One of the unexpected highlights of my recent visit to the Holy Land was the snowy morning I spent at the Russian Orthodox Convent of St Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemene. There were many remarkable things about it, not least the associations with the Russian imperial family, one of whose number, the Grand Duchess (now Saint) Elizabeth, is entombed in the body of the church.
However pride of place has to go to the allgedly miraculous 16th century Hodigitria Icon. What follows is taken from a letter by Abbess Barbara who, as a young nun, witnessed the arrival and some of the subsequent miracles of the icon and later served as Abbess of the Convent between 1970 and 1983. I had thought initially to edit it down but now think it is better untouched, lengthy though it may be.
In 1939 during the sixth week of Great Lent, our Abbess Mary received a telegram from an acquaintance, a devout Orthodox Arab, with a pressing request to come to Beirut to accept an icon from Metropolitan Elias (Karama) of Lebanon. We decided to go without delay so as to be back by Lazarus Saturday, the patronal feast of our Bethany community.
Upon arriving in Beirut we phoned our friend and on that same day we were warmly received by him and his elderly mother in their home. The Metropolitan came with his secretary, who carried a rather large, flat box. Opening the box, the Metropolitan lifted out a Hodigitria icon of the Mother of God. The icon had become so dark with age that one could scarcely discern the figures or the colors. “Take the icon,” said the Metropolitan. “Such is the will of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos. I feel badly that the icon is so dark and unattractive, but I have great devotion towards it and always pray before it. Now I must give it to you.” His eyes were tearful. Mother Mary was also moved. The Metropolitan blessed her and gave the icon into her hands. Reverently accepting the icon, Mother Mary expressed her gratitude, adding that the icon could not be unattractive - it was, after all, an icon: “It is beautiful.”
Afraid to be late for the feast, we departed the next day. With us was our chauffeur, an experienced driver. Our new Morris was a small but good car and therefore we were bewildered when, shortly after leaving Beirut, it came to a halt. The chauffeur carefully inspected everything but could find nothing amiss. He was able to restart the motor and we proceeded, but we continued to have problems: the car knocked, it lurched, at times stopping altogether. Our progress was very slow, just when we needed to make haste. Jerusalem had a six o'clock evening curfew. We worried, we prayed. It was evident that what had transpired aggravated the evil one and that he was trying by all possible means to obstruct the passage of the Most Pure Mother of God.
We barely crawled to the border at Kinura. There we were stopped and asked to open the box. Although we explained that it was an icon, nothing helped. We went into the customs building and opened the box. They took out the icon, “Why is it so heavy? What do you have concealed behind the frame? Money, gold or silver coins?” We assured them that there was absolutely nothing there, but one young official demanded to take the icon out of its wooden case. The case would not open. They called in a workman. The official insisted, saying that he was doing his duty, that in such troubled times people were smuggling all sorts of things across the border, under all kinds of pretences. We showed the certificate the Metropolitan had given us, but to no avail. Poor Mother Mary was extremely distressed. She left the customs office and turned to the Queen of Heaven with fervent prayer.
But did we not have with us a wonder working icon?
I remained. The workman placed the icon on its side, fixed his chisel and was about to strike it with a hatchet. I was aghast. The wooden board on which the icon was painted was old, hundreds of years old. It could easily crack or fall apart. Dreadful!
At this very moment the door opened and in walked another official, also young. “Stop! What are you doing? Can't you see that this is an icon of the Virgin Mary? And you, an Orthodox Christian, how can you allow such a crime?! I am a Muslim, but I forbid you from touching Her. Return the icon at once and don't hold them up any longer!” It turned out that this man was the head of the customs office. The first official began to justify himself, but his superior did not relent. I took the holy icon, which had been placed back in the box, and went outside. There I found Mother Mary, immersed in fervent prayer. When 1 told her what had transpired, she was overjoyed. “Truly, it is wonder working! That is why the enemy of God is interfering so.”
We got into the car and drove off, trying to make up for lost time. Haifa was already visible in the distance when again something in the car began knocking and we came to a halt. At least we were in Palestine, glory to God! A man drove up and, seeing our predicament, offered to take us to a garage in Haifa, where we could get a taxi. We reached Haifa without further incidents, but no one would agree to take us to Jerusalem. “It’s too late; wouldn't make it.”
What to do? Then one driver declared he could get us there before six o’clock. Jerusalem was still some distance away. A policeman, a Jew, got into the car with us, in case we were held up along the way. And what happened? Five minutes before six we flew into the Holy City, and straight to Gethsemane. The sisters, alerted by our telegram, were at the gate together with our priest, Fr. Seraphim, awaiting the arrival of the icon. What joy! Accompanied by singing and the triumphant peal of bells, the icon of the All-holy Lady was carried into the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Straightaway our priest began a service of thanksgiving.
