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Written by one who intimately knows the bitter taste of death, Presvytera Katherine Baker’s reflection on death and (so-called) living during the global pandemic is a must-read. It is entitled A Pandemic Observed and can be found here.

Fr. John and I are both very grateful to her thoughts. I am deeply impressed by her insight, her candor, and her call for all to live well, as faithful Christians, despite the surety of our death, whether today from Covid or tomorrow from something else.

Friends, if you have allowed fear or fear of illness or death to cripple you during these dark days of constant media attention on the potential risks of contracting or spreading Covid, take a minute, read this reflection from a priest’s wife whose husband died suddenly and tragically in a car accident in 2015. Take a minute to ask yourself if closing churches, refraining from venerating icons or taking the priest’s blessing, or shying away from corporeal worship honours the Christian Way, the Incarnation of the God-Man Christ, or in any way exemplifies the life of the Gospel we are called to live. When you come to the conclusion these things are foreign to our life in Christ then arise quickly and go to the Father and even while you are “still afar off” (Luke 15:20) He will see you and  meet you before you have even arrived to offer your prayer of repentance!

Be emboldened to live again as Christians. Christians were always known for their bravery in the face of death, for their refusal to cease good deeds even when threatened with torture, and for cherishing faith in Christ as their most prized possession. Call on the names of such saints and they will encourage you to do likewise!

An excerpt from Presvytera Katherine’s article follows, but please read the whole article HERE.

May her words inspire us to make a new beginning in our spiritual life!

I fully expect, if we are living as Church, there could be large outbreaks of COVID-19 in Christian communities, just like in any other human encounter, should God will it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” And if we are blamed by the authorities for being “super-spreaders,” it would not be the first time in history.

No one blames a person for going to the store for groceries and spreading or picking up germs there, but it seems worship is being approached more like a concert than like “daily bread.” But gathering for Sunday liturgy and fellowship should be a help to facing the possibility of death, which is exactly what we need right now. A priest’s job is not to keep me alive; it’s to help me live and die well.

Christians should never judge someone who chooses safety from suffering and death as did the early Donatist heretics who cast out of the church those who fled persecution. However, Christians should neither judge nor exclude those who choose honorable risk either. A principal of non-judgment is our example. Force and manipulation should be rejected whether that force or manipulation be in favor of risk or against it.

My husband wrote in a sermon shortly before his death: “God created man in the year 33, on a hill called Golgotha.” Christ, declared his great work “accomplished” from the agony of the cross. It is in union with Christ that we become who we ought to be, and so how can we escape death when even Christ did not? In one of his last sermons, my husband suggested to his flock, “….may we make our own these words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written to his fellow Christians on his way towards martyrdom for refusing the idolatry of pagan Rome: ‘It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth… The pains of birth are upon me. Allow me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to be stillborn… Allow me to imitate the passion of my God …when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being.’” (Epist. ad Rom., 6).

The question isn’t will I die? Or will the people I love die? The answer to that has always been, yes. A better question might be will I let the anticipation of death make me and my world, better or worse?

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While eating breakfast this morning with Fr. John we started listening to this homily by a spiritual son of St. Paisios the Athonite. This spiritual son is in fact the “young man” in the book The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios. If you have not read this book I highly recommend it.

The “Young Man”, whose real name is Athanasios Rakovalis, begins the homily with these words, “I’d like to thank you all for being here, and to say that I am happy you are all here because your presence here shows that you wish to learn about St. Paisios, and this contains a type of grace. Before I begin my talk, I’d like to request from all of you if you are able to say an internal prayer to St. Paisios now, to ‘lend a hand’ to help me make my talk and for us all to leave here benefited – both you and I.”

When I heard these words by St. Paisios’ lay-disciple I paused the video and turned to Fr. John, “That is what it was like in Greece!” I said.

While it is customary for different cultures to have words of greeting, the charm of the Orthodox mindset is the humility and mutual love shared amidst Orthodox Christians.

