Today, February 13/26, is the feast day of the “Dolinskaya” or “Dolisskaya” Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God. This image is defined by the unusual position of the Infant Christ, Whom the Mother of God cradles in her left arm, as He turns away and faces to the side. I admit that I had never heard of this icon until a small group of pilgrims stopped by today to venerate our Lesna Icon, and told me that they had traveled to the monastery from the town of Chateauroux, located along the Indre river in the Loire valley, 250 km south of Paris (so about 325 km away from us), where, according to tradition, the original “Dolisskaya” image had appeared. When France was still a Christian country there was a widespread and very fervent veneration of the Mother of God (just think of all the “Notre Dame” cathedrals!), and there are still many Marian pilgrimage sites in France, most of them associated with apparitions of the Mother of God (Lourdes, for example) or relics, such as the veil of the Mother of God that is venerated at Chartres Cathedral, or sometimes with statues- mediaeval, or of a later date, such as Notre Dame de Bonsecours, located between our monastery and the city of Rouen. But this was the first time that I had heard of an Icon that had actually appeared and been venerated in France. My curiosity was piqued, and after lunch I did a bit of research.
And the pilgrims were right! History tells us that there was a Roman settlement on the site of present-day Chateauroux. Sometime in the early 10th century the settlement came to be known as “Castrum Dolis” in Latin, after the castle that was built on the hill overlooking the town by a knight named Raoul of Déols. That’s where the name “Dolisskaya” comes from, and eventually the town name was “frenchified” into “Raoul’s chateau”, or Chateauroux. The town had a Christian community still in Roman times, and a church dedicated to the Mother of God was constructed, with a bas relief stone image of the Mother of God that was widely venerated as a miracle-working image. Russian sources tell us that one day two men began to mock this holy image. They got more and more carried away, and one of them threw a rock at the bas relief, which broke off one of the arms of the Infant Christ. The image began to bleed, as if from a human wound, and the culprit dropped dead. When his companion rushed to his aid, he dropped dead as well. To my still greater surprise, this legend is confirmed by French sources, which tell us that this miracle occurred in 1186 or 1187, and that the man mocking the Image was a knight of Richard the Lionhearted, who was indeed stationed with his forces around Chateauroux at the time, supporting his father, Henry II Plantagenet against Phillipe Auguste II, as they fought over territories throughout France. Wikipedia tells us that Henry II and Phillipe Auguste struck a truce at Chateauroux in 1187 after papal intervention, but the Castellroussines (as the residents of Chateauroux are still known) insist that the truce came about as a result of the miracle of the Dolis Image of the Most Holy Mother of God. Both rulers made a pilgrimage to the town to venerate the Image. How and when the story of and veneration of this Image of the Mother of God came to Russia is unclear, but it is mentioned in a work called “Небо Новое (the New Heavens)”, first published in 1665 in Lviv, and is repeated in a Moscow manuscript of 1715-1716 called “Солнце Пресветлое (The Brightest Sun)”.
The connection to Richard the Lionhearted connects this image to the Lesna monastey here in Provemont, Normandy as well. We live on the borders of Richard the Lionheart’s territory. The castle in nearby Gisors and the even more spectacular Chateau Gaillard at Les Andelys are part of a string of fortified castles that Richard constructed to protect the border. And our department of Eure still flies the Plantagenet flag as its own. Just a short ride from the monastery is the Abbaye de Mortemer, built by Richard’s great-grandfather, Henry I, where the ghost of his grandmother, Queen Mathilda, is still said to roam.
It took a band of Russian-Ukrainian pilgrims from Kherson to bring all this to my attention. It’s not an earthshattering revelation, but it brought me great comfort during what turned out to be a very troubled day. Truly, there is no such thing as chance. If we read history carefully, and try to discern God’s plan, we find all sorts of unexpected connections. And the more attentive we are in a spiritual sense, as we walk along the path that Providence shows us, the more evident is the Hand of God in our own seemingly insignificant and often chaotic lives.