Icon of the Synaxis of the Saints of Aetolia, with St. Cosmas in the center. The influence St. Cosmas had on his contemporaries was truly unprecedented; it is important to note that many of the preacher's teachings were not only well received by the listeners, but were also embodied in practice by the simple folk. With money donated by wealthy benefactors St. Cosmas obtained over four hundred thousand headscarves, and over five hundred thousand prayer ropes and crosses. All this was distributed freely amongst the population of the Balkans. At St. Cosmas' request, wealthy benefactors purchased over four thousand baptismal fonts.
Distinguished by their particular breadth and diversity, the saint's teachings were addressed to all different levels of society. Despite the fact that certain major landowners openly spoke against the preacher, many influential people were deeply impressed by his work of enlightenment. The famous Ali Pasha of Ioannina had a deep respect for the preacher's work, and revered the saint himself as a great and righteous man and as one of the most outstanding personalities of the era. They were personally acquainted, and the Pasha always protected the saint, providing every support for his work of enlightenment.
St. Cosmas communed with the people not through his texts, but in a much more direct way—by living sermons and by his very manner of life. Therefore, in order to comprehend the scale of his contribution, we must have a look at the reaction of the crowds who followed him.
"No matter where he went, there was a large gathering of Christians, and they listened to him with contrition and reverence." "He tamed the savage, made bandits meek, showed the cruel and merciless to be merciful, the impious pious, taught the illiterate and wild people sacred knowledge and accustomed them to attending divine services … he brought sinners to great repentance and correction; and so all said that in their lifetime a new apostle has shown forth."
One word from St. Cosmas was sufficient to cause fundamental changes in the manner of life of those who heard him. "Previously, market days were Friday, Saturday and Sunday; the ascetic St. Cosmas stopped the practice on Sundays so that Christians would not have to work on that day. Thus it happened that markets on Sundays stopped." By his sermons, the saint was able to stop the increasing islamization. "The God-inspired words of this holy father of our Church … stopped the inclination of many people to accept Islam."
Data from the Venetian archives also testify to the unprecedented scale of influence and distribution of St. Cosmas' sermons not only in Greece, but also throughout the Balkans. An informer for the Venetian authorities, known in the sources as Zonza, intently followed the activities of the "Greek missionary" on the island of Cephalonia. According to his witness, Cosmas was accompanied by about fifteen thousand people. The Venetian military guard and his entourage, disguised in peasant clothing, mixed with the crowd and observed the behavior of Cosmas and his followers. Zonza briefly but substantially tells us about the people's reaction and about the influence that Cosmas' preaching had upon them. "They ran after him, kissed his hands and feet, revering him as a true savior; even those outside the law (bandits) made peace with their enemies and lived peacefully from then on."
The contribution of St. Cosmas of Aetolia to the spiritual and national renaissance of the Balkans was not only in his own sermons, which covered practically every level of the population, but also in the foundation of a large number of free schools. "He founded schools everywhere through his teaching," writes St. Nikodimos the Hagiorite. Apparently, he was referring not only to the schools St. Cosmas opened during his missionary journeys. The fact is that St. Cosmas was not able to visit every village personally, and so he usually met the local people in "kefalochori"—the central village of the region. People gathered there from the tiny or inaccessible neighboring villages. "Seeing the great number of people gathered from the neighboring settlements … he chose a spacious place and began preaching." In the "kefalochori" he usually opened a school himself, and scrupulously explained in his sermons the schools' order and aims, describing how they should function. It is logical to assume that the inhabitants of other villages would follow his advice and found schools upon their return to their own villages.
The number of schools about which there is reliable information confirming that they were opened by St. Cosmas himself during his travels is impressive. "Through the saint's teaching and according to his instructions, schools were opened everywhere, in populated areas both large and small, where children were taught without payment the sacred literature, and were thereby made steadfast in their faith and piety, beginning a new, virtuous life," writes the saint's biographer. That this is no exaggeration, and that the word "everywhere" in this case is used to show not only the territorial scale, but also the vast quantity of these schools, is confirmed by the unparalleled growth in the number of educational institutions in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries. "From Wallachia and Moldavia all the way to Egypt, from Smyrna to Kerkera, there is not a single town, not a single island where you will not find a school providing free education, functioning on the community's funds," writes an English traveler who visited Greece in 1808. The majority of these schools where either built by St. Cosmas or under the influence of and in accordance with his teachings.
