LETTER FROM GETHSEMANE
ABOUT THE IKON OF OUR MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD AND EVER-VIRGIN MARY — “ODIGUITRJA”, — “THE BURNING BUSH”, “THE HEALER”, “THE PROMPT SUCCOUR” IN THE GETHSEMANE CONVENT IN GETHSEMANE GARDEN.
The time was 1939, the 6th week of the Great lent. Mother Abbess Mary received a telegram from a pious Arab friend in Beirut requesting her to come to Beirut in order to accept an ikon from Metropolitan Ilya (Karam). We left shortly thereafter so as to be back in time for Lazarus’ Saturday, the feast of our Bethany. Upon arrival we telephoned our friend and went immediately to see him. His old mother met us most cordially. The Metropolitan arrived with his secretary who carried a rather large, flat box. The Metropolitan opened the box and took out the Ikon of the Most Holy Mother of God, — “This Ikon is for you” said the Metropolitan, “it is the will of Our Most Holy Lady The Mother of God. I am very sorry that this Ikon is so dark and plain, but I revere It very much and constantly pray before It, but I must give it to you to be taken to Palestine”. He spoke with a great deal of emotion and even shed a few tears. Mother Mary was also very touched. He blessed her and placed the Ikon in her hands. Mother Abbess accepted the Ikon with great veneration; in thanking him said that Ikon cannot be plain because It is an Ikon, “It is beautiful”. We left the very next day so as not to miss the Feast. We brought our small but a good new car “Morris” with a good driver along on this trip.
Shortly after leaving Beirut we experienced car trouble and it stopped. The driver could not find the reason for this trouble. According to him everything was all right. We drove on, but the car continued either to stop, or jerk and make noises. In short, we were making very little progress. Yet we were in a great hurry to reach Jerusalem before the 6 p.m. police curfew. We were worried and prayed. It became clear to us that God’s enemy detested the entire situation and that he tried in every way possible to obstruct the path of the Most Pure One. We barely made it to the border of Nakour. There we were stopped and asked to open the box. Although we tried to explain that we were bringing an ikon, there was no help. We entered the custom’s office and opened the box. They took out the Ikon and said; “Why is it so heavy? Perhaps they are smuggling money, golden or silver coins hidden in the Ikon case?” We insisted that there was absolutely nothing in the case, but a young official demanded that this old Ikon be taken out of its wooden case in which it had been fitted tightly. — It does not open. He called for some sort of carpenter. The official kept telling us that it was his duty to open the case since in these troubled times anything could be secretly smuggled over the border in such a discreet way. We insisted that there was nothing inside the case and that we had a certificate from the Metropolitan. The carpenter arrived with an axe and chisel which made us even more upset. Poor Mother Mary walked out of the custom-house quite perturbed and began praying ardently to the Queen of Heaven. However this Ikon IS Miraculous. I remained. The carpenter put the case with the holy Ikon on its side, aimed at it with his chisel and was about to hit the chisel with the axe. I was in horror since the wood of the case was very old and could easily split, or crumble … how terrible … At that very moment, the door opened and in walked another young official.
“Stop, what are you doing? Can’t you see that this is an Ikon of the Virgin Mary? You — an Orthodox Christian, how can you allow such an outrageous and criminal act? I am a Muslim, but I will not allow you to touch Her. Return the Ikon to its box and let them go at once”. This man turned out to be the head of the custom-house. The other official began to justify himself, but his superior was very strict with him. I took the holy lkon which they had immediately returned to its place in the box and walked out. There I saw Mother Mary in deep contemplation; she was praying very intensely and I told her what happened. She was elated. “The Ikon is miraculous indeed”. This is why God’s enemy tried to obstruct Her path. We took seats in our car and drove trying to make time. We could see Haifa in the distance, and yet again something began to chock and sputter and the car stopped dead. But, thank God, at least we are in Palestine. Another car stops and noticing our predicament offers to drive us to a large garage in Haifa. Upon arrival we began looking for a car to drive us to Jerusalem. “It is too late, we will never make it in time”, they tell us. What shall we do? Suddenly one driver agrees to get us there before 6 p.m. And yet the distance is very far. A Jewish policeman got in with us to assure that we would not be delayed on the road. And we made it! At exactly five minutes to 6 with full speed we entered the Holy City of Jerusalem and went straight into Gethsemane. There we were met at the gate by sisters of our Convent along with Father Seraphim who were awaiting the arrival of the holy Ikon after being notified by telegram. What joy! The holy Ikon was carried into the Church of St. Mary Magdalene with a choir singing church hymns and the bell tower sending forth an exalted peal of all its bells. Inside the church the priest began at once serving a Te Deum. Here we must mention that our priest had been lately asking us to pray for him so that he could live to the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ. He was very weak and suffered from cancer of the stomach. He was in a very poor state. Suddenly, during the Molieben (Te Deum) he turned around and said in a loud voice: “This Ikon is truly miraculous. A certain power is emanating from it. I feel this power. I am no longer ill”. We were so moved that we cried. This is surely easy to understand. Father Seraphim lived another ten years and was able all that time to conduct services.
