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Archive for the ‘Saints’ Category

Looking through old files of photos and videos I found this video of the holy icon of Axion Esti (It is Truly Meet) arriving at the port of Thessaloniki from Mount Athos for the feast of St. Demetrios the Great Martyr and the 100th anniversary of the city’s liberation from Ottoman rule (October, 2012). We were blessed to be there and to record the procession which began at the port and led to the Church of St. Demetrios.

Below is the history of the icon, from the Pemptousia’s website here:

The icon or “Axion Esti”, which is said to be miraculous, is kept in the sanctuary. This is the most saintly icon of the whole monastic state. Placed on a throne behind the altar, it is about 3′ l’ by 2′ 2″ in size. The center of the icon is domi­nated by the Virgin holding the Child Jesus, while its oblong perimeter is occupied by twenty small medallions, each picturing the patron saints of the monasteries of Mt Athos. The following story is told about this icon. North-east of Karyes, in the direction of Pantokratoros monastery and at a place called Sakkos, there were a few kellia, one of them dedicated to the Assumption of the Bles­sed Virgin. One Saturday afternoon the Elder of this Kelli before starting for Karyes, where he intended to attend the vigils at the church of the Protaton, instructed his hypotaklikos to read the vespers himself. That evening a young monk who was a complete stranger appeared at the kelli and begged leave to stay for the night, which was granted. During matins next morning, the hypotaktikos was preparing to chant Kosmas’s hymn to the Virgin Mother before her icon. This begins with “Την τιμιωτέραν των χερουβείμ” (“More honourable than the Cherubim”) but he was in­terrupted by the visitor who started chanting the then unknown hymn “‘Αξιον εστίν ως αληθώς μακαρίζειν σε την Θεοτόκον, την αειμακάριστον και παναμώμητον και Μητέρα του Θεού ημών” (“It is truly meet to call thee blessed, the Theotokos and ever-virgin, all-immaculate and Mother of our God”).

Having finished this he continued with that of “Την τιμιωτέραν των χερουβείμ.” Greatly moved, the hypotaktikos begged the guest to write down the hymn for him. Finding no paper or ink he produced a marble slab on which the stranger carved the hymn with his bare finger. He ordered the monk that the hymn should thereafter be sung in praise of the Virgin. He then vanished. When the elder returned and was told what had passed between the hypotaktikos and the stranger, he at once notified the Assembly of the Elders at Karyes. Those had both the icon of the Virgin before which the angel-carved hymn was first sung, as well as the marble slab brought to the Protaton. The icon was placed on a throne in the sanctuary, with a hanging lamp burning before it day and night while the marble slab was sent to Constantinople and both the Emperor and the Patriarch were accordingly informed. Furthermore they communicated the event to al1 the fathers on the Holy Mountain, whom they instructed that the hymn should be sung henceforth. The kelli in question was named “Axion Estin” and its locality is still called “the Pit of Singing”.

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Abba Sisoes’ humility and longing for repentance was epitomised by the manner of his departure from this life. When he lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoes replied that he saw St Anthony, the prophets, and the apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, “With whom are you speaking, Father?” He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, “You have no need for repentance, Father” St Sisoes said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.” After these words the face of the holy Abba shone so brightly that the brethren were not able to look upon him. St Sisoes told them that he saw the Lord Himself. Then there was a flash like lightning, and a fragrant odour, and Abba Sisoes departed to the Heavenly Kingdom.

St. Sisoes is today well known for his depiction in an icon which became popular upon its appearance in Greek monasteries following the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 15th Century. This icon, the “Astonishment of Sisoes”, is a contemplation on death, but not only the death of a man, but of an earthly empire. The icon shows St. Sisoes over the dead bones in Alexander the Great’s open tomb and with the following inscription:

“SISOES, THE GREAT ASCETIC, BEFORE THE TOMB, OF ALEXANDER, KING OF THE GREEKS,WHO WAS ONCE COVERED IN GLORY.