Memory of the schools opened through the efforts of St. Cosmas is preserved to our day. In some places they are still functioning, in others the school building is still standing, in some places there is a wall or a foundation. Thus, in the village of Zitsa the villagers lovingly preserve a part of the wall of an old school, and the name Didaskalio (the name of the school given it by St. Cosmas) is borne by the entire region surrounding it.
As a good pastor, St. Cosmas continually associated with the inhabitants of the villages where schools were built through his efforts. He inspired people, supported their zeal, gave them practical advice. St. Cosmas conducted a correspondence with the inhabitants of many cities, villages and countries. His letters were important for the local inhabitants not only as practical instructions for action, but at the same time, they were as a blessing from a saint who they so venerated that they preserve and cherish these epistles to this very day. Cosmas took care not only to open schools, but also to provide them with teachers. He appointed the teachers and provided them with financial support and a place to live; but most importantly, he was able to establish the preparation of new teachers. At the Patriarchal monastery of Stylou he organized a Higher School, the main task of which was to prepare teachers and preachers who would continue his work. He founded a similar school at the monastery of St. John the Theologian.
The solidity and thorough consideration with which he approached every problem that he happened to encounter is truly amazing not only for those times, but unparalleled for all times. It is precisely thanks to this that the educational system created by St. Cosmas of Aetolia did not fall apart even after his death, but to the contrary, continued to function and develop.
The first source of funds for building schools was a portion of the community and church lands and their income. The next source was donations and gifts brought to the saint, which he very quickly directed towards the building of new schools. People donated to the saint for schools and for personal needs; the benefactors included the Orthodox, and wealthy Turks as well. He never left anything for himself, but directed all the funds towards the construction of new educational institutions. If donations were insufficient, he organized a collection amongst the people. Thus, the observer for the Venetian authorities, Dimitri Mamonas, speaking of a three-day collection of funds organized at the preacher's initiative, testifies that he gathered a colossal sum.
Providing the schools with everything necessary, St. Cosmas called the local people themselves to take initiative and an active civil position. From then on, they were supposed to participate in the upkeep of the schools and finance them from both community funds and personal donations. "Seeing here in your villages that you have no school where your children might read and freely gain literacy, I asked the Christians, and they aided in the founding of a school according to their ability and desire. But all of you should also help your school, from your own means or on community money … in order to receive a reward from God and honor from people."
"And you, parents … take care that your children learn to read. Make it so that there would be a school in your village, find a teacher and pay him, so that he would teach your children; after all, you commit a great sin by leaving them illiterate … It would be better if they be poor and literate, then rich and illiterate." St. Cosmas places the child in the center of the educational process, marks for him a separate, significant role in the social structure of society. "A child is a future adult; and for Cosmas and his epoch, he is the future liberator of an enslaved homeland. This child should have a proper formation, learn to read, take the fate of his Fatherland in his own hands. The saint struggled for its sake, opened schools, sent epistles, counseled, and created conditions for its enlightenment."
Cosmas supposed the main united factor of society to be not nation, but religion. The preaching of Orthodoxy occupies the central place in his teaching. Cosmas' activity bore not only a missionary character, but was also directed at uniting the people. Cosmas wanted to make the Church the center of concentration and preparation of the strengths of those interested in the spiritual rebirth of a nation, which should in the future enable national freedom. "The holy Church is just like a mother … Our holy Church is a spring that refreshes the thirsty. And priests should serve every day, so that Christ would bless the people and preserve the country."
National renewal is inseparable from spiritual renewal, and therefore Cosmas thoroughly told those who had lost their connection with Orthodox tradition how necessary it is to live in accordance with Orthodox teaching; he told them about the meaning of rites and sacraments. In his sermons, he described the construction and use of various parts of the church, and related how the sacraments of marriage and baptism should be conducted.
The saint ascribed a special role in the rebirth of national unity to the priesthood and monasticism. Priests should become not only spiritual, but also societal leaders. "In this consists the task of the priest—to lay down his whole life and head for the good of Christians." The priest must serve as an example for the people, enable their unity, and confirm concord between compatriots. "As a shepherd watches after his sheep, so should a priest visit the homes of Christians day and night; not to eat, drink, and collect their things, but to the contrary, in cases where the husband argues with the wife, the father with the son, brother with brother, neighbor with neighbor, he should strive to strengthen love between them."
St. Cosmas played a key role in the attainment of the unity of a nation that subsequently made it possible to succeed in a national liberation rebellion in 1821. It is no accident that one of the key points of St. Cosmas' educational concept was the general and free character of teaching. Thus, he practically embodied by his concept the acquisition of national unity, making no distinction between the rich and the poor, girls or boys. General education was to deliver the nation from social prejudices, nullify the privileged status of certain wealthy groups of the population in comparison with the underprivileged, who traditionally remained outside the framework of the existing educational system. As a result, this provided conditions for a commonality in the struggle for their homeland's freedom. Studying in one school, they could see that what bound them together was incomparably more meaningful than the material and social positions dividing them.
St. Cosmas also made other attempts to organize his supporters. In his sermons, he called the people to get organized and support each other. The schools were to become not only a place where the growing generation would be taught, but also the center of social and educational gatherings for the entire local population. "In order to save the faith and freedom of the fatherland, try to build a school in your homeland."
The schools founded by St. Cosmas inculcated the ideal of freedom in the growing generation. Through knowledge of the traditions and history of their own people, their language and culture, pupils acquired the desire and even need for freeing their homeland from the foreign yoke. Aside from knowledge, the school instilled in the nation a sense of responsibility for the country's fate. Cosmas' enlightenment work and the schools that he founded were directed at making the people remember their roots and sources, and through these came the understanding of the necessity of national renewal. "My beloved children in Christ, preserve courageously and fearlessly our sacred faith and the language of our ancestors, for both of these concepts determine the direction of our beloved homeland, and without them our nation will perish. Brothers, do not despair. Divine Providence wants one day to send down heavenly salvation to our souls, in order to inspire us to be freed of the pitiful state we are now in."
An important element of Cosmas' concept was the moral preparation of his countrymen to be freed from the foreign yoke. After a series of unsuccessful anti-Ottoman uprisings, many gave up, considering freedom as unattainable. Cosmas' sermons and prophecies gave the people hope, and it is no coincidence that handwritten lists of these prophecies were spread throughout Greece. The prophecies of the saint "became the favorite reading material of the Greeks." These texts bore faith in imminent liberation. Their own forces, united with faith in God, were to bring soon and inevitable "longed-for" liberation. He gave hope through his conviction to his compatriots, inspiring them for new feats and struggles.
In St. Cosmas' teaching, the Church is not only a spiritual and social center, but also a center of education. The school is not in opposition to the Church, but harmoniously supplements it. "It is better to have a Greek school than springs and rivers. And when you teach your son to read, only then, my brother, will he become a man … the school opens the Church." Cosmas was not a moralizer, and did not place himself above his audience. The success of his sermons was aided by his sacred belief in the meaning of his mission, and also in that they were a living example of how to follow traditions in difficult modern conditions. Cosmas "did not consider himself to be an advanced Enlightener, but an apostle of Christ." This placed specific demands upon him, and he selflessly strove to fulfill his obligation before his countrymen.
The foundation of St. Cosmas' social-political concept were composed of "true faith, true education, and an integral social teaching." Nevertheless, his role in the renewal of the Balkans cannot be narrowed down to these three elements, however extremely important they may be. It is telling that St. Cosmas' teaching played a very great role even in the rebirth of agriculture and the creation of an economy—the preacher gave the local inhabitants advice on how to care for fruit trees, he was the first to tell them about the need to inoculate the trees, and this naturally led to an increase in harvests. Possessing a basic knowledge in many areas of science, St. Cosmas was doubtless acquainted also with the latest innovations in agriculture. He cared not only for the spiritual salvation of his flock, but also strove to help them harmoniously order their life on earth. In this context, his relating the latest agricultural innovations is perfectly justified and appropriate.
The saint's popularity and increasing influence increased also the number of his enemies—the elite and the moneylenders, whose abuse Cosmas rebuked, the wealthy Jewish merchants who suffered enormous losses after the market day was shifted from Sunday to Saturday—all began to passionately desire the preacher's death.
Seeing the saint's popularity, the success of his sermons, which brought practical results and grew more and more in significance and scope, the enemies of Orthodoxy did everything they could and couldn't do in order to ensure his death. St. Cosmas himself felt how numerous were his enemies and often said in his sermons that he is ready to receive a martyr's death. The saint remained true to his obligation before his compatriots to the end, and made no compromises with the authorities and powerful of this world, who strove to disrupt his God-pleasing work.
