An "Iconographic Journey"
Dear St. Paul family and friends,
[A miracle at St. Paul in Naples]
The blessing of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you and your families.
We are seeing days of great confusion, and spiritual darkness. It can be difficult to find the light and keep our spiritual gaze upon Christ.
I pray the following update (and full story) concerning our parish Iconography Project will grant you some consolation, hope, and even encouragement that not all is lost in this increasingly bizarre world, that the Orthodox Christian Faith "...which was once delivered unto the saints." (Jude 1:3) is very much ALIVE.
Since my family and I arrived in Naples three (3) years ago (6/15/2017), by the grace of God alone, the iconography at St. Paul has gathered great momentum. Absent of my own will and desire, involvement in the parish iconography began after Hurricane IRMA swept through Florida in September 2017. The following Sunday after the Hurricane, upon returning to the parish to survey the damage, I realized the head of St. John the Baptist was peeling off. It was because of this very event that John Filippakis - our Cretan Iconographer - and I first met.
Icon of Theophany where the head of St. John began to peel after Hurricane IRMA
Three years later, I now realize it was the glorious Prophet Forerunner and Baptist John, who orchestrated such an encounter with our iconographer John. The Forerunner is John's patron saint and protector. His head peeling off was reminiscent of his beheading by Herod Antypas at the request of Salome - the daughter of Herodias - who he unlawfully married (she was his brother's wife).
Quite honestly, there was absolutely no reason for this to happen to the icon - no damage, no water or moisture on the wall - nothing. It simply happened and it was the first time in the history of John's iconography work. This frustrating and highly unfortunate event, in retrospect, was a great blessing for the parish. He (John the Baptist), who was rich in God, through his prayers, infused grace-filled energy behind our parish iconography project, ultimately dressing our walls with the richness of the Gospel.
That fateful meeting between John and I ended with an agreement to simply follow the will of God and observe whether or not He will bless more iconography. We would not see one another again until John visited the parish in the Spring of 2018. We were discussing the Sacred Tradition of Orthodox Christian iconography, when a beautiful parishioner, without any solicitation, overheard and asked to donate an icon of the Great Martyr George. At the same time, another parishioner caught wind of such a request and asked to donate an icon of the Great Martyr Demetrios the Myrrh-Streamer.
Our jaws dropped - it was so unexpected!
The Great Martyrs George and Demetrios were the first icons installed after that fateful meeting between Fr. Paul and John Filippakis
Our walls, now bearing such beautiful holy martyr's of the Church, inspired others to step forward and ask how they too could participate.
After the installation of Sts. George and Demetrios, the next phase included the completion of the eastern arch over the solea
Without one word of solicitation, a grace-filled momentum for traditional Byzantine Iconography swept through our parish family - even the local News wanted a piece of the action!
This was a defining moment for the parish, the Lord was moving hearts. It had never been so clear - things were about to take off!
[Click image below to view photos]
[Click image below to view brief video]
Within less than 2.5 years of the Prophet and Baptist John arranging that fateful meeting, through the unsolicited (99.99%) and anonymous generosity of our faithful, the walls are now exploding with holy icons:
- Eastern arch [completed]
- Northern arch - "Raising of Lazarus" [to-be-complete]
- Western arch [completed] & dedicated to the Theotokos
- Western wall - "Lament at the Tomb" of Christ w/angels and decoration [completed]
- The Dome [completed]
- A growing multitude of holy men and women beautify our lower walls
"But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple" +Psalm 5:7
Western arch dedicated to the Mother of God; Western wall includes the "Lament at the Tomb" w/St. Joseph of Arimathea & Myrrh-Bearing Women
"And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." +Luke 1:41
The Apostle & Evangelist Luke resting between the icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Raising of Lazarus
St. Matrona of Moscow & St. Xenia of St. Petersburg - Slava Bogu!
Great-Martyr and unmercenary healer Panteleimon
Not only is the House of God filling-out according to the Sacred Tradition of the ancient [Orthodox] Christian Faith, but:
Exactly $0.00 were used from the parish Operating Fund.