The next day was Friday of the 6th week of the lent and there was to be an All-Night Vigil service at Bethany. Then the sisters came into the church the next morning, they were amazed to see that the holy Ikon had brightened up. The image was completely clear. Mother Abbess was immediately informed and all gathered to pray with tears in their eyes. The Sister Ikon-painter said that she had wondered what kind of chemical solution could be used to strengthen the back side of the old board in order to preserve the Ikon. Now, of course, after seeing the miracle, she dropped the idea at once. How could it be otherwise? The Queen of Heaven had already revealed Her power in these miracles. So it is, of course. On the same day the holy Ikon was taken to Bethany and placed in the cave which had been made into a chapel. A niche in the center of the wall had been made for another ikon which we did not yet receive. But Mother Abbess said: “Never mind, the Most Holy Mother of God will Herself give us Her image”. The cave-chapel was made in the name of the Most Holy Mother of God. And so it came to be.
On the next day — Lazarus’ Saturday, a ceremony took place in our home church, followed by a procession preceded by the cross and banners which went to the stone found in the ground indicating that a church was located here in the time of Empress Helen and this stone was the altar. On the stone was engraved in Greek: “Here Martha and Mary met the Lord and heard His words on the resurrection of the dead”. Nothing else could be read due to the passage of time. This stone was found by Abbess Mary when she ordered extensive repairs at Bethany. The workers were taking away various rocks and leveling the large playground, The stone itself was found in the ground. Why? — Nobody knows. The workers came upon this boulder. It was pulled out and afterwards the archaeologists gave their opinion of its origin. What a holy place this is!
On Lazarus’ Saturday the holy Ikon was in the niche of the cave. Above it hung the traditional ikon lamp. There were many people, among them a woman with a four, or five year old boy who was completely paralyzed. Mother Mary told her: “Take him to the Ikon of the Most Holy Mother of God; She will heal him”. And what do you think happened? About two weeks later the woman returned leading a healthy young boy. It seemed that after praying very intensely for her sick son she anointed him with the oil taken from the lamp lit before the Ikon. Day after day he began feeling better, and now he is healthy and well and is able to walk. We took the holy Ikon to Gethsemane before Easter. And here, from Friday to Saturday the Ikon had its features completely restored and so remained until the present time as you have seen it now yourself. Then the Ikon again was taken for some time to Bethany. The children prayed in the cave — mornings and evenings — just as they do today. These continuous fervent prayers in the past worked miracles of healing in many cases like what happened to the little paralyzed boy.
One day, our late sister, Mother Anissia came to read the Akathist in front of the Ikon. She was joined by the teacher of Arabic, a deeply religious man who came to pray in the same time. Suddenly Mother Anissia noticed that he had fallen on his knees and remained prostrated on the floor. Then — “look, look” he cried. She looked at the Ikon and saw big rears falling from the Ikon. “I couldn’t believe my eyes” said the Mother later on. We saw tears flowing out from this dry wood. All our people gathered around immediately and began to pray. One of the sisters, in the surge of faith, pressed her head to the holy Ikon and wiped the tears off and yet new tears continued to flow. Then all these tears were collected most carefully on a pad of cotton. The liquid was neither oil nor water. Something else. Perhaps “The Most pure One is shedding tears” because of “the increased iniquities and the sufferings of the people,” said someone. Perhaps this is the right surmise. In America the Ever-Virgin is also weeping for the very sinful mankind.