ASTONISHED, HE MOURNS FOR THE VICISSITUDES OF TIME AND THE TRANSCIENCE OF GLORY, AND TEARFULLY DECLAIMS THUS:

‘THE MERE SIGHT OF YOU TOMB, DISMAYS ME AND CAUSES MY HEART TO SHED TEARS, AS I CONTEMPLATE THE DEBT WE, ALL MEN, OWE.

HOW CAN I POSSIBLY STAND IT? OH, DEATH! WHO CAN EVADE YOU?‘”

ossuary in meteora

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In Honour of the Holy Apostles

holyapostles_iconIn honour of the Apostles, whose Synaxi we will celebrate on June 30, the day after our celebration of the great beacons of the Gospel, Sts. Peter and Paul, I wanted to share this excerpt from Bishop Augoustinos Kantiotis’ book Follow Me, p. 359:

What mission can compare to that of the Apostles, and what offering of love to theirs? In their entirety, they are the first after the One. Therefore, the Church, founded on their labours and their blood, is called the Apostolic Church. It is a name, which, so as not to remain a simple title, makes the deepest obligations on Christians of every age who are members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which Orthodoxy is. Our Church is called “Apostolic.” In everything we should maintain apostolic teaching, apostolic life and polity, for woe to us if below the epigraph “Apostolic” we hide an ideology and life that does not bear the apostolic stamp.

The Apostles demolished the pagan world, enlightened nations, and created a new world. These twelve led thousands of souls to Christ. How did they do this? By their simple teaching, which sketched before their listeners Jesus Christ Crucified and Resurrected from the dead. They attracted people by the miracles they worked and through which they confirmed their divine teaching, which seemed so strange to the ears of the idolaters and Jews, for whom the preaching of the Cross was foolish and offensive. They attracted people by their holy example. In the Apostles, Christ’s words found complete harmony. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16). Through all these things – brilliant teaching, astonishing miracles, and radiant way of life – the Apostles were shown to be shinning mirrors of the Logos, in which people saw the wondrous image of Jesus Christ. They were shown to be suns shinning, warming, and giving life. They were sown to be the clearest proof of our religion’s heavenly origin.

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The Holy Martyr Agrippina, was by birth a Roman. She did not wish to enter into marriage, and totally dedicated her life to God. During the time of persecution against Christians under the emperor Valerian (253-259) the saint went before the court and bravely confessed her faith in Christ, for which she was given over to torture. They beat the holy virgin with sticks so severely that her bones broke. Afterwards they put St Agrippina in chains, but an angel freed her from her bonds.

The holy confessor died from the tortures she endured. The Christians Bassa, Paula and Agathonike secretly took the body of the holy martyr and transported it to Sicily, where many miracles were worked at her grave. In the eleventh century the relics of the holy Martyr Agrippina were transferred to Constantinople.

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“I am Constantine the Great…

I descended from heaven to reveal

the glory which monks receive

in heaven, and the closeness and boldness

they have towards Christ…

I blame myself and I condemn myself,

for not having been granted this great rank of the Monastics…

I am unable to bear the loss, which I experienced…

I do not have the same honour as Monastics,

nor equal honour towards them.

Full account of the vision of St. Constantine the Great by St. Paisios by “Neon Eklogion” (Νέον Εκλόγιον) translated by Full of Grace and Truth (as is the above statement):

Therefore (says the righteous John), desiring to see myself as I was able, his special theoria, and to taste of divine grace, I went to him [St. Paisios], and before I knocked on the door of his cell, I heard him speaking with another man. I was reluctant to knock, so I waited outside. The little sound I made, however, was heard by the precious father, and he came outside. He saw me, and was filled with joy and embraced me, and I him. He took me into his cell, where I didn’t see anyone else. I was puzzled, and I wondered: who was in here.

The Elder asked me: “Why are you looking here and there in bewilderment, as if you were looking at something strange?” I replied: “Indeed I see something strange, and I don’t know what to think, for a short time ago, I heard the voice of another man who was speaking with you, and now I don’t see anyone else. What should I think? I beseech your Holiness to reveal to me this strange mystery. The divine father told me: “O John, God wishes to reveal to you a strange mystery today, and I must reveal to you the love which the Giver-of-Good-things has for us. “He whom you heard speaking with me, my perfect friend, was Constantine the Great, the first King of the Christians, who descended from heaven, being sent by God, and told me: ‘Blessed are you who have been made worthy of the monastic life, for truly unique is the godly blessing of the Savior towards you.’

