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The following story is from the chapter “Blessed are the Merciful”, pp. 158-159, in The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing.

The Quickest Way to Lose Grace

“One of the quickest ways to lose grace is to judge your fellow human being,” the hieromonk told a small group of us after a baptismal service.

“Elder Ephraim of Katounakia saw a monk’s soul fall from grace for a simple judgmental thought. There was a brother who would walk around his chapel before services and bang a talanton [the long wooden plank used in monasteries to call people to prayer by hammering a rhythm on it]. However, he lived in an isolated area, alone. A monk judged him for this. He had the thought, ‘What is he doing? There is no one around to call to prayer.’ And immediately Elder Ephraim saw grace depart from the monk who passed judgment.

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“Justify others. Condemn yourself. Say, ‘I’m acting like this, feeling this way because of my passions. If I didn’t have passions I wouldn’t act like this, react like this.’

“Don’t even pass judgment in your mind,” he continued. “Fight thoughts: push them out, don’t let them stay in your head, don’t argue with them. If they are strong, confess them right away. When judgmental thoughts come, if you immediately condemn yourself, ‘I’m like this because of my passions,’ then immediately grace will come to your aid, if you fight back with humility and self-condemnation.

“It helps to remember King David’s words: ‘I was brought low’—humbled, in other words—‘and the Lord saved me.’ Be compassionate and loving toward others, just as the Lord was and is compassionate and loving toward you.”

And with those words we left with the weighty knowledge that one of the easiest sins to slip into results in one of the quickest departures of grace.

*  *  *

And here’s a cool video of an Orthodox monk calling all to prayer through the hammering on the symandron. A symandron is basically a stationary talaton. The difference is the talaton is portable, carried in one hand with a hammer in the other.

Fun fact: Tradition says that it was by hammering on a wooden plank that Noah called the animals into the ark. And it is by hammering on a wooden plank that monastics call the “rational sheep” into the Ark of Salvation (the Church).

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Last night, June 22, the Feast of St. Alban the Proto-martyr of Britain, I gave a talk via google videos for a group in Toronto, organized by the Apostle Paul brotherhood.  It was on my second book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing.

While sitting in our domestic chapel here in Newfoundland (the iconostasis and altar are to my right in this video), I gave an overview of the book and read a sample story from each of the eight “Beatitudes” (chapters). Although the video drops a handful of times just after the halfway point it continues uninterrupted.

Here is the list of stories I read in the video:

ONE: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, Visitations of Grace (an excerpt), p. 17

TWO:  Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted, Hope in Eternal Life, p. 43

THREE:  Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth, He Condescended, p. 103

FOUR:  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled, Not to Send Them Away Hungry, p. 117

FIVE:  Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy, The Quickest Way to Lose Grace, p. 158

SIX:  Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God, Holy Icons as Vehicles of Grace, p. 194

SEVEN:  Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons, Set a Watch Before My Mouth, p. 236

EIGHT:  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, Theirs is the Kingdom, p. 275

At the end of the talk I mention the Romanian translator of both books, Luminita Irina Niculescu, who reposed in the Lord just two weeks ago. May her memory be eternal!

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5aeb1412ceeb20.18392692.300x450-normalIt’s with great joy that I am writing to say the Romanian translation of The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing, is now available for purchase.

The Romanian publisher Editura Sophia is offering readers the opportunity to read my simple but love-filled stories in the Romanian language.

Here is what they have offered as the book’s description on their website:

Înzestrată cu darul de a-și împărtăși trăirile du­hov­nicești cu smerenie, naturalețe și dragoste față de tainele relației sufletului cu Dumnezeu, Constantina Palmer a învățat multe lucruri de o deosebită valoare duhovnicească din vizitele la numeroase mănăstiri din nordul Greciei, unde a locuit în perioada studiilor de masterat.