We began to feel more and more the Divine power emanating from this holy Ikon. We have noticed that the Face of the Holy Virgin even changed sometimes its expression. Some days it is very sorrowful, and other days stern. There are times when it expresses almost motherly tenderness. Right now Our Lady appears as if looking intensely at everyone. Brightly! Solemnly! She strengthens the spirit of those in prayer. And we say that now She is “The Queen of Heavenly Hosts”. Perhaps, Dear Friends, we are approaching a time of deliverance, a time of the victory of God’s Truth over Satanic lies and a time of triumph of Orthodoxy. How much we pray, how long we wait and tremble in anticipation of the Miracle. It will come and it will reveal God’s Power and the Divine Truth to all the world. Then the Orthodox people once enslaved by the satanic communism will breath freely again, as they find themselves in liberated Holy Russia as well as the millions of Orthodox abroad. This Miracle prophesized by the Saints and the Just will illuminate the whole world.
There were times when even this holy Ikon was persecuted. Certain important people demanded that the holy Ikon be returned to Lebanon. Why? No explanations were given, yet only prohibition has been received. World War II broke out at about this time and the Lebanese Metropolitan Ilya brought here to us for safekeeping another revered Lebanese Ikon, called “Nooria” i.e., who radiates light. But it was completely black like coal and one couldn’t see who, or what was that it represented. Slowly it began to clear up in our Gethsemane until it was found to be an early “Annunciation”. At the right was the Holy Virgin and to the left of Her the Archangel. One day the Metropolitan came and took the Ikon “Nooria” away from Gethsemane. And that is the whole story.
Our holy Ikon, however, remained with us. For some time it remained in Bethany and later it was moved into our Church of Gethsemane. I forgot to mention that at the time the holy Ikon was presented to us by Metropolitan Ilya in Beirut we received a certificate which stated that the holy Ikon is being presented to Abbess Mary and to the Convent as their property, and that it is named “Odiguitria”, “Burning Bush”, “The Healer”, “The Prompt Succour”; that in 1554 there happened a great fire in the village of Reehanya in Lebanon, and its church was burned down but the Holy Gifts remained undamaged and also this Ikon. Since then the church authorities began to call it “The Burning Bush”. The people would revere this Ikon and pray before it and were comforted. Then came the plague and pestilence. Many people died. Bishops with their clergy began to go round these contaminated areas in a procession carrying this holy Ikon. And where it passed the epidemic immediately stopped. After seeing this miracle the church authorities gave it yet another name “The Healer”. People in large numbers swarmed to the holy Ikon with their various needs and received help according to their faith and prayers. And here again the church leaders decided to give it an added name of “The Prompt Succour”. It remained in the village of Reehanya and was much revered by the local Orthodox population. When Archbishop Ilya was appointed the Lebanese Metropolitan he made a tour of his diocese and, of course, came to Reehanya. Metropolitan Ilya had a particular reverence for The Most Holy Mother of God and wherever he saw Her Ikons he served the Te Deum and prayed ardently. Before his departure from Reehanya he was blessing the people whereupon the parishioners asked him to take the holy Ikon since they saw how deeply pious was his reverence of this Ikon. He was astonished and very touched and confused at this offer, because they were ready to part with their sacred icon. But they insisted asking only that the Metropolitan would not forget to pray for them always before the Ikon. He was extremely moved and accepted this sacred gift with ineffable joy from these pious people who assured him that such was the will of the Ever-Virgin Herself. The Metropolitan told us this story after he returned to Beirut with the holy Ikon before which afterwards he served daily the Te Deum with akathist-parakliss.
I don’t remember the year but this is what happened. It was the 5th week of the Great Lent, the eve of the Feast of the “Praise of the Most Holy Mother of God”. Adorned by garlands of flowers, illuminated by a mass of candles and small coloured lamps the holy Ikon was put in the middle of our church. The akathist is sung sweetly. The church service is beautiful. This takes place in the evening. The next morning the Feast continues. The solemn customary hymns are sung. Later the Te Deum is served. All of us kneel along with our Abbess Mother Mary, rendering thanks to the Holy Virgin from our heart. Suddenly there is a knock on the church door. The door opens and in comes “Kawwas” with his mace preceding Metropolitan Ilya. We are all very happy to see him. He goes immediately to the Ikon, bows to it repeatedly, kisses it with tears in his eyes. It is evident that he is under emotional stress. He read the tropar in Arabic, and bowed again with tears flowing from his eyes. He was feeling it so deeply. Then he blessed us all and said: “Now I understand why the Most Holy Lady wished to stay with you, Sisters. She sees your love to Her, your faith, and hears your prayers and yearnings. And now I will tell you something I never told you before which I must tell you now. When this holy Ikon was with me in the Metropolia I sang the “Parakliss” to it daily and I prayed often asking for wisdom and help on different occasions, and I became particularly attached to this holy Ikon and revered it as a great treasure.
