The Precious Cincture of the Theotokos

The cincture of the Blessed Virgin Mary, today divided into 3 pieces, is 1 of 3 remaining relics of her earthly life, the others being her veil & her tunic. According to tradition, the cincture was made out of camel-hair by the Vir-gin Mary herself, & after her Dormition, at her Assumption, she entrusted it to the Apostle Thomas. During the early centuries of the Christian era it was kept at Jerusalem & in the 4th century we hear of it at Zela in Cappadocia. In the same century, Theodosius the Great brought it back to Jerusalem, & from there his son Arcadius took it to Constantinople. There it was origin-ally deposited in the Chalcoprateion church, whence it was transferred by the Emperor Leo to the Vlachernae church (458). During the reign of Leo VI ‘the Wise’ (886-912), it was taken to the Palace, where it cured his sick wife, the Empress Zoe.

The following is a more detailed account of this healing, which is recounted on Aug. 31st. The Placing of the Venerable Cincture of the all-holy Theotokos in a church of Constantinople’s Chalcoprateia district took place during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Younger. Before this the holy relic, entrusted to the Apostle Thomas by the Mother of God herself, was kept by pious Christians at Jerusalem after Her Dormition. During the reign of Emperor Leo the Wise, his wife Zoe was afflicted with an unclean spirit, & he prayed that God would heal her. The empress had a vision that she would be healed of her infirmity if the Cincture of the Mother of God were placed upon her. The emperor then asked the Patriarch to open the coffer containing the precious Cincture. The Patriarch removed the seal & opened the coffer, & the Cincture of the Mother of God appeared completely whole & undamaged by time. The Patriarch placed the cincture on the sick empress, & immediately she was freed from her infirmity. They sang hymns of thanksgiving to the all-holy Theotokos, then they placed the venerable Cincture back into the coffer & resealed it. She, as an act of thanksgiving to the Mother of God, embroidered the whole girdle with gold thread, giving it the appearance which it bears today.

In the 12th century, in the reign of the Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143-1180), the Feast of the Holy cinc-ture on 31 Aug. was officially introduced; previously it had shared the Feast of the Vesture of the Virgin on 1 July. The Cincture itself remained in Constantinople until the 12th century, when, in the course of a defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Isaacius by the Bulgar King Asan (1185), it was stolen & taken to Bulgaria, & from there it later came into the hands of the Serbs. It was presented to Vatopaidi by the Serbian Prince Lazarus I (1372-1389), together with a large piece of the True Cross. Since then it has been kept in the sanctuary of the monastery’s main church. Under Turkish rule, the brethren of the Monastery took it on journeys to Crete, Macedonia, Thrace, Constantinople & Asia Minor, to distribute its blessing, to strength-en the morale of the enslaved Greeks & to bring freedom from infectious diseases.

The miracles performed by the Holy Cincture throughout the ages are innumerable. The following are but a few examples:

At one time, the inhabitants of Ainos called for the presence of the Holy Cincture & the Vatopaidi monks accompanying it received hospitality at the house of a priest, whose wife surreptitiously removed a piece of it. When the fathers embarked to leave, although the sea was calm, the ship remained immobile. The priest’s wife, seeing this strange phenomenon, realized that she had done wrong & gave the monks the piece of the cincture, whereupon the ship was able to leave immediately. It was because of this event that a 2nd case was made. The piece in question has been kept in this down to the present.

During the Greek War of Independence of 1821, the Holy Cincture was taken to Crete at the request of the islanders, who were afflicted by the plague. When, however, the monks were preparing to return to the Monastery, they were arrested by the Turks & taken off to be hanged, while the Holy Cincture was re-deemed by the British Consul, Domenikos Santantonio. From there the Cincture was taken to the island of Santorini, to the Consul’s new home. News of this quickly spread throughout the island. The local bishop informed the Vatopedi Monastery & the Abbot, Dionysios, was sent, in 1831, to Santorini. The Consul asked the sum of 15,000 piastres to hand over the Cincture, & the people of the island, with touching eagerness, managed to collect together the money. Thus the Holy Cincture was bought back & Abbot Dionysios returned it to Vatopaidi.  

What had happen with the priest’s wife of Ainos was repeated in the case of the Consul’s wife. She too, unbeknown to her husband, cut off a small piece of the Holy Belt before it was handed back to the Abbot Dionysios. Within a very short period her husband died suddenly & her mother & sister became gravely ill. In 1839, she wrote to the Monas-tery asking that representatives should be sent to take possession of the piece which she had removed.