Autoarea îmbină nobila, dar dificila îndeletnicire a scriitorului cu o profundă înțelegere a învățăturilor Bisericii Ortodoxe, prin povestiri captivante care ilustrează Fericirile cuprinse în minunata Predică de pe Munte a Mântuitorului (Matei 5, 1-12). Prin dezvăluirea acestor comori, pe care Sfântul Ioan Gură de Aur le considera „adevăruri atât de noi, atât de uimitoare și tot atât de puternice pe cât era de mare măreția Celui ce le vestea”, Hristos Domnul le făgăduia împărăția cerurilor nu numai apostolilor Săi, ci și nouă, tuturor.

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Ultimul capitol al cărții, intitulat „A lor este împărăția cerurilor”, ne surprinde și ne emoționează în mod deosebit, deoarece este dedicat martirilor desprinși din mulțimea de pătimitori creștini care au suferit în temnițele României schilodite de urgia comunismului. În cuvintele autoarei, „Sfinții martiri români întruchipează cea de-a opta fericire. Fericiți sunt – cu adevărat nespus de fericiți – «cei prigoniți pentru dreptate», cei care au câștigat împărăția cerurilor nu numai pentru că au acceptat suferințele nedrepte la care au fost supuși, ci și pentru că au căutat dreptatea și, în același timp, virtuțile creștine, bunătatea și sfințenia, ori de câte ori s‑au aflat în ghearele suferinței. Fie ca ei să ne fie izvoare de inspirație, pentru a trăi și noi în Hristos cu aceeași evlavie, fermitate și dârzenie – cu același zel și aceeași iubire de poruncile Lui, asemenea Lor!”.

The Sweetness of Grace (entitled Tot mai aproape de Dumnezeu. Povestiri despre încercări, povestiri despre biruințe in Romanian) is available for purchase here.

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My first book, The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery, was translated and published by Editura Sophia in 2015. The Romanian title is Mireasma sfinteniei. Povestiri dintr-o manastire de maici. It is available for purchase here.

In addition to offering these books in Romania, Editura Sophia has provided a great opportunity for bookstores in North America to offer Orthodox literature to their Romanian readers. You may consider carrying the English and Romanian versions of my books in your parish bookstores.

I would like to thank Editura Sophia from the bottom of my heart, and most especially the translator Luminita, for this great gift. I am so grateful to them for allowing my stories to be shared throughout the world.

My Christ our True God bless them for this work and may all those who read my stories remember me, the unworthy one, in their holy prayers!

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As is evident, I am a very poor photographer, but it’s nice to see all my books together!            Glory to God!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christ is risen! (Update: I had some technical issues, so a version of this post published earlier but some paragraphs and photos were out of sync).

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In June of last year I received an email asking if I would be interested in speaking at a pan-Orthodox women’s retreat in Saskatoon in April, 2018.  I was happy to accept such a gracious invitation and set to work on four one-hour long talks for the retreat.

By God’s grace, last weekend I had my first experience of the Canadian prairies and delivered my talks while in the company of wonderful Orthodox sisters-in-Christ.  I enjoyed my time so much that I can only hope the women felt as inspired and encouraged by my talks as I did from my experience of Orthodox Saskatoon.

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This was during the last talk, Saturday night. The ladies placed a chair next to me since it was about 1AM Nfld time by this point.

I chose “Keeping Our Spark Alight For Christ” as the retreat theme. The four talks I delivered were designed to build on each other. I drew from a lot of the material in my books The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery  and The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and VictoryAs I said in the talks, I don’t have any other stories to draw from since I put them all in my books :).

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Saskatoon’s St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox church

Session 1: Preparing our Lamp

This talk had four sub-sections, each on a fundamental element of our Orthodox spiritual life. They were: a.) Church attendance, b.) Fasting, c.) Confession, and d.) Humble-mindedness

Session 2: Lighting a Spark

The sub-sections in this talk were: a.) Reverence, b.) Prayer rule, c.) Reading the Holy Scriptures, and d.) Cultivating a relationship with the saints.