Athanasios, a physics teachers, is there to give a homily, to teach and instruct, but rather than show himself to be “an expert” he first calls on his Christian brothers and sisters so that through their prayers – not his words – all might be benefited. This kind of mindset is not easily taught. It is the kind of mindset we must “put on” (Galatians 3:27) ourselves as Orthodox Christians. This, I believe, is what is meant by “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

Brothers and sisters, this is the mind of Christ!: to humbly ask others’ for their prayers, to firmly believe with all your heart and mind that the only profit we can give one another is founded on Christ’s love, not on our own intellect or talents.

More than everything else about Greece I miss this mindset the most. It permeated so many faithful, and did not produce words like “clanging brass” (1 Corinthians 13: 1) but Spirit-filled, God-inspired words that drilled into your heart and soul a desire to emulate the love and humility you saw in your fellow Christians.

I’m sure Athanasios goes on to say many more beautiful things in his homily. But I stopped just a few minutes in to reminiscence and contemplate how it’s in the little things (as St. Paisios often said) that we make large gains or big loses.

St. Paisios defined reverence as “the fear of God and spiritual sensitivity”. He said that reverent people “behave carefully and modestly, because they intensely feel the presence of God.” In my opinion, just one minute into this homily Athanasios Rakovalis illustrates what it means to douse your words and thoughts with reverence.

May we be made worthy, through the prayers of St. Paisios, to do the same in our own lives!

 

 

 

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Today is the feast of St. Macrina the Abbess (also called “the Younger”) was the sister of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nyssa. St. Gregory recorded the events of her last days and last words in a beautiful letter that has been preserved by the grace of God so that even modern man can benefit from the works and words of this holy abbess.

The following is a story St. Gregory shares at the end of his epistle. I love it not only because it gives us a wonderful insight into the character of St. Macrina but reveals exactly what it feels like to be a pilgrim at a holy monastery, a “school of virtue” as the solider calls it.

THE SOLDIER’S STORY

(Source) “My wife and I once had an earnest desire to pay a visit to the school of virtue. For so I think the place ought to be called, in which that blessed soul had her abode. Now there lived with us also our little daughter, who had been left with an affliction of the eye after an infectious illness. And her appearance was hideous and pitiable, the membrane round the eye being enlarged and whitish from the complaint. But when we came inside that divine abode, my wife and I separated in our visit to those seekers after philosophy according to our sex. I went to the men’s department, presided over by Peter, your brother; while my wife went to the women’s side and conversed with the saint. And when a suitable interval had elapsed, we considered it time to depart from the Retreat, and already our preparations were being made for this, but kind protests were raised from both sides equally. Your brother was urging me to stay  and partake of the philosophers’ table; and the blessed lady would not let my wife go, but holding our little girl in her bosom, said she would not give her up before she had prepared a meal for them and had entertained them with the riches of philosophy. And kissing the child, as was natural, and putting her lips to her eyes, she saw the complaint of the pupil and said—-

“‘If you grant me this favour and share our meal, I will give you in return a reward not unworthy of such an honour.’

“‘What is that? ‘ said the child’s mother.

“‘I have a drug,’ said the great lady, ‘which is powerful to cure eye complaints.’

“And then news was brought me from the women’s apartments, telling me of this promise, and we gladly remained, thinking little of the pressing necessity of starting on our journey.

“But when the feast came to an end and we had said the prayer, great Peter waiting on us with his own hands and cheering us, and when holy Macrina had dismissed my wife with all courtesy, then at last we went home together with glad and cheerful hearts, telling one another as we journeyed what had befallen us. I described to her what had happened in the men’s room, both what I had heard and seen. She told every detail as in a history, and thought nothing ought to be left out, even the smallest points. She told everything in order, keeping the sequence of the narrative. When she came to the point at which the promise was made to cure the child’s eyes, she broke off her tale.

“‘Oh, what have we done?’ she cried.

‘How could we have neglected the promise, that salve-cure that the lady said she would give?’

“I was vexed at the carelessness, and bade some one run back quickly to fetch it. Just as this was being done, the child, who was in her nurse’s arms, looked at her mother, and the mother looked at the child’s eyes.

“‘Stop,’ she said, ‘being vexed at the carelessness,’—-she cried aloud with joy and fright. ‘For, see! Nothing of what was promised us is lacking! She has indeed given her the true drug which cures disease; it is the healing that comes from prayer. She has both given it and it has already proved efficacious, and nothing is left of the affliction of the eye. It is all purged away by that divine drug.’