In 1864, the Holy Cincture was taken to Constantinople, since there was a cholera epidemic among the inhabitants. As soon as the ship bearing it approached the harbor, the cholera ceased & none of those already suffering from it died. This strange miracle excited the curiosity of the Sultan, who had the Cincture brought to the Palace so that he could reverence it.

During the time when the Holy Cincture was at Constantinople, a Greek of Galata asked that it should be taken to his house, since his son was seriously ill. When, however, the Holy Cincture arrived at his house, his son was already dead. The monks, however, did not give up hope. They asked to see the dead boy, & as soon as the Cincture was placed on him, he was raised from the dead.

In 1894, the inhabitants of Madytos in Asia Minor sought that the Holy Cincture should be taken there be-cause a plague of locusts was destroying their trees & crops. When the ship carrying the Cincture came into the harbor, the sky was filled with clouds of locusts, which then began to fall into the sea, so that it was difficult for the vessel to anchor. The people of Madytos, seeing the miracle, kept up a constant chant of Kyrie eleison from the shore.

Until our own times, the Holy Cincture has continued to work many miracles, particularly in the case of infertile women, who, when they request it, are given a piece of cord from the case holding the Girdle &, if they have faith, become pregnant.

“Most Holy Mother of God, Save Us!” The Cincture of the Virgin Mary Comes to Russia
An account of the 2011 pilgrimage of the portion of the Cincture of the Virgin Mary perserved at Vatopedi Monastery through Russia.

Winter is on in Russia, or rather the foretaste of Russian winter. Not the hard frost that freezes away all moisture, but rain mixed with snow wind-driven against you. You can still stand outside for a day without getting frostbite, but you would need some clear motivation. And that motivation is your love for the Mother of God & sure hope in her intercession.

It began with a heartfelt request by the Russian Fund St. Andrew the 1st-called to the abbot of Vatopedi Monastery on Mt. Athos, Archimandrite Ephraim, & a blessing from His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow & All Russia, who announced on Russian television:

“Thousands of pilgrims visit Vatopedi Monastery just to pray before this holy relic, to kiss this frag-ment of the garments of the all-holy Theotokos. People pray before the Cincture of the Theotokos for healing from illnesses. Many incurable illnesses, including cancer, recede at people’s fervent prayers before this holy relic. In Vatopedi Monastery the monks make small copies of this Cincture, & we know that some women who suffer from infertility wear these little sashes. If to this is added repen-tance, fervent prayer & strong faith, then this prayer reaches the throne of the Heavenly Queen; many incidents have been recorded of women subsequently being able to have children.

“This is a serious problem for our country (Russia), & an important subject. I hope very much that the men & women who visit this holy relic while it is on Russian soil will fervently pray before it, venerate it & ask the Heavenly Queen for help in their lives, including for the birth of children. May the presence of the Cincture of the Theotokos help many to understand the power of Divine grace & the heavenly world’s closeness to us.”
On Nov. 20, Patriarch Kirill celebrated his 65th birthday. He & the primates of several local Churches served Divine Liturgy in the cathedral, & the Holy Cincture’s presence lent even more solemnity to the service attended by thousands of people.

This revered relic of the Mother of God is brought down from the Holy Mountain once a year to towns & cities in Greece, accompanied everywhere by bishops, clergy, soldiers & hundreds of the faithful strewing laurel leaves before the procession. But despite requests from other countries such as Romania, Bulgaria & the United States, Vatopedi monastery, which is so closely associated with the relic that it is nicknamed “agiozonite”, or “that of the holy Cincture”, has not previously consented to release the relic—that is, if you don’t count Turkey.

The relic has been piously preserved in Vatopedi Monastery since the 14th century. Even the Turkish Sultans recognized its miraculous qualities. Therefore in 1872, when Constantinople was beset by a cholera epidemic, Sultan Abdul-Aziz requested that the Cincture be brought to the city, & he sent a ship to take it. No sooner had the ship approached the city when the epidemic abated. The amazed Muslim Sultan ordered the relic brought to his palace for veneration.