Session 3: Fanning the Flame

Once again, this talk also had four sub-sections: a.) Good works, b.) Lending our talent to the Master, c.) Praying without ceasing, and d.) Pilgrimage to Orthodox monasteries

Session 4: Safeguarding the Light

This last talk had three sub-sections: a.) The Jesus Prayer (this focused more on noetic prayer, or prayer of the heart, in other words the perfect form of the Jesus Prayer), b.) Taking a spiritual inventory, c.) Spiritual endurance.

I was trying to structure these talks so as to show a gradual ascent; I was hoping each session would represent a rung of a ladder leading us ever upward.  So, I started with the basics and increasingly moved up to the weightier spiritual topics.

While it was around 12AM Newfoundland time when I delivered the first and last talks (one was given on Friday night, one on Saturday night), I managed to get through them.  Although, I found I stumbled over my words a little more than I did while delivering the other two talks during the day.

20180429_005534I really enjoyed giving the talks.  Anyone who has heard me speak in person can attest that I get very excited to have the chance to talk about what I love. And there is nothing on this earth I love more than Orthodoxy.  (My actions may not reflect this, but I do love our Orthodox faith and love talking about our faith.)

As you can see from the above side-by-side images, prayers were held in a makeshift chapel for the weekend. I was a touch sad to be in a city with multiple Orthodox churches and to have services in a non-Orthodox temple, since we only have a temporary chapel here in Newfoundland. But, it made sense because the whole retreat was held at a retreat center, so at least we had a place to pray.

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St. Vincent of Lerins

Sunday evening I had the great joy of visiting Saskatoon’s Antiochian parish of St. Vincent of Lerins where, after evening prayers, we went downstairs for a bite to eat and an informal talk, mostly questions and answers. I especially enjoyed this because I find when people ask questions you get a better insight into what is important to them and I was very impressed to learn how seriously they take their faith.

20180429_205146“There is no distance in the spiritual life,” Gerontissa told me on my last trip to her monastery in Greece. Truly, there is neither distance nor strangeness. By this I mean within Orthodoxy you can meet a person for a brief moment and immediately feel one with the person, united, bound through Christ.  Glory to God!

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Saskatchewan river (I don’t remember if it is the North or South river)

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sweetnessBelow is yet another excerpt from The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory published by Ancient Faith PublishingIt is from Chapter 1, “Blessed are the Poor of Spirit”, pp. 29-31. 

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.

01

Contemplating the Virtue of the Theotokos

During the winter months, the sun had already set by the time I reached the Holy Dormition Monastery of the Mother of God. Vespers was most often held in the large catholicon outside the monastery gates.

Entering the outer narthex, I would light a beeswax candle in front of the festal icon the sisters had set out on the icon stand. As soon as I opened the large wooden door to the nave, I would be greeted by the sound of the nuns’ melodic chanting and surrounded by the sweet fragrance of burning incense. I would then proceed to the large icon of the Mother of God depicted with the Lord on her lap.

In those sacred if fleeting moments, I felt genuinely connected to the Mother of God. In the dim light of the church, I could even supplicate her with tears and be noticed by no one. As far away as she seemed out in the world at times, she seemed very near in the sacred space of her holy monastery.

To stand in the presence of a holy icon is to stand in the presence of the person depicted therein. Whether we stand before a large icon encased in an elaborately decorated wooden frame or before a paper icon taped on the refrigerator, we are in the presence of the holy person whose countenance is painted in line and color. But in the peaceful, prayerful atmosphere of a holy monastery, we are often more attuned to the spiritual reality surrounding us, which makes our prayer flow more readily and brings the contemplation of holy mysteries within our grasp.

It is in moments such as those that I contemplate the person of the Most Holy Theotokos. Thinking on her life and works, her sufferings and sacrifice, I feel she offers us the answer to all our problems. The example of her life is the cure for our illness, the source of joy to heal our sorrow. By means of merely two of her countless virtues—obedience and purity—she teaches us everything. In her obedience to God, she shows us that perfect freedom and the attainment of our full potential are found in submitting our fallen and corrupted will to the all-good Father. Thus we mold our will into His will and therefore become able eventually not only to know the good but to will it and do it.