But this is what happened. When I fell asleep, after the evening prayer, I saw a dream, as some sort of a clear vision. Two Great Martyrs — Catherine and Barbara, giving themselves their names, and told me that the Most Holy Mother of God asked me to give the holy Ikon to Abbess Mary in Palestine. There it must remain. I awoke immediately and began to think about the dream, and about the strange command of the Holy Virgin. I approached the Ikon, prayed to it, and thought to myself it is but a dream and who is this Abbess Mary? — I don’t know her and never even heard her name. My heart became almost peaceful again. But this dream recurred. The holy Martyrs said that I must fulfill this request at once. After I regained my senses I felt very frightened and began to think how difficult it will be to part with the holy Ikon. And then I decided that I would give away the other Ikon of Odiguirria which I had. It was very similar to this one, but was a little smaller. But the holy Martyrs appeared to me again and said that I must fulfill the exact will of the Ever-Virgin Mary or else I will bear the punishment for disobeying Her. I woke trembling. Falling on my knees in front of the holy Ikon I begged to forgive me and promised with tears in my eyes to fulfill everything without any delay. Then my soul became peaceful once again although I was very sorry that the Most Holy Lady is taking Her wonderful image away from me.
The next morning I began asking everyone if they know Abbess Mary in Palestine? And so a close friend of mine, a very pious man told me that he knows Abbess Mary very well and I asked him to contact her and ask her to come and accept the holy Ikon of the Most Holy Lady.
In this way I fulfilled the will of the Queen of Heaven and now it is clear to me that She wished to be among your sisters, with your mother Abbess. Please remember me, great sinner, in your holy prayers before this holy Ikon”.
Metropolitan Ilya was weeping and we all were deeply moved and touched.
So we live under the Heavenly Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God, in Her honourable Home — Gethsemane, sheltered from all calamities and disasters by Her holy Ikon “Odiguitria”, “The Burning Bush”, “The Healer”, “The Prompt Succour” who wished to be with Abbess Mary in Palestine, in this our holy Convent. Aren’t we really very lucky? We have seen a great deal of glory and wonder from the holy Ikon. During the first Palestine war we lifted the holy Ikon of the Most holy Mother of God and carried it in a procession along the Convent walls. We sang a Te Deum to Her and to the Great Martyr George. Arriving at each of the four corners of the Convent garden the officiating Priest blessed all the Convent with the holy Ikon. We prayed for protection and sheltering from bullets which were coming down like rain. The ground was covered with splinters of shrapnel, yet under protection of the Most Holy Lady no one was hurt. Even in the last “Six-Day War” once again we saw miraculous protection of us, sinful and miserable, granted to us by the Ever-Virgin in answer to us believing in Her Motherly Love and Unvincible Power.
The Russian Convent at the Garden of Gethsemane
In the Garden of Gethsemane near the revered tomb of the Holy Virgin is a beautiful church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. It was built in 1888 by the Russian Emperor Alexander III in memory of his mother, the Empress Maria Alexandrovna. The church is a typical example of Russian architecture. The iconostasis inside the church is made of finely sculptured white marble of exquisite design and surmounted by dark bronze. From it bronze doors lead to the altar. The iconostasis was made by the Russian painter Veresochagin. The church floor made of precious multicoloured marble.
Around the church cluster the buildings of a small convent founded in 1934 by a Scottish lady — Barbara Robinson. Miss Robinson had converted to Russian Orthodoxy under the guidance and with the blessing of the late Metropolitan Anastassy. Together with her English friend, Alix Sprot, she took monastic vows. The new names of these two women were Mary and Martha.
Mary and Martha dedicated their lives to the service of the needy and of children. Using their own capital they founded a new Community in Bethany, with a boarding school for Arab girls of the Orthodox faith.
Abbess Mary (Robinson) died in 1969, leaving behind her a well organized community of nuns and a prosperous school. Today they are directed by Abbess Barbara who had been Mother Mary’s assistant and close personal friend.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America