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(Source) The Holy Myrrh-Bearer Equal of the Apostles Mary Magdalene. On the banks of Lake Genesareth (Galilee), between the cities of Capharnum and Tiberias, was the small city of Magdala, the remains of which have survived to our day. Now only the small village of Mejhdel stands on the site.

A woman whose name has entered forever into the Gospel account was born and grew up in Magdala. The Gospel tells us nothing of Mary’s younger years, but Tradition informs us that Mary of Magdala was young and pretty, and led a sinful life. It says in the Gospels that the Lord expelled seven devils from Mary (Luke. 8:2). From the moment of her healing Mary led a new life, and became a true disciple of the Savior.

The Gospel relates that Mary followed after the Lord, when He went with the Apostles through the cities and villages of Judea and Galilee preaching about the Kingdom of God. Together with the pious women Joanna, wife of Choza (steward of Herod), Susanna and others, she served Him from her own possessions (Luke 8:1-3) and undoubtedly shared with the Apostles the evangelic tasks in common with the other women. The Evangelist Luke, evidently, has her in view together with the other women, stating that at the moment of the Procession of Christ onto Golgotha, when after the Scourging He took on Himself the heavy Cross, collapsing under its weight, the women followed after Him weeping and wailing, but He consoled them. The Gospel relates that Mary Magdalene was present on Golgotha at the moment of the Lord’s Crucifixion. While all the disciples of the Savior ran away, she remained fearlessly at the Cross together with the Mother of God and the Apostle John.

The Evangelists also list among those standing at the Cross the mother of the Apostle James, and Salome, and other women followers of the Lord from Galilee, but all mention Mary Magdalene first. Saint John, in addition to the Mother of God, names only her and Mary Cleopas. This indicates how much she stood out from all the women who gathered around the Lord.

She was faithful to Him not only in the days of His Glory, but also at the moment of His extreme humiliation and insult. As the Evangelist Matthew relates, she was present at the Burial of the Lord. Before her eyes Joseph and Νikόdēmos went out to the tomb with His lifeless Body. She watched as they covered over the entrance to the cave with a large stone, entombing the Source of Life.

Faithful to the Law in which she was raised, Mary together with the other women spent the following day at rest, because it was the great day of the Sabbath, coinciding with the Feast of Passover. But all the rest of the peaceful day the women gathered spices to go to the Grave of the Lord at dawn on Sunday and anoint His Body according to the custom of the Jews.

It is necessary to mention that, having agreed to go on the first day of the week to the Tomb early in the morning, the holy women had no possibility of meeting with one another on Saturday. They went separately on Friday evening to their own homes. They went out only at dawn the following day to go to the Sepulchre, not all together, but each from her own house.

The Evangelist Matthew writes that the women came to the grave at dawn, or as the Evangelist Mark expresses, extremely early before the rising of the sun. The Evangelist John, elaborating upon these, says that Mary came to the grave so early that it was still dark. Obviously, she waited impatiently for the end of night, but it was not yet daybreak. She ran to the place where the Lord’s Body lay.

Mary went to the tomb alone. Seeing the stone pushed away from the cave, she ran away in fear to tell the close Apostles of Christ, Peter and John. Hearing the strange message that the Lord was gone from the tomb, both Apostles ran to the tomb and, seeing the shroud and winding cloths, they were amazed. They went and said nothing to anyone, but Mary returned to the tomb and stood about the entrance to the tomb and wept. Here in this dark tomb so recently lay her lifeless Lord.

Wanting proof that the tomb really was empty, she went down to it and saw a strange sight. She saw two angels in white garments, one sitting at the head, the other at the foot, where the Body of Jesus had been placed. They asked her, “Woman, why weepest thou?” She answered them with the words which she had said to the Apostles, “They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” At that moment, she turned around and saw the Risen Jesus standing near the grave, but she did not recognize Him.

He asked Mary, “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom dost thou seek?” She answered thinking that she was seeing the gardener, “Sir, if thou hast taken him, tell where thou hast put Him, and I will take Him away.”

Then she recognized the Lord’s voice. This was the voice she heard in those days and years, when she followed the Lord through all the cities and places where He preached. He spoke her name, and she gave a joyful shout, “Rabbi” (Teacher).

Respect and love, fondness and deep veneration, a feeling of thankfulness and recognition at His Splendor as great Teacher, all came together in this single outcry. She was able to say nothing more and she threw herself down at the feet of her Teacher to wash them with tears of joy. But the Lord said to her: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and tell them: ‘I ascend to My Father, and your Father; to My God and to your God.’”

She came to herself and again ran to the Apostles, to do the will of Him sending her to preach. Again she ran into the house, where the Apostles still remained in dismay, and proclaimed to them the joyous message, “I have seen the Lord!” This was the first preaching in the world about the Resurrection.

The Apostles proclaimed the Glad Tidings to the world, but she proclaimed it to the Apostles themselves.

Holy Scripture does not tell us about the life of Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection of Christ, but it is impossible to doubt, that if in the terrifying minutes of Christ’s Crucifixion she was at the foot of His Cross with His All-Pure Mother and Saint John, she must have stayed with them during the happier time after the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. Thus in the Acts of the Apostles Saint Luke writes that all the Apostles with one mind stayed in prayer and supplication, with certain women and Mary the Mother of Jesus and His brethren.

Holy Tradition testifies that when the Apostles departed from Jerusalem to preach to all the ends of the earth, then Mary Magdalene also went with them. A daring woman, whose heart was full of reminiscence of the Resurrection, she went beyond her native borders and went to preach in pagan Rome. Everywhere she proclaimed to people about Christ and His teaching. When many did not believe that Christ is risen, she repeated to them what she had said to the Apostles on the radiant morning of the Resurrection: “I have seen the Lord!” With this message she went all over Italy.

Tradition relates that in Italy Mary Magdalene visited Emperor Tiberias (14-37 A.D.) and proclaimed to him Christ’s Resurrection. According to Tradition, she brought him a red egg as a symbol of the Resurrection, a symbol of new life with the words: “Christ is Risen!” Then she told the emperor that in his Province of Judea the unjustly condemned Jesus the Galilean, a holy man, a miracleworker, powerful before God and all mankind, had been executed at the instigation of the Jewish High Priests, and the sentence confirmed by the procurator appointed by Tiberias, Pontius Pilate.

Mary repeated the words of the Apostles, that we are redeemed from the vanity of life not with perishable silver or gold, but rather by the precious Blood of Christ.

Thanks to Mary Magdalene the custom to give each other paschal eggs on the day of the Radiant Resurrection of Christ spread among Christians over all the world. In one ancient Greek manuscript, written on parchment, kept in the monastery library of Saint Athanasius near Thessalonica, is a prayer read on the day of Holy Pascha for the blessing of eggs and cheese. In it is indicated that the igumen in passing out the blessed eggs says to the brethren: “Thus have we received from the holy Fathers, who preserved this custom from the very time of the holy Apostles, therefore the holy Equal of the Apostles Mary Magdalene first showed believers the example of this joyful offering.”

Mary Magdalene continued her preaching in Italy and in the city of Rome itself. Evidently, the Apostle Paul has her in mind in his Epistle to the Romans (16: 6), where together with other ascetics of evangelic preaching he mentions Mary (Mariam), who as he expresses “has bestowed much labor on us.” Evidently, she extensively served the Church in its means of subsistence and its difficulties, being exposed to dangers, and sharing with the Apostles the labors of preaching.

According to Church Tradition, she remained in Rome until the arrival of the Apostle Paul, and for two more years following his departure from Rome after the first court judgment upon him. From Rome, Saint Mary Magdalene, already bent with age, moved to Ephesus where the holy Apostle John unceasingly labored. There the saint finished her earthly life and was buried.

Her holy relics were transferred in the ninth century to Constantinople, and placed in the monastery Church of Saint Lazarus. In the era of the Crusader campaigns they were transferred to Italy and placed at Rome under the altar of the Lateran Cathedral. Part of the relics of Mary Magdalene are said to be in Provage, France near Marseilles, where over them at the foot of a steep mountain a splendid church is built in her honor.

The Orthodox Church honors the holy memory of Saint Mary Magdalene, the woman called by the Lord Himself from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.

Formerly immersed in sin and having received healing, she sincerely and irrevocably began a new life and never wavered from that path. Mary loved the Lord Who called her to a new life. She was faithful to Him not only when He was surrounded by enthusiastic crowds and winning recognition as a miracle-worker, but also when all the disciples deserted Him in fear and He, humiliated and crucified, hung in torment upon the Cross. This is why the Lord, knowing her faithfulness, appeared to her first, and esteemed her worthy to be first to proclaim His Resurrection

Books Reviews 2021 is a series of blog posts about the books I’ve read so far this year.

“Presbytera: The Life, Mission, and Service of the Priest’s Wife”

by Pres. Athanasia Papademetriou

While “Presbytera” shares a similar target audience as “The Joy to Serve” it takes a different approach to the same topic: life as a clergy wife. Where “The Joy to Serve” seems to focus on more general advice directed primarily toward the mindset of a clergy wife, “Presbytera” immerses itself in the practical. The latter addresses all manner of topics related to the life of a clergy wife, from the First Ecumenical Council establishing canons in favour of married clergy to how a priest’s wife ought to take down phone messages. Written with obvious care and a desire to address, in an organized fashion, as many topics pertinent to a clergy wife’s life as possible, the text is both beneficial and insightful.

“Presbytera” begins with more broad-scope topics such as women in the early church, the call to the priesthood, and the call of a priest’s wife to share her husband’s ministry. Gradually moving, chapter by chapter, into more and more specific topics it does read a bit like a manual. However, rather than detract from the text, I think this is a part of its charm. Pres. Athanasia by no means makes herself out to be ‘the expert’ in the area, rather she covers such topics as conflict resolution and parish transfers with an element of personal experience combined with general observations and suggestions. One never gets the impression that she puts forward a singular way to do things, rather she provides food for thought on a number of relevant issues/ situations many clergy wives encounter.

I must say I am very impressed by Pres. Athanasia’s undertaking of this subject matter. It takes a great deal of discretion to write about such things in a gentle, encouraging manner. While never concealing the trials and tribulations of this life, “Presbytera” leaves the reader with the feeling that navigating the rough waters of being a clergy wife is not only manageable but a blessing.

(Source)

A US lobsterman has been describing how he escaped being swallowed by a humpback whale.

Michael Packard says he was diving when he ended up in the marine giant’s mouth for about 30-40 seconds off Provincetown, Massachusetts.

The leviathan spat him out and Mr Packard was left with nothing more than a suspected dislocated knee.

Despite his wife’s pleas to get another job, he has no plans of giving up a 40-year career diving off Cape Cod.

Humpback whales can grow to as long as 50ft (15m) and weigh about 36 tons. According to the World Wildlife Fund, their global population is about 60,000.

Mr Packard, 56, told the Cape Cod Times he and his crewmate took their boat, the Ja’n J, off Herring Cove on Friday morning where conditions were excellent, with water visibility at about 20ft.

He told WBZ-TV News that after jumping off the vessel in scuba gear into the water, he “felt this huge bump and everything went dark”.

‘He’s trying to swallow me’

He thought he had been attacked by one of the great white sharks that swim in the area, “and then I felt around and I realised there was no teeth”.

“And then I realised: ‘Oh my God, I’m in a whale’s mouth and he’s trying to swallow me. This is it, I’m going die’.”

Mr Packard says he thought about his wife and two boys, aged 12 and 15.

“Then all of a sudden he went up to the surface and just erupted and started shaking his head.

“I just got thrown in the air and landed in the water. I was free and I just floated there. I couldn’t believe… I’m here to tell it.”

His topside crewmate, who had been desperately scanning the water for telltale bubbles from Mr Packard’s oxygen respirator, hauled him back into the boat.

Provincetown Fire Department confirmed to CBS News they had responded to a call at 08:15 local time (12:15 GMT) to help an injured lobsterman at a Provincetown beach.

Journalists interviewed Mr Packard about his Biblical ordeal after he was discharged from Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis.

Humpback whales tend to feed by opening their mouth wide to gulp down as much prey, like fish or krill, as possible, leading marine scientists to speculate that what happened to Mr Packard was in all likelihood purely accidental. One expert told the Cape Cod Times it was practically unheard of for a whale to swallow a human.

(Source)

On the great and saving day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, as Christ had promised (John 16:7-15). The unlearned fishermen were made wise by divine grace, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ and teaching with authority. Most of them (except for Saint John the Theologian) sealed their labors with their own blood. This was the beginning of the Church’s mission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18), which continues even to the present day.

In 1685, the Russian Orthodox Church established an Orthodox mission in Peking (now Beijing). For more than two hundred years, some of the Chinese converted to Christianity, and married Russian spouses.

Because of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, against the foreign powers occupying China, these Chinese Christians were given the choice of renouncing Christianity, or being tortured and killed.

Two hundred and twenty-two members of the Peking Mission, led by their priest, Father Metrophanes Chang (Chang Tzi-tzung) refused to deny Christ, and received incorruptible crowns of glory.

Among these Holy New Martyrs are Saint Metrophanes, his wife Tatiana, his sons John and Isaiah, Isaiah’s fiancée Maria; the church school teachers Paul Wang and Ia Wen; and many others.

May we imitate their Christian bravery – preferring Christ and death (and eternal life) to temporal life in denial of Him!

And may we have their prayers and blessings!

Books Reviews 2021 is a series of blog posts about the books I’ve read so far this year.

The Joy to Serve

by Matushka Juliana Schmemann

“The Joy to Serve” is a well-written account of Matushka Schmemann’s personal perspective on ministry in the Church as a clergy wife.  It is a short, pleasant read. The most notable parts are found in the straight-forward observations grounded in Matushka’s many years of experience. 