It was the year 1774, and St Cosmas of Aetolia was in the peak of his popularity; the number of his followers and students increased, but his enemies had already implemented a crafty and sophisticated plan for his capture and murder. The wealthy moneylenders and merchants (who had suffered such great financial losses) paid Kurt Pasha twenty-five thousand coins for Cosmas' head. The size of this sum is shocking—in those days, one could buy 12,500 head of sheep for that amount. In today's currency, this sum would equal 1.5 million dollars. On the one hand, this shows the hatred of Cosmas' enemies for him, and on the other hand, it shows that his activity really was bearing fruit, and was dangerous to his enemies.
On August 24, 1774 the saint was hanged, and his body was thrown into the Aps River. His martyric death did not mark the wane of his remembrance. The name of the great saint remained for eternity, while the names of his enemies, who were impotent to oppose the truth, were forever forgotten.
At the translation of the saint's relics to the city of Ioannina, and later to the monastery founded in honor of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, a multitude of people came from all over the Balkans. "Merchants came from out of their stores and reverently crossed themselves. The innumerable crowd of people gathered along the road of the procession. Part of Ali's mounted guard followed after the Romeian monks. The monks' singing united with the people's prayers, which loudly repeated the words, 'Lord have mercy!' The cemetery that was located opposite the Sarai (court) was black from the people gathered there," wrote a Frenchman who became a witness and direct participant in these events.
There are many testimonies to St. Cosmas' preaching in the Balkans. He left wooden crosses along his path. Nikolaos Mistikadis wrote at the end of the eighteenth century that the crosses left by St. Cosmas of Aetolia "are preserved in the villages of Votrisi, Lia, and Mousini." The crosses often renewed themselves and many of them are preserved to our times. In places where they are not preserved, sites for veneration were established.
Immediately after St. Cosmas' death, many churches were built in his honor, and many icons were painted.
Neither has his memory died on Mt. Athos. Besides a special veneration for the saint, there are also material testimonies to his time on the Holy Mountain. Unfortunately, the library in Philotheou Monastery burned, as did the school where St. Cosmas studied. Nevertheless, during our last visit to Mt. Athos, the brothers of Philotheou showed us an epitrachileon which, according to tradition, belonged to St. Cosmas, and an analogion preserved from the time he lived in the monastery. These objects are reverently preserved in the monastery museum.
Even in our times there are testimonies to the sermons of St. Cosmas. Thus, in the village of Arnea, many inhabitants were so impressed by their meeting with the preacher, which changed their lives entirely, that they all took his name as their surname. Today in Arnea over fifteen families have this surname. The surname "Cosmas" became very widespread in other areas of Greece as well.
The inhabitants of the village of Tsiraki gave their village the name, "Agios Cosmas" as a sign of their gratitude to the saint.
In nearly every inhabited area that St. Cosmas passed through to preach there is some particular tradition or legend connected with his name. The inhabitants of the village of Avra in the region of Kalambaka relate this story: "When Fr. Cosmas came to the village, he gathered all the villagers and began to preach. At the end, someone gave him a pear. But the saint did not accept it, thus revealing through his gift of clairvoyance that the pear did not belong to the giver, for he had stolen it."
In many regions of the Balkan Penninsula, the manuscripts of St. Cosmas' sermons received wide distribution. "Many know of the prophecies, miracles, and teachings of St. Cosmas—grandma Christina, grandpa Michalakis, and many others. They all knew them from the traditions of their parents, from whom they learned to have reverence for the saint. When they pronounced his name, they crossed themselves, and many even wept."
The inhabitants of central and eastern Greece relate that their childhood was closely bound up with the prophecies of St. Cosmas—the whole family discussed them, and passed them on from one generation to the next.
Faith in the fulfillment of the saint's prophecies is preserved in Greece to this day. During the general mobilization in 1974, people in certain villages gathered in the churches and said, "The time has come for the fulfillment of what St. Cosmas said." Some women drew the sign of the cross on their foreheads, fulfilling the prophecy: "Let there be a cross on your foreheads, then all will know that you are Christians." Our last trip to Greece and questions to the local population showed that people know well and continue to believe in the fulfillment of the prophecies of St. Cosmas. This faith is characteristic of all layers of the population, including the intelligentsia.
The heritage of St. Cosmas is definitely relevant to modern Russia also—the spirit of true monasticism is especially necessary in our country today, when the educational system is in a crisis, families are falling apart, and the Church is in danger of becoming worldly. Monasticism shows us another way—the way of social and civil responsibility, of self-transformation, personal spiritual salvation together with responsibility for our country.