“And as she said this, she took up the child and laid her in my arms. And I understood the marvels of the Gospel that hitherto had been incredible to me and said—-

“‘What is there surprising in the blind recovering their sight by the hand of God, when now His handmaiden, accomplishing those cures by faith in Him, has worked a thing not much inferior to those miracles?'”

Such was his story; it was interrupted by sobs, and tears choked his utterance, So much for the soldier and his tale.

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(Source) On July 12 in the Holy Orthodox Church, we commemorate the holy, glorious and right-victorious Martyrs Proclus and Hilary of Ancyra.

Verses
Proclus endured naked a thick rain of arrows,
Whereas Hilary’s head with a sword was severed.
On the twelfth, arrow slew Proclus and sword, Hilary.

These martyrs were born in Kallippi in Asia, Proclus being Hilary’s uncle. They suffered in the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan.

The judge asked Proclus: ‘Of what race are you?’

Proclus replied: ‘I am of the race of Christ, and my hope is in my God.’

When the judge threatened him with torture, he said: ‘When you are afraid to transgress the Emperor’s commands and risk falling into temporal punishment, how much more do we Christians fear to transgress against God’s commands and fall into eternal torment!’  While Proclus was being tortured, Hilary came up to the judge and said: ‘I too am a Christian!’ After many tortures, the two men were condemned to death. They both entered into the joy of their Lord.

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Started in 2011; completed in 2020

Nine years ago I started painting this icon of the Greatmartyr and Healer St. Panteleimon. Circumstances were such that Fr. John and I were given hospitality at a women’s monastery for a number of weeks one 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. And so, I chose St. Panteleimon because I thought it was be nice to give my mother, who is a nurse, an icon of an unmercenary saint. However, we had to return home before I finished the icon. As a result, St. Panteleimon spent a number of years unfinished. With the onset of Covid-19 and the interruption in my work, I decided to finally finish what I started.

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In the meantime, as I was painting away, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She has been battling it for the past few months like a champion and we are placing our trust in God that her ongoing treatment will be successful.

I finished the icon and mailed it to her. The Canadian provincial borders had been closed from March until this past Friday, July 3. There was no possibility for me to even visit her during all of this. Thank God my brother, sister and aunt take such good care of her so she has been getting lots of TLC.

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Please spare a prayer for my mum, Chris

I was on the phone with her when the gift arrived. My brother happened to call her on the home phone at the same time so we both got to hear her shouts of joy when she opened the package. I think she was equally as pleased with herself for recognizing the saint through the bubble wrap as she was with the gift itself! She kept saying, “It’s St. PanteleiMON! I knew immediately it was St. PanteleiMON” with her own unique pronunciation of Greek names.

After only nine years his icon is finally complete and he is now the “attending physician” for my recovering mother.

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O Champion and healer saint Panteleimon,

Beseech our merciful God,

That He may grant unto our souls,

The remission of sins.

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I painted this icon in 2015.

From The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victoryby Constantina R. Palmer (SOON TO BE RELEASED AS AN AUDIO BOOK), Ancient Faith Publishing, 2017

OUR FAMILY SAINT: ST. JOHN MAXIMOVITCH (pp. 60-64)

“PRAY TO ST. JOHN of San Francisco for your husband. St. John was a very holy man,” the priestmonk told me as I turned the door handle to leave the room, having finished our private conversation.

“Okay,” I said, shrugging, not fully realizing just how holy St. John was.

I had wanted to become Orthodox for a couple of months at that point but was wary of converting while my husband was a candidate for ordination in the Anglican church. Thankfully, he had agreed to accompany me to a monastery in America for Pascha, but my struggles with remaining Anglican were the source of much tension in our sixth-month-long marriage.

I vividly remember explaining to my husband why I thought it was best for him to wait to be ordained: I felt I was not mature enough to be a priest’s wife. And although I truly didn’t feel mature enough at that stage in my life (I was only twenty-two years old), the real reason I wanted him to wait was that I secretly wanted us to convert to Orthodoxy together. John humbly put aside his four-year-long desire to be ordained and agreed to wait for me to be “ready.” I too waited. I waited for him to become Orthodox. I prayed and kept my mouth closed to the best of my ability.