“I asked him: And who are you, my Lord, who are saying these things, and magnifying us Monks? He replied: ‘I am Constantine the Great, and I descended from the heavens, that I might reveal to you the glory which Monks receive in the heavens, and the closeness and boldness which they have towards Christ. And I magnify you, O Paisios, for you guide them in this holy path of asceticism. I therefore blame and condemn myself, for not being granted this greatest rank of the Monastics, and I cannot bear the loss which I experienced.’

“And again I said: ‘Why, O wondrous one, do you judge yourself? Have you not received that eternal glory, and divine illumination?’ He replied to me: ‘Yes, I have received them, but I do not have that boldness of the Monks, neither glory equal to theirs, for I saw the souls of some Monks who had been separated from the body, and flew as eagles, and with great daring rise to the heavens. And the rank of demons did not dare approach them at all. Then I saw that the gates of heaven were opened for them, and they entered in, and appeared before the heavenly King, standing with great boldness before the throne of God. For this reason, therefore, I am amazed by you Monks, and I bless you, and I condemn myself for not being made worthy of boldness life this. For I wish that I could have left my passing kingdom, and the royal robe and crown, and to become poor, and to wear sackcloth, and to accept all those things that the monastic life seeks.’

“Again I said to him: ‘You say this well, O most-holy King, and you console us with these words. However, this must be the judgment of our God, and and we are unable to say anything different regarding divine righteousness. For the Righteous Judge grants to each according to his worth in righteousness, and rewards for the works of everyone, for your unique life did not have the same struggles as the life of Monks, for you had a wife to help you, and your children, and your servants, and different rewards and comforts. For the Monks, disdaining all of the joys of this present life, receive God, instead of the good things of the World. And bearing Him with joy, and special richess, and to be made pleasing to Him, they consider Him their food, and their great reward. And they are, according to the Apostle, ‘destitute, afflicted, ill-treated’. Therefore it is impossible, my King, for you to be equal to them.

“And at that point, therefore, you came, O my brother John, and [St. Constantine] straightaway ascended to the heavens. Therefore, now having learned this mystery that has occurred, how good must the pains of asceticism seem. Strengthen the brothers.”

Through the prayers of St. Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles, may the Lord have mercy on us and save us. Amen!
Christ is Risen!

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gerontissa grave

Christ is Risen!

Below is the transcript of a talk I gave for Holy Trinity Monastery fundraiser at the Four Seasons restaurant in London, ON, November 10, 2013. Gerontissa Macrina reposed on May 22 (Old Style) 1994.

You may notice that some stories are not written in full below. That is because at certain points in the talk I did not use notes. If you wish to hear these stories in full you can watch the recording here.

Introduction:

Gerontissa Macrina (the Greek title for elderess) is a very special person, for not only did she have a great influence on the spiritual lives of many in Greece, but in North America as well. A few of the women’s monasteries under the spiritual direction of Geronda Ephraim trace their roots to Gerontissa Macrina since he took nuns from her monastery to establish other monasteries.

If I could be so bold, I would say that just as Geronda Ephraim is the father of the revitalization of cenobitic monasticism in North America, so Gerontissa Macrina is the mother of this revitalization. She is a Mother for all Orthodox Christians, because she is, in every sense of the word, a Mother of the Church. She is a saint like the saints of old: wise in spiritual matters, reverent in every regard and virtuous beyond compare! She is, in my humble opinion, an abbess like St. Irene Chrystovalandou and St. Macrina the sister of St. Basil the Great. And for this reason, she is a Mother for us all.