In the book Matushka Juliana re-frames some of the stereotypical complaints one might imagine a clergy wife would have or reasons a young woman might posit for why she does not want to become a priest’s wife. Pointing out that as clergy wives we make a conscious choice to minister to the Church, share our husbands with the faithful, and prioritize the Church above and beyond our personal needs, Matushka reminds us this life of service is a life of freedom not subjection. She writes: 

“Be aware that the challenges of being a clergy wife are quite similar to those of other wives. A doctor’s wife has an impossible schedule to deal with, often involving being up in the middle of the night. A politician’s wife has to put up with unsettled political situation of the country which he services, an artist’s wife with the lack of security and the dreams of her unpractical mate. There is nothing new in feeling subservient, instead of fulfilled. But subservience is the wrong expression since you have determined your own future. So the role of a woman  is not to lose herself in the unexpected inconsistencies of her life, but to find inside herself a strong and unwavering personality. She is the one who has chosen to serve, never losing her free resolve and realizing that her acceptance and support are needed by family, parish, and especially herself” (p. 10-11).         

Throughout the book Matushka encourages clergy wives to acquire and maintain a spiritual perspective: “why don’t we take it seriously when we are asked to lay aside all earthly cares? Because we think that the cares are really important, that our problems are unique, special, need to be solved? A problem is solved by lifting up our hearts, standing aright, giving thanks unto the Lord, singing, shouting, crying aloud and saying! “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of your glory”… Problems? Where are they? The light has burned them away… Yes, salvation from being slaves to our pettiness, slaves refusing to be free; our mind, our love, our whole being – a burning fire for our Lord” (p. 30-31).

While the book never gets “into the weeds” of being a clergy wife, its charm lies in Matushka’s honest and firm resolve to admonish her reader to accept, with joy, the ministry she freely entered into when she agreed to support her husband in his service as a priest (or deacon) of the Most High. 

Christ is risen!

The stories in this video wonderfully capture what it is like to meet, sit with, and speak with a living saint. It’s a treasure to hear of people’s first-hand encounters with holy men and women; I wish there were more videos like this.

CHRIST IS RISEN!

If you arrive in St. John’s, NL by airplane (which, let’s face it, if you’re traveling all the way to Newfoundland you’re coming by plane), all you need to do is take a right when you get out of the airport and keep driving toward the ocean, Conception Bay to be precise. In less than 10 minutes you’ll arrive at Holy Lady of Vladimir Orthodox Mission! Our new building is located just outside the city limits of St. John’s in a lovely community called Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s.

We moved in just over one month ago. It was a very busy time (not least because I like everything done immediately; Fr. John says this is code for “within a few hours of getting the keys”). In reality, though, it took us two or three days before we had cleaned the whole building (quite a feat since it was formally a dog grooming business), moved in all our liturgical furniture, shelved all our liturgical books, rolled out the rugs, and hung all the icons.

You may remember Holy Lady of Vladimir was previously located in a townhouse. However, with the onset of Covid we gave up that rental space and services were held in the private chapel of St. Nektarios in our home (for more recent photos of St. Nektarios’ chapel see this post).

By God’s grace, a parishioner came across this stand-alone building for rent in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s and we moved in just in time for Holy Week and Pascha! Now we’re making plans to have an iconostasis built. Hopefully more on that soon!

Here are some photos of our wonderful new church at 1618 Portugal Cove Road.

Glory to God!

Holy Thursday & Holy Friday Matins

Holy Saturday Matins

Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday, Agape’s Vespers & Bright Tuesday

You are most welcome to visit us in our new church! For those farther away, perhaps by some miracle the provincial/ international borders will open in Canada in the near future and then you can come too!

Here are some “behind the scenes” photos of our move to the new spot and Holy Week preparations.

Please keep us in your holy prayers and if you’re so inclined consider donating to Holy Lady of Vladimir Mission, the only Orthodox parish in the entire province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

CHRIST IS RISEN!

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Happy feast of Sts. Constantine and Helen, dear readers!

For the very first time I tried my hand at making Artoklasia, also known as Litya bread for the service of Great Vespers of Sts. Constantine and Helen last night at our new church rental in Portugal Cove, NL. (More to come on the new church space soon).

I used Matushka Anna‘s recipe HERE. I cut the recipe in half which was fine but next time I think I’ll make the larger batch.

I can’t say they are the prettiest things I’ve ever made but they tasted good and I loved offering them in honour of my saint.

In The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church we read, “Constantine secluded himself daily at a set hour in the innermost chambers of his palace in prayer. His living example was founded with all his heart on that edit that a true ruler leads the way, even as Christ opened the gates of Hades by His heavenly leadership and divine example. Such devotions were redoubled during Holy Week and Pasha. He changed the holy night vigil of that time into an event of wonder and splendor, by causing waxen tapers of great length to be lighted throughout the city, together with torches which diffused their light, so as to impart to this mystic vigil of the night a mystical splendor of brilliance and light. As soon as day returned, he further exemplified Christ’s own selfless example and commandment that ‘freely ye received, freely give,’ by lavishing abundant gifts to his subjects of every nation, province, and people.” (p. 1073).

I am honoured to bear the name of such a righteous, holy man!

Here is a lovely broadcast by a Greek parish of last night’s Vespers service for the saints.

Books Reviews 2021 is a series of blog posts about the books I’ve read so far this year.

How Do I Learn God’s Will?

by Hieromartyr (priest-martyr) Daniel Sysoev

Christ is risen!

The more I read the homilies, talks and writings of Fr. Daniel the more I marvel at the great work he was able to accomplish in the relatively short period of time we had him with us on earth. He had an incredible knowledge of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers – not to mention history and philosophy, even a little physics.

The book has three distinct sections: on divine love, on the divine names, and on God’s will.

One of my favourite passages is from the second section, on the divine names. Fr. Daniel writes: “There is a curious paradox: physicists term the sun a completely black body, since it reflects nothing, and only shines with its own light. This is similar to God’s exceeding brilliance, which halts the process of coming to know Him. Hence, there is a border at which the [divine] names [of God] end” (p. 44).

In the third section, the primary topic of the book, Fr. Daniel lists four ways to discern God’s holy will:

1.) Cast lots (this is a well-known method found in Scripture). He writes, “Lots are cast when there are several possibilities, each of which is not contrary to God’s will, Holy Scripture, and the commandments. First one must pray… and then one of several options is drawn at random” (p.83).

2.) Read Scripture. Here Fr. Daniel explicitly discourages the “open book, point finger” approach. He says we should not just read one phrase or one sentence but rather to first pray, ask for God’s will to be revealed, and then to open the Scriptures and read an entire sacred passage and in this way something within the passage will speak to the human spirit and enlighten one’s mind.     

3.) Pray. Reminding us of St. Silouan’s advice on this point, Fr. Daniel says cleanse your mind of all pros and cons and through prayer ask the Lord His will. The first thought that comes to mind is to be considered God’s will.

4.) Make the sign of the cross. Depending on whether one must speak, think, or act, he should sign his lips, his mind, and his hands with the sign of the cross. These, Fr. Daniel says, are “highly practical devices, and they are of great benefit” (p.86).

What I liked most about this book was not so much the practical advice of discerning God’s holy will, but the way Fr. Daniel shed light on what it means to truly draw closer to God. We wish to know His will because we wish to draw near Him and to live in the Light cast by His Grace.

“God cannot be approached fearlessly; one must not contemplate God without fear, without reverence. One must not speak of God to a person who wishes to tailor God to fit his needs” (p.68).

In a sense, God is unknowable. However, He condescends: “the inaccessible God” allows Himself to be “accessible to all” (Akathist to the Mother of God). Provided we approach “with fear of God, faith and love”. Despite his unworthiness, God allows man to know His will, to approach Him, to contemplate Him. This truth never ceases to amaze me.

This book is available HERE on Amazon as well as through Holy Trinity Seminary HERE.

Holy Friday Procession at our church St. Anthony’s

As we approach the coming holy days it’s so special to be able to fondly look back on the holiest of holy weeks we have ever lived through. I hope and pray the Lord makes us worthy to share with our own parishioners here in Newfoundland even a slight taste of the majesty of the Holy Weeks and Paschas we lived through during our five+ years in Greece!

May God make us all worthy to truly experience Holy Week this year and be made radiant by Christ’s Glorious Resurrection!

Great Lent is over. Holy Week begins. Good strength and Good Resurrection, friends!

(Originally written and posted in 2012) I’m a nostalgic person, and I’ve become really attached to our life in Greece, and even more attached to Orthodoxy in Greece. This is especially highlighted during Holy Week and Pascha. First of all, schools and universities are closed for all of Holy Week and Bright Week. So, we have lots of time to attend services; and there is no shortage of opportunity to worship in the many churches of Thessaloniki. When it finally comes time to bid farewell to Greece these are the memories I think I’ll hold the most dear from these “high and holy days”:

1. The pleasant surprise of being able to venerate the holy relics of St. Lazarus on Lazarus Saturday.

2. Going to the monastery to help the sisters dye 3,500 red eggs.

3. The darkness of the church at the beginning of the Bridegroom services, and the deep voices of the chanters, chanting holy words to the beat of holy melodies.

4. That everyone brings liturgical books to read along – we bought ours at the grocery store the first year we lived here. (Yes, they sell liturgical books at the grocery store, along with charcoal for your censer, and wicks for your candili).

5. How the church is suddenly packed with people just before the chanter intones the “Kyrie” of the hymn of St. Cassaine on Holy Tuesday evening.

6. How many people show up on Holy Thursday evening, bearing bouquets and wreaths of red and white flowers to adorn the crucified Lord.

7. Hearing wishes for a “Good Resurrection” all around me.

8. The somber but other-worldly feeling the whole city seems to be filled with as we approach the Lord’s saving passion.

9. Hearing the 12 Gospels read in the original Greek they were written in on Holy Thursday.

10. The sound of bells from every church in the city ringing the death toll from morning until night on Holy Friday.

11. How the chandeliers are gently spun and the stasidia are banged (mimicking the sound of the earth quake) during the chanting of “Arise O God” on Holy Saturday morning.

12. Hearing the sound of different church bells in the immediate vicinity also proclaiming the Resurrection at midnight during the Matins service.

13. Saying “Christ is Risen” to friend and stranger when greeting each other.

14. All the different priests who come to read the Gospel in various languages for Agape’s vespers.

15. How dead quiet the city is for the first few days after Pascha because everything is closed and most of the people are in their villages.

Father John served in Greece as a deacon for two years

I hope you all have as many or more wonderful memories from wherever in the world you experience Holy Week and the Lord’s Resurrection!

May we have his blessing!

Last night during the service of the Akathist to the Mother of God for the Third Friday in Great Lent a memory suddenly came to mind. The memory of meeting Fr. Daniel from the Danielites on Mt. Athos. It was a cute memory I captured in my second book The Sweetness of Grace. I’m glad to share it with you.

A WOMAN’S GLORY

(An excerpt from The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, pp. 97-99 published by Ancient Faith Publishing)

THAT’S IT—I’m cutting my hair off! I vowed to myself after weeks of thinking about shedding my long locks in favor of a short bob. All it took to convince me was seeing a woman with short black hair after the Akathist service at our parish one Friday night during Great Lent. She had the hair I wanted.

I was standing in line waiting to venerate the icon of the Annunciation, decorated with flowers and prominently displayed in the center of the church on an icon stand with a large burning candle next to it. That night we participated in the reading of the third stasis of

the Akathist to the Mother of God. It is a custom in some Orthodox churches (the Greek church in particular) to chant the service in four parts on the first four Fridays of Great Lent, combined with the Small Compline service. The Akathist is read in its entirety on the fifth Friday of the Great Fast.

This particular night, we had the blessing of hearing the service chanted by a renowned veteran chanter from the Danielite brotherhood of Katounakia on Mount Athos, Fr. Daniel. He was down from the Holy Mountain and decided to attend the service at the church of St. Anthony the Great, our parish. I was told he had been nicknamed the “nightingale of the Holy Mountain” on account of his beautiful voice.

That Friday night, we heard a voice that matched the majesty, beauty, and solemnity of St. Romanos’s words in the Akathist hymn to the Most Holy Lady Theotokos: “New was the Creation which the Creator showed to us His creatures, when He sprang forth from the seedless womb; and He preserved it incorrupt even as it was, that we, seeing this marvel, may praise her as we cry out” (Ikos 7). Those words are some of my absolute favorite words of the Akathist hymn, and that third Friday in Great Lent we heard a voice worthy of those words chant them.

After venerating the icon of the Annunciation, I noticed that a crowd had gathered at the back of the church, clearly waiting to greet the elder monk and take his blessing. I waited with them, not only for the elder but for my husband, who, having served as deacon, was divesting in the altar.

Having finished, my husband joined me, and we waited together with my brother for the elder to pass by. Our friend and chanter was escorting him down the main aisle in the church, and when they arrived at my husband, our friend introduced us to the elder. We took his blessing, and he held both our hands, one in each of his. Since we had been introduced as Americans, he told us about a trip he had taken to America to visit St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona and about his impressions of the people and the state of the church there.

“People want to see our beards,” he told my husband. “They want to see our rassos (cassocks). It’s a symbol of piety. Some mock us, but it’s okay. You with your beard . . . it’s a confession of faith.”

“And you,” he said, turning toward me, “with your long hair! Saint Paul says a woman’s glory is her hair.”

At this, involuntary loud laughter erupted out of me. I think I may even have startled the patiently waiting crowd with my sudden and unexpected laughter. Of course they didn’t know that just moments before I had made up my mind to chop off my long hair, but I did.

Fr. Daniel asked if we planned to return to America, and when we affirmed this, he told us, “Good, because saving just one soul, one soul, covers many sins,” to which my husband responded, “And we have many sins.”

Needless to say, I kept my hair long for a few years after meeting Fr. Daniel, and I have chuckled numerous times thinking back on our conversation with the holy elder. This was the greatest element of our life in Greece: the countless opportunities available to encounter living saints and receive spiritual words from them, even ones as seemingly insignificant as concerning the length of one’s hair.

meteora 057
A picture from our 2012 trip to Meteora, Greece (an incredible place with incredible monasteries – you can see one in the top righthand corner).

Once again I’m sharing this excerpt.

