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Greeks Seek Strength in the Powers of a Revered Monk to Predict Events

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324469304578143271912956476.html?mod=rss_europe_whats_news December 3, 2012 Greeks Seek Strength in the Powers of
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      December 3, 2012

      Greeks Seek Strength in the Powers of a Revered Monk to Predict Events
      Elder Paisios Expected Travails; A Skeptical Facebook Page Draws Ire


      SOUROTI, Greece---Legend has it that nearly three decades ago, a bearded
      Orthodox Christian mystic visiting here made an unsettling prediction:
      Greece in the future would experience a "great disruption and
      confusion," followed by hunger and political turmoil.

      Believers say this grim vision of Elder Paisios, an ascetic monk who
      died in 1994, was actually a prescient glimpse of the upheaval now
      gripping this debt-racked country---helping fuel a surge of interest in
      the Orthodox holy man by Greeks struggling to make sense of a brutal
      financial crisis.

      Elder Paisios, who spent much of his adult life as a hermit on the
      monastic peninsula of Mount Athos in northeastern Greece, has become a
      popular sensation---with tales of his prognostications and miracles he
      is said to have performed posted online and recounted in popular books.

      On Saturdays, hundreds of pilgrims line up at Elder Paisios's gravesite
      here, waiting their turn to kneel, pray and kiss the wooden cross that
      marks his final resting place. They ask for help finding jobs, paying
      bills and surviving a downturn that has upended their lives.

      "Paisios predicted many things, and his prophecies are now coming true,"
      said Costas Katsaounis, a 41-year-old military officer on a visit to the
      shrine. "He foresaw the crisis. But he also said it would get better,
      that we will overcome and prosperity will return. He's helped a lot of

      Elder Paisios's fame in some ways echoes that of Michel de Notredame,
      better known as Nostradamus, a 16th-century French apothecary who
      believers say foretold everything from the rise of Hitler to the terror
      attacks of Sept. 11.

      "Figures like Paisios represent the shaman, the magician of the tribe,"
      said Alexandra Koronaiou, a sociologist at Panteion University of Social
      and Political Sciences in Athens. "They are the incarnation of a
      transcendental, invisible power."

      With Greece's economy in the fifth year of a grinding recession that is
      expected to deepen further in 2013, unemployment above 25% and even
      middle-class families struggling to feed their children, many Greeks
      feel like their society is teetering on the brink of collapse, and they
      are seeking solace.

      "When there is an event that brings an entire country to its knees,
      people look for a religious explanation," said Vasilios Makrides, a
      religious-studies professor and specialist on Orthodox Christianity at
      the University of Erfurt in Germany. "They are seeking support from the

      That is driving a fresh boom in all things Paisios. The elder's wizened
      and bearded face, peering out from below a black cap, adorns devotional
      banners and cards inscribed with inspirational messages.

      Bookstores stock dozens of Paisios-related titles, from books detailing
      his spiritual teachings to volumes filled with his commentary on
      everything from the coming of the apocalypse to Greece's retaking of
      Constantinople, once the seat of Byzantine emperors and now Istanbul.

      "They sell like crazy," said Ionnis Aivaliotis, who works at the Zoe
      religious bookstore in downtown Athens. "Even nonbelievers are starting
      to read them. It gives people courage to withstand what's coming."

      There is a Paisios diet guide---he was very thin---and a kids' book,
      "Once Upon a Time, Children, There Was Elder Paisios."

      Over the past two years, conservative newspaper Dimokratia has sold
      350,000 copies of Paisios-related titles---from compilations of his
      prophecies to his views on education. Other newspapers carry accounts of
      his reputed miracles.

      Elder Paisios, born Arsenios Eznepedis in central Anatolia in 1924, is
      part of a long tradition of monastic spirituality that believers say
      confers a power of divination---to see things others cannot, to
      interpret signs and predict the course of events.

      Even before his death in 1994, he was well known in religious circles,
      drawing the faithful to Mount Athos for spiritual guidance and advice.
      Many expect that he will eventually be canonized. (A church spokesman
      declined to comment.)

      But the recent increase in attention has prompted a backlash from
      skeptics and drawn cautions from some in the Greek Orthodox Church

      "People are looking for somewhere to turn," said the Rev. Vasilios
      Havatzas, head of the church's charitable operations in Athens. "But
      some are overreacting. They are making him into some kind of prophet,"
      he said, adding: "That doesn't mean everything he said is right."

      But in a sign of the broad support for Elder Paisios, Greek police
      arrested 27-year-old Phillipos Loizos for creating a Facebook page that
      poked fun at Greeks' belief in the miracles and prognostications of the
      late monk. He was charged with blasphemy and insulting religion. The
      blasphemy charge was later withdrawn.

      Police received thousands of complaints about the page on the
      social-networking site for Elder Pastitsios, a play on the monk's name.
      Pastitsio is a traditional baked pasta dish similar to lasagna. An
      ultranationalist lawmaker condemned the page in Parliament.

      Mr. Loizos said he was using satire to criticize the commercialization
      of the monk and his message.

      Many of Elder Paisios's purported prophecies resonate. "The people will
      be so disappointed by the politicians of the two big parties, that they
      will get sick of them," is one that rings true in an era when voter
      support for the country's two mainstream parties, blamed for the crisis,
      has dropped sharply.

      Some of the elder's reported remarks hint at dark conspiracies---among
      them that the world is ruled secretly by a cabal of five people. He also
      predicted national triumphs for Greece, saying that Greeks would defeat
      Turkey, rule Constantinople and take part of Albania.

      "Holy people like Elder Paisios are born once in a thousand years," said
      Nikolaos Zournatzoglou, who has compiled three books of the elder's
      pronouncements. "He was a gift from God and the Virgin Mary for humanity."

      In Souroti, about 20 miles from the northeastern Greek city of
      Thessaloniki, busloads of pilgrims arrived one Saturday recently to see
      the elder's grave. Young and old, they prayed and took pictures. Some
      plucked a leaf of basil from a plant growing near the simple cross at
      his head.

      Afterward in a gift shop in the basement of the rough-hewn stone church,
      visitors bought postcards, plaques with images of Elder Paisios and
      books by and about him, along with icons, crosses and other religious

      "There's a lot of uncertainty now. We don't know what is going to
      happen," said Anastasia Constantinou, a waitress visiting the shrine who
      said her family has had to cut back on meat, on driving their car and on
      other normal activities as their income has fallen amid the downturn.

      "People find consolation in faith," Ms. Constantinou, 32, said. "Even
      though everyday life is difficult, Paisios gives strength to people. He
      helps them hold on."

      *Write to * Gordon Fairclough at gordon.fairclough@...

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