Here we should add that Fr. Seraphim had been asking us all to pray for him, that he might live until the Holy Feast of Christ s Resurrection. He was fatally ill and was suffering terribly from stomach cancer. Suddenly, during the service, he turned around and said in a loud voice: “The icon is indeed wonder working. Power emanates from it; I feel it. I am no longer sick.” We all wept with emotion. Fr. Seraphim lived another ten years, and all this time continued to serve.
The next day was Friday in the sixth week of Great Lent, the day when a vigil service is usually celebrated at our girls' school in Bethany. That morning, upon entering the church, the sisters saw with amazement that the holy icon had become much brighter: it was clear and distinct. They immediately informed Mother Abbess, and everyone gathered and prayed with tears in their eyes.
A sister who painted icons related that she had been thinking of somehow cleaning the icon and strengthening the back side of the board in order to preserve it. But now, seeing the miracle, she gave up all thought of this. How could she? The Queen of Heaven manifested Her power Herself.
That day the icon was taken to Bethany School and placed in the cave chapel. When the chapel had first been set up, a niche for an icon had been carved out of the central wall. The niche had remained empty because there was no icon for it, but the Abbess said: "Never mind. The Most Pure Theotokos Herself will provide us with Her image." (The cave chapel had been dedicated to the Theotokos.) And so She did!
The next day, Lazarus Saturday, the service was held in the Bethany School church. Afterwards there was a procession. As was customary, we went to the place where there is an ancient rock with an inscription, indicating that at the time of the Empress Saint Helen there had been a church here, and that this same rock served as an altar. The rock is inscribed in Greek: “Here Martha and Mary met the Lord and heard His words concerning the resurrection of the dead.” This rock was discovered by Abbess Mary when she was overseeing some renovation work at the school. The workers were cleaning and leveling a playground area when they came upon a large rock deep in the ground. It was dragged out onto the surface and later archaeologists determined its provenance as indeed the place where Our Lord met Martha and Mary (see John 11 :25). What a holy site this is!
On Lazarus Saturday the holy icon was again installed in the niche of the cave. Over it was hung a perpetually burning vigil lamp. Many people came for the feast. Among them was a woman with a four or five year old son who was completely paralyzed. “Go and venerate the icon, the Most Holy Mother of God will help you,” the Abbess said to her. And what do you think happened? In about two weeks the woman returned with her son, now a healthy boy. She related that after fervently praying for her sick child, she anointed him with oil from the vigil lamp over the holy icon. The next day the boy felt better; and now he is completely well, walking and moving about.
Before Pascha we brought the icon back to Gethsemane. Here on the night of Holy Saturday the icon became brighter still, the colors and features became totally renewed, and it has remained so to this day. Then the icon was taken back to Bethany for a time. The pupils attended morning and evening prayers in the cave chapel. Fervent prayers wrought miracles of healing, just as they had in the case of the paralyzed boy.
Once our late sister, Mother Anastasia, came to read an akathist before the icon. She was joined by the Arabic language teacher; a devout man who had come to the cave to pray. Suddenly Mother Anastasia noticed that he had fallen to his knees. “Look, look!” he exclaimed. She looked at the icon and saw large tear drops falling from it. “I couldn't believe my eyes,” she said later: “We saw tears coming out from dry wood. “All of us quickly gathered and began praying. In an outburst of faith one of the sisters pressed her head to the icon and wiped the tears with her hail; but new tears continued to flow. We carefully collected these tears on pieces of cotton. The liquid was a unique substance, neither oil nor water; “Why is the All Pure One weeping?” we asked one another: “Perhaps She is weeping over people's sins and suffering,” many suggested.
We began more and more to sense the Divine power that emanated from the holy icon. We noticed that the expression on the face of the Most Holy Virgin would change: some days it was sad, other days severe. At times it conveyed an almost maternal tenderness. At the present time the Lady appears to be looking intensely into each person's soul; the expression is both - bright and severe, strengthening the faithful. We call Her Queen of the Heavenly Powers.
There were times when our holy icon was subject to persecutions. Some "important" personages demanded it to be returned to Lebanon. Why? No explanation was given, we only received orders and threats. The Second World War began and Metropolitan Elias of Lebanon brought us another icon for safekeeping. It had also been the object of great veneration in Lebanon. The icon was called “Nuria”, meaning “radiating light”. In spite of its name the icon was totally black, like coal. It was impossible to make out who or what was depicted. Little by little, however, it began to lighten, until finally we could see the Holy Virgin, and to Her left, Archangel Gabriel. But one day the Metropolitan came and took this icon from Gethsemane. We do not know anything more about it.
Our holy icon remained with us. It was kept for a time in Bethany, but later it was transferred to our Gethsemane church, where it is located to this day.
I forgot to mention that when Metropolitan Elias gave us the icon that day in Beirut, we also received certification that the holy icon has been given into the possession of Abbess Mary and the convent, and that it was called "Hodigitria" (meaning "the Way" or "the Path"), "Unburnt Bush", "Healer", and "Quick-to-Hear". The document also stated several miraculous occurrences explaining this various names.
