St. Kosmas the Aitolian:  Theological and Moral Themes in his Teachings

By Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis

Translated by Rev. Dr. Fr. John Palmer

From Following the Holy Fathers: Timeless Guides of Authentic Christianity

Your Eminence, venerable priests, beloved brothers, it is a blessing to have St. Kosmas the Aitolian here before us as our teacher. And at this late hour the Saint might have asked
us, “Now, what should we do, my Christians? Have I said enough?” Is what we have heard over the past several hours enough? Have we reached the limit of our endurance? “At this time I have two thoughts,” he says. “One thought tells me, ‘You have said enough to the Christians and so you ought to get up at daybreak and go somewhere else so that others who have not had the opportunity might hear the Word of God.’ However, the other thought says, ‘No, don’t go! Remain with them tomorrow morning that you might tell them what remains, then you can bless them, they can bless you, and you can be on your way.’ Now, what do you say my Christians? Should I go, or should I stay?” And the response comes: “Stay, Saint of God!” 

St. Kosmas the Aitolian was an extraordinary teacher. Re-reading his works of late, I felt jealousy and envy well up within me — jealousy and envy in the good sense, of course! Firstly, beloved, I am envious because in one small book, in five teachings, the Saint managed to treat all the most important points of Christian teaching. “I have much to tell you,” he says, “but I do not have the time and thus I will tell you only what is most important.” We, on the other hand — teachers, bishops, priests, theologians, clergy — we are all adrift, sailing on a sea of irrelevant words and rhetoric. Moreover, while our words often fail to touch the souls of the faithful committed to our care, we have heard a previous speaker tell us that when St. Kosmas spoke there was such a rush of people coming to hear him that it was feared that he would be crushed if they were all permitted to kiss his hand. Of such jealousy and envy, then, St. Kosmas is truly worthy! 

Those of us who are teachers ought also to be jealous and envious of him for he succeeded in taking lofty concepts, lofty truths, and lofty: dogmas, and making them accessible to the people, explaining them in terms which they could understand. This is a great achievement and a great act of self-sacrifice. “For forty years,” he says, “I studied every faith, every book.” This educated clergyman and scholar who might easily have taught at the Athoniada Academy or at some other great school of his era, instead condescended to the people in order that he might help them. Gregory the Theologian, the great Father and teacher, the great rhetorician, the great theologian, the second of the Church’s theologians who is incomparable with respect to classical wisdom and the rhetorical art, once said, “I would prefer to say five words and thereby gird up my own troops, than to weave countless philosophical meditations,” echoing the well-known sentiment of Apostle Paul. Would that I might say but a few simple words; it is my desire to say but a few simple words that would benefit the world, the Church. I would rather do this than weave intricate philosophies, or produce great speeches. St. Kosmas says, “It is not great speeches and philosophical speculations that we need, but rather the preaching of the Prophets, the Apostle and the Fathers.” It is this preaching which our theology ought to be projecting. Forgive me — I am not doing this to boast — but I want to tell you something from my personal experience. When I was found worthy by God to become a priest, being already a University professor and thus having already ‘arrived’ by worldly standards, some of my colleagues were heard to say: “Zisis has really come down in the world; he has become a priest!” Also, from time to time I made appearances on television in Thessaloniki and simple women, older men, older women, would call in to have their questions answered by a university professor. Seeing this many of my colleagues would comment: “Now he spends his time with old ladies!” St. Kosmas served just such people. We of this generation dare not compare ourselves to him, but let us try at the very least to come down from our scholarly high horse and from our pride and speak a couple of words in simple language to the people. 

