The Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God, Always on the Move
Bishop Nicholas (Olhovsky) of Manhattan is the caretaker of the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign," the “Hodigitria” [“Indicator of the Way”] of the Russian diaspora, one of the main holy items in the Orthodox Christian world. In an interview with Pravmir, he talked about his obedience, the importance of the Kursk Icon for Russians living abroad and of the miracles associated with the image.
On 8 September, 1295, on the day of the Nativity of the Most-Holy Mother of God, a small force of hunters from Rylsk came to hunt at the Tuskora River, 27 versts from Kursk. One of the hunters, an honorable and pious man, seeking prey in the woods, found a small icon lying face down on the root of a tree. He had barely lifted it to inspect it when the spot upon which the icon lay burst out with a strong spring of pure water. The icon turned out to be of the type referred to as the "Sign" of the Mother of God. The hunter who found the icon knew that this was no ordinary occurrence. He called his companions and together they built a small wooden chapel, into which they placed this icon. The residents of Rylsk, hearing of the newly-appeared icon of the Mother of God, began to visit it for veneration, and many miracles began to appear from it.
In 1385 the Kursk region was again swept by the Tatars. They tried to burn down the chapel and its Icon, but the wooden structure would not burn. The priest who lived by the chapel, Fr. Bogolep, explained to them that the reason for this miracle was the Icon itself. The incensed Tatars hacked the Icon in half and tossed the pieces in different directions, then burned the chapel.
They took the priest prisoner and was forced to tend to Tatar flocks. Some time later he was ransomed by emissaries of the Muscovite Grand Duke who were on their way to the Golden Horde, and he returned to the place where the chapel had stood. After a long search, while praying and fasting, he found both halves of the holy Icon, placed them side by side, and they grew together seamlessly, exhibiting only something "like dew".
In 1676 the holy Icon traveled to the Don River for blessing the Don Cossack troops. In 1684 Tsars Ivan and Petr Alekseevich sent a copy of this Icon with the order that it accompany Orthodox troops into battle. In 1687 the holy Icon was sent to the "Great Army." In 1689 copies of the holy Icon were given to the armies in the Crimean campaign. In 1812 a copy of the holy Icon was sent to Prince Kutuzov and the battling troops. Before his icon St Seraphim of Sarov prayed and was healed.
On the night of 7-8 March, 1898, conspirator revolutionaries-atheists tried to blow up the Miracle-working Icon with a hellish bomb, but the Lord Jesus Christ glorified His Most-Pure Mother yet more, for despite the terrifying destruction in the cathedral surrounding the Icon, it remained untouched.
On 12 April 1918, the holy Icon was stolen from the cathedral of the Monastery of the Sign of the Mother of God and stripped of its ornamentation, but on 2 May it was found and returned to its place.
Finally, in 1919, while accompanying Bishop Feofan of Kursk and Oboyan' and some monks of the Monastery of the Sign, the holy Icon crossed the border to the neighborly Serbia. In 1920 it again, at the behest of General Wrangel, visited Russia at the Crimea and remained there until the final evacuation of the Russian Army in the first days of November, 1920. The holy Icon returned to Serbia, where it remained until 1944, when, together with the Synod of Bishops, it went abroad, to Munich (Bavaria) with Metropolitan Anastassy. In 1951 Metropolitan Anastassy moved from Munich to America. Since 1957 the Icon had resided in the main cathedral dedicated to it in the Synod of Bishops in New York. The holy Icon regularly travels to all the dioceses of the Russian diaspora.
– You became the caretaker of the Kursk-Root Icon eight years ago. Do you remember your first impressions when you were appointed?
– I was informed of this in the altar of the Synodal Cathedral in New York. This was in December, 2010. At first I was a bit troubled, and could not grasp the seriousness of the situation, but then I sensed the love and support of our bishops, and accepted this wonderful obedience.
I’d like to point out that I’m not alone. Other bishops, clergymen, faithful, we are all caretakers of the Kursk-Root Icon. I help organize the schedule, travel to various diocese or parishes, but everyone participates. It is a great joy, but at the same time, there is the fear of God, for we are in the presence of the Most-Holy Mother of God.
– What are the main responsibilities of the caretaker of the miracle-working icon?
– Of course, the caretaker must know the history of the icon and the special prayers that are read before it. But I would say that most of my responsibilities amount to accompanying the holy image to various parishes and visiting the sick. I try to the best of my modest abilities to pray before the icon for those who request prayers. For instance, performing moleben services, or during Liturgy.
In addition to this, it's important to let people know when the icon is in New York, when it will visit one parish or another, so that they can make arrangements to come and pray to the Mother of God. As I understand it, this is also the proselytization of Orthodox Christianity, and an opportunity to tell people about the miraculous appearance of the Kursk Icon among us.