It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read concerning the difficult points in one’s struggle to attain holiness. I thought you’d all benefit as well from the elder’s divinely-inspired words. From Archimandrite Athanasios Mitilinaios.  Homilies on the Book of Revelation, Vol 1. trans. Constantine Zalalas (St. Nikodemos Publications: Bethlehem, 2009), 201-202:

When you begin to climb spiritually, at some point you will reach a critical point.  And the crisis is that you will have that feeling that you cannot climb anymore because you are tired.  This is a crisis that we meet along the way.  Everyone goes through this.  Those that set out toward a spiritual life go on and on and on and then at some point they become afraid, they panic…We need to understand that when we come to the point of panic or exhaustion, it means that we have reached that critical plateau.

…Let us consider an example from the area of supersonics.  When a jet takes off, and its speed increases, the behaviour of the air changes as the plane goes faster and faster.  The air becomes increasingly a solid mass.  At a certain point, as the speed of the plane increases and comes close to the speed of sound, the air takes on the dimension of a solid, and the jet feels like it is cutting through a mountain.  The jet feels almost ready to fall apart because the air acts like a solid mass.  Now if the jet succeeds in passing this critical level, which is called the sound barrier, then the airplane glides very nicely.  Not only does it escape danger but now this plane becomes supersonic.  It went beyond the sound barrier; it flies very comfortably and it feels that the air does not exist anymore.  Well, my friends, this very thing happens in the spiritual life.  The moment you have reached this critical point, you will succeed – if you do not lose heart.

…Now if you do not cower, if you do not give up from exhaustion, and you succeed in passing this barrier, then the spiritual life that awaits you is wonderful; it is actually great.  It feels so great and so natural that you could not consider living in any other way.  If feels like it is in your blood, like something woven into your entire existence.  So if you happen to meet a very spiritual person, an ascetic, he will act surprised if you tell him that you cannot reach that sort of spirituality, that you cannot possibly reach his level.  He will say, “How can you say that?  But it is so easy.  It is not hard at all.”  It feels like the easiest thing for him because he went beyond the critical point and now that he is beyond that point, the life of the spirit is for him something very natural and effortless.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a woman by the name of Lauren Jacobs. She is from South Africa and hosts a radio show on Radio Cape Pulpit called Voice of Change. While researching female monasticism she came across my book The Scent of Holiness.

She was writing to ask if I would consider doing an interview with her on her radio show. Her show has recently been nominated for the Gracie Awards – awards that honour women who create media that promotes and honours women. I was very honoured to have the great blessing of being interviewed by Lauren on her radio show.

Initially when I saw her email I assumed she was an Orthodox Christian. I was surprised and delighted to find out her interest in Orthodox monasticism, and women’s monasticism specifically, was something she came upon herself as a Protestant Christian. Her listeners are predominately Pentecostal and Dutch Reformed Christians, and so I was especially happy to have the opportunity to share my experiences of the monastic sisterhoods in Greece with a new audience.

This is the first interview I have done that I was not sent the questions ahead of time so my answers are completely off the top of my head which was a new challenge for me. Of course, I’ve had lots of Q&As after a talk I have given, but never in the context of a recorded interview. So, you’ll have to forgive some of my stumbling :).

Happy Lent, flocks! May we be found worthy to celebrate Christ’s Holy Resurrection!

Listen to my interview on Voice of Change HERE.

For any and all who are burdened by their sin, who feel enclosed by darkness, who think they will never change: the Sunday of the Prodigal Son is for you. Whether it be the loss of hope to overcome one’s drug or alcohol addiction; whether it be the suffocating guilt and shame one who commits adultery feels; whether it’s any number of divergent paths from Christ’s commandments: the Sunday of the Prodigal Son reminds us that even while we’re “still a long way off” (Luke 15:20) God’s compassion is near at hand.

From The Great Horologion, The Sunday of the Prodigal Son, p. 598

Through the the parable of today’s Gospel, our Saviour has set forth three things for us: the condition of the sinner, the ruler of repentance, and the greatness of God’s compassion. The divine Fathers have put the reading the week after the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee so that, seeing in the person of the Prodigal Son our own wretched condition – inasmuch as we are sunken in sin, far from God and His Mysteries – we might at last come to our senses and make haste to return to Him by repentance during these holy days of the Fast.

Furthermore, those who have wrought many great iniquities, and have persisted in them for a long time, oftentimes fall into despair, thinking that there can no longer be any forgiveness for them; and so being without hope, they fall every day into the same and even worse iniquities. Therefore, the divine Fathers, that they might root out the passion of despair from the hearts of the people, and rouse to them to deeds of virtue, have set the present parable at the fore-courts of the Fast, to show them to the deeds of virtue, have set the present parable at the fore-courts of the Fast, to show them the surpassing goodness of God’s compassion, and to teach them that there is no sin – no matter how great it may be – that can overcome at any time His love for man.

St. Haralambos the Hieromartyr

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador we have been very fortunate. We have avoided much of the chaos Covid-19 has wrought on the rest of the nation, nay, the whole world. This past Sunday’s media release announcing 11 new cases of Covid-19 in the province is the highest number of single-day cases we have seen since April. Think about that for a minute. Where elsewhere there are reports of hundreds, sometimes thousands of new cases a day, we got word that we had 11 in a single day. Of course, since Sunday this number as more than quadrupled, and yet compared to other places our numbers are still quite low. The sheer panic on the faces and in the voices of those around us would lead one to believe things are far more dire – and they may be yet – but they are not there yet.

I popped out to the grocery store on my lunch break today simply because I wanted to pick up some frozen veggies. As I stood in the longest line at the grocery store I have literally ever seen in my entire life (keep in mind lines at Christmas, lines before snowstorms, lines after the one-week lockdown due to last year’s epic Snowmageddon), I thought to myself: “Con [yes, I use my nickname to address myself in my internal dialogues :)], you have to be calm because everyone else around you is stressed. When everyone else is giving off a panicked vibe, you need to give off an err of peace!” I reminded myself of the need to pray: for those standing in the lines, for the sick, for those fearful of becoming sick, etc.

We, brothers and sisters, must be Christians. When everyone else fears illness and death we must remind ourselves God is in control. “The Lord gives and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

When everyone else feared the sword, torture, exile, banishment, ridicule, St. Haralambos (who we celebrate today) looked upon those tools of destruction with indifference. He feared separation from God more than fiery torments inflicted on his body. He feared being shut out of the Heavenly Kingdom more than he feared being scraped with iron hooks.

Similarly, nothing should panic us more, fill us with dread more, cause us to feel weak in the knees more than the thought that we will not be saved. This alone, brothers and sisters, should make our heart race and palms sweat. Separation from God is a harm that can only come upon us by our own free violation. Everything else that does or can happen to us happens with God’s permission, to help save us. He Himself tells us not to fear those (or that which) can “kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28).

Be that still small voice, dear friends! The world needs this more than ever before. We may not be hunted down and tortured at the request of a Roman Emperor like saints such as St. Haralambos, but we are still called to confess our Christian faith. This is our opportunity to confess our Faith, to display patience, love, understanding, and mercy when the world is replete with anxiety, fear, paranoia and accusation.

As Christians we have a duty, grounded in love, to be for those around us the still small voice. That “still small voice” is where God is, and what His presence bestows on those who love Him: the ability to stand in the middle of a storm and yet withstand the strong winds, the earthquakes, the fire.

11 Then He said [to Elijah], “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19)

Last night while chanting Great Vespers with Fr. John, hearing the hymns about St. Xenia, I suddenly remembered attending this vigil almost 10 years ago now.

I can’t believe so many years have passed since those blessed days in Thessaloniki. Nearly any day of the week I could hop on a bus or walk to a nearby church for an all-night vigil. This seems so different from our current reality where we serve a tiny mission (the only parish in the Province) on a huge but sparsely populated island.

You never know where life will lead. Cherish every blessing you have today so the memory of it can warm you for years to come.

lessons from a monastery

Today is the feast day of St. Xenia (Xeni, in Greek) of Rome, and St. Xenia the fool-for-Christ of St. Petersburg. I went to Osia Xeni of Rome’s church here in Thessaloniki last night because there was a vigil. (In Greek St. Xenia of Rome is called Osia – which literally means holy – because that is the most common title given to ascetics, and Xeni because it is the female form of the Greek word foreigner). The vigil began at 8:00PM, and was to end at 1:30AM. Vigil in the Greek typicon consists of Vespers, (in this case also the service for Artoclasia), Hours, Matins, and Divine Liturgy.

I didn’t stay for the full five and a half hour vigil, but I really enjoyed the service for the time I was there. They had a piece of St. Xenia’s holy relics which I was blessed to venerate. And…

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Today is the feast of St. Anthony the Great, the “Professor of the Desert”. Previously I have written how, like St. Anthony the Great, Geronda Ephraim of Arizona also “made the barren desert fertile”. Chanting Matins this morning I was once again reminded of the similarities between the great Abba of the Egyptian desert and the recently reposed holy elder of America.

Arriving at the Synaxarion, I read aloud the following description by St. Athanasius the Great of Our Righteous and God-bearing Father Anthony the Great: “his countenance had a great and wonderful grace. This gift also he had from the Saviour. For if he were present in a great company of monks, and any one who did not know him previously wished to see him, immediately coming forward he passed by the rest, and hurried to Anthony, as though attracted by his appearance. Yet neither in height nor breadth was he conspicuous above others, but in the serenity of his manner and the purity of his soul.”

I read that and thought, Just like Geronda Ephraim! He was small of stature and yet towered as a giant. His voice was sweet and soft but communicated spiritual power and assurance. You didn’t need anyone to point Geronda Ephraim out to you, his “serenity of manner and purity of soul” made it abundantly apparent who he was.

Also like St. Anthony, Geronda Ephraim sought to make a dwelling in the desert but ended up building a city. The Synaxarion says, “the report of [Abba Anthony’s] deeds of virtue drew such a multitude to follow him, that the desert was transformed into a city”. St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, and the expanding community surrounding it, has populated an area of the Sonoran desert that less than 30 years ago was completely barren. But the “city” Geronda Ephraim built is far more expansive than what you merely see Arizona. His was a spiritual city for citizens all over the world for he too has become “an example of virtue and a rule for monastics”, a second St. Anthony the Great.

Geronda Ephraim departed this life one year and 40 days ago, and although we are deprived of looking upon his bright countenance, deprived of hearing his sweet voice, in faith we must cast our eyes upward to see that he is still a beacon of grace for those desiring to draw closer to Christ. Like our Father among the saints Anthony the Great, we need only call upon him, supplicating him to “support the world by his prayers” (Apolytikon of St. Anthony).

May we have both their blessings!

*All passages of the Synaxarion of St. Anthony the Great are from The Great Horologian published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1997.

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HEREChapter 12 HERE; Chapter 13 HERE; Chapter 14 HERE; Chapter 15 HERE.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

“Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven” (Romans 4:7)

Arriving at the hut, secluded and partially hidden by the surrounding oak trees, Podevin didn’t think to knock. He was too desperate. Instead he barged in and fell to the floor, exhausted from running, overcome with tears of repentance.

“Father! Father, forgive me!” he shouted. “I acted out of anger. I’ve killed a man! He deserved death, truly he did, but it wasn’t for me to decide his fate,” the grieving page’s words spilled out of his mouth between sobs.

Father Jiří, entering the room from the narrow passageway leading to the chapel, approached Podevin calmly and slowly, as if he were expecting him, as though he already knew the act, and the outcome.

He didn’t speak however; he didn’t ask any questions or offer any advice. He simply listened, standing close to the page, his eyes full of mercy, locked on Podevin, weak and weeping.

Podevin narrated the whole account of what took place in the last two days: how he distrusted Boleslav, how he had warned Vácslav but was sent away, and how he returned to avenge his Master’s unjust death. Father Jiří entered the chapel and came back out wearing a long priest’s stole.

He placed it on Podevin’s head, who was still kneeling on the floor. Whispering a prayer, barely audible, he placed his hand on Podevin’s head and blessed him. “Your sins are forgiven you, arise and give thanks to God that He has granted you time for repentance.”

Podevin kissed the hem of the priest’s stole and rose from the floor. 

“You and I both know they are coming for you as we speak,” Father Jiří spoke in a solemn voice as he rested his hands on Podevin’s shoulders and peered into his eyes, as he had at their last meeting, as though wanting to make sure Podevin took in every word.

“Do not fear death, you have repented and the Lord has seen fit to forgive you your sin. Be at peace, die honourably with the knowledge that even your good deeds will be remembered for ages to come. You served your Master not only in household matters, but in the Faith of our Fathers. The Lord will not forget you in His kingdom. Now is it is time for you to leave. They have already reached the forest. Meet them in prayer at St. Agnes’s spring. Be sure to pray for those who will kill your body. But do not be grieved, for they cannot kill your soul,” Father Jiří finished, his soft voice pouring out comfort on Podevin’s wounded heart.

“Pray for me, Father,” Podevin said, his voice growing weak as tears once again began streaming down his pale cheeks. Bowing to the holy priest and clasping his old, worn right hand he kissed it for the last time. Then he turned and left.

***

Just as Father Jiří said, so it happened. Boleslav sent three men to apprehend Podevin. He waited for them at St. Agnes’ fountain. Watching their arrival, rather than dread, Podevin felt at peace. He was grateful to be found worthy to greet them while kneeling in prayer.

POSTSCRIPT

The memory of the just is blessed” (Proverbs 10:7)

Duke Vácslav, or Wenceslaus as his name was later pronounced, was given a Christian burial and laid to rest in St. Vitus’ Cathedral. His God-bearing relics began working miracles immediately, testifying to his holiness both in life and in death.  He was posthumously granted the title ‘King’.

Podevin, his faithful page, was brought to the gallows of the city and executed. For years afterward faithful Christians would visit his grave as well, proclaiming him a true Christian – a faithful, obedient servant of his Master, the King of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslaus.

Therefore, Christians pay heed, whether king, priest, or servant you may be, good deeds and heartfelt prayers will follow you beyond the grave, and you will not only be remembered by men for ages and ages, but by God, in Whose memory we long most to remain.

The End and Glory be to God!

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

St. Wenceslaus being adored by his sister-in-law Emma

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HEREChapter 12 HERE; Chapter 13 HERE; Chapter 14 HERE.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

“Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord” (Hebrews 10:30)

Word spread quickly of the Duke’s murder. Podevin was on his way to the rotunda church dedicated to St. Vitus for the daily divine services when a merchant called out the dreaded news.