For this reason too, my beloved brothers and sisters, St. Kosmas the Aitolian is to be envied and is worthy of imitation: as we have heard from previous speakers, St. Kosmas spent twenty years traveling across nearly the whole of Greece doing missionary work. He was a missionary; another Paul. Of our Church’s saints, none labored as tirelessly in the mission field as St. Kosmas. But what was his theological arsenal? What was his, we might say, ‘repertoire’ of homilies? What did he carry with him from place to place? Did he bring libraries, stores of books, of learned and wise writings? In total he had a series of three homilies (and two spares he used only when he had cause). All he had were the carefully prepared outlines of three homilies, three teachings — my topic is the ‘Basic Theological and Moral Themes in the Teachings of St. Kosmas’. He used the same skeletal outlines of these three homilies every place he went, adding or subtracting material depending on his audience and the particular circumstances, which accounts for the existence of variations in his teachings. We now have a large number of manuscripts collected, each of which presents a different version of the Saint’s teachings. What is going on here? Critics are always looking for an opportunity. Some have suggested that these variations are indicative of a lack of structure in the Saint’s work, arguing that they prove he had no plan for his homilies, simply saying whatever came to him. Ioannis Menounos, however, who is present at our conference and who is the editor of an edition of St. Kosmas’ Teachings, has proved that the Saint’s homilies do indeed have a plan, a structure. What was this general, basic, structure? 

St. Kosmas usually arrived at the place where he was going to speak toward evening, just as the farmers were returning from their work tired and exhausted. The people would gather, the Saint would set up his ambo and a cross, and then he would deliver his first homily. He began with the Holy Trinity: “We will make our beginning with God,” he would say, before presenting the dogma of the Holy Trinity in simple language. He then taught about creation of the angels, and the fall of Lucifer, before speaking of man’s creation, the sin of the first-created ones, and their subsequent exile from Paradise. After he had finished, having woven in a number of moral themes in the process (I will give you one or two examples of such teachings), he would say, “Now, you are tired. If you would like, I can leave tomorrow morning. I have said enough. If this is not your desire, however, I will stay here tomorrow morning as well.” Inevitably he would stay on, and after the Divine Liturgy, Holy Unction or some other service, he would preach his second homily which focused more on the New Testament. He would begin with the birth of our Panagia, then speaking of her parents Joachim and Anna, her entry into the temple, the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, and all the events associated with the work, teaching and miracles of Christ up to the Crucifixion, to Holy Thursday. Here, expounding on these dogmas, these teachings, St. Kosmas found the opportunity ripe to include discussion of a number of moral themes. It had been said previously that dogma and morals are two sides of the same coin — St. Kosmas, and the other Fathers of the Church never separate these. 

At the end of his second homily he would say: “Now I will stay until evening so that I might tell you what remains.” What remained — the third teaching — began with the betrayal at the Mystical Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday, and covered the Ascension and the sending forth of the twelve apostles, before concluding with a discussion of the Last Things and the Lord’s Second Coming. Naturally, moral themes are again found scattered throughout this homily, bringing together morals and dogma. 

For occasions when he extended his stay in one place for more than two days, the Saint had prepared outlines for two additional homilies. The fourth homily is an impressive analysis of the Parable of the Sower: I have read commentaries and analyses of this parable many times in preparation for homilies and nowhere else have I found it explained with such clarity, such depth, and yet such simplicity. While the foundation of the homily is the text of the Parable of the Sower, St. Kosmas enriches this with many narratives taken from the lives of saints, with examples of repentance, and so forth. His fifth and final teaching takes up varied and sundry themes, discussing the power ofthe Cross and the prayer rope, for example. 

With his five homilies (and only three of these being central), St. Kosmas the Aitolian did precisely what Christ and the Apostles did. If our Lord’s teaching were extracted from the Gospels, it would be about the same length, though, “There are also many other things which Jesus did. If they were all written, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Christ said a great deal. St. Kosmas, having undertaken forty years of studies, might have said a great deal too, but instead he says, “I will tell you only that which is most necessary.” With just five homilies — three homilies plus two supplementary ones — St. Kosmas performed a miracle of teaching which continues to impress us today. 

Now I will simply list prosaically, one after another, the moral themes of St. Kosmas, rather than presenting them in any organized matter, or stopping to analyze any in particular detail. 

Love, humility, repentance, forgiveness, forbearance, fasting, confession, unceasing prayer — Fr. Arsenios has already told us that the Saint used a longer version of the Jesus Prayer — almsgiving, marriage, family — he shows particular concern for the relationship between husband and wife — equality, the raising of children, respect for parents and rulers, shame — he speaks repeatedly of shame, something which has altogether vanished in our times — thankfulness, being grateful to God, the avoidance of sin, Hell, Paradise — it struck me, and I would like to ask this of Mr Menounos, who has complied an index of themes found in the Saint’s teachings and appended it to his edition, that while the words 'Hell’ and ‘Paradise’ are found on virtually every page of the Teachings, they are nowhere to be found in his index. Why, I do not know. 