With her outward and inward purity, the Theotokos points us to the easy path of sanctification. By keeping our souls and bodies pure, by not even accepting corrupted thoughts, we maintain the ability to hear and communicate with God and thus learn how to live in conformity to His will. If we have long ago lost our mental, spiritual, and/or physical purity, we have the opportunity to restore them through confession and repentance. These are our constant means of imitating her virtue and, as she does most of all, pleasing her Son and our God.

And so, no matter how ill we are, no matter our upbringing, no matter the genetic weaknesses of body and soul we have inherited, no matter the state of the world around us, we have the opportunity, by God’s grace and through the prayers of the Theotokos, to become healthy. We too can, in our own dormition, pass from life to life through a mere falling asleep, if only we will imitate her virtue.

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sweetnessI thought I’d keep with the pattern I’ve set for Sundays in Great Lent and share yet another story from The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.  The story posted on the Sunday of  St. Gregory Palamas was about a vigil in Thessaloniki on the feast of St. Gregory and the story posted on the Sunday of the Cross was composed of vignettes about the True Cross of Christ . Although this story is not explicitly on St. John Climacus, it references him so I thought I’d share it. It is from Chapter 7, “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God”. 

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.

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He Who Comes in the Name of Lord

Acquiring a spiritual father requires prayer and discernment, a humble disposition, and an openness to the will of God, because a spiritual father “becomes the means of leading the life of men out of hell (by the negative effect of their passions), and into pure Christian life and spiritual freedom”.[i] Thus, it is a precious treasure when one’s spiritual father not only preaches Christ, but lives like Christ, as Monk Isaiah wrote to Nun Theodora: “The Holy Spirit is for everyone; but in those who are pure of the passions, who are chaste and live in stillness and silence, He reveals special powers”.[ii]

The greatest spiritual guides are those whose manner of life teaches as much or more than their words and advice. If a spiritual guide does not live the commandments of Christ, if he has not experienced temptation, if he does not actively struggle to overcome his passions, then how will he teach others to do likewise? On this point Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex says, “If the word that the spiritual father says is not seasoned with grace, nor proceeds from a heart that is warmed by the love of Christ, it becomes like the work of psychologists or counselors—a ‘half-blind’ worldly activity. The word of the spiritual father must bear the seal of grace, the seasoning of grace”.[iii]

I was once visiting a women’s monastery when it was announced that the spiritual father of sisterhood would be arriving shortly. We all went to the courtyard to await his arrival. The nuns were abuzz with excitement, running from here to there in anticipation, getting ready to greet their beloved father and teacher.

Once he was close to the monastery, the church bells began to peal a joyous greeting for the sisterhood’s spiritual elder with the honor and respect due to a person of great importance. The sisters opened wide the gates and allowed the car to drive right into the monastery (their elder was old and sickly and couldn’t walk very far).

They had set out a chair for him in the shade of the garden beside the small chapel. He was led to his seat and offered some water while we all—nuns and visitors—gathered around him. Once the sisterhood had all taken his blessing (which took some time on account of the large number of nuns), we, the visitors, approached to receive his blessing. He smiled sweetly at us and passed on good wishes. He briefly addressed all present, but it was difficult for us to hear him on account of the crowd. His humble disposition and kind demeanor made an impact on me, but the sisters’ joy and overwhelming love at having their spiritual father among them was more impressive still, contagious even.

The sisters’ excitement and love for their holy elder was a beautiful testament to the great importance of spiritual fatherhood. For it is the spiritual father who gives “spiritual rebirth, who introduce[s us] to the life in Christ, and who guides [us] on the path of salvation. Our rebirth in Christ . . . makes us members in the community of our church and offers us the ability to live a life in Christ”.[iv]

Truly, what a great thing it is to follow our spiritual father on the path to salvation. “Let’s not search for foretellers or foreseers,” St. John Climacus advises us, “but above all for those who have humble mindedness in all things, and those who can deal with our spiritual illnesses” (Ladder 4, p. 88, 725D).