In 1554 there was a great fire in the village of Rikhani (Lebanon). The entire village burned,
including the church with the exception of the Holy Gifts and this icon. From that time the Church authorities called it "Unburnt Bush ", and the people began to have special veneration for it and received help and consolation through their prayers before it. A plague broke out. Many people died. The bishops and clergy began leading church processions through the contaminated areas, carrying with them this icon. Everywhere the processions passed, the epidemic quickly died out. Seeing such a miracle, the Church gave the icon a second name, "Healer". People began coming in great numbers to pray before it and received speedy help by their faith and their prayers. Then the leaders of the Church decided to add yet another name, "Quick-to-Hear". The icon remained in Rikhani and was greatly venerated by the Orthodox inhabitants.
When Archbishop Elias was appointed Metropolitan of Lebanon, he made a tour of his diocese and, of course, visited Rikhani. Metropolitan Elias had a profound devotion to the Mother of God, and wherever he saw Her holy icons he conducted services of thanksgiving and supplication (molebens) before them, praying fervently. The people in Rikhani, seeing his great reverence for their sacred treasure, decided to give it to him as a gift. Vladika was overwhelmed and deeply touched that they should be willing to part with their treasure, but they insisted, saying that such was the will of the All-holy Virgin Herself, and asking him only not to forget them in his prayers before Her. Vladika then took the icon with great joy and gratitude. Every day thereafter he served a moleben with an akathist before the icon.
I do not remember the year, but this is what happened: It was the fifth week of Great Lent on the eve of the "Laudations of the Mother of God". The holy icon stood in the center of our Gethsemane church, adorned with garlands of flowers and illumined with coloured vigil lamps. The akathist began. The sisters sang beautifully. The services continued the next morning. After the Liturgy there was a moleben. All of us, together with our Abbess, Mother Mary, knelt in a thanksgiving prayer to the All-holy Virgin. Suddenly the door opened and in came Metropolitan Elias. We were all very happy to see him. He quickly went up to the icon, made many prostrations and venerated it with great emotion, tears in his eyes. He read the troparion hymn in Arabic and made many prostrations, all the while tears streaming down his cheeks. Finally he blessed us and said, "I now understand why the Most Holy Lady desired to be with you, sisters. She sees your love towards Her, your faith and your prayers and sighs. And now I shall tell you what I did not tell you before.
"When I still had this holy icon in my quarters, I sang an akathist before it daily, praying that I be granted wisdom and help in various circumstances. I became very attached to this icon and esteemed it as a great treasure. But here is what happened. Once I dozed off after my evening prayers and I saw a dream, like a vision. Two Greatmartyrs, Katherine and Barbara (they gave me their names), appeared and told me that the Most Holy Theotokos is asking me to give Her icon to Abbess Mary in Palestine, and that it should remain there. Shortly thereafter I awoke and began pondering this dream and the Holy Virgin s strange request. I went to the icon to pray and thought to myself: 'Of course, that was only a dream. After all, who is this Abbess Mary? I don't know ha I've never heard of her. ' My heart all but calmed down. But the dream repeated itself The holy greatmartyrs told me that I must fulfill the injunction without delay. When I came to, fear took hold of me. I began thinking how difficult it would be for me to part with the holy icon. Then I decided that I would give away another Hodigitria icon I had which was similar to this one, only smaller. But the greatmartyrs appeared to me yet again and said that if I did not fulfill exactly the will of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, I would be punished for my disobedience. I awoke trembling. Falling to my knees before the icon, I begged the Theotokos to forgive me and with tears promised to fulfill everything without delay. Again peace filled my soul, although I was very sad that the Most Holy Lady was taking away from me Her wondrous image.
The next morning I began making inquiries: Did anyone know an Abbess Mary in Palestine?
And then a Fiend, a very devout man, said that he knew Abbess Mary very well. I entrusted him to make contact with her and to ask her to come and take the holy icon. Thus did I fulfill the will of the Queen of Heaven, and now it is clear to me why She desired to be among you, sisters, with your Abbess. Remember me, a great sinner, in your holy prayers before this holy icon.” The Metropolitan sobbed as he spoke, and we were all deeply moved.
And so we live beneath the protection of the Most Holy Mother of God in Her revered church in Gethsemane, defended from the anxieties and catastrophes of the world by Her holy icon
“Hodigitria “, “Unburnt Bush”, “Healer”, “Quick to Hear”, which was pleased to be with Abbess
Mary in Palestine, in this our holy community. Now wouldn't you agree that we are fortunate? We have seen Her glory and miracles. During the first Palestinian war we took the holy icon of the Mother of God and proceeded with it along the convent s walls, singing a moleben to Her and to Greatmartyr George. Stopping at each of the four corners of the property, the priest blessed the entire convent with the holy icon. We prayed to be defended and protected from the bullets, which fell around us like rain. The ground was littered with splinters of shrapnel, but beneath the protection of the Most Holy Lady not one of us was injured. And in the last Six day War we again experienced the miraculous protection of the Mother of God, which was extended over us, sinners and unworthy ones, in answer to our faith in Her maternal love and unconquerable power.