While she lived many great contemporary spiritual elders recognized her purity of heart and the grace of God which dwelt in her. Elder Iakovos Tsalikis – who lived in St. David’s Monastery in Evia – used to say, “If I lived in Volos I would go on foot to kiss Gerontissa’s hand and get her blessing before going to work each day.” Once, Gerontissa met Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. She traveled to Halikidi where Geronda was staying at a monastery and when they saw each other they both prostrated, one to the other (just like St. Mary of Egypt and St. Zosimas). Elder Ephraim Katanakiotis also loved and respected her very much. When she went to visit him at a hospital he was staying in his disciple asked him if he would receive her and he proclaimed, “Open wide the doors!” In fact, Elder Ephraim of Katonakia prayed and received confirmation from God that Gerontissa occupied a very high spiritual state like that of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (a very holy man who reposed in 1959). See, Gerontissa wasn’t merely a mother for the nuns in Greece and in North America. She was a mother even to these saintly men!

By looking at the life and teachings of Gerontissa Macrina, we want to stress the importance of monasticism. Because of the holy monasteries we have spiritual giants such as Gerontissa Macrina. She – through monastic struggle – became a saint and because she acquired holiness thousands of people profit from her influence, the example of her selfless life. This is why the monasteries are important! They produce saints and teach us how to become saints in the world.

There is a book about Gerontissa Macrina that her monastery published last year, about her life and teachings. Her book is aptly called Λόγια Καρδίας (Words from the Heart) and her words not only come from the heart but penetrate the heart as well. If you read her book you will see that just about every paragraph describes some miracle Gerontissa lived. At times I would read it and actually become discouraged seeing as though I am spiritual light-years behind Gerontissa.

Gerontissa Macrina experienced many hardships, but she also experienced many states of grace. However, it is not the miracles she experienced and describes that make her a Mother of the Church. It was the little things that show us that she had acquired a high level of virtue and this should encourage us to also struggle here in the world to emulate Gerontissa’s uncomprising fight to attain holiness – not so we can say we had so-and-so saint visit us, heal us, etc. but so we can attract the grace of God and become “gods by grace”.

When we have Christ living in us, like Gerontissa had, everything becomes light, everything easy, everything joyful. The greatest hardships in the world become means for us to commune with God, and instead of complaining we praise Him. Because hardships, tribulations and difficulties – as we will see in the life of Gerontissa Macrina – serve to help us seek and struggle to live a Christ-centered life. And it is about these things I wish to speak, for seeing visions and smelling divine fragrances are worthless if we don’t strive everyday to live for Christ so that He might live in us, transforming our darkness into light, our sadness into joy, and our tribulations into opportunities for spiritual victories.

It was in the little ways that Gerontissa Macrina’s virtue manifested itself. And it is in the little ways that we can emulate her, and with the help of God root out our evil habits, root out our dissatisfactions with our children, our in-laws, our jobs, and ultimately become full of peace and joy.

Gerontissa Macrina:

Gerontissa Macrina’s name in the world was Maria Vassopoulou. She was born in 1921 in the village of Χατζλέρι in the western part of Asia Minor. Her parents brought her to Greece during the Exchange of Population in 1922. They eventually settled in Νέα Ιωνία in Volos – the city in which Gerontissa and her nuns would later build a monastery.

By the young age of 9 she had lost both parents. Her father fell asleep first on Clean Monday in 1929 and the next year, again on Clean Monday, her mother passed away. Little Maria and her four-year old brother were left orphaned. This hardship was the first of many in Gerontissa Macrina’s life – all of which she accepted with fortitude and patience, and through which the grace of God made her holy.

As soon as she saved enough money from working, little Maria gave money to her spiritual father to serve 40 Liturgies for the souls of her parents. This alms-giving benefited their souls greatly and they were transposed to an even greater place in Paradise.

There were times during the war when her and her brother were literally starving to death. But before her father died, he was informed not only of his and his wife’s impending death, but also that God would protect and provide for little Maria and her brother George. Although it seemed that many times they would die, God protected them. For an entire year edible greens grew outside the window of their home and no matter how many times they picked the greens they’d grow back at an impossible speed. You see, from this we learn that sometimes it seems like God has abandoned us. He promised to take care of these children, and yet at times they almost died of starvation. Sometimes it seems like God has abandoned us, turned His back on us, but we need to be patient and we will see how much He cares for us at every turn!