[i] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, (Mount Thabor Publishing: South Canaan, 2006), p. 174.

[ii] The Matericon: Instructions of Abba Isaiah to the Honourable Nun Theodora (St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery: Safford, 2001), p. 160.

[iii] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, (Mount Thabor Publishing: South Canaan, 2006), p. 174.

[iv] Symeon Koutsas, The Spiritual Father According to Orthodox Tradition, trans. Constantine Zalalas, (St. Nicodemus Press: Bethlehem, 1995).

 

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sweetnessJust as I did last Sunday, I wish to share an excerpt from my second book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory published by Ancient Faith Publishing  in honour of the Cross which is commemorated today, the third Sunday of Great Lent.  The story is from Chapter 8, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, pp. 264-269.

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.

Sunday of the Cross 2

Sunday of the Cross, Holy Lady of Vladimir Mission, St. John’s, NL

 The Power of Your Cross, O Lord

“We should always make the sign of the cross, before we do something, before we speak,” Sr. Silouani instructed us. “While caught up in a conversation, even if we can’t make the sign of the cross over our mouth externally, we can do it internally, noetically, so as to be protected, to say what is necessary with the right words in an appropriate manner.”

The symbol of the cross holds great importance for Orthodox Christians; we make the sign of the cross countless times a day. In a monastery, the respect and honor attributed to the cross is even more obvious. You cannot but notice the frequency with which monastics employ the cross, the great ensign “dread and most awesome in war” (Kontakion for Ss. Constantine and Helen).

Before beginning any task—even simple tasks like washing the dishes—a nun crosses herself; when cooking food in the oven, a nun makes the sign of the cross over it; when baking bread, a nun will cut a small cross in the top of each loaf. Monastics sew small, unobtrusive red crosses on their clothes (usually on the underside), as well as on blankets and pillowcases.

When they compliment or congratulate someone, they often cross the person as well. When they yawn or laugh very hard, the sisters mark their lips with the sign of the cross. They make the sign of the cross when they yawn to ward off sleep potentially induced by the evil one, while they cross their mouths when they laugh because they struggle to practice temperance even in regard to laughter. Before eating or drinking, they cross themselves as well as their food and drink.

Conversely, they do not sit with their legs crossed (over the thigh) out of respect for the symbol of the cross, nor would they put a cross pattern in a floor, because people would walk on it. In fact, it is said that Athonite monks used to check the soles of their shoes—and those of pilgrims—to make sure they were not walking on symbols of the cross. If they found cross patterns on their soles, they would cut those pieces out.

I once read in the Gerontikon that a monk was walking through the woods and saw two twigs on the ground in the form of a cross. He bent down and uncrossed them so that no one would trample on the sign of the cross. Such is a monastic’s watchfulness and care for sacred symbols.

In all these ways and more, monastics try to keep the memory of the cross before them at all times, and not only the memory but the power of the cross. They look to the sign of the cross to help, enlighten, and protect them. As is said in an Orthodox hymn, “The power of Your cross, O Lord, is very great!”

We too should try to incorporate the sign of the cross into our daily lives as much as possible. To help inspire us to employ the sign of the cross and contemplate its great power, I will share the following stories.

When our friends were getting married, their koumvaroi[1] wanted to give them a special present. They had been given a small relic, a piece of the True Cross—the very wood on which Christ was crucified. They wanted to share this relic with our friends in honor of their wedding. The only problem was they didn’t know how to break a piece off. By the grace of God, such an action was unnecessary, for when they opened the reliquary they saw that the relic of the Cross had already divided into two pieces on its own, without anyone having touched it.