– What is it like to constantly be near the icon before which St Seraphim of Sarov prayed, as did Saint John of Shanghai, before which so many generations have prayed? Do you feel fear and trepidation?
There are feelings of joy and calm, yes, but no fear. How can we fear the presence of the Mother of God? You are right to recall that Saint Seraphim and many other saints, our tsars and many bishops prayed before her. Remembering this helps instill a sense of humility. There is nothing there to fear.
- You have certainly been a witness to miraculous stories connected with this icon. Can you tell us about them?
During the performance of moleben services before the icon, you sense piety among the people. They may be in need of healing, maybe they are lonely or are trapped in a difficult situation. And they know that they need the help of the Mother of God. Of course, miracles do occur. Many of them are very personal, and I would not discuss them. But recently, for example, a young woman from Russia wrote to me that they she and her husband were unable to bear children. She learned that the Kursk Icon was coming to her city, and began to volunteer at the church, she washed the floors and tended to the flowers. She then spent an entire week next to the icon. The next day after the icon returned to America, she and her husband learned that she was pregnant. She wrote that this was a miracle brought on by prayers before the Kursk root icon.
In other cases, people are healed of sickness, others find resolution of problems at work, or in other personal matters. After praying before the icon they often come and say, “Vladyko, everything ended up even better than I could imagine.”
- Among those who turned to the Kursk-Root Icon with faith was a person who at one time tried to destroy it with explosives. Can you tell us about this?
In March, 1898, when the holy icon was still in the city of Kursk, anarchists hatched a plan to blow up Znamensky Cathedral, so they put a bomb under the Kursk-Root Icon, which was on an analogion in the middle of the church. That night, the monks heard an explosion that felt like an earthquake.
Rushing to the cathedral, they saw black smoke, icons strewn about, the windows and doors blasted out. Among this chaotic situation, they approached the Kursk-Root Icon and saw that it was unharmed, even its frame was whole. This was a real miracle. As it turned out the enemy of the Mother of God helped to spread the glory of Her icon, and the Lord showed us this miracle.
Many years later, after World War II, in 1949, when the icon visited one of the parishes in Frankfurt, accompanied by Protopresbyter George Grabbe, who later became Bishop Gregory, a man in tears approached him. He told him the story I just related to you, and said that he was among those who tried to destroy the icon. “I decided that if God really exists, He would show me a miracle and the icon would not be destroyed.” The man had come to pray in repentance before the Mother of God.
- Has the Kursk-Root Icon changed you in any way?
I hope, I pray to God that I have become a better Christian, a better person, more humble, and that I help people more. I cannot say how I have changed, but I hope that I have to the better.
- You are one of the youngest bishops of the Russian Church abroad, a few years ago, you are not even a monk yet. Do you sense that your proximity to the icon has helped you in your priesthood, in your present service?
That is a very difficult question, I can't answer with 100% confidence. I thank God that the Kursk-Root Icon has played such an important role in my spiritual life. But to be frank, having received this task from the bishops of our church, I try to do everything possible to be serve as an example of an Orthodox hierarch and Christian. I pray to God for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of all those around me.
– In 2009, the Kursk-Root Icon visited Russia for the first time in almost 90 years. You went, too. What were your impressions?
I would actually begin with another historic event, the reconciliation of the Russian Church in May of 2007. After the celebrations and divine services in Moscow, the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, Metropolitan Laurus, led a small delegation to the city of Kursk, then to Kiev. In Kursk, we visited the Kursk-Root Hermitage, which is located on the site of the monastery that the Bolsheviks had destroyed. Monastic life returned in the 1990s. During our trip, the local clergy and believers asked if it would be possible to bring the Kursk-Root Icon there. I remember Vladyka Laurus said very clearly that this would definitely happen, but only when the main church is rebuilt.
So, two years later, the cathedral dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God was completed. It was consecrated by Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion, the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in the presence of the Kursk-Root Icon. There were 30 to 35 people in the delegation accompanying the first visit to Russia by our Hodigitria, among whom was I. We were overcome by a sense of joy and trepidation.
It was astounding to witness tens of thousands of believers in Moscow and Kursk gather to venerate the icon.
I came to understand that we are truly blessed by God, that the Lord is with us, which is attested to by the fact that the Most-Holy Mother of God abides with us and never left us. I gained a much better understanding of the history of our icon, and that our Russian icons are so needed in the diaspora. We live in a non-Orthodox Christian nation, and are often confronted by problems. But with such icons, we receive peace and help in the edification of our faith.