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A Fairy-tale for Panormitis and the Golden Fish
(The sixteenth miracle of the monastery)
The number 16 has always been of great importance to me. And also the letter P, which is the same number in the Greek, Latin and Bulgarian alphabets. That’s why I wasn’t at all surprised by the fact that along with my friend, the Swedish writer Peter Curman, I visited the monastery of Panormitis in Symi. Not even by the fact that on my second visit there I stayed overnight in the monastery’s cell with the number 79. Yet the truth for some things might be hiding in the most distant past, in the story of the creation of the monastery.
On the island there once lived a decent woman called Maria. When the seedtime came, she took the hoe and went to dig her field. As she was digging, next to a mastic tree, something suddenly glittered in the ground. Maria bent over and saw a small icon of Archangel Michael sticking out of the earth. Full of joy because of this miracle, the woman took the icon and put it devoutly on her home’s icon stand. The next day, when she woke up, the icon was not there. All in a fluster, she immediately ran to her field. The icon was at exactly the same spot found on the previous day, so she took it again to her home. The same story was repeated many times. Each time she took it and put it on the icon stand and each time the icon vanished. In the end, she was exhausted and could not hold back her tears – perhaps Archangel Michael thought her house was not worthy for Him. Yet, during the night, He appeared in her sleep and told her that He wanted to have a church dedicated to Him, built on the spot she found the icon. In this way, according to tradition, the foundations of the monastery were laid.
The name of the monastery, so locals believe, comes from the words πάνω (pano, above) and ορμή (ormi, impetus) or even from the words παν (σύμπαν) (pan, universe) and ορμή (impetus) or even again, I think enchanted by the beauty of the scenery, it might derive from the word πανόραμα (panorama). It means that the Saint is the most beautiful who attracts in impetus from above. It is noteworthy that all legends about miracles that occur in this holy place are connected to the attracting power of the Archangel – what is vowed He does not forget. And to ask for His help you have to vow something to him. He calls those who are in need of His help, just as happens with the nets of fishermen when they pull them up full of fish. According to the Orthodox tradition, this persistency on the part of the Saint should not be seen as an expression of some powerful feeling of possession or selfishness but as something totally contrary to that – in this gesture of giving before receiving lies the generous seed of the Divine and Unique Love. You first have to give in order to open your palm and receive. As in the compound word blagodat (grace) – an emblematic word in Christ’s teaching – which is made up of two words: blago (good, decent) and davam (give). There is no good without giving.
And Grace is precisely what fills you as soon as the little boat anchors in the peaceful waters of the monastery’s small bay. You are welcomed by the church-tower, not in sound but in singing, not in melody but in voice. Its elegance resembles the tail of the fish – of that little fish Pushkin referred to in his fairy-tale The Fisherman and the Golden Fish. In terms of architecture, the church-tower is a combination of classical and baroque style, whose model is that of Saint Fotini in Smyrna or even that of Zagorska Lavra near Moscow. It’s just that in this case the unique Russian element is the bell, which weighs three tons and was made in Russia and donated to the monastery at the time of the Reverend Father Makarios II. Also of great interest is the clock of the church-tower, which is extremely accurate (donated in 1925, worth 100 gold English pounds).
Panormitis’ monastery is like a crossroads, a junction between East and West, a deep canal in the field of Christianity. Everything here is characterised by decency and moderation – the colourful cables with the nets wound up next to them, the windmills on the right up on the rise, which capture you so completely in their cables as if they were threads of a spider’s web. And there is everywhere, just everywhere, this feeling of magnetism, an irresistible attraction, with no violence, with love and giving of complete trust – just as the crying child gives itself into its mother’s hands.