From a young age little Maria enjoyed reading the Scriptures, lives of the saints, hymns, and Patristic and ascetical writings. See, we need to read these things to our children and grandchildren from a young to help them learn from holy writings which not only make them wise, but virtuous, just as Gerontissa was from childhood.

Maria, though a child, had a faithful and ascetical mindset. She fully trusted in God, just as we should do. Once while visiting family friends in Athens she heard about an illumined geronda who was clairvoyant staying in Piraeus. One morning she made her cross and set out, fasting, to find the elder, but she didn’t know his address. She just walked and prayed for God’s guidance. Just as it was getting dark Maria decided to stop and ask someone if they knew where the elder was staying. The first door she knocked on, who answered? The very elder she was looking for! He invited her in, fed her and advised her. And he revealed many things about her future. Such was this child’s faith that she completely entrusted herself to God. What a great example for us not to worry about this or that, but to pray, make our cross and have faith and patience. God takes care of everything!

She had great love for and trust in her spiritual father. She would ask him to cross her and miracles would occur on account of her faith and obedience…

Such was her virtue. She struggled, she confessed her sins, she did perfect obedience to her spiritual father, she humbled herself and with the grace of God she enjoyed great states of prayer and blessedness.

After working in the world until we was in her late thirties, Maria and some of her spiritual sisters from the world found a place wherein they could live out the monastic life. They contacted Elder Joseph the Hesychast (the elder of Geronda Ephraim) and he became their spiritual father and director (after his death Geronda Ephraim of Arizona became the monastery’s spiritual father). Without having ever met Maria, and even though there were other women older than her, Geronda Iosif prayed and saw a green pasture with many sheep gathered around Maria. There appeared a monkey who was trying to bother the sheep but Maria shoed it far away with a reed she was holding. Thus Geronda had confirmation from God that it was His will for Maria to guide and protect the sisterhood.

On account of her humility, however, it was very difficult for Maria to accept this. So the elder prayed for her to receive confirmation herself that this was God’s will for her. One evening Maria saw the Holy Forerunner John claiming a mountain toward the heavens with a staff in his hand. She followed behind him and behind her a host of monastics. At some point the saint stopped, turned toward Maria and handed her his staff. After this Maria accepted God’s will and thus she became Gerontissa Macrina in holy monasticism. This is a little example of her great humility! She wasn’t able to make herself the leader without firm confirmation from God, but once she received the confirmation she didn’t insist on her will, but accepted God’s will for her.

As we’ve seen, her virtues weren’t limited to monasticism. She herself tells us that while in the world she struggled to obey her spiritual father. She taught that obedience to your spiritual father brings the soul joy, it is the cause of constant gratitude; obedience is a golden life which gives you strength and grace and keeps our consciences clean. And she tells us, this caused her to feel the presence of God. She convinced herself that even while in the world those around her were like her cenovio (her sisterhood) and she did obedience those people. She said doing our own will, what our thoughts tell us, instead of obedience is one of the greatest downfalls we are able to experience.

Another thing that Gerontissa spoke a great deal about was not wasting time. This was of great concern to her. God gave us the time that we have in this life to draw closer to Him. We need to safeguard this time, use it wisely. She taught that we need order in our lives and spiritual lives. Reading the lives of the saints, prayer, reading Scripture, these were all things she stressed. She would say the Fathers, the saints, did not have more than we do. They fought the same passions and struggled to live holy lives, just as we should do; with struggle and a good disposition they arrived at holiness, just as we are able to. If they were able to succeed, we have no excuses, because all we need to do is put in a little effort and God will give us so much grace that no spiritual victory will be impossible for us to accomplish. Even if only for one week, she said, we were to struggle to keep silent and pray we would see – even in this short period of time – the depth of God’s love!!!