On our way from the monastery to our home in the Province of New Brunswick, we were asked if we would be willing to take a later flight in exchange for a flight voucher. We had a long layover at our next stop, so we didn’t mind sticking around the airport a bit longer. I thought nothing of the voucher, since we would be moving to South Korea to teach English in a few months, and I didn’t expect to fly anywhere in North America in the meantime.

Once we arrived home, I started reading the biography of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. Lying in bed one night, I read a story about a nurse who started to go blind and began faithfully visiting St. John’s tomb and praying to him. One evening, filled with despair, she prayed fervently and opened her Bible at random to the Gospel passage about Christ healing the blind man, instructing him to wash his eyes with water from the pool of Siloam. The nurse felt that if only she could put some water from the pool of Siloam on her eyes, she’d be healed. The next day, while she was visiting St. John’s tomb, an unknown woman approached her and said she had  just returned from Jerusalem and brought with her a small bottle of water from the pool of Siloam. The nurse put the water in her eyes while standing over St. John’s tomb and was healed. The water was brought to her through St. John’s intercession.

Having finished reading the story, I suddenly had this strong feeling that if only I could visit St. John in San Francisco, my John would become Orthodox. Then I remembered the flight voucher we had received a few months before. I was doubtful there would be any available flights to California, since the voucher seemed quite limited despite its claim of available flights “anywhere in America.” I wanted to get out of bed and check online for a ticket right then, but I made myself practice a little self-control and wait until morning.

To my surprise, the next morning I found an available flight to San Francisco that the voucher covered. We were about three weeks away from moving to South Korea, so I knew I needed to act fast. I checked the dates for that coming weekend, and found I would arrive on July 2. I was flabbergasted—this was the saint’s own feast day. I felt, without a doubt, that was the work of the saint. I couldn’t believe it: truly I was being shown just what a wonderworker this holy man was!

I arrived in San Francisco and spent as much time as possible—whenever the doors were open—at the new cathedral of Our Lady, Joy of All Who Sorrow, where the saint’s incorrupt relics are housed. I prayed and lit candles, I lovingly kissed the saint’s relics, and I simply stood and looked on him with a great deal of awe and admiration. I felt reassured that through the prayers of this great saint, my husband’s heart would be softened, and his mind would be enlightened to embrace Holy Orthodoxy.

On my last visit to the cathedral, I met a wonderful priestmonk, Fr. James, and even greater blessings unfolded. He was hosting a Greek family from Montreal, and he invited me to accompany them to the

old cathedral (the church St. John served in). In the old cathedral he served a moleben with the Greek family and me in attendance, after which he prayed over us individually with St. John’s hierarchical mantle. Even though my trip thus far had been more than enough to convince me of how holy and great a wonderworker St. John is, yet more blessings were to come.

I was taken to St. Tikhon’s orphanage, where I was able to see St. John’s cell, sit in the chair he slept in each night, and venerate the holy icons in his chapel. I was overwhelmed with all the blessings St. John sent me. How could I doubt for a second that my husband would be completely transformed through this saint’s prayers?

Of course, as it is with those of us of little faith, in the weeks and months that followed I was impatient and discouraged that my husband didn’t seem changed. I didn’t understand that when we have timelines and expectations of others, we become blind to the spiritual transformation of the person taking place right before our eyes.

I prayed frequently to St. John—the paper on which I had printed his akathist hymn quickly became worn around the edges, and I’m sure showed faint traces of despairing teardrops. To this day I have kept that copy of his akathist, and when I look at it I remember all the times I begged St. John to help my husband. Truly he was a holy man, for although it took John longer to come around than I wanted, the day I saw him using a prayer rope as we walked home from work in Seoul was the day I realized St. John’s prayers had fully penetrated his heart. I was ashamed I had ever doubted the saint, that great wonderworker and superb servant of Christ.

