Testimonies and Experiences
Elder Porphyrios as I knew him
Mary Kontogianni Ioannidou
Program producer for the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation
Having read, some time ago, the life of St. Nectarios, the "Saint of Our Century", as he is called, I was always wondering, trying to understand how all those people who had the heavenly gift of knowing him must have felt. In fact, some of them are still alive today. How can one feel close to such a person who had so many signs of holiness while on this earth, living in a century like the twentieth.
When I later met Elder Porphyrios, in 1981, I understood that his holiness was not simply an answer to my questions and problems. His holiness consisted of something much more significant and much more serious. That holiness is really acquired here in this corrupt world. He sought total holiness from all of us as the sole means to resolving all our problems. He was trying to pass on his own experience. He had applied himself completely to Christ's saying "become holy, as your Father is holy." He dedicated his whole life struggling to save the souls of all those who sought refuge in him.
Thus I understood that knowing a saint (because in popular consciousness, Elder Porphyrios already is a saint), answers every question with regard to God. Even if you have read nothing about God, in knowing such a man, you are assured not only that God exists but also that Christ is the only truth, "yesterday, today and forever."
Elder Porphyrios' humility was something inconceivable in human terms, it allowed his spiritual children, to worry him and to grieve him. This happened without his love being diminished in the least.
He was always smiling, even when he reprimanded you. He had the smile of a child of the Kingdom of God. He had that childlikeness which you only encounter in infants, together with a total purity that made him appear so transparent, like a very clear pool, in which you could see the reflection of our fallenness and our human plight.
Whoever met him saw everything which up to that point seemed impossible being revealed to him. One saw with one's own eyes in what miraculous way this world is bridged with eternity.
I met him for the first time in 1981. I did not know very much about what was happening or, if you want, I could not understand. I had heard a lot about him from my friends in Athens. Is it easy for someone to comprehend eternity?
As I entered his little hut, as we called it, I saw him lying on his bed with his eyes closed. I approached him. I knelt next to his bed. I kissed his hand, and he blessed me.
I had prepared myself to talk to him about a whole host of problems that concerned me. It was not necessary for me to tell him anything. When he spoke to me, in spite of the fact that he was sick and very tired at that time, I understood it was not necessary for me to tell him anything. He already knew everything: what I thought, what I felt, what was happening in my soul, who I was, what I was, and how I wanted to be.
From that moment, I became conscious of the fact that my life could no longer be the same. It could no longer be the same because it had henceforth, through Elder Porphyrios, acquired a direct and personal experience of what God is.
Going outside, even though our first encounter was only for a few minutes, I was filled with joy, delight, and feeling of praise for the Most High.
A few days later I met him again, for a lot longer this time. Returning to Cyprus, I raid to my parents, "That man loves me much more than even you, my own parents. Now I understand how much God loves us all."
He accepted you and loved you whoever you were, as you were. In his presence, even the greatest sin took on other dimensions. You were not shaken up. You were not overcome with despair and desperation. You only grieved because you had done one thing or the other because you did not put God's word into action.
When you fell, he not only disallowed your despondency, but on the contrary, he helped you get up again, using it as a buttress for a new start, for a new spiritual conquest. Then he would show even greater love, even greater acceptance. He would take your hand into his and he began to teach you how to walk on God's pathway.
Each person who met Elder Porphyrios, even if it was only once, could fill up whole pages with his personal experiences and feelings. Much more if he were able to publish the talks that he had with him on strictly personal issues.
Here, I briefly present a few of my personal experiences with that holy man to whom I practically owe my rebirth.
A few months after I met him, I took an exam for a final course at law school. It was an oral examination. At the time, all the exams were given in that way for the University of Athens law degree. I answered all the professor's questions with the satisfactory feeling that I would get my degree at last. I ran to tell Elder Porphyrios about it:
"Pappouli, thank God, I'm going to get my degree. The only thing that saddens me is that now I won't be coming to Athens so often and so I won't see you as much as I do now."