God’s grace visits us when someone upsets us, they say harsh things to us, criticize or fight with us, if we keep our thoughts humble even in the midst of these trials God will visit us with grace! God will change our hearts – hard as stone though they may be, He will make our darkness light and our cold hearts to burn with love for God. And when we see the grace of God we’ll say: “I’m gonna try not to have disdain for anyone in my soul.” And even to those who hate us and treat us poorly we will say, “This person is a saint in my eyes!” And gradually all the vices in our hearts will flee and God’s grace will reign.

Gerontissa not only loved God above all and taught her nuns to love Him, but she also loved her neighbour as herself. With pain of heart she would pray for people and they would receive great benefit. She once prayed for her friend, a woman who was a teacher in the world. This teacher didn’t believe in God as Trinity. She couldn’t understand and refused to believe how God in Trinity could be one essence since God is also three persons. Gerontissa prayed very much for this misguided teacher, for Gerontissa feared what the woman was teaching the children in school about God since she was in error. Gerontissa prayed so much for this woman that one night three angels appeared to this woman. They told her, “Examine us and see if you can find any difference between us.” She examined them from their heads to their toes, their height, their nails, their eyes, hair, everything. She could not find a single difference between them. “There is no difference between you,” she answered. “Now do you believe in the one essence?” The woman ran to Gerontissa’s house (this was before Gerontissa became a monastic), she told her the story and began crying, “You prayed for me!” she said. “Now I will teach this at school.”

After this experience the woman became very faithful! All through Gerontissa’s prayers! Her love and her prayers corrected this woman’s wrong belief. And this is a great testimony for us – prayer works wonders. We should never give up on someone, pray, pray, pray and God will enlighten them because His love and mercy are greater than ours and He’s always looking for an excuse to help someone. So we should pray – even for those who hate us!

Gerontissa tells another story about a woman who slandered her and the spiritual benefit we can receive from praying for those who hate us and never judging, not even those who slander us…

And so, agapite mou adelfoi, brothers and sisters, St. Paul says “Let us fear then, lest perhaps, being left a promise to enter into His rest, any of you [us] seems to have come short of it” (Heb. 4:1). What excuse will we give to the Just Judge if we too don’t reach holiness? What will we say? We’ll have no words. We will stand in silence, filled with shame because the medicine was there for the taking, all our lives the pill of holiness is offered to us, all we have to do is swallow it, pick up our cross and follow Him, deny ourselves – struggle in other words. Woe to us if we don’t make a spiritual effort! Woe is us if we leave the acquisition of holiness up to people like Gerontissa Macrina, to the monastics. Woe to us! For all we need to do is give one, and God gives one hundred. May we then, through the prayers of holy Gerontissa Macrina, and all monastics, arrive at holiness even here in the world!

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The Boldness of a Saint

A drawing I did of Elder Iakovos in 2007.

A drawing I did of Elder Iakovos in 2007.

Christ is Risen!

Excerpt from The Garden of the Holy Spirit: Elder Iakovos of Evia, p. 79

That year, the area [of Livanates] suffered from a long drought. The villagers in the boat, who knew Fr. Iakovos, pleaded for rain. Fr. Iakovos listened to them, then sat in a corner. The boat was approaching Livantes. Then Fr. Iakovos, holding the woven bag with the holy head [of St. David of Evia] in his arms, addressed the following exact words to St. David: “Old man, your fellow villagers are here on account of the drought. Now, when we arrive, I ask you to thunder [rain]. Take good care not to embarrass me. You will be ridiculed, and I will be ridiculed too!” As soon as they got on shore, it started thundering. Thirty years later, Fr. Iakovos said: “I, my brother, say these things to the Saint’s ears, and he opens a direct line with our Christ!”

This simple explanation contains, in fact, the theological wisdom of a thousand and one theologians. God alone has miraculous power, divine grace, and uncreated energies. He bestows them, though, upon human beings through his very elect, through the saints, who, having loved Him exceedingly and having cleansed themselves by means of every kind of ascesis, having obtained the gift of boldness towards God. That is, the saints have been given the privilege to ask something from God, while God “obeys” them and fulfills it.