Exactly $0.00 were used from the Fellowship Hall Fund.
Exactly 100% of the funds were donated by faithful parishioners!
Glory to God!
+TODAY - We Are Building For The Future+
The 2020 Annual Parish Meeting in March was a historical event as a vote to pursue building a 6,500 sq. ft. Fellowship Hall with a large social space, classrooms, improved kitchen (and more!), received an overwhelming vote of 90% in favor!
St. Paul Orthodox Church Site Plan
While this is an exciting and vibrant time in the life of the parish, we found ourselves asking: How will this impact our Iconography Project?
John Filippakis is turning 69 this year. This makes the countless hours in his studio, the physically demanding days installing icons, while balancing on scaffolding near the ceiling, increasingly intense.
Decades of such a life take a real toll on the body and John has the stories (and doctors appointments) to prove it.
Cretan Iconographer John Filippakis - young at heart!
Despite his advanced years, John continues to be a well sought-out iconographer. His phone is often bombarded with calls or messages from potential clients. I recall at least one occasion, where John is pressing an icon against the wall for alignment, while holding sharp, heavy-duty, wall-tacks in his mouth, his shoulders burning, and his phone down below ringing off the hook. I later learned the call was from overseas - an interested individual asking to fly John out to install iconography for a chapel in Crete! A phone call before that one was from a community in the Northeast asking for his famous mosaic work.
All of this is to say that, while John is getting older, he continues to be in demand. It seems if we ever hope to complete the iconography at St. Paul Church, it is now or never.
The remaining scope of the Iconography Project consists of three phases:
- Two ceiling arches - north & south (phase 1)
- Altar area (Phase 2)
- Remaining lower walls along perimeter of Nave (Phase 3)
Cost to complete the work: $185,000
We also have an amazing, parish life-enhancing, $1.5M Fellowship Hall to raise funds for and build.
How are we supposed to pull this off?
The sacred tradition of Orthodox Christian iconography preaches the Gospel, elevates and transforms the heart, it heals and consoles the spirit of man - it quiets the soul and calls one to prayer. Iconography is essential - not a "nice to have".
“Divine Grace takes up abode first of all in the souls of the Saints and from the souls is transmitted also to their bodies. And when they fall sleep (repose) it remains in their relics and in their graves (tombs) and in their icons and their churches (temples) which are dedicated to them. It is the Grace of God which resides in the persons of the Saints and then afterwards remains in all of that which is connected to the Saints.”
+St. Gregory Palamas
It is not about "decoration" or "art" but about sacredness, holiness, the grace of God.
At the same time, the Fellowship Hall is critical to the growth of the parish and social life of our increasingly vibrant community.
It better allows us to gather as the "Body of Christ" - The Church - to celebrate, educate, fellowship, and pour forth an abundance of Christian hospitality and outreach to the local community. The opportunities are endless and the essential nature of a place to gather socially is a critical part of parish life. We need it - not just "nice to have".
Remember that the last three (3) years of Iconography have been solely through the grace of God and according to His Divine will and blessing. I never even had to solicit any major dollars from anyone, I certainly did not want to begin now.
Both are essential - Iconography AND the Fellowship Hall.
Can we pull this off? Not alone.
One Tuesday, I arrived early to our weekly Akathist Service to St. Nikiforos the Leper and Wonderworker. St. Nikiforos had appeared several times these last few months consoling people all around the world not to fear COVID19 but to trust in the providential care of God, who has not abandoned us. Hearing of his appearances, we began supplicating him to beseech the Lord for us.
I am so grateful for the sisters at the Holy Monastery of the Life-Giving Spring in Dunlop, CA for translating the life of St. Nikiforos, the Parklesis and Akathist service into English. After receiving an icon of St. Nikiforos, the Abbess Markella (the head nun) had been especially drawn to him. She requested a relic of the saint from the monk who had them in his possession. The relic arrived just before the building permit for the extension of the monastery - after a long delay - was finally issued.