Hearing this, Podevin’s stomach twisted violently. Despite his weak knees he rushed to the merchant, grabbing him by his tunic, “What did you say? It can’t be true! I was just with him last night.”

“Forgive me, page, it’s true. They say it was Bolslav who ordered it,” the merchant said as he pulled his hat off in respect.

“How?” was all the page could manage to ask as his arms fell limply to his sides.

“With a sword…” the merchant said with downcast eyes. “They say he was run through in front of the church of the Unmercaneries and nothing can be found to remove his bloodshed from the marble floor. His innocent blood remains as a testament that his death was unjust.”

Podevin thought he might be sick; he fell to his knees. Wailing, he began pounding the ground. His ruler and Master –his friend– was dead. He had died an unjust death, a horrible death, with no companion by his side.

Overcome with grief and anger Podevin made haste to acquire a sword. Without a second thought he set out to avenge his Master’s death.

Podevin couldn’t think straight; in fact he didn’t think at all. He acted, propelled by intense feelings of rage mingled with hopeless sorrow for his Master, even perhaps anger at himself for not having been by his side to at least die with him if not defend him.

He arrived at Boleslav’s castle without rightly knowing how he got there. He concealed the sword under his cloak and entered without drawing suspicion to himself. There were servants in like-garb all about rushing here and there in the wake of the ruler’s execution.

Podevin knew who killed his Master because everyone knew who Boleslav’s main conspirator companions were: Tira, Čsta and Hněvsa. They were at Boleslav’s side at all times, and were known for doing all of the coward’s dirty work.

While he and the Duke walked to the guest bedchamber the night before, Podevin happened to see Tira enter a chamber not far from the one Vácslav stayed in. Podevin stealthily crept toward that chamber door now.

With a burning anger in his chest, Podevin quietly entered the chamber. He watched as Tira sat at table, eating. As his back was to the door; he hadn’t noticed Podevin’s entrance.

“You miserable wretch,” Podevin sneered drawing the sword, “God will care for my health and salvation, but you have lost both your health and salvation long ago!”

As Tira jumped to his feet, whirling around to see who was speaking to him, he was met with the blow of Podevin’s sword, “Now you will die in sin for eternity!” he shouted.

Tira fell to the ground dead still clutching his supper’s bread.

The loyal page threw down the sword next to Tira’s body. Looking on the man whom he had killed Podevin’s grief and anger were suddenly transformed into horror and remorse. He stumbled back in shock. His mind seeming to return to itself for the first time since the dreadful news of the Duke’s death burned his ears not one hour prior.

Those who live by the sword, die by the sword… what you’re about to do, do quickly. Father Jiří’s words now rang in Podevin’s ears, as though they had always been there in his mind, something merely stood in the way of the page’s understanding them.

Return and repent, was all Podevin heard now. In a trance-like stupor he dropped his bloodied sword and fled the castle, drawing far more suspicion to himself now than when he arrived.

He nearly ran the entire way to Father Jiří’s hut; not once stopping to see if he was being pursued. He hastened with the hope that he would find that dear old priest in enough time to repent. Although his feet traveled quickly, it was as though his thoughts traveled in slow motion.

He now understood Father Jiří’s every word. He realized the priest-hermit had foreseen his vengeance. He understood that his “youthful loyalty” – as Father Jiří had labelled it – was the reason he rushed to avenge his Master. He anticipated his own death every moment that passed, knowing Boleslav would order him to be killed.

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HEREChapter 12 HERE; Chapter 13 HERE.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim judgment to the Gentiles” (Matthew 12:18)

The next morning Boleslav called on Vácslav as he was standing in prayer.

“Well brother, shall we be off?,” he said coming into the room unannounced. “The service is about to start,” he said leering at Vácslav making the sign of the cross as he finished his prayer.

I will sing unto the Lord throughout my life, I will chant unto my God for as long as I have my being, Duke Vácslav finished with a bow.

Turning to meet his younger brother he smiled brightly, “We shall.”

The Duke had an uneasy feeling from the moment he and Podevin arrived, though he did not understand it. However, he obeyed his pressing conscience and sent Podevin home, not because he knew evil would befall him, but because he feared that if evil did indeed await him, his page might act rashly in his zeal.

Walking together, Vácslav noticed Boleslav’s countenance grew more and more stern as they approached the church. Nearing the doors his angry expression now seemed set in stone. Finally the silence was broken.

“Brother,” Boleslav’s sharply turned toward Vácslav, “why did you insist on ruling in your own fashion, contrary to what was best for Bohemia?” the sudden harshness in his brother’s voice took the Duke by surprise.

“Why did you insist on playing the role of father to the wretched instead of a royal leader, a great warrior?” he nearly shouted.

“My dear brother,” Vácslav responded calmly, “I did not choose this fate. I was offered it and I accepted. I was set at the head of our nation. A people which I loved much has served me, no sooner than their ear had heard, they obeyed me,” the Duke answered. Laying his hand on his brother’s arm he said with a titled head, “Offering them love and mercy in return was the least I could do.”

“You are always speaking in riddles!” Boleslav forcefully pushed Vacslav’s hand off .“I despise your lukewarm approach to pressing matters of the state! You’d rather play the monk than the monarch!” Boleslav placed his hand on his sheath.

Seeing his brother draw his sword, Vácslav was no longer perplexed at Boleslav’s unexpected angry outburst. In fact, it occurred to him it wasn’t unexpected at all, but very well planned: “Brother, why do you want my head? Are you, like a second Cain, jealous? But we, like the unmercanaries, could have worked together, side by side in love.” In that moment Vácslav’s thoughts were not for his own safety but for the soul of his brother, which he could tell had fallen into the shadow cast by sin’s darkness.

“You know very well why I want your head, brother. The throne should be mine!” Boleslav answered as he shoved Vácslav.

Looking past Vácslav, Boleslav smiled. The righteous Duke sighed, he knew without turning around who was behind him and why his brother smiled so. 

“May God forgive you, my dear brother,” he said, and he turned toward his executioners, if only because they stood in front of the church.

He lowered his head in the direction of the church and whispered, “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” He crossed himself and felt the first blow come down on him. He fell to the ground.

One among the band of Judases pierced his side with a sword and his blood poured out onto the marble floor as he prayed for God to have mercy, to forgive, and to save. He could hear Boleslav’s voice more full of malice than ever before, “Take him away,” he sneered.

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HERE; Chapter 12 HERE.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Psalm 117:9)

Before the Duke knew it almost a whole year had passed since his reunion with his beloved Father. He often recalled their conversations, the fragrant smell in the hut, the priest’s compassionate eyes, his soft, though confident, voice.

Above all, though, Duke Vácslav called to mind the mystical encounter that took place that blessed Christmas evening. From the first moment he found himself adoring the new-born Christ Child, he felt that it was through the prayers of his holy and precious Father Jiří that he was granted such a sweet vision. To this day, the memory of that night filled him with inexpressible joy, his eyes with tears. Of course he had visited his beloved tutor many times since then but nothing held his affections so much as the memory of that night.

He understood, however, that a great temptation awaited him, for when one feels the sweetness of Christ draw closer he can be sure the wiles of the enemy are waiting just around the corner to drive away the newly-acquired grace. The form it would take though, of this he was still uncertain. He nevertheless did not wait to do as Fr. Jiří instructed; he immediately began buying the children sold into slavery in order to protect them.

He looked down at the papers on his desk; there was much civil business to attend to. Picking up his writing pen he set to work until the sound of approaching leather-padded shoes interrupted his work.

“Sire,” Podevin said as he strode across the hall and approached the Duke’s desk. “Your brother, Boleslav, has requested your presence at the consecration service of the newly built church in honour of the holy unmercenaries, Cosmas and Damian.”

“To God be the glory,” the Duke’s voice echoed throughout the chamber, the tall arched ceiling lending itself to the reiteration of acoustic sounds. “Of course I’ll be in attendance, Podevin. Send him word immediately to expect me this evening,” he said cheerfully.

“Master, I’m uncomfortable with this,” Podevin shifted his stance. “Why would he suddenly play the role of pious duke? I’m afraid he may be planning an ambush,” he whispered with a grave face as he leaned his hands on the desk. 

“Podevin! He is my brother. He has his faults, but let’s not be rash in our judgment,” the Duke leaned back in his chair nonchalantly. “This is a wonderful occasion, the feast of two holy brothers, unmercenary saints. He simply extended me this invitation out of brotherly love,” the Duke said as he turned his attention back to the papers on his desk.

“Well, Master, if you insist on going, I insist on accompanying you,” Podevin folded his arms resolutely. He had become more like the Duke’s friend than servant since their encounter together in the holy and humble cave. Although the Duke had always treated his young page kindly, he spoke to him now as a confidant.

The Duke saw Podevin, in just one year, grow from a boy into a young man. He was now eighteen and his youthful exuberance had given way to emerging sobriety. He was as loyal, obedient, and zealous for the sake of his Master as he had always been, but he appeared firmer in his convictions and stronger emotions seemed to accompany these qualities.

***

That evening they arrived at Duke Boleslav’s castle and were given fine hospitality. After his meal Vácslav retired to his bedchamber and asked Podevin to accompany him there.

“My dear page, I understand that you distrust my brother and I thank you for your loyalty to me. But I do not need your assistance here. I will be fine on my own. Tomorrow I will attend the divine service in honour of Saints Cosmas and Damian and I will promptly return to Prague Castle. You need not worry for me. Only pray. Remember, prayer works miracles; you and I have both witnessed this truth. So, I am sending you back to Prague Castle. I will call on you when I return,” the Duke said, his expression full of mercy.

“But Master, no, I cannot and will not leave you here alone with that villain plotting some harm against you!”

Podevin began pacing. He distrusted Boleslav through and through and was not about to allow his Master to be alone with that cunning man.

“Podevin, you have always served me faithfully and obediently. Tonight I ask nothing more of you. Please, obey me; return home,” the Duke said resolutely.

“As you wish, Master. May it be blessed,” Podevin submitted. “Only, be careful, and do not trust that wretch who so clearly takes after your wicked mother who gave you only a body, but contributed nothing to your noble character!” Podevin knew he was taking advantage of his newly blossomed friendship with the ruler of Bohemia, but he could not contain his candor.

“Enough, Podevin, it is finished,” the Duke sighed with a disapproving frown.

Podevin bowed and turned to leave.

“Go with God, my page,” Vacslav said slowly, and almost, Podevin thought, sorrowfully. He turned back to the Duke and thought he caught a glimpse of sadness in his kind, dark eyes.

“Thank you, Sire,” Podevin bowed again and left.

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HERE.

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Then I was told, ‘You must prophesy again’” (Revelation 10:11)

“Perhaps we should set out, my page,” the Duke said, rising from his seat.

“If you will permit it, I’d like to speak with the boy alone before you depart,” Fr. Jiří asked as he rested his tired hand on Podevin’s shoulder.

The Duke nodded his ascent and the priest and page walked toward the chapel, entering behind the curtain.

“It is said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” Father Jiří turned to Podevin.

“What you are about to do, do quickly.” Hearing these words Podevin felt a wave of unease wash over him. “Afterward return, so that you may be granted time to repent,” the priest spoke close to him, in an authoritative whisper. He rested both hands on Podevin’s shoulders as his soft, powerful eyes locked on the page’s.

“Father, I do not understand. Your words are a mystery to me,” Podevin shook his head. “They fill me with a perplexing fear,” he said, his voice growing weak.

“You have much love and reverence for your Master, but you also have a youthful sense of justice and loyalty. Not long from now my words will come back to you and you will understand their meaning. For now do not dwell on them. Only dwell on this: Many take upon themselves great deeds of repentance, fasting, and vigil, but it is rare for someone to guard his soul from pride, greed, jealousy, hatred of others, remembrance of wrongs, and judgment. In this they resemble graves which are decorated outwardly, but filled with stinking bones. Become a vessel of humility and repentance, Podevin. God will take care of the rest.”

Father Jiří finished. Pulling the page close and wrapping his arm around him he led him back to the table where the Duke was still sitting, reading a large book with a foreign script.

“Are we off then?” the Duke asked, smiling broadly and looking as kind and loving as he always did.

“You are,” the priest-hermit said with a nod.

Podevin still felt uneasy but made the choice to focus on the advice Fr. Jiří gave him that he could understand.

Rising up from his seat jovially, the Duke quickly made a prostration before the priest could inhibit him, and kissed Father Jiří’s right hand.

“Take this with you,” Father Jiří said, handing the Duke and Podevin small, hand-carved crosses.

“Thank you, my Father, O thank you! What a wonderful gift!” the page proclaimed as the Duke smiled.

“Pray for us, Father,” Vacslav said as he flung his heavy fur cloak over his shoulders. Opening the door of the hut he filled it with sunlight.

Podevin followed behind, holding the small cross close to his heart, his gentle smile reflecting his joy.

***

Although they did not sleep for most of the night – the Duke not even a wink – Vácslav and Podevin’s trek back to Prague castle seemed much shorter and easier than it had the evening before. Then again, the Duke reflected, everything that is praiseworthy takes time and effort to attain.

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE.; Chapter 10 HERE.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

“But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness”  (1 Timothy 6:11)

“You know well how your mother, after you inherited the throne, took advantage of your youth and began reintroducing pagan customs. You will also remember how your holy grandmother opposed this. Due to the hardness of your mother’s heart, she came to hate holy Ludmilla, to the point of death.   

“The hour at which your wicked mother’s barons came to kill your grandmother we were in the Castle’s chapel praying, as we were accustomed to do every day,” Father Jiri spoke in a low voice. The playful joy he exhibited earlier now gave way to visible sorrow.

“I was in the altar; she was at the reader’s stand. It pleased her a great deal to read the Word of God aloud,” he looked up at the Duke and smiled before casting his eyes down again and returning to his tale.“While she yet read the Psalter, ‘Let my prayer arise as incense before Thee,’ I was preparing the incense.

“Suddenly I heard her gasp and as I turned to peer out the curtain I beheld two barons, one holding her while the other tore off her head covering. Before I had the chance to speak I saw them wrap her scarf around her neck, and she, fixing her eyes on mine shouted, ‘Flee and be saved!’