 

Elder Iakovos with St. David of Evia

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Raising of St. Lazarus

(Source)

In a carefully detailed narrative the Gospel relates how Christ, six days before His own death, and with particular mindfulness of the people “standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me” (John I I :42), went to His dead friend Lazarus at Bethany outside of Jerusalem. He was aware of the approaching death of Lazarus but deliberately delayed His coming, saying to His disciples at the news of His friend’s death: “For your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (John 11:14).

When Jesus arrived at Bethany, Lazarus was already dead four days. This fact is repeatedly emphasized by the Gospel narrative and the liturgical hymns of the feast. The four-day burial underscores the horrible reality of death. Man, created by God in His own image and likeness, is a spiritual-material being, a unity of soul and body. Death is destruction; it is the separation of soul and body. The soul without the body is a ghost, as one Orthodox theologian puts it, and the body without the soul is a decaying corpse. “I weep and I wail, when I think upon death, and behold our beauty, fashioned after the image of God, lying in the tomb dishonored, disfigured, bereft of form.” This is a hymn of St John of Damascus sung at the Church’s burial services. This “mystery” of death is the inevitable fate of man fallen from God and blinded by his own prideful pursuits.

With epic simplicity the Gospel records that, on coming to the scene of the horrible end of His friend, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). At this moment Lazarus, the friend of Christ, stands for all men, and Bethany is the mystical center of the world. Jesus wept as He saw the “very good” creation and its king, man, “made through Him” (John 1:3) to be filled with joy, life and light, now a burial ground in which man is sealed up in a tomb outside the city, removed from the fullness of life for which he was created, and decomposing in darkness, despair and death. Again as the Gospel says, the people were hesitant to open the tomb, for “by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39).

When the stone was removed from the tomb, Jesus prayed to His Father and then cried with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out.” The icon of the feast shows the particular moment when Lazarus appears at the entrance to the tomb. He is still wrapped in his grave clothes and his friends, who are holding their noses because of the stench of his decaying body, must unwrap him. In everything stress is laid on the audible, the visible and the tangible. Christ presents the world with this observable fact: on the eve of His own suffering and death He raises a man dead four days! The people were astonished. Many immediately believed on Jesus and a great crowd began to assemble around Him as the news of the raising of Lazarus spread. The regal entry into Jerusalem followed.

Lazarus Saturday is a unique day: on a Saturday a Matins and Divine Liturgy bearing the basic marks of festal, resurrectional services, normally proper to Sundays, are celebrated. Even the baptismal hymn is sung at the Liturgy instead of Holy God: “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.”

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You can hear Frederica Matthewes-Green read The Passion of Perpetua on her podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.

You can read other posts on the African martyrs here, here and here.

 

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“God, I thank you that I am not like other people!” Lk. 18:11

When I was in Ontario giving talks at a few different venues back in November, I received a variety of questions, good questions. In fact, I was quite impressed with the questions I was asked. I think good questions demonstrate the audience’s seriousness, their desire to learn and be instructed. I tried my best to offer good answers to those good questions. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried.

Among all these questions there was one scribbled on a piece of paper that stood out to me because I believe it revealed an opinion many of us have our ourselves – an opinion, I would venture to say, which is misinformed and misguided.

The question went something like this: “How can we deal with the low spiritual level of others?”

I was a little taken aback by this and without a lot of thought I immediately responded: “By saying: Gee, I wish I was as spiritual as that person!” But truth be told the person asking the question was verbalizing the silent and unspoken thoughts many of us have from time to time, or at least have had in the past: that is, that we are more spiritual than others and that it is toilsome to have to “deal” with what we perceive (rightly or wrongly) as the “low” spiritual state of others.

I went on to explain that if we think we are more spiritual than anyone else then we know, right off the bat, that we aren’t spiritual because a true spiritual person doesn’t think themselves spiritual. A true spiritual person knows how carnal, how flawed, how fumbling, and how sinful he or she is, because true spirituality – and by “true” I mean Orthodox spirituality – gradually opens the eyes of the heart to see one’s sinfulness, one’s mistakes, shortcomings, and more than anything one’s attachment to this world, this body, and the passions associated with the body, the “lesser pleasures” as they’re called: food, sleep, etc. revealing us to be far more carnal, in fact, than spiritual.