Care for poor children, care for the departed, memorials, the death of loved ones, of children, and how we ought to comport ourselves in these situations, women and cosmetics, the appearance of men — would that we had some time to speak about these matters; what he says is surprising and certainly leaves an impression! Entertainment, how we ought to celebrate feasts and children’s name-days, not their birthdays. “You can celebrate when your child celebrates,” he says, “but make the celebration God-pleasing and not demonic.” 

How Sunday should be kept — much has already been said about this — work, care for the soul, criticism, criticizing priests — that we ought not to criticize priests — racism. There was once a gypsy in the audience and St. Kosmas called out to him and said: 

“Come here, you. Are you a gypsy?” 
“Yes, I am a gypsy, Saint of God.” 
“How do those here treat you?” 
“Ask them, Saint.” 
“Do you treat this gypsy as a child of God?” 
“No we don’t, Saint of God. Forgive us.” 
“From now on, you will treat him as such. He too is a child of God, just like you! But you, gypsy, throw away your zurna and your daouli.” 

Today there are zurnas and daoulis everywhere. If St. Kosmas lived today, he — forgive me, Your Eminence, for I see that the zurna, the daouli, and traditional dances and songs are becoming commonplace in our parishes and dioceses — he would censure us all for this. “Chanters should sing at weddings,” he says. St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain says the same.

Keeping the heart fixed on the heavenly, flight from worldly things, building an Orthodox mindset, excommunication, church attendance, how one ought to behave in church, frequent communion. Earlier I heard someone mention the relationship between St. Kosmas and the Kollyvades. The Kollyvades’ influence on St. Kosmas is obvious. In fact, it is obvious that St. Kosmas the Aitolian was one of the Kollyvades; we need not search here and there for evidence and arguments to support this claim. 

Unbaptized children; we have also heard this mentioned. This brings to mind a recent event. Following the canons of the Church, a priest in a certain diocese refused to serve the funeral service for an unbaptized child. But rather than blame for this incident coming to rest on the parents who left their child unbaptized, it was the priest who was censured (and by the highest ecclesiastical authority at that!) for not having read the service. There is no service in the Euxologion for an unbaptized child. Nowhere is there such a service. The Saint discusses this topic three or four times: “Be careful to not leave your children unbaptized. And Priests, papades, make certain the font is large enough for you to immerse the whole child because if you do not immerse him completely he will have this, that, and the other problem.” 

Witches, magic, honoring the saints and particularly the Theotokos, curses, prayer ropes, hospitality, widowhood, monasticism, blessings, monastics. “It is a great blessing,” he says, “if your child becomes a monastic.” 

Austerity, avoiding oaths, blasphemy, unction, supplication and others. Seeing that I am running out of time, I will stop here in my list of moral themes. To conclude, I would like to read a passage where the Saint speaks of the power ofthe Cross. Hear now what he says: 

Our most Gracious God has given us the Cross. By the Cross we consecrate the Holy Mysteries, by the Cross we open Paradise, by the Cross we scald the demons. We must, however, keep our hand free from sin, we ought to keep it unpolluted, only then will it burn the devil and cause him to flee. If we are polluted by sin, then the Cross that we make will be ineffective. Therefore, my brethren, whether you eat, whether you drink wine or water, whether you are traveling, or are at work, keep both the prayer on your lips, and the Cross in your hand. 

The prayer he is referring to is the Jesus Prayer, and the Cross is the sign of the cross we make with our hand. Keep the prayer on your lips and the Cross in your hand. 

If you are able, do fifty or a hundred prayer ropes during the course of the day; this is a good and holy work. And always pray at dawn, in the evening, and in the middle ofthe night when it is quiet. Now listen, my brethren, and I will tell you how the sign of the Cross is made and what it means.