***

Another dear friend of ours—more like a lay spiritual mother than a friend—had made a pilgrimage to a monastery for the Feast of the Theophany. During the service for the Great Blessing of the Waters, when the priestmonk placed the cross in the water, she saw the water bubble as though it were rapidly boiling each of the three times the priest immersed the cross to sanctify the water. She was astonished and looked around to see if anyone else was as surprised as she was to witness the physical manifestation of the spiritual reality. No one else seemed to observe this miracle, and so our friend waited to speak with the priestmonk after the conclusion of the service.

She told him what she had seen when he placed the cross in the water, and he told her, “That was a gift from God to prepare you for a great temptation.” Needless to say, she witnessed with her own eyes the power of the cross.

***

While we were on a pilgrimage to the city of Xanthi in Greece, our priest told us about a holy patriarch, Joachim of Alexandria. At that time there was a king in Egypt of the region of Misiri. Despite his impiety, the king heard about the virtuous and venerable patriarch and began to admire the holy man. The king’s servant, however, did not share his master’s enthusiasm, and in order to demonstrate to the king that the patriarch was not as great as he seemed, he encouraged the king to invite the patriarch to visit.

When the patriarch arrived, the cunning servant proposed a debate, thinking he would defeat the patriarch. However, with ease the patriarch refuted all the servant’s empty and false comments about the Christian Faith. Recognizing his defeat, the servant came up with what he thought was a cunning plan to humiliate the patriarch and demonstrate that he wasn’t as holy as the King took him to be.

Knowing something of the Gospel, the servant challenged the patriarch to demonstrate the Christian ability to move a mountain with faith, promising to believe in the Christian God if the patriarch was successful. The patriarch requested a number of days to pray, and when he returned, he made the sign of the cross over himself three times, bowed, and invoked the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the mountain split into three parts and began moving toward them.

The King cried out in fear that they would be crushed and implored the patriarch to make the mountain stand still. (To this day the mountain is called Dur Dag, which means, “Stay still, mountain!”)

Despite this miracle of faith, the wicked servant still refused to believe and instead proposed another test. He had also heard that the Gospel says that whoever has faith will not die even if he drinks poison. So once again he told the patriarch if he accomplished this feat, the servant would believe. But the servant, knowing something of the power of the cross, told the patriarch he could not cross himself.

When the cup of poison was placed before the patriarch, the holy man asked, “But from which place should I drink? From here, here, here, or here?” touching the four sides of the cup in turn. By asking this the patriarch cunningly made the sign of the cross over the cup of poison.

“Anywhere you wish,” came the answer, and the patriarch drank down the poison and remained unharmed. The servant, thinking the poison must not have been strong enough to kill the patriarch, rinsed out the cup and drank from it. He, however, was not protected from the poison and fell down dead.

***

The grandfather of a friend served as a soldier in the Greek army during the first half of the nineteenth century. He had a small piece of the True Cross sewn into his uniform for divine protection, and it worked a great miracle. The enemy opened fire on him, but he was preserved unharmed. To his astonishment, however, when he removed his uniform, he saw it was riddled with bullet holes. Such is the power of the Cross!

***

A young girl I know also had firsthand experience of the power of the True Cross. She had gone to visit a priest from Crete who had in his possession a piece of the Cross. Countless people visit him in order to be blessed with the Cross, and many receive healing. Doctors had found a tumor in the bone of this young girl’s leg, and when she was blessed by the Cross it stuck—of its own accord—to the very place where the tumor was in her leg.

Many people had similar experiences to this: the Cross would stick to the very place they had a health problem, sometimes healing the person on the spot; sometimes they would come back for multiple blessings. It’s a wonderful reminder that even two thousand years after the death of our Savior, the wood of the Cross on which He suffered death for our sakes still works miracles.

Before Your Cross we bow down in worship, O Master, and Your holy Resurrection we glorify!

[1] Koumvaros/a/oi: the Greek title for a sponsor, someone who is in good standing with the Orthodox Church, and who supports the spiritual life of the married couple he/she is sponsoring.

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