“I didn’t think then. I acted. I quickly entered the door in the altar that led directly to my chambers, grabbing only a few items; I hastily left the castle, disguised as a beggar. I didn’t stop until I reached St. Agnes’ fountain.    

“Your grandfather had this hut, my small sanctuary, built for me when I yet tutored your father.  He wanted me to have a place to rest and pray in seclusion. It was once very regally decorated but I have no need of décor so I gave what I had away to the poor when I came to live here permeantly.

“News of the evil barons’ capture and your grandmother’s honourable burial reached me here and I rejoiced that she was found worthy to die for Christ. May the Good God perpetually smile upon her!”

Here Fr. Jiří paused his tale. Silence reined. The Duke’s chest was heaving with emotion. He had never heard such detail about his beloved grandmother’s death. Those details were only known by one person, a person he thought dead until now. His heart was full of love and longing, rejoicing and sorrow. He took a deep breath and with a face constricted by a strange combination of pain and relief he began.

“For so many years my heart yearned for your guidance, your care, your counsel,” the Duke said with a voice thick with emotion. “I have felt alone in the world since the day grandmother – and you – were taken from me.

“All those who shared my most intimate thoughts and desires, my longing to live and serve Christ, I believed were dead. I alone survived and this grieved me profoundly,” the Duke said, paying no attention to the fact that his servant was also hearing his most intimate confession. Vácslav was not a respecter of persons, but loved Podevin like a younger brother.

“Your holy grandmother, my dear Duke, was as wise and intuitive as she was good and merciful,” the priest-hermit responded. “I understood in my heart that her statement, ‘Flee and be saved’ did not refer to the barons killing me, so much as fleeing the world for my spiritual salvation.”

“She perceived the dilemma I had been living through for some time,” Fr. Jiřípaused here, exhaling slowly. “Ever since your father’s death, I began to contemplate death more frequently and more intensely. Night and day the same burning question probed my mind: ‘Will I be saved while occupying such a place of honour?’ 

“A strong desire had formed in my heart to flee the world and live in solitude; it was to this thought your grandmother spoke,” he inflected his voice here and gestured toward Vácslav with raised eyebrows.

“She understood the path I needed to walk in order to find salvation, for the man who lives for pleasure is dead even while he still lives. And I feared that I was dead,” he looked at Podevin here.

“I feared that the pleasures of this life inhibited me from my repentance. And so, I have been living here in this hut, unknown to the world, since that time, eight years ago. My intention was not to leave you alone and without assistance, but to seek union with God who brings about perfect peace in unworthy vessels and on account of His great mercy guides and protects those the ascetic prays for.

“Revealing myself to you would have meant the end of my solitude, for if I was not thought to be dead not only would your mother’s barons possibly come to kill me but undoubtedly others would have come to the ‘imperial tutor’. And many times I spoke and afterward was sorry, but I have never regretted my silence. It is this silence that I hold so dear, for in it I hear the voice of Christ.” Here Fr. Jiří reached out and gently squeezed the Duke’s arm as though he was offering consoling words to the thirteen year old boy who loved him dearly, instead of the twenty-six year old ruling monarch of Bohemia.

“I understand, Father. I glorify God for our reunion. I humbly beg of you, do not turn away from me; but rather, receive me once again as a pupil, or more rightly, a disciple,” the Duke said with concentrated eyes.

“Come to me at night, alone, when the moon is full and I will, with God’s help, teach you what I can,” the priest-hermit smiled with tired eyes.

agios panteleimon

I started painting this icon of the Greatmartyr and Healer St. Panteleimon in 2011 with egg tempra. Circumstances were such that Fr. John and I were given hospitality at a women’s monastery for a number of weeks that summer. Although I had been painting icons for years (having initially started with egg tempra) I mostly painted with acrylic. Gerontissa suggested I practice with egg tempra while I was with the nuns who could help instruct me.

Fast-forward to 2020 and I finally finished the icon. However, lacking the necessary supplies, instead of finishing it with egg tempra I used the acrylic paint I had on hand. He was always intended to be a present for my mum (a nurse); it just took nine years for me to finish his icon to give him to her.

20200527_184250

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE.

CHAPTER TEN

He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him. (Lamentations 3: 28)

“Behold the man…” Vácslav translated slowly, furrowing his brow in confusion.

“How is it that you, a poor hermit, know Latin?” he asked, surprised.

And suddenly as if Vácslav had caught sound of a whisper indicating the hermit’s identity, he said: “Can it be that you are my old, beloved tutor? No! But yes! Your eyes, your eyes, betray you! I thought you were dead! Oh my dear Father Jiří!” Vácslav leapt to his feet, quickly bowing down he took the old hermit’s right hand in his and kissed it.

“Podevin, arise, for you are in the presence of a great priest of Christ!” he commanded in his deep voice.

***

Podevin jumped from his seat in surprise. Taking his cue from the Duke, he also bent low and kissed the right hand of the hermit.

“My dear priest, all these years I feared they had killed you…” great emotion sounded in the Duke’s voice as he knelt before the hermit. He paused and examined the hermit’s face for some time, his own expression conveying what Podevin took to be a mixture of joy and sadness.

“I, I feared they disposed of your body in a dishonourable way,” Vácslav said as tears began to trickle down his freckled cheeks. “Can my ears believe what they are hearing, my eyes, what they are seeing?”

“I understand your confusion my child,” the hermit bowed his head, his own eyes filling with tears. “I will explain everything to you. But first let us not leave the young page in the dark,” he said, stretching out his large, worn hand toward the seats, he gestured for them to sit.

Podevin, himself in a state of confusion, looked expectantly from the hermit to his Master with wide eyes. He had heard of the Duke’s imperial tutor but he – like Vácslav – had been under the impression he had died years ago.

“As you wish,” Vácslav answered the hermit, pausing for a moment he squeezed Fr. Jiri’s hand. Sitting down he gestured for Podevin to do likewise. Taking a deep breath, he began.

“The hermit in whose presence we now find ourselves, is the famous imperial tutor, Priest Jiří. He was a close friend and confident of my deceased grandfather, Duke Borivoj the First. Together with my grandmother, Ludmila, they were converted by the great missionary from Constantinople, Methodius.”

“They had, in fact, been baptized together by the very hands of that holy missionary saint,” the Duke explained, though his eyes frequently strayed from Podevin to the priest-hermit. “Isn’t that right, my dear priest?”

Father Jiří nodded with a gentle smile as he listened with folded hands resting in his lap, his head bowed.

“From that day on they remained close and Father Jiří was invited to live as one among equals during my grandparents’ retirement years at Tetín Castle.”

“After my faithful father’s death, I was sent to live with my grandmother. She enlisted Father Jiří as my personal tutor of Latin and Greek education. Above all else, holy Ludmila wanted her thirteen year old grandson to learn the Christian faith and piety from a venerable priest,” at this Vácslav smiled at Fr. Jiří.

“That’s right my boy,” Father Jiří took up the story with a faint smile. “I, the unworthy one, was the young Duke’s tutor until his eighteenth year, whereupon he inherited the rule of Bohemia,” the priest-hermit explained.  

“Father Jiří’s disappearance coincided with the murder of my holy grandmother. Until now I always believed he was secretly murdered in like manner by grandmother’s enemies,” the Duke finished, his gaze now firmly fixed on the holy hermit.  

“How was it that all these years you have been living in solitude, seeking salvation alone, with God alone?”  Duke Vácslav asked, his face betraying pain, his deep voice becoming thick with emotion once again.

“My dear boy, now that God has seen fit to reunite us I will explain everything,” Father Jiří said with a hand gently resting on Vácslav’s arm.

Podevin was unaccustomed to hearing someone speak to his Master in such an informal manner. However, he was beginning to understand the relationship between this hermit and his Master was anything but customary. 

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 Here; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE.

CHAPTER NINE

I have had a dream, and my spirit is anxious to know the dream.” (Daniel 2:3)

Arise my faithful page. You have slept well it seems,” the Duke said, gentling stirring Podevin from his rest.

“Sire!”Podevin said, jumping to his feet.

“The dream I had was incredible! The wonders we beheld! The angels, the saints, the Virgin, the Christ Child! It was overwhelming,” the page said excitedly, straightening out his tunic. “How was it that I felt like we were transported to the cave?” he asked, looking wide-eyed from Vácslav to the hermit.

“So many generations and lands between us, and yet we were there, worshipping with whole nations,” the page exclaimed. His bright eyes, wide with enthusiasm, filled with tears.

“Peace be with you, my child,” the old hermit said, placing his hand on the young page’s disheveled hair.

“It was for our benefit, Podevin. As unworthy as we may be, the multitude of the Lord’s love and mercy is always present, guiding us to worship him more perfectly, more purely, more truly,” the hermit explained.

“So I wasn’t dreaming? It was real?!” Podvein exclaimed.

“Sometimes,” the hermit continued as if uninterrupted, “this requires special gifts of grace, to encourage us on the way to our own personal Golgotha. Can you understand that, my boy?” he asked, gently titling his head to one side.

“Yes Father, I think so,” Podevin answered, feeling a mixture of serenity and excitement. 

“Then that is all that needs to be said of that,” the hermit nodded.

So, the hermit experienced that too, Vácslav silently reflected. Who is this man, a prophet? Is it on account of him that we beheld such mysteries?

***

“Here, have a little breakfast, my dear guests,” the hermit said, laying down a wooden board on the table and placing a chunk of brown bread on it next to a piece of oily yellow cheese.

“May it be blessed,” the Duke said, breaking off a piece of the stale bread.

“You chant very well,” the hermit said, addressing the Duke with inquisitive eyes.

“Yes, my grandmother – may her memory be eternal – made sure I was well versed in the Scriptures and the hymnology of our Faith from the time I was a boy,” Vácslav affirmed. Slowly nodding his head he cast his pensive eyes down. He allowed himself a moment to hold the memory of his holy grandmother– whom he loved more than his own mother– in his heart and mind. 

“And you, my dear old man, also know how to chant well…” the Duke said, looking up and engaging the hermit once more. He wanted to ask the hermit about the presence of a fully-adorned chapel in his hut, about his identity, how he knew what he did, and why–with his clear gifts of prophecy and prayer–had his reputation not reached him in the Castle.

“And what a great thing it is, to know how to read the Holy Scriptures well!” the hermit interjected before he could pose even one of his many questions.

“When we have the words of the Holy Scriptures on our lips, temptations flee. For the little devils who torment us are unable to bear the words of the Holy Spirit Who speaks through His prophets and apostles.” The hermit’s eyes shone in the light of the fading fire with what the Duke almost thought looked like playful joy.

“My grandmother was wont to say that very same thing regarding the Holy Scriptures,” the Duke said with some surprise.

“She was a righteous woman, full of good deeds; with prayer ever on her lips and humility marking her every stride,” the hermit responded with a confident voice.

“She was indeed,” Vácslav said, narrowing his eyes he studied the hermit’s face with concentration and maybe with a little hope.

“Her reputation has spread far and wide and she, to this day, is revered by all Bohemians. But knowledge of her intimate works and virtue is held by few. Tell me, my dear father, how is it that you speak of her as if you knew her? Has God revealed these things to you?” Vácslav asked. Knitting his brow he twisted the ends of his reddish-brown beard with expectation.

“Has it been so long that you no longer remember? Is it on account of my unkempt hair and beard? Have too many years of hardship and toil disfigured me so that I am no longer recognizable?” the old hermit said gesturing toward his simple clothing, his somewhat gaunt face and dishevelled, long grey hair.

Hearing this, Vácslav’s heart started to beat faster; he searched the hermit’s face for a clue.

“Oh, my boy, and what good would it have done for you to remember me, a sinful old man?” he sighed with downcast eyes. “No, no, better to forget,” he said, shaking his head, “Better to be forgotten… forgotten by the world in order to be remembered by God!”

“Forgive me, dear friend, I am unaware that we have previously met,” the Duke said, though deep within he knew there was something mysterious about this hermit whom he was attracted to from the moment he saw him outside his window.

“Ecce homo,” the old hermit said, locking eyes with the Duke. Laying his hand across his chest he bowed ever so slightly.

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“Come ye people… and let us behold wonders that strike and hold fast every mind in amazement” (Tone 5, Christmas Eve, 238)

Podevin struggled to stay awake. Rarely had he felt such a strong sluggishness come over him. Paying heed to the hermit’s words, he indeed sat down after the sixth psalm finished. Almost immediately he began to doze. Every now and again he would hear his Master and the old hermit chanting in peaceful voices, conveying the joy of the Saviour’s birth.

“Christ is born, give ye glory. Christ comes from heaven, meet ye Him. Christ is on earth, be ye exalted. O all the earth, sing unto the Lord, and sing praises in gladness, O ye people, for He has been glorified,” he heard his master chant.

The next time Podevin came to himself, he found he was in a very different place than the small chapel in the old hermit’s hut. He and everything around him was in complete darkness. Or was it darkness? He couldn’t tell on account of the bright light he beheld before him at a distance. He was outside, looking in, or he would be if the light was less brilliant. His vision was weak; his eyes needed adjusting. He was not alone; he thought there were others standing near him. But the light emanating from before him made it difficult to distinguish figures, he simply had the sense that others were standing with him. 

Podevin noticed he was a little cool wearing only his Palace-issued, red wool tunic; but there was no snow and little wind. He could still hear his master and the hermit, only they didn’t sound as close as they had in the chapel.

Suddenly he heard a different voice; more tender, more delicate. A woman’s voice, he thought. Can it be? Yes, it was.

A soft and gentle voice, filled with indescribable sweetness was now chanting, “Thou art my fruit, Thou art my life: from Thee have I learnt that I remain what I was. I proclaim Thee to be the unchanagble Word, now made incarnate. Therefore all creation shares in my joy,” she finished.

Though she no longer spoke her sweet voice resounded in Podevin’s ears. My God, can it be that I stand before the cave of the Christ Child? Is it possible that I heard the voice of the Virgin Mother just now? And thinking thus, his eyes slowly grew accustomed to the brightness, and he began to see figures within the light. They seemed to be within a cave. It would seem he was not only transported to a different place, he was in a different time.