The Holy Monastery began to run into technical and financial difficulties with the construction so Gerondissa Markella took the saint's icon and tied it to a branch on a tree next to the site. She then prayed and made a "contract" with him saying:
"My saint, I have no idea how this building is going to be completed, neither from a technical nor from a financial standpoint. So listen, I am putting you in charge -- you are going to be the foreman. During your life you were not able to walk but now I want you to walk around and oversee the construction making sure that everything proceeds correctly."
From that day forward, his icon remained hanging on the tree next to the site. The technical, as well as financial, difficulties evaporated! The construction was fully funded and completed successfully. Glory to God.
After I heard the above account from a brother priest, I made a phone call to the sisters and asked for his icon, several copies of his life for our bookstore, small laminated icon cards and pins blessed on his relics, as well as the Paraklesis and Akathist service books.
Weekly Tues. (6:00PM) Evening Akathist to St. Nikiforos the Leper & Wonderworker
I was sitting in the church Temple, having lit a few candles up front, looking at the glowing faces of our holy saints - their radiating gold-leaf halo's adorning their heads like crowns of victory. My heart could not resist imagining the church iconography completed yet it seemed absolutely impossible to move forward with the project.
By the grace of God, a few weeks earlier, we had received a $30,000 donation from a beautiful family in the parish but we were still short $150,000!
How could I expect donations towards iconography with all the momentum gathered behind the Fellowship Hall?
At the same time, as previously mentioned, we were always careful to never use any other funds for iconography except those specifically donated towards that project - never from the Operating Budget and never from any funds dedicated to the Fellowship Hall.
Resting on a pew, in silence, only the dancing flame of our beeswax candles, deep in my heart, without giving it much thought, I "silently lamented" with a sigh, "Lord, how are we going to pull this off? How are we ever going to get this done? Where is the money supposed to come from?...grant Yanni (John) more time with us. Whatever happens, may it be blessed."
God will provide I thought to myself - this is the Orthodox way - as the faithful began to arrive for the 6:00PM Akathist.
+GLADNESS OF CRETANS+
Akathist means "not sitting" and is a service dedicated to a particular saint, holy event, or one of the persons of the Holy Trinity.
Not giving another thought to my short, silent, prayerful lament only minutes before, "Blessed is our God..." I intoned to begin the prayer service to St. Nikiforos.
St. Nikiforos the Leper & Wonderworker
The life of a Christian is a mysterious life. The life of a Christian is also a watchful, attentive, and vigilant, life. The Lord will communicate to us and reveal His Divine will, through His saints, in the manner He finds most fitting.
Although it was about the third or fourth week we had been praying the Akathist to St. Nikiforos, one verse (i.e. "Oikos"), exploded in my heart:
"Rejoice, O joy and gladness of Cretans"
"My Lord..." I thought to myself quietly, "John (our iconographer) is also from Crete and his work is according to the tradition of the famous Theophanes the Cretan. Does he know about St. Nikiforos?"
Then I continued, "O holy father Nikiforos, if it is blessed, please help our John, who is from Crete like you, grant him more time, help us complete the iconography. We will put your icon on our wall. You who helped Gerondissa Markella at her monastery in California - help us here if it is God's will."
That was it. I never spoke a word about this to anyone.
It wasn't until one week later, a Tuesday morning, that I received a text message from John Filippakis that he had goosebumps after learning more about St. Nikiforos. A few days earlier I had simply asked John if he ever heard of that holy man.
According to the Lord's unpredictable, beautiful, and encouraging Divine Providence, it turns out, St. Nikiforos was born and raised very close to John's birthplace in Crete. At the same time, the saint lived in St. Barbara - a suburb of Athens in Aigaleo - where the institution for lepers was at that time (and still exists today as a hospital). This was ten minutes away from where John used to live after he moved to Athens from Crete in 1964! St. Nikiforos, while also in Athens, departed this life in 1964.
These are encouraging connections - something is happening here I thought to myself.