"We'll see," he said. "No, pappouli," I insisted, "that's the way it is; I will not be coming to Athens so often anymore"
The examination results were published. I was greatly surprised when I was informed that I had not passed the exam. So I went to Athens again, two months later, to take a crammer for that course and to sit the exam again. I sat the exam. I answered the professor's questions correctly. I went to Elder Porphyrios again. I repeated what I had told him the first time,
"I passed my exams. I'm getting my degree," etc. I again received the same answer:
"We'll see." Again the same insistence on my part:
"No, pappouli, this time it's not possible. I did not miss one question. I answered all of them correctly."
Again, the results of the exam came out, and again I was not amongst those who passed. (Let us leave the reasons to God, that professor, and myself.) I went to Athens again. I took the exam again. The same story was repeated for a third time. I went to the Elder again. Again I had the same certainty that I passed the exam. Again the Elder Porphyrios said,
I was required to sit the exam for the same course a fourth time. Fortunately this was before a different professor. After the exam, as always, I went to Elder Porphyrios. This time it was not necessary for me to wait for the results of the exam to be placed on the University bulletin board to see whether I passed or not. Elder Porphyrios in his unique way helped me to realize that my suffering was over and finally I was getting my law degree.
Once I asked for his blessing to write our discussions down. He answered me most kindly,
"There's no reason at all why you should write down those things that I say. Whatever I say is written in the Gospel. Study the Bible and you will find it written there."
I was obedient to the Elder and I did not keep even one small note from the many, many excellent words that I heard from his holy mouth. Only I made sure to keep a thorough mental record, so that with God's help many of our conversations are found recorded word for word in my mind to this day.
Elder's words, "whatever I say is in the Gospels" were a very important spiritual lesson for me. With the passage of time I found out for myself that when a person really studies the Holy Bible, asking God to help him in this effort, there is never a time when he does not find an answer to his problem. Besides, it is a common experience. The "mix-up," as the Elder Porphyrios was accustomed to say, only happens when we do not put Christ's words into practice. Instead, in our selfishness, we do whatever we ourselves consider right and proper in a given situation.
Elder Porphyrios always insisted that we always study Holy Scripture, the lives of the Saints, and the texts of the Church Fathers thoroughly.
It was the time when they had just put a telephone in pappouli's room. I was informed about it. Naturally, my first thought was how I could find out his telephone number. It was at moments like this that I glorified God for granting us the gift of technology. I could not believe it. Now I no longer had to wait until I went to Athens to speak with pappouli. It was now possible for me to talk to him and to hear him while I was in Cyprus.
I immediately called my friend K in Athens. He was the person who first led me to Elder Porphyrios and from then on supported me in my spiritual struggle. May God bless him.
K was one of the few people who then knew the Elder's number. He hesitated in giving it to me. He wanted to ask for the Elder's blessing. My agony cannot be described. On the other hand, however, I did not want to put K. into a difficult position.
An unforeseen matter forced me to travel to Athens,a few days later. Naturally, I rushed to the Elder. I went with K.
When we entered pappouli's room, we kissed his hand and received his blessing. Before we were able to say anything to him, we saw him lifting up the bed covers. He was in bed. He took the telephone out from under them. K and I stood there with our mouths open. Once again we saw his gift of discernment for ourselves. It was the Elder's immediate answer to the question which K. would have asked him. If he could give me the telephone number or not.
Crying, I knelt next to the Elder's bed and said to him through my tears,
"Thank you pappouli, thank you pappouli." K. wrote Elder Porphyrios' telephone number on a piece of paper.
My telephone conversation with the Elder:
"Pappouli how does God allow others to be unjust to us? Is that just?"
"And who are you to judge God? Please, hang up the phone immediately."
This is our telephone conversation the following night:
"Good evening, Elder."
"How pleased I am that you called. I wanted you to call me so much so that I could ask your forgiveness for yesterday."
"You, Elder, are asking forgiveness from me? I should fall at your feet and ask your forgiveness for making you so bitter yesterday."