Yes, it was unmistakeable now. There in the cave was a small manger, from which the light proceeded. Beside the manger knelt a female figure, the Mother of God. Just a few feet away from the manger stood St. Joseph, the guardian of the Lord. At least that is what Podevin could surmise.      

Surprising more still to the young page was all the other men and women who stood within the cave. He even thought he recognized some from the images Duke Vácslav had commissioned to be painted and hung on the walls of St. Vitus Cathedral. Finally his eyes fell on his master who stood beside the hermit Jaro.

Now that his eyes had adjusted, he could see those around him with much more clarity. He saw what looked like different people from different ages. Afar off to his right he could see traveling shepherds, walking over fields. It seemed to Podevin that they journeyed at such a distance he shouldn’t be able to see them, and yet he did.

It would seem it wasn’t only his vision which had increased but his hearing as well. As he watched the shepherds travel he heard one ask, “What are these tidings?”

Another responded, “Let us go and see this thing which is come to pass, even Christ our God.”

By the time the second shepherd finished this statement they had arrived. Podevin watched as those in the cave made room for the shepherds who entered and worshiped the Christ Child saying: “O God of our Fathers, blessed art Thou.”

Where Podevin was merely permitted to be a witness to the miraculous events unfolding before him, his Master and the holy hermit were participants in it, he reflected.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 “What god is as great as our God? Thou who art God, who alone workest wonders” (Psalm 76:33)

The Duke watched in amazement at all that took place before him. In a manner passed his understanding he found himself before the holy Christ Child, before His Mother and Guardian, St. Joseph.

It seemed to the Duke that events from long ago played out before his eyes; events that had not yet happened seemed to take place for the first time. It was as if all of history had become present, as though there was no past or future, but only today.

And yet, he somehow managed to continue to chant the morning prayers, though he knew not how. He saw beside him the hermit in whose hut he and his page had entered earlier that evening. Podevin, his faithful page, stood outside the entrance to the cave in the company of many others, each dressed in a manner foreign to contemporary Bohemian.

As Duke Vácslav sang about the three youths in the furnace, the three youths’ trials became reality before his very eyes.

When it came time for the hymn, “Babylon despoiled Zion the Queen,” the troubled history of the Israelites seemed to come alive.

With his own eyes, the Duke saw that by a guiding star the Christ Child drew to Zion the treasures of Babylon from the kings who gazed upon the stars. At this the journey of the magi was revealed.  

Vácslav could hear the whole of creation singing praise to the eternal Word, lying in the manger.

Finally the powers of heaven were heard to declare that the Saviour, Lord, and Master of all had been born. At this all present lifted up their voice in unison. The Lady Theotokos, all the angels, shepherds, magi, hierarchs, priests, deacons, kings, queens, all the faithful, and all creation – all things living and breathing – declared the glory of God:

“Magnify, O my soul, the power of the undivided Godhead in three Persons. We who delight in Christ have attained our desire, being counted worthy of the coming of God.”

At this the Duke noted the Virgin, knelling as she was, grew silent and slightly bowed her head, her posture reflecting her humility. The others continued, “O undefiled Virgin, grant us the grace to worship Christ, your Son, in His glory. Magnify, O my soul, her that has delivered us from the curse!”

Vácslav’s heart could not have been more full; he did not reflect on or analyze what he was participating in, he merely experienced it. He gave glory to God and lived in that blessed, most divine moment.

Before he knew it they were in the midst of the Divine Liturgy, the most grace-filled, true Liturgy he had ever perceived. Although every Christian knows this divine event takes place during every Bloodless Sacrifice, sometimes the Lord, in His goodness, allows the faithful to better understand this truth by experiencing, visibly, the Lord’s divine birth, death, and resurrection. The Duke had heard of such things, had read in the lives of saints that some were given to taste of this experience. It had never occurred to him that the Lord would make him worthy, as unworthy as he felt, to likewise experience such a gift.

The cave was transformed into an inner sanctuary, with countless priests and hierarchs serving at the altar, which though hard for the Duke to comprehend, was the Christ Child’s manager.

And as quickly as the transformation took place, it faded. Vácslav once again found himself, his page and the old hermit in the small chapel, in the hut, at the foot of Blaník Mountain, in Prague, Bohemia, 934 a.d.

THE KING, THE PAGE AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

CHAPTER FIVE

“What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Luke 7:26)

“My dear man,” Vácslav looked into his mug as he hesitated for a moment. “I do not wish to pass this time with you in vain. I feel as though God has seen fit to reveal to me that you are a man of God. When I saw you gathering winter fuel I was drawn to you; I believe God has put you in my path for a reason. Please, advise me; help me to become a better ruler, a better Christian,” the Duke spoke in earnest, leaning forward and waiting with expectation to hear what the hermit would tell him.

“You are called to be a great example, King Wenceslaus,” Jaro the Hermit said with purpose, sitting up straight in his seat, his face bathed in the orange light of the fire, his eyes animated with emotion. “Not only for your subjects, but for people of all nations, of all generations,” his voice rang with conviction and certainty.

Hearing these words, the strange name Jaro had pronounced, Vácslav’s heart began to beat faster; he felt fear stirring in his stomach. He looked on the hermit with admiration.

“Like the faithful rulers of old – the Prophet and King David, Constantine the Emperor – you too can become great, my dear Duke. In fact, if with the help of God, you are successful in this endeavour, a day will come when they will no longer call you duke, but “king”, and you will not be recognized by your Old West Slavic name, Vácslav, but rather by a foreign rendering of it, Wenceslaus.

“You see, Sire, if you were of the world, the world would have loved you: but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” Here the hermit paused, as though giving Vácslav the opportunity to process all that was being said.

The Duke glanced at Podevin who sat motionless, seemingly petrified by the conversation unfolding before him.

“Man of God, your words fill me with both fear and love,” the Duke began with stalled speech. “Fear, because you speak of me as though I could ever compare to holy rulers, and love because your words inspire in me a zeal for Christ, a zeal to live and die as a faithful ruler, a faithful servant of Christ.”

The Duke did not hesitate to pour out his heart to the hermit. For so long he had supplicated the Lord to provide him a trusted guide. Sitting before this disheveled and yet noble hermit he felt as though he had finally found one.

He paid no mind to the fact that Podevin, his loyal page – sitting closest to the fire with bright eyes as though hanging on every word the hermit said – was hearing this intimate conversation.  He had often called to mind how God is not a respector of persons, and so he also strove to be humble and full of love. Though he felt he often fell short of this aspiration, he nevertheless tried.  

“But how, how, will I do this?” Vácslav asked with wide, hungry eyes leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees.

“Until your final day you must struggle to let your light shine before our countrymen, so that they will glorify our Father in Heaven. Even if you must do it alone, and even if you are considered a fool in the eyes of the world, you must set an example and draw men out of their selfishness. Encourage them to love one another,” the hermit advised.

“You have had a secret desire for some time now, my dear Duke, to buy all children being sold into slavery and give them a proper home.” Here Vácslav’s eyes grew wide with surprise; Podevin’s did likewise.

“I adjure you, make haste and do it. You should not only provide food and shelter to the young orphans, but give them the opportunity to learn and live the Christian faith. With this good deed you fill find peace because you will follow God’s command,” here the hermit fell silent.

The Duke took in all that he heard. He understood the hermit before whom he sat was illumined by the grace of God since he had never revealed to anyone his desire to save children from the cruel life of slavery.

Looking out the small windows of the hut he saw that evening had crept into night. The snow was falling. Big, soft flakes silently falling for the glory of God, he reflected. He knew he should have one hundred questions to ask the holy hermit but at that moment all he felt was peace and pleasure to be in the presence of a man of God. And so he was content to sit in silence, pondering everything in his heart.

CHAPTER SIX

“His servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness”(Romans 6:16)

After sitting in silence for some time the hermit suddenly rose, walked toward a faded woven tapestry hung on the wall and drew it back to reveal an entrance. Having affixed the now draping tapestry to one side, he turned to them, “Come. It’s time.” Bowing his head he entered.

Vácslav exchanged a look with his page and followed after the old man.

The light from the hut’s main room spilt into what Vácslav could now see was a chapel.

As the hermit began to light the oil lamps hung above the stone altar against the wall, Vácslav took in the sights of the room. 

To say the Duke was surprised by the revelation of a beautifully adorned, if small, chapel in this small hut was an understatement. He knew his subjects to be faithful, but it was rare for someone to have a chapel in their home, much less in the hut of a poor hermit.

A mixture of sweet beeswax and frankincense hung in the air. Two medium sized images rested on simple wooden stands in the middle of the room. To the left was an image of the Mother of God, cloaked in dark blue holding the Christ Child. To the right was an image of Jesus Christ as a young man: his face serene, his right hand fixed in the form of a blessing. The Duke noted they looked a great deal like the images hung in his own bedchamber.

They couldn’t possibly be done by the same hand, though. My grandfather had those images commissioned from a visiting monk from Constantinople years ago, he thought.

Having lit the lamps, the hermit turned to him with expecting eyes, “Would you, Sire, do me the honour of reciting the morning prayers with me?”

The Duke nodded and stood to the side of the room where a few books lay on a book stand. Question after question vied for his attention, pleading with him to spill them out before the hermit but he understood there was a time for speech and a time for deeds. Now they would pray, later they would speak.

Atop the bookstand was a three-bar candlestick with large, fresh candles ready to be lit. While waiting for the hermit to finish lighting the candles he began chanting in a deep, low, harmonious voice the words scrolled before him in a foreign script: “What shall we offer you O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens, a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we…” at this point, to Duke Vácslav’s surprise, overcome with emotion, his voice trailed off.

He didn’t know if it were the words of the hymn, the chapel or the mysterious person of this hermit that had evoked such compunction in him. He cleared his throat and attempted to finish the hymn but before he could he heard an old, frail, almost familiar voice sing out, “and we offer you a Virgin Mother.” 

He turned toward the hermit, who was smiling at him. Vácslav was both impressed and perplexed. There was something about the old man that made the Duke feel as though he knew him all his life.

***

Podevin watched with curiosity, both at his Master and the mysterious hermit.

He understood the words of the hymn which his Master chanted. Having been raised with his family in the castle – all of whom were employed in the Duke’s service – Podevin had been fortunate enough to learn to read and write. The Duke felt it necessary for his household to not only believe in Christ, but understand the Liturgical language, Slavonic, a language which had long been in use, but was only given an alphabet when the blessed missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius from Constantinople came to convert their lands. He had heard many stories about them; not only from his Master, but even his own father.

It was, however, not only the divinely inspired words that he found moving, but his Master’s voice and the deep love and longing he somehow communicated when he sang.

“Podevin,” the hermit interrupted his thoughts. “We will now pray the morning prayers. I am going to place this stool here for you so that you can sit if you grow tired.”

“Oh, no, please, I couldn’t dare sit while my Master stands,” Podevin said with his hands raised in protest.

“That is noble of you, Podevin,” the hermit rested his large hand on Podevin’s arm. Looking at him with intense eyes, he said, “It is praiseworthy to push oneself beyond one’s natural capabilities. But I want you to take note of that small stool there against the wall and I want you to demonstrate your perfect obedience. When you grow tired you will rest,” the hermit finished. The kindness in his commanding voice only added to Podevin’s desire to please him.

“May it be blessed,” the page finally answered with a gentle smile.

“Let us begin then…” the hermit said nodding at Vácslav as he joined him at the reader’s stand.

THE KING, THE PAGE AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

CHAPTER THREE

“He that humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12)

The hut was warm and smelt of a mixture of honey and spices. Illumined by the light of the fire and a number of lit lanterns lining the walls, Podevin could see that although the belongings in the hut were clearly those of a poor man, the atmosphere felt much nobler than the things which occupied the small space.

A wooden table and chairs sat on one side of the room – books and parchments piled on top. On the wall situated above the water basin was a shelf with some plates, cups, and a few utensils. Two small wooden stools sat before the hearth, and one rather long, woven mat lay in a corner, presumably the hermit’s bed.

Large tapestries woven of faded red, black, white and green were hung on the walls between the red-glassed lanterns. To help keep the hut warm, Podevin thought to himself.

While Podevin took in the atmosphere of the hut, looking at his Master – his gaze fixed on the hermit – he knew he would be captivated by the ambience of the hermit. The hermit’s simple wool tunic hung on his thin frame. The dark grey colour seemed like camouflage against his large grey beard and unruly hair. Despite his hunched back and worn hands his stance projected a level of refinement which seemed out of place with the poverty of his clothes and dwelling.

I wonder if my Master notices the hermit does not seem the least bit surprised to have the Duke of Bohemia visit him in his hut, and on Christmas of all days, Podevin reflected.

* * *

“We’ve brought you some bread and wine, dear Father, and also some wood for your fire,” the Duke said. He handed the hermit the basket of gifts with a gentle smile.

The Duke watched as the hermit placed the basket on the table. Lifting the basket’s latch he looked inside, his worn hand thoughtfully grazed over the items: bread, meats and cheeses. Despite the old man’s thick moustache, Vácslav thought he saw a hint of a familiar smile.

He reminds me of someone. But who? the Duke silently mused.

“We saw you gathering some kindling near the castle and we thought you might like a visit,” Vácslav said, laying the bundle of wood near the hearth.

“And how nice it is to have company on such a fine feast!” the hermit said turning toward him.

“Sire, perhaps you would like to remove your cloak so we can place it before the fire to dry?”

“Oh, is it wet? Why yes, I suppose it is,” the Duke said, looking down at his cloak with a laugh.

The Duke handed over his large, fur-lined, gold and red woven cloak. The hermit placed it on a rack in front of the blazing fire.

Turning to the page and leaning toward him with shinning eyes the hermit asked, “And you, what is your name, young man?”

“Podevin,” the page answered, bowing slightly.

“You ought to give me your cloak as well my boy,” the hermit said with a smile.

Having arranged the cloaks, the hermit held both his visitors in his gaze, “How fine it is to have guests on such a night as this!” he said with a joyful voice. “Yes, yes,” he said with clasped hands and a wide smile, “You’ve come just in time, just in time,” he said turning from them to tend to a steaming pot hung over the fire.