On the relief of the hills are dense bushes, pinned on the hillsides like real jewels. There are combinations of yellow and green, of ochre and azure all over the scenery, in and out of the monastery – even in the sun, in its bright whiteness, which fills the day, and in its flame, which warms us. The entrance to the monastery, in total harmony with the church-tower – the dome, in sky blue, with the Pantocrator in the middle – is surrounded by carved angels in snow-white marble, the pigeon-like wings of which resemble early leaves. The inner yard is covered with a carpet of sea pebbles surrounded by dense bushes, bougainvilleas and oleanders. And all around you there is always the sensation of Spring, Blessing and Resurrection. The miraculous icon of Archangel Michael in the church, covered in gold and silver, has such a vitality of expression that it brings to mind a very old picture rather than a painting. And His eyes look at you as if they were the eyes of your great-great-grandfather. Something familiar that has existed before is still living inside you. Something that is calling you. Thus someone who casts his nets in the small bay of the monastery – whilst far away the disturbing sea is foaming – does not catch from its calm waters the fish of the fairy-tale (which has been here for a long time) but you yourself. And you are the pauper who came to this lee in the end to leave wealthy ‘with all you’ve gained on the way…’ (C. P. Cavafy, Ithaca).
I recall it was a stormy day when I decided to go there again. Peter Curman and I had to arrange a meeting with the abbot of the monastery concerning the jubilee events Writers and Translators of the Three Seas, which was going to be held in June with personalities from all over Europe. I was counting on the hospitality of Father Gabriel as much now as during the jubilee events. Due to bad weather, the departure of ships was prohibited in all the Aegean up to Piraeus. The storm was approaching the Dodecanese from the Cyclades. Telephone communication with the monastery was impossible. On the spur of the moment, I decided to take the last ship of the day, which would arrive in Symi at 8.30 in the evening. I bought a one-way ticket, just to get there (I would return the next day on the only ship – if I missed it for any reason, I would also miss the plane to Sofia), and this was something like a broken wash-trough from which the water is continuously running and does not lie still. It is the crystal water of mortification and courage, not the stagnant water of our passions and fears. Whatever followed was the running water that you can wash your face and hands with. And also drink in fast sups.
In the end, a few minutes before the sailing of the ship, I managed to contact the abbot (they would leave the door of the monastery open just for me). The waves of the rough sea seemed to be coddling the passengers more than disturbing them. I reached the monastery by the only taxi on the island (25 minutes’ distance, on the other side of Symi) with the promise to come and collect me the next day at six. One of the women, who provided for the abbot and came forward to meet me, was from Bulgaria. I had my supper and a warm and pleasant discussion with Father Gabriel. Then I was led to the monastery’s cell numbered 79. When I asked – more out of respect – how much my stay there would cost, they answered, ‘What are you talking about!?! This is a holy place.’
And truly even the stars had their own order here, different from the one they have above our heads in the big city. Stars that were closer, brighter; stars that were raining but not falling. I think it was only in the Rhodope mountains that I had come across such stars, in the same circle that the treetops were making – just like here, in the circle of the monastery’s inner yard, where the size of the buildings around it looked in the night like the tail of a fish. And, like the tail, the whole sky was vibrating. The sea echoed like a ripple. The bell tolled like a caress whereas the hanging lamp rolled from right to left like a bell. In this silence, not the lack of sounds but their harmony, when each feeling was transformed into another – sound into touch, light into sound, touch into light – words seemed to acquire a body. Word was becoming a body. Even the bleating of the goats struck the rocks like a bell clapper.
I was told that it might be difficult to sleep since I wasn’t used to this way of counting time. Yet for the first time I was alone without feeling alone. I slept and every half hour listened to the bell as if it were a part of my dream. I almost felt it physically. It was almost touching me. As when a warm and blessed hand caresses you. With the fishy tail of its palm. And talks to you.
Just the way it is in fairy-tales.
Translated by Theano-Maria Marinou
Read an essay from the book in Bulgarian
Read a separate essay on Bulgarian monasteries
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TIME AND RELATION by Tsvetanka Elenkova, a collection of 9 essays in Bulgarian, is available through Bulgarian bookshops at a cost of 9 leva
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