"Yes, I want to ask for your forgiveness for telling you to hang up the phone yesterday. But, you know, at the time somebody was here who wanted to commit suicide because of something that happened with his girl. He was kneeling here, and I didn't want to leave him like that while speaking on the phone."
It is very difficult, practically impossible, to write down what I felt then and what I still feel now, on paper. Therefore the only thing I can say, which I consider to be more than sufficient, is that when the saints ask for forgiveness from us unworthy ones, it is like Christ Himself knocking on our door. Only people who have reached "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ," as Paul, the Apostle tells us, can ask for forgiveness. This happens even when the responsibility for the fault falls completely upon others.
This was the extent of Elder Porphyrios' humility. Humility that, because of it's immensity, was and is inconceivable for all those who knew him, and even for those who didn't. For as St. Isaac the Syrian explains, "Humility is power, which is received by the perfect and the Holy."
In his final years he often used the word 'see', even though he had already lost his natural sight.
In January 1985, I was two months pregnant and I was anxious, like every future mother, for the baby to be brought into the world healthy and whole. He told me these exact words, during one of our telephone conversations,
"I see the child in your womb. He is an angel."
From then on he would use the words, "I see," a lot more often; both for future events and for the present. About things which I had neither seen nor suspected. He once said to me with emphasis,
"Remember what I tell you each time because as soon as I've said something, I forget it immediately."
Later, when my child was born, I took his picture to Elder Porphyrios. He told me that it was unnecessary to show him the picture since he had already lost his natural sight. A fact I was unaware of up until that day.
"I can't see," he said to me. However, he said that "I can't see" with such simplicity and indifference, if I may use the word, that I felt I was being taught something very important at that moment. It is something that would constitute a tragedy for the majority of us. Truthfully, who amongst us could easily accept complete blindness?
On the one hand, it was the full assent on Elder Porphyrios' part, even in this case, to God's will. On the other hand, it was the enormous, inconceivable difference between physical sight and spiritual sight. When the Elder Porphyrios used the words, "I see," in reference to his spiritual eyes you understood from the tone of his voice only how much joy and delight that vision gave him. While the "I can't see" referred to his physical eyes; it was as if it did not make any difference to him.
Something that he frequently did was to take your head in his hands and hold it in that position for many minutes. It really was a sacred moment. You felt that at that very moment a fervent prayer was being sent up to heaven for you, the sinner. A prayer from the depths of the heart of a holy man. A man who constantly interceded to God for everyone; for the consolation and salvation of all.
He also frequently, very frequently, took your pulse. Then he would tell you about the sicknesses that you had and he would also tell you about the sicknesses you would encounter in the future. He would talk to you about the sensitive parts of your body. He would tell you what to look out for and where you should pay more attention.
That which one could not easily comprehend was the natural sense of humor which Elder Porphyrios had. It really broke the ice that can exist in a relationship. However, it was primarily a meaningful way of making you leave your dejection and gloominess. His cheerfulness, his merriness and his goodness drew souls to him.
I often laughed together with him like a little child. That laughter was the required medicine at that given moment. It was the balm that soothed the soul's pain. He used this medicine on the telephone a lot.
One of my most beautiful and tender memories of the Elder was the time when I remained in his cell for more than half an hour. When I came out my friends who had gone there with me considered me blessed for having talked with the Elder for such a long time. As usual, they began to ask me what he said. We never tired of hearing the Elder's beneficial words from one another. You can therefore understand why they stood there with their mouths wide open when I told them that Elder Porphyrios and I played with the parrot the whole time that I was in his cell. A parrot however that Elder Porphyrios had taught to say constantly "Lord have mercy on me".
How many means did pappouli use to guide us in God's way and life? Due to this everyone could understand him, even little children.
Elder Porphyrios was the true Christ-bearer. He never tired of saying Christ's name. He always said to me:
"Love Christ more."
He was delighted like a child when he heard the church radio stations that started broadcasting in Greece in recent years. He said;
"They continually talk about our Christ."