In time? Vácslav silently questioned.

CHAPTER FOUR

And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these… he shall in no wise lose his reward. (Mt. 10:42)

“I’ve prepared some mulled wine for us,” the hermit gestured for his guests to sit. “I put it on just before you came. It should be ready now. I thought it would warm us up on this fine evening. That is, if we needed more warmth in our already warm hearts,” the hermit said, his wide smile barely visible through his thick grey moustache.  

Podevin marveled at this revelation. How could the hermit have known we would be visiting? But being only the page it was not his place to go on pointing out such peculiar statements.

“I can pour the wine, dear Father,” Podevin volunteered, rising from his seat.

“Can you now? And who do you suppose is greater, the one who sits or the one who serves?” the hermit asked him with raised eyebrows.

“The one who sits, Father,” the page quickly responded.

“Yet Christ came to serve, not to be served,” the hermit stated emphatically, almost, the page thought, playfully.

“Yes, I suppose He did, Father,” Podevin answered, feeling his cheeks growing warm with embarrassment for having answered too hastily, and as it turned out, incorrectly.

“That’s okay, my son,” the hermit said, laughing and gently ruffling the page’s sandy hair.

“Tonight I’ll serve, next time you will,” he said with sly smile.

Podevin sat down again, wondering if there really would be a next time.

* * *

The old hermit handed the Duke a clay mug filled with wine. He gave one to Podevin and pouring one for himself he raised it into the air:  “Let us drink to the Virgin birth of Our Lord and Saviour.” At this the Duke rose; Podevin hurried to do the same.

“Amen!” Vácslav and Podevin responded in unison. Tipping the bottom of his mug, the Duke took in the warm, spicy wine.

Sitting down again Vácslav asked, “My dear father, you have greeted us with kind hospitality, and yet, we still have not been probably acquainted. Tell us, what is your name and, if you will, how you pass the time and support yourself here in the wilderness?”

“He that dwelleth in the help of the Most High shall abide in the shelter of the God of heaven,” the hermit said, settling into his own chair. Smiling he looked up to meet the Duke’s eyes. Vácslav immediately recognized the Scripture verse.

“He shall say unto the Lord: Thou art my helper and my refuge,” he added.

“He is my God,” the old hermit continued.

“And I will hope in Him,” the two finished in unison, exchanging chuckles at their godly banter.

“But to answer your question,” the hermit leaned in, “They call me Jaro the Hermit. I weave baskets and a kind woman sells them for me in the market place,” he said shifting the mug of wine from one hand to the other.  The Duke felt a pang of sadness in his heart. Jaro… I wonder… he almost allowed the question to form in his mind, but he quickly shook away the thought.

THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

DEDICATION

To my godson, Dimitri: may you always find inspiration in the words and great deeds of holy men.

In memory of the great Czech king, Wenceslaus (Vácslav), and his faithful page.

From a wicked mother, good fruit was born:
St. Vácslav, who pleased God.
His wicked mother gave him only a body,
But his grandmother – light and faith and hope.
The glorious grandmother, pious Ludmilla,
Nurtured Vácslav’s soul.
As a white lily, Vácslav grew,
And adorned himself with innocence.
As the king reigned, the people rejoiced,
And with their king they honored God.

-St. Nikolai Velimirovich

CHAPTER ONE

He who gives to the poor will lack nothing” (Proverbs 28:27)

The Duke of Bohemia peered out of the large window from his bedchamber in Prague castle. He gazed at the sky, rich with the colours of a setting sun. Below, the white snow lay sparkling as it reflected the fading light. Every now and again a gusty wind swept the snow up into a spiral, dancing.

“Even the earth rejoices in Your birth, O Lord,” Duke Vácslav whispered.

“Sire, could I offer you a cup of hot wine?” his page asked, interrupting the Duke’s thoughts.

“No, thank you, my good page,” Vácslav nodded to his servant. Turning back to the window he leaned forward and strained to see a moving figure, hindered by the high snow. As the man drew closer to the castle, Vácslav’s interest in his identity increased. Was he looking up at him, as if beaconing? He saw the man bend down and pick up some scraps of wood. No, I suppose not. He was probably just looking at the castle, he answered his own thought. And yet, he couldn’t shake off the feeling that the old man had been beckoning to him.

“Podevin, that man there, gathering wood, do you know him?”

The page hurried to his master’s side and leaned in to get a better view. “Why yes, Sire. If my eyes don’t deceive me, I believe that is the old hermit from Blaník mountain,” he said. “Yes, there is the sack of kindling he carries,” he pointed.

“Where does he live?” the Duke asked.

“In a small hut, I would say a mile or so hence, just at the foot of the mountain, quite close to St. Agnes’s healing spring, in fact,” Podevin said with quickening speech as he ran his fingers along his belt with satisfaction.

Vácslav smiled to himself as he noted Podevin’s enthusiam. He had often noticed how pleased his page would become when he could be of assistance.

“Well then, why don’t we go pay him a visit, bring him some kindling for his fire, and wish him a happy Christmas?” Vácslav happily exclaimed, clasping his strong hand on Podevin’s shoulder with a broad smile.

“But Sire, it’s awfully cold out tonight. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have one of your men in arms go in your stead?”

“No, no, my boy. After all, the Lord King our God became Man Himself, He didn’t send someone else in His stead, so neither shall I,” the Duke said, patting the page’s back.

“Say, go fetch some wine and bread. It’s best if we bear some gifts with us for the old hermit, and not just some dry wood,” Vácslav instructed.

“May it be blessed, Sire,” Podevin said, bowing to his master and exiting the room.

Vácslav, finding himself alone, walked over to the illumined corner of his bedchamber. He stood before a painted image in front of which burned a small, red-glass oil lamp. He examined the gold fringe on the Mother of God’s garment, the small hands of the Saviour held in her arms.

He who holds all creation in His hand, today is born of a virgin. He whose essence none can touch, today is bound in swaddling clothes as a child. He who in the beginning established the heavens, today is laid in a manger.

“I worship Your birth, O Christ, my King!” the Duke finally said aloud. Crossing himself, he lowered his head as he bowed his knee.

Hearing footsteps echoing through the corridor he quickly stood up, not wanting anyone to see his moment of reverence.

“Here we are Sire, ready for our visit,” the page said, gesturing toward the large wicker basket he held, clearly weighed down by generosity.

“Well done, my boy. Let us be off then,” Vácslav briskly walked toward the door.

They walked down the long passageway together. The Duke watched as Podevin looked up at the towering ceiling with awe as if he hadn’t walked that corridor a hundred times over. Stopping in the vestibule they exchanged their flat leather shoes for boots and put on their fur-lined cloaks.

“We should be plenty warm, don’t you think Podevin?” Duke Vácslav asked cheerfully.

“I should hope so, Sire,” Podevin responded, betraying what the Duke took to be a look of doubt.

“Well then, may an angel of peace accompany us, directing our way before the Lord,” the Duke proclaimed, and taking a lit lantern from off the wall he set out into the cold night.

“Amen, so be it,” the young page said, a response he, by now, was accustomed to sharing. Holding the basket in one hand while clutching his cloak with the other he followed behind his master.

CHAPTER TWO

“He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do” (John 14:12)

With each slogging step through the snow Podevin –ten-years the Duke’s junior– fell further and further behind. They were out of the city now and the wind, no longer hindered by shops and houses, seemed to blow from all angles. He could hardly keep from tipping over at times. His cheeks stung as if whipped by lashes; his lungs burned as he struggled to take breath.

The walk to St. Agnes’s spring was nothing short of a stroll in fine weather. Why, the page had often gone there with his father as a child. But tonight the snow made the walk much longer, and the cold, battering wind much less pleasant.

Vácslav, turning back to Podevin and seeing the distance between them, called out: “You poor boy, let me help you.” Making his way back to the page, the Duke put out his leathery gloved hand, “Come now, Podevin, give over the basket.”

“No, Sire, please, it’s disgraceful and inappropriate for you to carry it,” the page said with winded speech, pulling the basket closer to himself in protest.

“Now, now, don’t think that way. Why, how is it that you expect me, a ruler, to treat the ruled as less important than myself? And especially on this the very day we celebrate the divine condescension of the King of all?!”

Podevin relinquished his grasp on the basket. He often noted the peculiar manner in which his master spoke. Over time, however, he ceased thinking it strange. In fact, he even found it endearing. His master’s unique candour allowed him, a simple servant, to feel more at ease in his presence.

“I’m sorry I’m slowing you down, Sire. But, the wind blows hard against us and I find the snow too high to walk through at such a brisk pace,” Podevin said, struggling to be heard over the howling wind.

“Of course, I understand. Why don’t you step in my footprints as I walk ahead; I think you’ll find it easier to continue that way,” Vácslav suggested.

To Podevin’s surprise, not only was walking made easier by stepping in the Duke’s footprints, but he began to notice indescribable warmth emitting from each one. Steam was even beginning to rise from each, like a spraying hot spring.

How can this be? the page thought. How can the snow, just by being imprinted by the Duke’s stride, give off warmth?

But knowing his master well he abstained from asking such burning questions. He knew from experience it always made the Duke uncomfortable when someone pointed out the benefits and comforts that came from his words, his ways, his very gaze.

“Where to?” Vácslav asked, gesturing toward the wall of forest that rose up before them. “Do you remember where the hermit’s hut is from here?”

“Yes, Master, it’s there, through the trees and to our right. We’re not at all far now.”

They continued trudging along through the snow, now significantly deeper, though noticeably contributing to the Duke’s joy.

“How I love this blessed white!” he exclaimed with a chuckle.

“There, Sire, draw your light over there. I believe that is the old hermit’s hut.”

“So it must be,” the Duke said.

Drawing closer Podevin was surprised to see the door of the hut open before they were even a stone’s throw away.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” the old man called out, opening wide the door of his small hut. The outline of his thick grey beard and scruffy hair were illumined by the light coming from behind him.

“Greetings, my good man,” the Duke said in his deep and cheerful voice. “Christ is born!” he called out, still in the thick of the forest.

“Glorify Him!” the old man responded, smiling and bowing low, greeting the ruler of his homeland.

“You were expecting us?” the page asked, surprised by the way the hermit conducted himself.

“All who arrive are invited – not even one passes by who is not,” the old hermit answered, his sparkling eyes reflecting the light from Vácslav’s lantern.

“Come in, come in! May my humble abode be as comforting to you as your majestic castle,” the hermit said bowing and gesturing for them to enter the wooden hut.

The sisters of Panagia Parigoritissa Greek Orthodox Monastery in Quebec bringing a little mirth and brightness for the feast of the Nativity to those of us only able to “virtually” visit the monastery in these days of lockdown and quarantine.

Please consider donating.

In honour of the Lord’s Nativity, for the 12 days of Christmas I will be posting a chapter or two a day of my short story The King, the Page, and the Hermit: A Christmas Story here on Lessons from a Monastery.

Always planning on publishing the story with Lumination Press, until now I have only shared excerpts of the story on the blog. This year I decided to share the whole thing with you despite the fact the manuscript is still in draft form. God willing, one day I’ll fix it up and publish it properly.

Written in 2011, the short story is about the great Czech king and martyr Wenceslaus. His title was actually “Duke of Bohemia” but he was given the title “King” posthumously. Known in the Orthodox Church as St. Vacslav (or a variation thereof), his feast day is September 28. The Christmas carol Good King Wenceslaus tells of a miracle the saint performed on the “feast of Stephen” which in the Orthodox Church we celebrate on December 27. This carol was the impetus for my short story.

It centers around the event described in the carol: the King and Page set out to offer alms to a “poor man” I’ve named Jiri. The story continues, describing the historical events that followed. Although the backstory I’ve developed of the character Jiri is fictional he provides the means to creatively tell the historical details of the life and deeds of St. Vacslav and the historical events surrounding various members of his family. I have named the page Podevin as that is believed to have been the name of the saint’s faithful page. The elements of the story central to Podevin’s character are also based on historical sources.

Fun fact: My sister-in-law, Pres. Catherine, gave me a copy of the above image of St. Vacslav (Wenceslaus) and his page walking through the snow as a part of a Christmas gift once and it inspired me to write a Christmas story based in the historical facts of the saint’s life and good deeds.

I hope and pray you enjoy reading about St. Vacslav and his page as much as I enjoyed writing about them.

Christ is (almost) born!

Merry Christmas, friends!

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I painted this icon in 2019 with acrylic. This icon’s design was based on a few different mosaics that still exist of St. Perpetua, a 2nd century martyr from Carthage in northern Africa. Like St. Alexander the Solider I sketched an image of her and then painted the icon. This time, however, I at least could find mosaics of her to base my icon on.

From the Passion of St. Perpetua:

The young catechumens, Revocatus and his fellow-servant Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, were apprehended. And among them also was Vivia Perpetua, respectably born, liberally educated, a married matron, having a father and mother and two brothers, one of whom, like herself, was a catechumen, and a son an infant at the breast. She herself was about twenty-two years of age. From this point onward she shall herself narrate the whole course of her martyrdom, as she left it described by her own hand and with her own mind.

While says she, we were still with the persecutors, and my father, for the sake of his affection for me, was persisting in seeking to turn me away, and to cast me down from the faith —’Father,’ said I, ‘do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?’ And he said, ‘I see it to be so.’ And I replied to him, ‘Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.’ Then my father, provoked at this saying, threw himself upon me, as if he would tear my eyes out. But he only distressed me, and went away overcome by the devil’s arguments. Then, in a few days after I had been without my father, I gave thanks to the Lord; and his absence became a source of consolation to me. In that same interval of a few days we were baptized, and to me the Spirit prescribed that in the water of baptism nothing else was to be sought for bodily endurance.

my st. anthony icon

I painted this icon of St. Anthony in 2018 with acrylic. The fun part about this icon is: 1.) It’s a replica of the icon of St. Anthony on the wall of our parish church in Thessaloniki (named in honour of St. Anthony the Great), and 2.) The hard canvas it’s painted on (I don’t know it’s proper name) was an early Christmas present from our friends in West Virginia. I painted St. Anthony on it rather quickly to give it to them for their Christmas (Old Style) the same year – the best kind of “re-gifting”. Of all the icons I’ve ever painted I think he may be my favourite.