At the Akathist that evening, with great joy I recited the words: "Rejoice, O joy and gladness of Cretans." and "Rejoice, for out of Crete you have shone forth throughout the world."
The following Sunday, after the Divine Services, while driving to visit a family at their home, I received a phone call from a parishioner.
"Abouna, you always tell us God will provide and He has again. A good friend wants to make a donation towards the iconography project - completely anonymous. You have never met the couple but they heard about the beautiful iconography and the remaining work. They want to help by donating $100,000."
My heart exploded! I was speechless yet filled with such joy.
Glory to God! Immediately, I thought to myself: We have received the fruit of the holy prayers of St. Nikiforos!
Truly the Lord is glorified in His Saints! Only a few short days after praying to our holy father Nikiforos, we receive this beautiful blessing, "Leap for joy, O isle of Crete!"
The next chance I could, I called our iconographer John and relayed the miraculous news. We both rejoiced at the Lord's great mercy on us, how pleased He is with the iconography project at St. Paul that He has quite literally blessed its continuation. Glory to God!
Without revealing my prayer in full to John, I said, "John, we have to put his icon up. It has to be the first one to go up before we begin this next phase." John quickly agreed and added, "Father, I will do the icon for no charge - it will be a blessing for me!"
We are so unworthy - such a gift to our parish. We need the encouragement and consolation during these increasingly dark and demonic times.
Thank you, God. Thank you holy father Nikiforos.
The following Tuesday evening, I joyfully told the story to the faithful at the Akathist service and by the time the following Sunday arrived, we had received - again out of nowhere - ANOTHER anonymous donation for $25,000!
By the sheer grace of God, and His abundant mercy, not allowing His worst priest to fall flat on his face, the Lord in just one week sent us $130,000 bringing our iconography fund to $155,000!
The authoring of this "Iconographic Journey" began in July - it had to be just right. As of now, early Sept. 2020, I received word only a few days ago that an additional anonymous donation has been made for the remaining $30,000 to fully fund the Iconography Project! We now have the $185,000 to complete everything!
Who could doubt whether or not this is pleasing to the Creator of the Universe?
Who could question whether or not it is "necessary" to beautify the House of the Lord?
Who would dare entertain the thought that we cannot complete the iconography AND build the Fellowship Hall?
When man desires the "good things" and makes an effort to accomplish that which is pleasing to God, the Lord blesses it.
+THE ICONOGRAPHY PROJECT Progress Report+
God willing, John will be ready to begin installing the below icons by January 2021.
Phase 1 - North & South Arch (Current effort):
Entrance into Jerusalem ("Palm Sunday")
"Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed [is] he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, Who is this?" +Mt. 21:9-10
Transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor
"...He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light." +Mt. 17:2
"And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him." +Mt. 17:3
"'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!' When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown in terror." +Mt. 17:6
Christ's prayer in Gethsemane/Disciples sleeping/Christ's betrayal by Judas
"And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground." +Lk 22:44
"When Jesus rose from prayer and returned to the disciples, He found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow." +Lk 22:45
"And while He was still speaking, behold, a multitude; and he who was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them and drew near to Jesus to kiss Him." +Lk 22:47
"When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they said to Him, 'Lord, shall we strike with the sword?'" +Lk 22:49
The Crucifixion of Christ
"Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene." +Jn 19:25
"Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home." +Jn. 19:27
Myrrh-Bearing Women (i.e. "Empty Tomb")
"Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen..." +Lk 24:5-6
"Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulcher." +Lk 24:1-2
1st Ecumenical Council
7th Ecumenical Council
Unworthy as we are, the Lord poured-forth a beautiful miracle upon our community here at St. Paul in Naples. It was unexpected - it still remains a bit surreal - but we are grateful for the generosity of the faithful and our Lord's great mercy through the prayers of the saints.
Now, on to the Fellowship Hall!
Through the prayers of our holy fathers - especially St. Nikiforos the Leper and Wonderworker - O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
God's peace be with you all, dear ones. Keep the Faith.
+Fr. Paul G.
[Feel free to share with your family and friends]