Now the relic has been brought to Russia by Archimandrite Ephraim & 20 monks from Vatopedi. Transportation & logistics were organized by the Fund of St. Andrew the First-Called. The response has been phenomenal. As of Sat., Nov. 26, nearly 2,000,000 Russians have come to cathedrals in major cities to receive their grace of the all-holy Theotokos. The original route included arrival in St. Petersburg (were Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met the delegation at the airport) on Oct. 20, Ekaterinburg, Norilsk, Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, Diveyevo, Saransk, Samara, Rostov-on-the-Don, Kaliningrad & finally Moscow, from which the delegation will return to Mt. Athos. But there were so many people in this vast country who ardently de-sired to venerate this holy relic of the Mother of God that more cities were added to the list: Tiumen, Volgograd & Stravropol. Even the number of days in Moscow was extended by decision of the Vatopedi brotherhood when they understood how many people were arriving to venerate.

Archimandrite Ephraim has been to Russia a number of times prior to this momentous visitation & has given talks in the monasteries. He was equally gracious even on this long, difficult journey, & in Ekaterinburg he communicated his inspiration to those assembled before the holy relic:

“We have come from the Holy Mountain of Athos -— a place of asceticism, silence, prayer, repentance, the Protectress & Directress of which is the Mother of God. The Holy Mountain is still called the Garden of the Mother of God, & therefore all the monasteries are dedicated to the Theotokos.

“Vatopedi monastery is the only monastery in the world that is adorned with 7 miracle-working icons of the Mother of God, & the Honorable Cincture (Cincture, in Greek, Zoni) of the Most Holy Theotokos. We have 3 reliquary cases with portions of the holy Cincture, given to the monastery by an emperor & a prince. The first was John Cantacuzen, the Byzantine emperor, who was closely connected with the monastery: his spiritual father lived there, the saint of our Orthodox Church, Savva the Fool-for-Christ. This saint lived several years in Constantinople before coming to the monastery, & the emperor understood that this was a man of God, thus taking him as his spiritual counselor. They say that the emperor himself became a monk in our Vatopedi monastery at the end of his life. The 2nd person to give a portion of the holy Cincture to the monastery was Grand Prince Lazar of Serbia, who suffered for the sake of Christ, & is now the protector & great martyr of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

“Apparently the Theotokos chose Vatopedi Monastery to be particularly adorned by her mercy: two donors who did not even know each other were enlightened by grace at the same time & gave this great holy relic to one & the same monastery. Our spiritual father, Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, who reposed 2 years ago, often said to us: ‘Where else would it please the Theotokos to preserve her holy Cincture but on the Holy Mountain, which is a place of purity, chastity, obedience—a place of virginity?’ You know, the Cincture was symbolic even under the Law of Moses. We know from the Old Testament that virgins wove them-selves Cinctures, & when the official wedding day arrived, a virgin would give this Cincture to her husband as a symbol of her virginity.

“The Cincture which many have already venerated & which many more will venerate was woven by the hands of the Theotokos. This Cincture was made of camel’s wool (which was, incidentally, scientifically investigated), embroidered with gold thread. Empress Zoe, wife of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI the Wise, embroidered it. Empress Zoe was seriously ill & saw the Mother of God in a dream. The Theotokos told her that she must persuade the Patriarch to take the Cincture out of its sealed reliquary, & if she puts it around her waist she will be healed. Although the holy reliquary was sealed by the Patriarch as early as the 4th century, Zoe’s husband the Emperor had the influence to make the Patriarch unseal it. The Cincture was placed on the sick Empress, & she was healed. As a sign of her gratitude, she herself embroidered the en-tire Cincture with gold thread. By the way, scholars say that this was also God’s Providence, because if the Cincture had not been sewn over with gold it would not have survived to this day.

“We have brought you this holy relic because we believe that its presence in your city will bring a great blessing & relief, much grace, protection, & strength. Venerating this holy Cincture we feel that the Theotokos herself is in our midst, she is in the heart of each one of us. Even those who say that they do not believe—know that they are only deceiving. I have personal experience of this—my father said that he does not believe, but when he fell sick I remember how he continually said, ‘My Theotokos, my Theotokos’ —- for she is in the heart & conscience of an Orthodox person…

“We once met a family in Athens -— today they are elderly. They told us how 60 years ago the Cincture was brought to Athens & it was in their home. They remembered this for so many years, were filled with joy over this, told people about it & were filled with grace … When the Cincture was again in Athens 12 years ago it was placed on a table, & the tablecloth on which it lay still exudes a fragrance. I pray that the grace of the Theotokos would fill your hearts also, & that you would understand what a great honor it is that we are Orthodox Christians, members of the Church & children of God.”