A friend once asked the reason I paint some icons with blue backgrounds. This is because tyhografies (wall-paintings) in churches in Greece are painted on blue backgrounds and so if the prototype I am copying from has a blue background I usually paint a blue background as well.

Three Fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’

 

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St. Gregory the Theologian, painted with acrylic on canvas. Of the four hierarchs I painted, St. Gregory is my favourite. I like how his vestments turned out and especially his expression. I find he conveys a look of reverent compassion.

(Source) Gregory was born in Nazianzus of a Greek father (who later became a Christian and a bishop) and a Christian mother. Before his baptism, he studied in Athens with Basil the Great and Julian the Apostate. Gregory often prophesied that Julian would become an apostate and a persecutor of the Church, and this actually happened. Gregory’s good mother, Nonna, had an especially great influence on him. When he had completed his studies Gregory was baptized. St. Basil consecrated him as Bishop of Sasima, and Emperor Theodosius the Great summoned him to fill the vacant archiepiscopal throne of Constantinople. He wrote numerous works, the most famous of which are those on theology, for which he is called the Theologian. Especially known, because of its depth, is his work Homilies on the Holy Trinity. Gregory wrote against the heretic Macedonius, who erroneously taught that the Holy Spirit is a creation of God. He also wrote against Apollinarius, who erroneously taught that Christ did not have a human soul, but that His divinity was in lieu of His soul. Additionally, Gregory wrote against Emperor Julian the Apostate, his one-time fellow student. In 381, when a debate began regarding his election as archbishop, he withdrew on his own and issued a statement: “Those who deprive us of our archiepiscopal throne cannot deprive us of God.” Afterward he left Constantinople and went to Nazianzus, and there he lived a life of solitude and prayer, writing beneficial books. Although he was in poor health throughout his entire life, Gregory nevertheless lived to be eighty years old. His relics were later transferred to Rome. A reliquary containing his head reposes in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. He was, and remains, a great and wonderful light of the Orthodox Church, as much by his meekness and purity of character as by the unsurpassable depth of his mind. He reposed in the Lord in the year 390.

 

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Also completed in 2018, St. John’s vestments were painted in orange and blue to go with St. Gregory the Theologian who I painted with the same colours but different parts of the vestments so the saints both compliment and contrast one another. As I said before, I wanted the icons of the Hierarchs to look like a set but also have distinct qualities for each.

I really enjoyed painting these icons. This was the first time I painted a set; it’s why it took me one year to complete them, because there are four.

Here is a quotation from St. John’s Third Homily on the Acts of the Apostles. It highlights why we ought to frequently pray for our Bishops, the Shepherds of our Church, for their burden is great:

Did you but know that a Bishop is bound to belong to all, to bear the burden of all; that others, if they are angry, are pardoned, but he never; that others, if they sin, have excuses made for them, he has none… So it is, the Bishop is exposed to the tongues of all, to the criticism of all, whether they be wise or fools. He is harassed with cares every day, nay, every night. He has many to hate him, many to envy him. …The soul of a Bishop is for all the world like a vessel in a storm: lashed from every side, by friends, by foes, by one’s own people, by strangers. Do you not see what a number of qualifications the Bishop must have? To be apt to teach, patient, holding fast the faithful word in doctrine… What trouble and pains does this require!

 

May we have his blessing!

Glory to God!

I’m happy to announce to you all that The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing (2017), is now available as an audiobook. You can purchase your copy through Audible or Amazon. You can hear a sample of the audiobook HERE.

Wish to know more about this book? You can watch the book trailer HERE.

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Like St. Basil the Great, I started St. Athanasios in the summer of 2017 and finished him and the other three hierarchs in the fall of 2018. He is painted in the opposite colours of St. Basil the Great.  

God, Who has the power over all things, when He was making the race of men through His own Word, seeing the weakness of their nature, that it was not sufficient of itself to know its Maker, nor to get any idea at all of God; because while He was uncreate, the creatures had been made of nought, and while He was incorporeal, men had been fashioned in a lower way in the body, and because in every way the things made fell far short of being able to comprehend and know their Maker — taking pity, I say, on the race of men, inasmuch as He is good, He did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of Himself, lest they should find no profit in existing at all. 2. For what profit to the creatures if they knew not their Maker? Or how could they be rational without knowing the Word (and Reason) of the Father, in Whom they received their very being? For there would be nothing to distinguish them even from brute creatures if they had knowledge of nothing but earthly things, why did God make [creatures] at all, as He did not wish to be known by them?Whence, lest this should be so, being good, He gives them a share in His own Image, our Lord Jesus Christ, and makes them after His own Image and after His likeness: so that by such grace perceiving the Image, that is, the Word of the Father, they may be able through Him to get an idea of the Father, and knowing their Maker, live the happy and truly blessed life. -St. Athanasius On the Incarnation

A pastoral word from Fr John to Holy Lady of Vladimir Mission on this the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple.

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*The photos in this post are from an impromptu parish hike last year. I really miss being all together with our people so it’s so nice to reminisce about those days.

Dear all,

Since we were not able to celebrate the Great Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple all together as usual, I thought I would send around a small passage from St Kosmas and offer a brief reflection on the basis of it to help make sure it does not slip by unmarked. 

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Concerning the feast, the Saint writes:  “WHEN THE LADY THEOTOKOS reached the age of three, Joachim and Anna remembered their debt, that is, that they had dedicated her to the temple. So they took the Lady Theotokos and went to church where the Prophet Zacharias was, the archpriest and father of the Holy Forerunner [John the Baptist]. Immediately the archpriest perceived that she was to give birth to the Son and Word of God, Jesus Christ, by the Holy spirit and without man. She would conceive as a virgin and after giving birth would remain a virgin. Zacharias received her and kissed her and placed her in the sanctuary because he knew that the Lady was to become the throne of our Lord. The Theotokos spent twelve years in the sanctuary where no one entered except the high priest who went to see her once a year. She was fed with heavenly bread and became superior to the angels. So, my brethren, the holy sanctuary reveals the throne of God, the nave [of the church] paradise, and the narthex reveals the door of paradise.”  – From Teaching Five

​Reflecting on this Great Feast of the Church year which we celebrate today, let us remember that like Joachim and Anna we too have a debt toward God.  They promised to dedicate their daughter to the temple in thanksgiving for her miraculous conception and birth, but what promises have we made to God?  We must, brothers and sisters, remember our baptism where either personally, or through our godparents we promised to have renounced Satan, and all his works, and all his worship, and all his angels, and all his pomp, and to have joined ourselves to Christ and to believe in him as King and Lord.  Today would be a great day to revisit the Baptismal Service, remind ourselves of the promises we made, and see if we have fulfilled our debt like the parents of the Theotokos!

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Also, reflect on the life of the Most Holy Theotokos in the temple during those years.  Perhaps it resonates with us, especially as we potentially face another period of strict lockdown.  The life of the Theotokos reminds us that ‘isolation’ doesn’t have to be loneliness, anxiety, and despair.  Living within the walls of the temple, dedicating her time to godly pursuits, to prayer, to the guarding of the senses, this life became for her a cause of great joy, grace, and angelic visitation!  Her life during that time has been described to us by the likes of St Gregory Palamas and St Maximos the Confessor.  We have heard homilies on this life often in the past.  Let us use what we have learned as a pattern to shape our own lives and thrive in our circumstances!  Glory to God for all things!

May the Lord bless and keep you, and grant you a share in today’s feast!
Fr John. 

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Started in 2017 and finished in 2018, along with the three other Hierarchs (Ss. John, Gregory and Athanasius), this icon was painted with acrylic on canvas. He was initially painted to hang on the wall of the altar in our domestic chapel but was then placed on the altar wall of Holy Lady of Vladimir Mission during the 1+ year the Mission rented a townhouse and transformed the very large living room into a chapel.

As I previously stated, I really like a lot of colour, so rather than paint the four Hierarchs simply in opposite blues and reds (as seen here) I paired them in red and green as well as orange and blue. St. Basil’s vestments were painted predominately in green with red as an accent colour and St. Athanasius’ vestments are predominately red with green as an accent colour. Ss. Gregory and John’s vestments were painted in orange and blue: St. Gregory is predominately in blue with orange as an accent colour and St. John was painted predominately in orange with blue as an accent colour.  I am happy with the way they turned out and since they were initially intended for our private chapel I was happy to adorn the Holy Hierarchs with such vibrant vestments – each alike but distinct, just like the four saints depicted.

A letter from St. Basil the Great to his friend and companion St. Gregory the Theologian, Letter 2:

I recognised your letter, as one recognises one’s friends’ children from their obvious likeness to their parents. Your saying that to describe the kind of place I live in, before letting you hear anything about how I live, would not go far towards persuading you to share my life, was just like you; it was worthy of a soul like yours, which makes nothing of all that concerns this life here, in comparison with the blessedness which is promised us hereafter. What I do myself, day and night, in this remote spot, I am ashamed to write. I have abandoned my life in town, as one sure to lead to countless ills; but I have not yet been able to get quit of myself. I am like travellers at sea, who have never gone a voyage before, and are distressed and seasick, who quarrel with the ship because it is so big and makes such a tossing, and, when they get out of it into the pinnace or dingey, are everywhere and always seasick and distressed. Wherever they go their nausea and misery go with them. My state is something like this. I carry my own troubles with me, and so everywhere I am in the midst of similar discomforts. So in the end I have not got much good out of my solitude. What I ought to have done; what would have enabled me to keep close to the footprints of Him who has led the way to salvation— for He says, If any one will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow meMatthew 16:24 — is this.

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St. Alexander the Solider of Egypt, painted in 2017. One of the boys in our parish is named for this saint but the family never managed to find an icon of him. I did research, read as many versions of his life as I could find, and consulted my iconography teacher about how to go about painting an icon with no prototype to follow. With much prayer and trepidation I sketched an image of the saint and painted this icon of him.

I’m happy with the way he turned out. However, I think the proportions are slightly off. I hope the saint doesn’t mind too much I may have made his torso a little too long  and his hands a little too small. Then again, who knows, maybe he had small hands and a long torso.

Saint Alexander suffered with the hosiomartyrs Patermuthius and Copres, during the reign of the emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363). He was a soldier who witnessed the torture of Saint Copres, and believed in Christ. He was burned alive. St. Alexander’s feast day is July 9.

Happy feast of St. Nektarios of Pentapolis!

Newrome Press has published a new book of articles written by the saint and translated into English by Fr. John. You can order your copy HERE.

Author: St. Nektarios of Pentapolis

Translator: Rev. Dr. Fr. John Palmer

Pages: 
124
Binding: 
Sewn and Glued

St Nektarios of Pentapolis (1846-1920) was both a careful student of the art of teaching and a tireless teacher. The present work aims to present and analyze his labors with the sphere of education as well as furnish translations of his core writings on the topic. By these means he is shown a strong proponent of the view that education is properly understood as formation of the whole person, rather than the simple imparting of information.

FROM THE PROLOGUE: It is often observed that St. Nektarios’ well-earned reputation as a wonderworker has largely overshadowed his other feats and accomplishments, as well as the other gifts he has bestowed upon the Church. Numbered among these oft-forgotten contributions is the bequest he has made to the sphere of education, a bequest under-girded by a rare, insurmountable desire to both learn and teach. From the time the Saint could read the 50th Psalm, he began repeating and emphasizing the line, I shall teach transgressors Thy ways, and the ungodly shall turn back unto Thee. From the time his little hands could manage, be began sewing together little booklets in order to disseminate God’s words. From the time he could clamor, he would ascend the stool in his mother’s kitchen and preach the homily he had heard that morning in church for the benefit of any who might hear. These youthful expressions of that desire to teach are interpreted by the Saint’s modern encomiasts as foreshadowing the significant educational work which would occupy a central, albeit oft-overlooked, place in his life and spiritual legacy.

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Painted in 2014 or 2015, with acrylic on canvas. St. John’s hair and beard are my favourite of all the hair and beards I’ve painted.

The style of St. John’s vestments is called polistavroi. In the post about St. Gregory Palamas’ icon I talked about this technique (which I didn’t know back then). My iconography teacher taught me how to do it in 2012 when I painted Christ the High Priest (a portion of his garments were done with this same technique). I fell in love with this technique and have since used it multiple times. 

To accomplish a cohesive look (so the folds of the garments flow as if it’s one piece of fabric) you must first paint the garment in one solid colour from start to finish – here I did it in blue. I used four shades of blue (darkest to lightest) and on top of each little section that was to become a red cross I applied the corresponding red shade (darkest red on the darkest blue part, and so on.) Perhaps my explanation is confusing but that’s how you do it.  Polistavroi is a pattern on vestments often seen in Byzantine icons.

Sanctity is not just a virtue. It is an attainment of such spiritual heights, that the abundance of God’s grace which fills the saint overflows on all who associate with him. Great is the saint’s state of bliss in which they dwell contemplating the Glory of God. Being filled with love for God and man, they are responsive to man’s needs, interceding before God and helping those who turn to them. -St. John Maximovitch

What I love most about that quotation is St. John describes the effect he himself has on others as a result of his own sanctity!

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Blessed Pascha to you all, dear readers!

lessons from a monastery

Originally posted in the Tips from a Monastery series in 2016.

I hope you are all having a peaceful, grace-filled Holy Week.  May God make us worthy to worship His Cross and see His glorious Resurrection!

I haven’t posted a ‘Tips from the Monastery’ in quite some time.  The other day I remembered the practice of reading the Acts of the Apostles on Holy Saturday and I was happy to share it in a ‘Tips’ post.

Spending time at Orthodox monasteries I learned of a revered custom that still takes place in some monasteries today.  On Holy and Great Saturday, after the Vesperal Liturgy is celebrated in the morning, the Acts of the Apostles is read in its entirety.  In the Catholicon of the monastery the Evangelist Luke’s account of the early years of the Church is read until the Paschal Vigil begins.  For obvious reasons the whole brotherhood or sisterhood would…

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