I wish I could say my “unbelieving” husband was sanctified by his “believing” wife, but in truth my husband was sanctified by the prayers of one who became sanctified even in our latter times, even while living in contemporary America. And that is how St. John Maximovitch became, or rather offered himself as, our family saint. May we have his blessing!

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The light of oil lamps reflects so beautifully on holy icons.

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As I’ve been reading My Side of the Mountain these last few days I’m reminded of so many saints who lived and prayed in the wilderness. Today we celebrate St. Tikhon of Kaluga who, like the character Sam Gribley, lived in a tree.

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(Source) Saint Tikhon of Medin and Kaluga, in his youth received monastic tonsure at the Chudov monastery in Moscow, but through his love for solitude he settled at an isolated spot near Maloyaroslavl. He lived in asceticism in a deep dense forest, on the bank of the River Vepreika, in the hollow of an ancient giant oak. Once, during a hunt, Prince Basil Yaroslavich (grandson of Vladimir the Brave), came upon Saint Tikhon, angrily ordered him to leave his property immediately, and dared to raise his whip against the monk. At once, the hand of the prince grew numb. Taken aback by such punishment, the prince repented of his conduct and with humility asked forgiveness.

He received healing through the prayer of Saint Tikhon. The prince entreated the monk to remain always on his property and to build a monastery there for monks, promising to provide it with everything necessary. Saint Tikhon built a monastery in honor of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, which he headed. He guided the monastery until he reached a great old age, and he died in the year 1492, after receiving the great schema.

Saint Tikhon’s body was buried at the cathedral church of the monastery he founded. The celebration of Saint Tikhon was established at the Council of 1584.

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eldersFrom one of the most beautiful homilies I’ve heard by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol. I encourage you to listen to the whole homily. It is less than 10 minutes long and has English subtitles. What follows are just my favourite parts.

On Charismatic Elders:

…these people, in my experience, were characterized by great balance, they were very well-adjusted people, not unbalanced. They were well-adjusted and charitable. They never presented you with a dilemma; they got you out of one. Nor did they present you with a God who’d be a problem, but one who’d be the answer to all problems. That’s why people flocked to them, because they found relief. People didn’t go to them to leave troubled and weary; they left relaxed and light-hearted.

They were people who know how to have their own views, but also how to exploit the potential of each person and to know how to arrange things for each soul, what each person was capable of, what they could do from where they were. And they’d each decide in accordance with their own situation. They didn’t say: ‘Look, I’m a hermit and to become the way I want you you’ll have to become like me.’ They came to where you were; you didn’t go to where they were.

In general, I think that as time went on I saw that everything they did brought them to a perfection in Christ, which is in no way extreme, but is a mean, an endless balance and peace. There was no sharpness about them; it was something absolutely clear, something like a calm sea that you sail over with great joy. They weren’t at all sharp, those people. It’s not the Gospel’s fault, it’s ours for the way we live out our misery and express it to others. As a continuation of what I was saying about these holy people, they showed us exactly the image of the person who is perfect in Christ. All those people were in harmony, balanced, not at all facetious. They didn’t make you feel: ‘But he’s a simpleton, he’s ingenuous, he’s somebody who walks on the clouds, he’s not properly grounded’. Because that’s no good either. It’s not a good thing to be fatuous, nor to be ingenuous, or facile or obtuse. Just as it’s not good to be pessimistic and all miserable. At the same time as they mourned human pain, the saints were joyful, very sweet people who embraced everyone. They wouldn’t put up with darkness in people’s souls.

You might say that’s easy for everybody. No, it isn’t. We’ve got a long way to go to get there; it’s not easy, nor can it be feigned. You can’t say: ‘What was Elder Aimilianos like? I’ll imitate him.’ It can’t be done. You have to tread the path that Aimilianos trod and you have to be Aimilianos to do so. Because if you’re not Aimilianos, you’ll be a caricature, you’ll be a poor imitation. You have to find yourself. You’re not Aimilianos. You’re Adrianos, you’re Athanasios, you’re Ignatios. You’ll become who you are, given the qualities you have. Let the grace of God work in your soul without preconditions. I don’t believe the Gospel is there to batter the human personality or tread it underfoot. The Gospel saves the human person, it doesn’t trample it down. It removes the toxins and the passions and the sin, but saves the person.