This is not taught even in theological schools! Ask a theologian what the Cross means and he will have no idea what to tell you. What are they teaching in these schools? Listen to St. Kosmas’ explanation: 

The Holy Gospel tells us that the Holy Trinity is glorified in Heaven by the angels. What ought you to do? Being unable to ascend to Heaven and worship, you should join the three fingers of your right hand together and touch your forehead (for your head signifies the heavens) and say, ‘Just as the angels glorify the Holy Trinity in heaven, so I, an unworthy servant, glorify and worship the Holy Trinity.’ Just as the fingers are three and yet one, so is the Holy Trinity three persons and one God: three fingers in Heaven, the Holy Trinity. Now lower your hand from your head down to your stomach and say, ‘I worship you and adore you, my Lord, because you humbled yourself and became incarnate in the womb of the Theotokos for my sins.’ Then move your hand to your right shoulder and say, ‘I beg you, my God, forgive me and place me on your right together with the just.’ Now move your hand to your left shoulder and say, ‘I beg you, my Lord, do not place me on your left with the sinners.’ After this, bending down to the ground, say, ‘I glorify you, my God, I worship and adore you, for just as you were placed in the grave, so will I be.’ And finally, standing up straight again, thereby signifying the Resurrection, say, ‘I glorify and worship you, my Lord, for you rose from the dead, granting us eternal life.’ This is what the All-Holy Cross means.

And a brief narration with which I will conclude: 

If you would like I will give you an example so that you might understand the power of the Cross. Alright, I will tell you. Once in Egypt, in Misiri, there lived an impious king. This king had a Jewish advisor (or rather a Jew who had become a Turk) who knew both Hebrew and Turkish. At the same time in Alexandria there was a Patriarch, by the name of Joachim who was among the holiest of men, both wise and virtuous. Having heard that he was a holy man, the king began to develop affection for the Patriarch. Seeing this, the Jew said to the king, “You seem to have great love for the Patriarch.” To this the king replied, “Patriarch Joachim is a good and just man.” Using his position as advisor, the Jew then said to the king, “O King, why don’t you call the Patriarch to come and visit?” 

When the Patriarch arrived, the Jew (who knew something of the Gospel) said to the Patriarch, “I would like, Patriarch, to debate with you a little concerning matters of faith and belief.” The Patriarch said, “With your permission, O King, I am ready even to shed my blood.” And with that the Patriarch began to debate with the Jew, quashing his arguments and stopping his mouth at every juncture. Finally the Jew said, “What is the point of this debate? I have heard that your Christ says in the Gospel that whoever has faith even as small as a mustard seed can move a mountain from one place to another.” “It is true that the Gospel says this,” answered the Patriarch. “Then,” said the Jew, “if you are worthy, command that mountain to move from its place and I will believe.” The Patriarch asked to be given three days and three nights and after this span he returned and said to the king, “1 am ready to do what was asked of me.” 

There was a mountain in Egypt about three hours away. The Jew turned to the king and said, “O King, command the Patriarch to move that mountain in order that we too might believe.” Then the Patriarch began to sing God’s praises while censing the mountain from afar. He then made his Cross three times, saying, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I command you to get up and come here, O Mountain.” And, O great miracle! That mountain immediately rose up, split into three pieces representing the Holy Trinity, and came towards them. The king began to yell, screaming, “In the name of God, help us, we will be crushed!” The Patriarch again began to pray and the mountain set down about six miles from Egypt and was given the name Dur Dag, which means, ‘Stay still, mountain!’ 

The Jew still refused to believe and so said to the king, “The Gospel also says that whoever has faith will not die even if he is made to drink deadly poison. Therefore command the Patriarch to drink a poison that I have prepared for him, telling him that this time, if he does not die, we will believe.” 

The miracle occurred as follows: the Jew prepared with his own hand a poison which was so strong that just to touch one’s lips to it would be enough to cause death. The Patriarch drank the whole cup and yet remained unharmed and then said to the king, “Tell your advisor to clean the cup and then drink out of it.” The instant the Jew drank from the cup, he died before all present! 

Your Eminence, ladies and gentlemen, on account of a lack of time, today I was unable to provide adequate analysis of those fundamental theological and moral themes found in the Teachings of St. Kosmas. It is, however, my plan to do this in a book. Whatever is produced will he owed to the impressive initiative of this village, which though it is small in population, is great in things spiritual. Employing general references and characteristic examples, here I have simply attempted to highlight the awe-inspiring simplicity of this new apostle.