The following happened to me in one of our final meetings. When I asked him a question, he pointed at the radio, which was tuned to one of the Church radio stations, and transmitting a program.
"Listen." he said to me. Then the next second I heard the unknown speaker's voice answer my question.
Filled with grace from God, Elder Porphyrios would open the heavens before you. It was as if he brought all the God's love for all His creatures down from above.
He wanted me to get rid of a bad habit. He asked it of me, he the saint and I the sinner, with these words,
"Doesn't the Elder have that much favor? Do it for me."
"Tell your husband that the Elder begs him to support you in this effort."
The saints begging us, not for themselves, but for our benefit, for our salvation and deliverance. This and everything else is God's benefaction, the most part of which you cannot express and you cannot endure. The only thing you can offer in response are the words of St. Paul the Apostle, "to be carnally minded is death, to be spiritually minded is life and peace."
In May 1991 Elder Porphyrios helped me realize, during the course of a telephone conversation that this would be the last time we would speak together here on earth. I am noting this down as the last gift that he made towards me, the least of all. It greatly helped me prepare for an event which up to that moment had seemed too incomprehensible. What would my life be like without Elder Porphyrios' presence here.
At this point I must also publicly express my grateful thanks to Hieromonk Athanasios of the Holy Monastery of Vatopedi for the words of comfort that he gave me through divine grace following the announcement of the Elder's death. I asked him to help me confront the situation,
"Now you will no longer need neither airplane nor telephone to speak with Elder Porphyrios. You can now talk to him there where you are, whenever you want and he will listen. From now on Elder Porphyrios' prayer for you and for all of us will be much more effective."
I remembered the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, that great Russian Starets. I read his life when I first met Elder Porphyrios, in my effort to understand what an Elder is,
"If I find grace before God," he promised before leaving the world, "I will pray for everyone kneeling before the throne of the Most High."
I have the steadfast assurance that Elder Porphyrios now does that very same thing for all of us.
The Elder's departure was necessary before we could understand and become more conscious of the measure of his own self-sacrifice and at the same time for us to feel our own self-centeredness.
There were times, it happened to me myself, when we saw his face constricted with pain. He then called a nun to move him onto the bed, to somewhat relieve the pain. We were there bombarding him with a thousand and one questions. His prayer was not enough for us. We wanted and we insisted on asking him about this, that, and the other. He answered us without complaint, without protest, always with a smile on his lips. The nuns would come (how much I owe them for their love, for their hospitality, for conveying messages to the Elder) and they would say,
"Elder isn't it time you rested a little?"
He, saw how much we needed him, how much we wanted to remain with him - each person for his own need, for himself. He would say,
"It doesn't matter, allow him (or, her) to stay a little longer." In this way, Elder Porphyrios gave us the measure of Christian love: "self-sacrifice for those unworthy of it."
There are certain things that hurt terribly when you recall them to mind. There are certain things that make you want to cry out, "Forgive me, Elder. Forgive me, my God."
A saint is in our midst and what do we do? Will we at least become a little better, become inoculated by his holiness?
The life and times of Elder Porphyrios are one more proof that our Orthodox Faith is the true faith. We saw all of what we read in the lives of the saints, being indubitably confirmed in the great Elder of our time's person. It is through him, at the end of the twentieth century, that our God revealed once again His grace and truth.
Now, after his demise, I ask him to pray to God to forgive me for loving him far more than I obeyed him. Yet he was the personification of obedience and humility. Even up until the last moment of his earthly presence he gave us the greatest lesson in humbleness. In the farewell letter to all his spiritual children, he writes,
"I beg all of you to forgive me for whatever I did to upset you."
I do not hesitate to submit that after his passing, every time I pray through Elder Porphyrios for strength from on high, it comes. This happens with me more so now. Through the prayers of Elder Porphyrios our Holy God gives solutions to my problems and ways out of my dead ends.
"With what words can we thank you Lord for this gift, which even the worthy do not comprehend."
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Article published in English on: 3-4-2009.
Last Update: 3-4-2009.