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The Defender of the Christian Cause

This year is the year of the 500 th anniversary of the death of Stefan cel Mare, one of the greatest Moldovan ruler and military leader. In early May Vladimir Voronin, the president of the Republic of Moldova visited Greece, the holy Mount Athos and monasteries, which were constructed and supported by Stefan cel Mare. What drew the Moldovan ruler to that place almost 500 years ago? Why did the place attract his interest?

The Athos monasteries have been defending the Orthodox spirit for centuries. In outward appearance they differ from the usual monasteries that exist in our country, Russia or Ukraine. Each of them is a fortress, often risen in an inaccessible place, with battle towers and walls going deep into a precipice. The Athos monastic community has always been and is now the stronghold of the Orthodox Church where the medieval customs remain and old statutes continue to act. The monastic existence is now as abstracted from the secular one as 500 and one thousand years ago.

Athos is a state within a state. It has a special status regulated by the constitution of Greece. It is a monastic republic with its capital, and each of the 20 monasteries has its own representation and representative. They form something like a parliament which sits periodically and makes decisions. And, by the way, it is not enough to have a Greek visa in order to visit Athos. You will need an Athos visa too.

The monks lead a secluded way of life and completely serve themselves. They work on the grape and olive plantations, rear bees, go fishing, accept pilgrims from different countries of the world with a great pleasure. They provide food and shelter free of charge. They sell only hand-made crosses and icons.

The right to command and the duty to obey are subjected to hierarchy. The hierarchy of knowledge is also firm: each monk should know as much as he is supposed to and not more. In the old days the monastic seal consisted of four parts and only after gathering together four people could seal a document. There are places where entry is still restricted and they are both literally and figuratively locked with three keys . For example, one of these places is the depository of manuscripts and books. When the Moldovan delegation headed by the president was visiting the monastery of Zograf, 81-year-old librarian Father Pakhomy carried a stepladder by himself and obtained old books from the shelves. The members of our delegation were ordered not to touch the books without permission. However, Father Pakhomy showed the Moldovan delegation round a room with even rarer folios and manuscripts by opening a secret door.

The name of our republic is known to all Athos monks without exception. And this, first of all, is connected with the name of Stefan cel Mare who played a major role in the destiny of the holy mountain. It is a known fact that even Alexander the Good, Stefan cel Mare's grandfather supported the Athos monasteries. Unlike the Catholic Church, Orthodoxy has always been subjected to higher secular power. After the Osmans had seized Constantinople, the Orthodox Church was deprived of that support.

By that time Bulgaria fell under the power of the Turks. Serbia shared its fate. Wallachia became subordinated to Turkey too. Russia was still dependant on the Golden Horde, its liberation took place later. It so happened that at that moment Stefan cel Mare was the only independent ruler of the country professing the Orthodox religion. Byzantium had always regarded itself as the Second Rome, Moscow will later call itself the Third Rome. Between both of them there was Moldova through which the transfer of the sequential rod in the patronage of the Orthodox Church occurred. The Moldovan ruler maintained good relations with Moscow. His daughter, Elena Voloshanka was married there, but her husband and son were even proclaimed heirs to the throne.

Stefan cel Mare concluded an alliance with the Orthodox Church. That alliance concluded on the Earth also implied the alliance with the sky, with the celestial patrons. Stefan cel Mare favored writing chronicles in many languages. It should be noted that the Moldovan ruler pursued particularly practical purposes, looked for allies, tried to initiate diplomatic relations in the Orthodox World. It is not by chance that Moldova was called the gate of Christianity at that time. Stefan cel Mare was the defender of the gate of Christianity as well as the defender of all saints.

There are sacred things in the Athos monasteries which are connected with the name of Stefan cel Mare. Each of them has its own history. There is a combat banner of the Moldovan ruler in the monastery of Zograf under which Stefan cel Mare fought. It is a gonfalon with the image of St. George riding a horse and trampling a snake. Until 1917 there was another banner here which is called an “embroidered icon” by the monks. According to a legend, it was embroidered by Elena Voloshanka. In the years of the First World War the banner was stolen by the French soldiers and then appeared in Bucharest where it is kept now. The Moldovan delegation headed by Vladimir Voronin presented Athos with a copy of the banner made by Moldovan craftsmen. The copy was accepted with a great gratitude and hoisted in the place where for many years its black and white xerocopy was hanging.

In the Zograf monastery there is also another gift made by Stefan cel Mare – an icon that is considered wonder-working. This is the icon of St. George. One legend reads that after suffering a defeat the Moldovan army retreated to Suceava hoping to take refuge. But Stefan cel Mare's mother told her son: “If you are not capable of fighting on the battle field, the walls will never help you”. She gave her son the icon with the image of St. George and he gathered his army to fight against the Turks. He was a winner in that battle. Later the Turks taken captive said that they had seen a divine rider who helped the Moldovans in the battle. The winners considered that St. George himself descended from the icon to help them hold against enemy attacks. Then, according to prophecy, Stefan cel Mare sent the icon to Athos. And everyone who kneeled before it in prayer knows that the icon is the gift of the ruler of the people who succeeded in upholding their liberty and independence.

St.George was depicted on the banners and icons because he was the patron saint of the Orthodox rulers. When the Byzantine Empire disappeared, difficult times came for the Slav tsars and kings. Then St.George decided to find another champion of his ideas and interests. That person was Stefan cel Mare whose major task became the protection of the Christian faith and culture. The Moldovan ruler performed his task successfully and Athos reveres the memory of the great person.

Prepared by Vlada Popushoi

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