. By talking to them we can understand them and give them pieces of good advice. Through this communication we also learn many useful things and young people never stop surprising us because it is these very questions that lead them to the search for Truth, to Christ. Questions about their interpersonal relationships, existential quests, dilemmas with which they are confronted every day, the search for solutions to the problems they face are included in some of our discussions.

TNH:  Does Orthodox Theology have anything to say today, and if so, what is it and what is the best way to express it?

Bishop Damaskinos: In such a difficult time, Orthodoxy speaks daily to the souls of all of us, to the beating hearts of those confronting COVID, addressing the superhuman efforts of doctors, in solidarity with the struggling brethren, in compassion for the unhappy of the world, with a vaccine of love and altruism following the example of our Lord. Orthodoxy has been, is, and will always be close to all people who face difficulties, even when it is not visible and not being expressed. Material support, exhortation to follow God's way, and above all, prayer is the power that Orthodoxy offers to mankind.

TNH:  What is your opinion of the Omogenia of America? What are we to you?

Bishop Damaskinos: You are our precious ambassadors to such a distant continent who convey that the Greek Orthodox spirit is alive. You are the ones who for whatever reason were forced to move away from the homeland, but you never turned your back on this small but at the same time great country, our Greece. You are the ones who commemorate every anniversary of the history of Greece, who teach your children our language, and they transmit it in turn to future generations. You know, the dissemination of our language automatically means the dissemination of our culture and you are the inexhaustible source of the dissemination of Greek culture to the ends of the World. We are proud to see you progress and excel!

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