This is why these saints accepted others so easily. Even people who are acknowledged to be spiteful and sinful are justified by them to such a degree that you end up thinking they’re saints. …when we went and told [Elder Paisios] about different things that were happening on the Holy Mountain or about monks who were less than careful in their lives, he’d find ways to justify things and you’d say ‘Lord have mercy, this man’s a saint.’ He’d find an excuse for them and put good thoughts into your head and say good things about them. He’d say: ‘Look, don’t concentrate on that. The man’s got good points, so that’s the least thing compared to the many good things he’s done.’ Because he himself was such a man – the way God sees people, not the way we do. …The saints aren’t facile, nor insensitive to the pain of others. They experience the pain and they experience the whole of our apostasy from God, but because they’re now in full health, they deal with things as God does.

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Christ is risen!

For a few more hours you can watch the full documentary of the life of Elder (Saint) Joseph the Hesychast for free!

I meant to include this link in my earlier post as a “treat” to share with you on my name’s day and completely forgot. Forgive me!

 

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Name’s Day Celebrations

constantineI’m a touch sad today because it is my name’s day but Covid-19 restrictions prevent me from being able to celebrate it the way I would have liked. Last year I hosted a “coffee break” at my workplace in which I made and offered a variety of Greek desserts and tea and coffee in order to treat my co-workers. I laid out all the sweets on our boardroom table like a banquet table and even had flowers and a small icon of St. Constantine in the center. It was a lot of fun and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. These days I’m working from home so my ability to offer hospitality to my colleagues is very limited.

Unlike birthdays when people buy you presents, it is customary in Greece for the one who celebrates her name’s day to offer treats and gifts to others. This is a beautiful Orthodox custom that honours the Christ-like saint being celebrated with Abrahamic hospitality. I’ll just have to find a creative way to show love and hospitality to those I care about… like ordering pizza for Fr. John for supper :).

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MY SAINT: EMPEROR CONSTANTINE THE GREAT (Originally posted on May 21, 2019)

Christ is risen!

Today is the feast of St. Constantine the Great. St. Constantine is the kind of saint whose name all too often provokes people to say critical things about him and the history surrounding some of the events that transpired in his lifetime.

In the past I have been asked what “response” I would give to his detractors. I’ve just said I would say something about the example of the Prophet and King David who both fell and repented. But truth be told, St. Constantine needs no defense. There may or may not be all sorts of explanations we could give to explain away this or that detail, event, decision, etc., in his life or person. However, I stand by the fact that, “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself judged by no one” (1 Corn. 2:15).

There are two things I think are important for us to keep in mind: St. Constantine did not receive baptism until eight days before his blessed repose, and, it does not benefit our soul to try and appeal to modern man’s sensibility (or lack thereof) in order to offer a defense for the Christian Emperor. Our time, energy, and conviction are better spent trying to emulate all the ways in which he was a noble ruler and a firm Christian believer.

St. Constantine holds the title “Equal to the Apostles” as well as “the Great” but he could have just as easily been given the title “Peacemaker”. His whole reign was focused on unifying both the Empire and the Church. He is an incredible inspiration. He lived a life committed to  Christ even though he was unbaptized; he worked diligently to establish the Christian faith throughout the Empire. His writings are very illuminating, his words very persuasive, and his attention to detail as a conscientious Christian emperor is very impressive. As an example I will offer the following: the historian Eusebius says “Constantine witnessing the excesses of battle and bloodlust, was unwilling to have any of his enemies slain unnecessarily. In order to insure their safety, Constantine put a bounty of gold upon the head of every enemy solider spared.” (Great Synaxarion, May 21, p. 1032). This is simply one of countless examples of how he diligently sought out every opportunity to fulfill the spiritual law. As a result we have his awesome example as an inheritance.

So, I wrote this post to say St. Constantine needs no defense but I sort of tried to give him one and have failed miserably. He is so much greater than I can express with my fumbling words. At the end of the day if by bearing his name I bring even one ounce of the honour he brought to the name ‘Christian’ I will consider myself blessed.

Through the prayers of St. Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles, the first Christian Emperor, the “Peacemaker”, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me!

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