This outpouring of grace of the Mother of God was indeed felt throughout Russia over the period of the Holy Cincture’s presence here. Indeed all the Orthodox cannot but hold our Lord’s Mother dear—this is not a theory or a dogma but a fact. But perhaps nowhere was the Cincture so sought after as it was in the capital city of Moscow, where not only Muscovites endured many hours of waiting in the cold, but also people from around the country. Moscow is the hub of the transportation wheel in this highly centralized nation, & so for people not living close to the other cities on the delegation’s route, it was easier to come here to pray before the relic. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a beloved Moscow religious landmark, hosted the precious Cincture during its stay here.

From the day the Cincture arrived in the capital city on Nov. 19, around 700 buses were arriving from all over central Russia to meet it. Traffic was closed on Sat. & Sun. along the banks of the Moscow River so that “warm-up” buses could stand by unhindered. The wait-ing lines were divided into sectors, so that one measured group at a time could be calmly allowed into the cathedral. 133 buses were parked along the waiting line for people to warm themselves in, free food & hot tea were offered ‘round the clock at 69 different stations, & 440 chemical toilets were lined up for use. Even a local up-scale restaurant opened its doors to the pilgrims. The waiting line reached up to 4 kilometers in length.
It is no trifling matter to wait as long as 2 full days in line on a wintry street but these determined people continually felt the care of the Mother of God, & the organizers. Impromptu Akathists sounded here, there & every-where, punctuated by heartfelt sighs of “O Most Holy Mother of God save us!” A visit to the Cathedral was truly a visit to Holy Russia—bearded old men leaning on canes, stout, all-enduring babushkas, mothers with their children, the poor, the blind and the lame. Clergy led their flocks, monks & nuns were interspersed with & serving the many-thousand-fold worshippers. The uniformed police in their fur caps who guarded everyone’s safety even seemed more like angels than men. Moscow churches & monasteries saw a continual stream of people obviously fresh from provincial parts, carrying their bundles. Many described the experience as “Christmas, or Pascha”. It was like a combination of both of these great feasts -— the joy of Pascha, the luminous warmth amidst the fluttering snowflakes of Christmas; the light amidst the darkness, the glorious protection of the Mother of God that lightens every burden. It was impossible to deny the feeling that the Most Holy Mother of God was close, was visiting & blessing her children; & as Fr. Ephraim said in Ekaterinburg, this blessing will undoubtedly last, & even mark a change in the life of the city, perhaps even the whole country.

The media has been informing people for weeks prior to the event about how to venerate in an orderly manner. The line moves slowly forward until each person has his or her cherished moment of quickly kissing the reliquary, & they are then gently guided away by someone at a post. Several women efficiently hand out a “Cincture” blessed on the original, then a small paper icon & finally a paper triptych of the Mother of God with photographs on either side of the sacred reliquary.

Fri., Nov. 25. It is clear to all that at the current pace, many will leave without receiving the blessing of venerating the Holy Cincture in the Christ the Savior Cathedral. The organizers make the decision to raise the sacred relic on an arc to allow the faithful to pass underneath it & prayerfully receive its grace. The news-papers report that although the line is no shorter, the speed of entry has increased. The organizers announce that they will continue to distribute ribbons blessed on the Holy Cincture even after the delegation’s departure.

Sat., Nov. 26. The waiting lines are still several kilometers long & access to the Cathedral is due to close at 9:00 pm tomorrow. Again the Mt. Athos monks demonstrate their ascetical mercy & agree to extend the closing time to 4:00 am Monday…

Throughout the time of the Holy Cincture’s travels to the major Russian cities, you could see such English language headlines as “Russians queue to worship Greek ‘fertility’ relic”. Well, what can we say, that is how they see it. (One has to wonder why an aged man leaning on his cane would queue up for a “fertility relic”.) But while other headlines were appearing such as “Black Friday turns violent at 9 U.S. Walmart stores; at least 24 people injured”, people both inside the Christ the Savior Cathedral & outside it in the cold were praying to the Mother of God. Not all were praying for “fertility”, or even for good health. Most were praying to the Most Holy Mother of God to “save our souls” in eternity, amen.

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