A spiritual person follows the rules of fasting set down by the Church; he prays a consistent amount everyday; he bridles his tongue, has humble thoughts; thinks he hasn’t yet made a beginning; feels, sees and understands his own worth, that he is nothing without Christ. A spiritual person looks at everyone beside himself as more spiritual, more holy, more worthy of Christ’s love and mercy.

(Source) St. Anthony the Great once prayed: “Lord, reveal to me how the faithful person in the city among the noise can reach the spiritual level of the ascetic who dwells in the deep desert.”

He had not even finished this request to the All-good God when he heard a voice tell him:

“The Gospel is the same for all men, Anthony. And if you want to confirm this, how one who does the will of God is saved and sanctified wherever he is, go to Alexandria to the small cobbler’s store, which is simple and poor. It is there below the last road of the city.”

“To the cobbler’s store, Lord? And who there can help shine some light on my thought?” replied the puzzled Saint.

“The cobbler will explain to you,” replied the same voice.

“The cobbler? What does this man know about struggles and temptations? What does the poor toiler know of the heights of faith and of the truth?” He wondered.

His objections however could not be straightened [out] by the divine explanation. Because of this, at dawn he traveled to the city. As God had shown him, he stopped at the small cobbler store that he found.

Happily and reverently the simple man welcomed him in and asked him: “In what way could I be of use to you, Abba? I’m an illiterate and uncouth villager, but for the stranger, whoever he is, I will try to help, whatever the need.”

“The Lord sent me for you to teach me,” replied the ascetic humbly.

The poor worker jumped up in wonder. “Me? What could I, the illiterate one, teach your holiness? I don’t know if I have done anything good or noteworthy in my life, something which could stand unadulterated before the eyes of God.”

“Tell me what you do, how you pass your day. God knows; He weighs and judges things differently,” replied St. Anthony.

“I, Abba, have never done anything good, I only struggle to keep the holy teachings of the Gospel. And further, I try to never forget to never overlook my shortcomings and my spiritual fruitlessness. Therefore, as I work during the day I think and say to myself: O wretched man, all will be saved and only you will remain fruitless. Because of your sin, you will never be worthy to see His Holy Face.

“Thank you, O Lord,” the ascetic said raising his weeping eyes towards heaven. And as the cobbler remained puzzled at this, the ascetic embraced him with love and bid him farewell saying: “And thank you, O holy man. Thank you, for you taught me how easy it is with only a humble mind, for someone to live in the grace of Paradise.”

And as the poor cobbler continued to stare uneasily, without at all understanding this, St. Anthony took his staff and departed for the deep desert.

He walked, his only companion being the sound of his staff. He walked and his prayer burned like the the sands of the desert, rising towards heaven.

He traveled all day and prayerfully reflected on the lesson that he received that day from the poor cobbler.

“Humility! This therefore is the quickest path to the gate of Paradise,” he said in his thoughts. “Humility is the robe which God clothed himself with and came to earth as man,” the Saint said, and he struggled to perceive the greatness of this holy virtue.

He walked, praying in his nous, and he brought to mind whatever God had taught him, until immediately before him he saw thrown underfoot a countless number of traps. Traps of every sort, terrible notions, machinations never before seen.

“My God,” he exclaimed and turned the frightened eyes of his soul towards heaven. “Who could ever flee, O Lord, from such traps and ruses?

“Humility, Anthony. This can singularly deliver [one] from all of these [traps],” [the Saint] again heard the sweet, beloved voice [say] deep within his heart. And this was the response which instilled light within him and gave him courage for the new battles which he experienced within the deep desert with the eternal enemy of man. 

So, I guess the simple answer I could have given to that question back in November would have been: Humility. Humility is how we deal with the “low spiritual state” of our neighbour.

May we make an effort, as Great Lent approaches, to struggle for such God-pleasing thoughts and opinions as the holy cobbler had, both regarding our own spiritual state and that of others!

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