“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Saint Cosmas of Aitolia (or Aetolia) is considered one of the great missionaries of the Orthodox Church. Much like Saint Paul, he traveled a great distance to proclaim the Gospel. He built schools and reinvigorated the Orthodox faithful of Greece during the time of the Ottoman occupation.
Costa, as he was first named, was born in 1714 in the village of Mega Dendron in the mountainous region of Aitolia. His parents were originally from Epirus and worked as weavers. At age 20, Costa learned and then taught Greek grammar under the guidance of Archdeacon Ananias Dervisanos. He also studied theology and medicine.
In 1749, the Athonias Academy was established near Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos. Costa felt drawn to Mount Athos and decided to join the academy to study theology and philosophy. There were many well-known teachers there at the time, including the distinguished Εὐγένιος Βούλγαρις. Even as a student, Costa lived much like a monk while at the academy. At the end of his studies, Costa joined the brotherhood at Philotheou Monastery, was tonsured a monk, and was given the name Cosmas. They ordained him a priest soon after. Speaking much later about his Athonite experience, the saint said:
“I stayed the longest on the Holy Mountain, seventeen years, where I wept over my sins. Among the countless gifts which my Lord has granted me, he made me worthy to acquire a little Greek learning and I became a monk.”
Known to be a zealous ascetic, Cosmas was further enriched and sustained by the study of scripture and the church fathers. He spoke often about the necessity of scripture:
““The existence of many churches neither preserves nor strengthens our faith to the proper extent and in the proper manner, if those who believe in God are not enlightened by the Old and the New Testament.”
Perhaps he would have remained on Mount Athos longer, but the Saint felt called to Apostolic preaching. He sympathized with the plight of the Christians under Ottoman oppression and was disturbed that many were ignorant of the faith and some were even converting to Islam. The educational system was in crisis, with most intellectuals fleeing to the west. The common folk lived in poverty and were considered inferior subjects by the Ottomans. They lost all hope for a better future.
With his spiritual father ’s approval, Cosmas traveled to Constantinople and received encouragement from many bishops and priests along the way. Finally, Patriarch Seraphim II granted Cosmas a permit to preach. His first apostolic journey began in the villages around Constantinople. As the crowds gathered at each place, he would stand on a low pulpit that rested in front of a large wooden Cross and begin preaching:
“Brethren, I’m a servant of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified. Not that I’m worthy to be a servant of Christ, but Christ condescended to have me because of his compassion. Not only am I not worthy to teach you, but not even worthy to kiss your feet, for each of you is worth more than the entire world.”
He loved and greatly identified with the people among whom he moved and worked, speaking their language and using illustrations from their daily life to proclaim the Gospel. Cosmas traveled next to Θεσσαλονίκη then through Macedonia, Thessaly and Aitolia, finally crossing over to the island of Κεφαλλονιά sharing his urgent but simple call to repentance at each stop:
“When will we repent? Not tomorrow or the day after, but today, because we don’t know what will happen to us by tomorrow. Take care, my brethren, don’t be infected with pride, don’t commit murder, don’t fornicate, don’t swear, don’t lie, don’t slander, don’t betray another, and don’t overly adorn the body because it will be eaten by worms. But adorn the soul which is worth more than the whole world. Pray, fast, give alms, keep death before you. And hope for the time when you’ll leave this false world and go to the eternal one.”
On his second journey, Cosmas covered many of the same provinces and also visited the islands of Skiathos and Skopelos before going north into Epirus and southern and central Albania. The crowds that gathered to meet him were so large, he had to bring along forty to fifty priests just to assist with confessions. Cosmas also freely distributed prayer ropes, booklets, crosses, and head scarves at each stop. He was even able to secure the donation of 4,000 baptismal basins to the churches throughout the land.
His third and final journey was spent primarily on some of the Ionian Islands, the Cyclades, and even some of the Dodecanese Islands before he returned to the mainland. He traveled through Thessaly to Aitolia and visited Βραχώρι, Μεσολόγγι, and Ναύπακτος, speaking often about his great love for God and neighbor:
“God has many names … but his principle name is love … All Christians must have two loves, one for God and one for our fellow human beings. Without these two loves, it is impossible to be saved.”
At every stop, the truth of his preaching was manifested by many signs and wonders. He healed one man’s withered hand, cured another of deafness, and yet another of paralysis. Άρτα, Πρέβεζα, and Ιωάννινα were his final stops before he headed further into what is now Albania. At every stop, he preached and taught about Orthodox doctrine, the passions and virtues, prayer and fasting, marriage, and the unjust oppression of the poor. He even spoke about the rights of women:
“Don’t treat your wife like a slave, because she is God’s creature as you are. God was crucified for you as he was for her. You call God father; she calls him father too. You have one faith, one baptism. God does not consider her inferior.”
Cosmas understood how important it was to create an educational foundation that could sustain Orthodoxy for generations and he spoke about it often:
“My brethren, learn as much as you can. Educate your children to learn Greek because our Church uses Greek. And if you don’t learn Greek you can’t understand what our Church confesses. It is better for you to have a Greek school in your village rather than fountains and rivers, for when your child becomes educated, he is then a human being. The school opens churches; the school opens monasteries.”
Five months before his martyrdom, Cosmas wrote a letter to his brother which testified to the work accomplished in the Lord’s name:
“What has happened to me appears unbelievable to many and even I cannot understand it. I say only this so that you can glorify the Lord and rejoice. There is much repentance among the people. I have traveled through about thirty provinces. I have established ten Greek Schools and two hundred grammar schools, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word by the signs that attended it.”
In 1779, Cosmas preached in what is now the country of Albania. Several groups opposed to Cosmas influenced the governor of the region, Ahmet Kurt Pasha, into believing that the saint was an agent of Russia. Muslim officials arrested Cosmas in August, 1779. He understood death was near and encouraged his compatriots with a quote from the Psalms before being led away:
“We went through fire and water, and You led us into a refreshing place.”
The next morning, as his captors slipped a noose around his neck, the saint gently passed. The executioners tied a stone around Cosmas’ neck and dumped him in a river. Three days later a priest found the saint floating upright in the river just as if he were alive. Saint Cosmas was buried at the Church of the Entrance of the Theotokos in Kolikontasi.
Saint Cosmas left behind many prophecies which years, even centuries later, found their fulfillment. He foresaw the invention of the automobile, airplane, and telephone. He also predicted events that later occurred in Greece, including the Greek Revolution, with remarkable precision. One such prophecy foreshadows the violent wars of the 20th century:
“You will see men flying in the sky like starlings, and throwing fire on the earth. Those who will live then will run to the graves and cry out: ‘Come out you who are dead so that we the living may enter.”
Even today, the people of Greece have great love for Saint Cosmas. He devoted himself completely to his mission and contributed greatly to the revival of Orthodoxy in Greece.
Saint Cosmas of Aetolia, Martyr and Equal-to-the-Apostles, please pray for us!
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas