20 January 2021

Holy Hierarch Evtimii, Patriarch of Tărnovo and All Bulgaria

Saint Evtimii of Tărnovo

Today in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of Saint Evtimii of Tărnovo, another of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s great mediæval luminaries. Saint Evtimii is perhaps the greatest of the Bulgarian saintly patriarchs of his time; like Saints Teodosii (his teacher) and Romil, he was also a firm and vocal (er, so to speak) supporter of the Hesychast movement in the Orthodox Church spearheaded by the great Saint Grēgorios of Sinai, who had settled and reposed in Bulgaria. Saint Evtimii was also an accomplished linguist and a formidable scholarly mind, and he did much to uplift the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in his time as Patriarch.

Saint Evtimii [Bg. Евтимий] was born around the year 1317 in Tărnovo. He was Bulgarian, and his parents likely belonged to the eminent Tsamblak family of that city. He received a fine education from the monastic schools in Tărnovo, and around the age of thirty he chose to become a monk himself. He was tonsured and accepted into the monastery at Kilifarevo, which had been founded by Saint Teodosii. By dint of his humble attitude and his steadfast obedience he earned the trust of Saint Teodosii, who appointed him his assistant in 1363. Together they travelled to Constantinople and stayed at the Studion Monastery which had been founded under the rule of Patriarch Saint Gennadios, which was renowned for its library. It was here, shortly afterward, that Saint Teodosii reposed in the Lord.

Saint Evtimii distinguished himself among the monks at Studion for his obedience, for his willingness to learn, and the rapidity with which he soaked up the wisdom of the holy place. At some point he moved from Studion to Athos, where he established himself at the Monastery of Saint Athanasios the Athonite. Here he was influenced by Saints Grēgorios of Sinai and Iōannēs Koukouzelēs. He was punished with exile by the Emperor Iōannēs V Palaiologos and sent to the isle of Lemnos, possibly for speaking out against the emperor’s submission to the Pope of Rome. At length he was permitted to return to Athos. When he did he entered the Bulgarian Monastery of Zographou and stayed there for a brief time.

He returned to his native Bulgaria in 1371. Here he founded a monastery with attached school dedicated to the Holy Trinity in Tărnovo, and applied himself to a great linguistic task of educating the people… continuing and deepening the work that had been begun by the Seven Holy Saints of the South Slavs. On Athos, he had been exposed to, and discussed, a number of sacred texts in the original Greek, and had found that the Bulgarian equivalents he had grown up with had been poorly transcribed in an irregular manner, such that they gave cause to confusion and rise to disputes. Saint Evtimii set to work reforming Church Slavonic orthography to render it more intelligible to ordinary people. He also committed himself to a massive amount of work in translating and redacting works into Church Slavonic from Greek. The texts transcribed and redacted by Saint Evtimii still serve as the basis of the great bulk of the Liturgical texts still in use in the Slavonic setting, in Russia and the South Slavic nations. For this reason, Gregory Tsamblak, his biographer, compared his work to that of Holy Prophet Moses and of the Ægyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy I.

Saint Evtimii succeeded Patriarch Ioanikii as the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church upon the latter’s repose in 1375. Keeping true to his teacher Saint Teodosii and to the præcepts of the Orthodox Church even in a time of widespread hæresy and disputes, Saint Evtimii became the foremost supporter of the Hesychast movement in Bulgaria. He applied his wisdom and his skill as Patriarch to the rectification of moral order in the Orthodox Church and to the proper division of the word of Truth.

Saint Evtimii was in charge of commanding the Bulgarian forces at the disastrous Siege of Tărnovo in 1393, when the city was overthrown and razed by the rapacious Turks under the command of Süleyman Çelebi. Saint Evtimii had been left in command by Tsar Ivan Shishman, who was off with the main army defending Nikopol. For three months Saint Evtimii encouraged the Bulgarian forces to hold out against the Turkish foe, however – as Gregory Tsamblak suggests – Tărnovo may have been betrayed from the inside by members of one of the non-Christian neighbourhoods inside the city. The Turks entered and engaged in wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants, including 110 of the boyars and prominent citizens of the city, and desecration of the churches. Saint Evtimii was spared from this holocaust and sent into exile in Bachkovo Monastery in Thrace. Saint Evtimii reposed perhaps around the year 1402. Unfortunately, we do not know where he is buried. The death of Saint Evtimii and the destruction of Bulgaria by the Turks tragically spelled the end of the Tărnovo Patriarchate, which was subsequently subjugated to Constantinople. Only in 1870 were the historical rights of the Bulgarian Patriarchate restored. Holy hierarch Evtimii, holy hesychast and great teacher of piety to the Bulgarian people, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Evtimii of Tărnovo, Tone 4:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,
An image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;
Your humility exalted you;
Your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Evtimii,
Entreat Christ our God
That our souls may be saved.

Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Tărnovo, Bulgaria

19 January 2021

Congress as ‘sacred ground’?

To listen to the New York Times and the Washington Post tell it, the events of 6 January were nothing less than an unforgivable act of sacrilege and blasphemy. ‘Inside the most sacred spaces of American democracy,’ went the New York Times report by Grynbaum, Koblin and Hsu, unfolded an abomination of desolation worthy of the breaking news format ‘reserved for foreign wars, natural disasters or terrorist attacks’.

Now, I am someone who likes public order and stability as public goods. Order and stability are valuable no matter where they happen to be. So yes, I was naturally upset by what was essentially a riot aimed at overturning an election result in contravention of the established law of the land. I firmly believe that the rioters in DC were in the wrong, for the same reasons I believe that the looters and shooters here in Minneapolis over the summer were in the wrong. I also believe it is a very bleak indicator of the direction that our country is, in general, headed. But is it not intriguing that these established organs of the national news media would be so insistent on the sacrality of the buildings of the national government, when they have shown so little respect to public monuments elsewhere in the country? Is not the New York Times in its insistence on this public sacrality not being monumentally hypocritical, after having given space to a project – to wit, the 1619 Project – that was meant specifically to axe the root of American civil religion in the first place?

Of course, one can look at this in a cynical way. The New York Times arrogates to itself the right to attack national institutions, national statuary and national history, which it then denies to those who are not in the clique. We can look at this as a simple demarcation on the New York Times’s part between ‘friends’ (woke liberals, whose attacks on American civil religion are humane and righteous) and ‘enemies’ (conservative deplorables, whose attacks on the same are treasonous and wicked). But I think the actual stakes run quite a bit deeper than that. The riots that happened last week in DC, and the heated language around them in the press, are indicative of what is essentially a religious conflict, a contest of political myths, that attempt to orient the body politic toward very different objects of public veneration.

The 1619 Project’s actual aim from the beginning was to ‘reframe’ American history to centre the narrative around the oppressed. Unfortunately Nikole Hannah-Jones has been remarkably coy about her overall purpose (not to mention her corporate sponsors). However, I think it is reasonable to say that it attempts to create and promote an alternative revisionist history of the United States from its roots in British colonialism. The objects of veneration that can be seen most clearly in the 1619 Project are the individuals in American history, who: (a) belonged to groups seen to be historically oppressed, and (b) are seen to have worked toward ends of political or sexual liberation for their oppressed group.

On the other hand, we now also have a 1776 Project, supported by – for example – The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, as well as a broad array of historical scholars from the (Trotskyist) left, the liberal centre and the conservative right. These scholars rightly point out that the 1619 Project is ideologically motivated. However, the aim of the 1776 Project goes further than simply debunking the factual or interpretive missteps of Hannah-Jones and her fellow contributors to the New York Times. Their aim is instead to preserve and expand an ideological reading of history that places the fundamentally deistic and nominalist ideas of the American experiment at the centre of the same world-historical struggle for liberation. The aim is to preserve the Founding Fathers, the ideological principles of the founding documents, and an abstract concept of liberty as the objects of public veneration.

As Orthodox Christians, the first thing we need to understand is that these duelling myths are not our myths. Both myths are grounded in a historical naïveté about human nature and the potential for human perfection apart from God’s grace. We do not and cannot recognise a salvation of the world through abstract ideas like representative government, or through pieces of paper like the Constitution of the United States. We do not hold any truth to be ‘self-evident’ other than the Living Truth, which is the truth of one Essence in three Persons that is rendered visible and intelligible to us in the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. I stand in full agreement with Orthodox theologians like Christos Yannaras and Vigen Guroian – and, for that matter, non-Orthodox theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank – when they voice their doubts about the fundamental soundness of America’s founding ideology and its commensurability with the revealed truth of Christ’s Person.

However, we can and should recognise that governments – even governments that are held captive to wicked men or to erroneous ideas – are nevertheless given their authority and legitimacy by God. Christians in America should still give due gratitude and respect to the establishment of justice and the insurance of domestic tranquillity – to borrow the language of the Constitutional Preamble – that the American state has (at its best) been able to provide to most of its citizens, including us. These public goods are precious and desirable, and we recognise them in every Divine Liturgy – when we pray to the Lord ‘for our country, for the president, and for all in public service… For this city, and for every city and land, and for the faithful who live in them… For favorable weather, for an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times’.

We are compelled to pray for the country, for our cities, and for those in public service. This means that we are also compelled to seek their good. It is therefore wrong to support an unlawful riot in our nation’s capital, which seeks to maintain the President in contravention of our established Constitutional order. On the other hand, however, we must be careful not to indulge in the sorts of sentimentality that the President’s most vocal critics indulge in, when they describe the halls of our government as ‘sacred’. This is a form of idolatry, and we must oppose this as well.

18 January 2021

Holy Hierarch Ioakim, Patriarch of Tărnovo and All Bulgaria

Saint Ioakim of Tărnovo

The eighteenth of January in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day and commemoration of another great mediæval South Slavic holy man, Patriarch Saint Ioakim I of Tărnovo. Saint Ioakim was a stalwart defender of the Orthodox faith in the Bulgarian lands during troublous times, as well as being a firm friend of the poor, the widows and the orphans. He was known in particular for his opposition to the death penalty and his intercessions with the Bulgarian Tsars on behalf of condemned prisoners.

Saint Ioakim [Bg. Иоаким] was born toward the tail end of the twelfth century, and was a ‘native Bulgarian’ according to the hagiographical account. Little appears to be known about his early life, but he committed himself to the monastic life of ascetic struggle, and spent much of his early life on the Holy Mountain of Athos. Stern towards himself but lenient toward others, Saint Ioakim became renowned for his rigorous rule of prayer, fasting and vigils – as well as for his selfless obedience to the Athonite fathers he served, and for the persistence and consistency in applying himself to the struggle against the passions. His humility and piety became renowned on Athos, and monks began to seek him out.

After ‘a long time’, according to the hagiography, Ioakim returned to his native Bulgaria. The hagiography itself gives no reason for this, but later Bulgarian commentators suggest that it may have come from a humble desire to flee vainglory and his own fame as a spiritual elder, or perhaps from a righteous desire to enlighten the land where he was born. He settled in a place called Krasen near the banks of the Danube – which is probably somewhere near Cherven at the source of the Rusenski Lom in northeastern Bulgaria. He established the Church of the Holy Transfiguration, and settled there with three disciples: Diomid, Atanasii and Teodosii.

He was approached by Tsar Ivan Asen II, who was desirous of the counsel of the holy man, and wished to speak with him on the topics of salvation. As a gift the Tsar brought with him a great deal of gold. The hermit Ioakim used this gold to hire workers, and they built a great rock-hewn monastic complex near Ivanovo, which is still standing today, and which is famous for the beautiful frescoes which adorn the inner walls. This monastery Ioakim built so that it could house all of the postulants and seekers who came to him seeking the word of Truth, and here he kept to the rules of prayer and fasting that he had observed his entire monastic life.

According to the Life of Saint Sava of Serbia, on December of the year 1234 the great Saint Sava of Serbia visited Tărnovo, and was greeted with hospitality and enthusiasm by both the Tsar and by Saint Ioakim. Together Saint Sava and Saint Ioakim concelebrated the Feast of Theophany. When Saint Sava fell ill and died some days later, Saint Ioakim himself cared for the saint on his deathbed, presided at the saint’s funeral, and had him interred with great honour in the Church of the Forty Martyrs.

The following pages of his hagiography are sadly no longer extant. These pages deal, perhaps, with the (re)establishment of the Bulgarian Patriarchate in 1235 with its primary see at Tărnovo. This happened at a Church council convoked in Lampsakos in Asia Minor. It was here, perhaps, that Saint Ioakim was proclaimed Patriarch of Bulgaria at Tsar Ivan Asen II’s express request, and with the blessing of ‘the bishops of the whole Bulgarian land’, and was confirmed and granted the omophorion by the Œcumenical Patriarch Germanos II of Constantinople.

As Patriarch, Saint Ioakim ‘blessed and enlightened the whole of the Bulgarian land’. His hagiography also lays particular stress on the fact that he showed ‘mercy to the orphans, gave to the needy and to the poor, visited those in prison; and he offered unceasing prayers at every hour; and saved many who were sentenced to death, and saved many who resorted to him from the wrath of the Tsar’. The hagiography of Saint Sava refers to the ‘honest and holy’ Patriarch Ioakim of Bulgaria. Saint Ioakim came to the end of his earthly life on the eighteenth of January 1246, probably when he was of a very advanced age. He was given to know in advance of his impending death; therefore he gathered his disciples and the clergy around them, exhorted them to uphold the Orthodox faith, begged their forgiveness for any wrong that he had done them, and forgave them all in turn. He reposed peaceably in the Lord. So fondly did his contemporaries remember him, that the thirteenth century had not ended before Ioakim was glorified in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as a saint. Holy hierarch Ioakim, friend to the poor and intercessor on behalf of the guilty and condemned, stand too before Christ our Lord on behalf of us sinners and beseech His great mercy!
Apolytikion for Saint Ioakim of Tărnovo, Tone 4:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,
An image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;
Your humility exalted you;
Your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Ioakim,
Entreat Christ our God
That our souls may be saved.

Rock-hewn Churches of the Ivanovo, Bulgaria

16 January 2021

Venerable Romil the Hesychast of Ravanica

Saint Romil of Ravanica

Today in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of another of the shining lights of mediæval hesychasm, Saint Romil of Ravanica. Saint Romil was one of several of the disciples of the great teacher of hesychasm Saint Grēgorios of Sinai, along with Saint Teodosii of Tărnovo, who shone forth in Southeastern Europe in what was a fairly dark time for the Orthodox Church as a whole. To him let us look as to a lodestar in our own dark times.

Saint Romil [Bg. Ромил, Srb. Ромило] was born by the name of Ruško in the city of Vidin in the year 1330. His parents were wealthy and well-born: his father was Greek and his mother was Bulgarian. They gave him a sound education, and Ruško impressed his teachers with his quickness and eagerness to learn. Ruško was not, however, like the other children his age. He did not play games or indulge in idle pursuits, being of a much more serious-minded bent. His parents worried for him, and began to arrange a marriage for him. Fearing to be trapped in such a scheme, Ruško fled his parents’ house at the age of fourteen and ventured from Vidin into Tărnovo, asking to be accepted as a novice at the Mother of God ‘Who Shows the Way’ Monastery in that city. He was admitted and took on the monastic name of Roman. He distinguished himself as a monk by his humility and his obedience to his abbot.

This happened at around the same time as Saint Grēgorios of Sinai arrived in Bulgaria, having been exiled there by Muslim persecutions and hostile governors. He was welcomed by the pious Tsar Ivan Aleksandăr, and was allowed to settle in the Strandža, and establish a monastery near Paroria – now a national park in Bulgaria. It was not long before the great father of the hesychasts began attracting followers to him from throughout southeastern Europe. One of them was the young monk Roman, who asked his abbot’s leave to journey to Paroria, to dwell there and to learn from the great Saint Grēgorios.

At first, his abbot was loath to let him go. Not only was Roman an exceptional monk whose loss would be keenly felt by the Mother of God Monastery, but the abbot also displayed that wise, loving and prudent caution regarding his spiritual sons that all men of advanced spiritual achievement would do. He feared for Roman’s soul, that he might be tempted into delusion. But it soon became apparent to the abbot that Roman’s spiritual thirst was a genuine and healthy one, and so at last the abbot gave his leave to the young man, and offered him provisions for the journey to Paroria.

At Paroria, Roman became one of Saint Grēgorios’s most devoted disciples. He had come to the monastery with a fellow-monk named Ilarion, who was of a weak constitution. Seeing this, Grēgorios assigned to Ilarion the lighter and easier tasks around the monastery, while to Roman he assigned the heavy and menial work: chopping wood, drawing water, hauling stones and earth, serving in the kitchens. He was also assigned to the infirmary to tend to the sick. But not one word of complaint passed Roman’s lips, and whatever he did he tended to it with great attention and love. Sick men became well under his ministrations. Very soon he came to be called ‘Roman the Good’ by his fellow monks.

Saint Grēgorios observed this, and approved. He began instructing Roman in the hesychast method of inner silence and the prayer of the heart. When the saint reposed, Roman grieved day and night for the elder. He was loath to remain at Paroria while not under the supervision of a spiritual elder. His fellow-traveller Ilarion had already subjected himself to another elder, and Roman soon joined him. Again Roman placed himself under obedience to him just as he had to Saint Grēgorios.

Paroria was, at that time, subject to attacks by brigands and by Muslim princes who were hostile to Bulgarians as a matter of course. Having robbed the three monks of food and shelter, Roman, Ilarion and their spiritual elder were forced to flee Paroria to Mokren. Here Roman parted from the company against the elder’s wishes, seeking a desert place where he could live by himself. However, soon after this the elder died, and Roman, penitent for his act of disobedience, returned to Ilarion and flung himself down at the other monk’s feet. In repentance, Roman demanded to be allowed to place himself under Ilarion’s obedience. At first Ilarion refused, knowing Roman to be his better in spiritual attainment, but after seeing Roman’s sincere and heartfelt remorse Ilarion agreed to Roman’s request.

Tsar Ivan Aleksandăr had gone in force to Paroria and cleared it of bandits, and for a short time Roman and Ilarion returned and lived there as master and disciple. Roman took on the Great Schema and the monastic name of Romil. However, the bandits returned and again Saint Romil was forced to flee. He set up a small hermitage in a remote place, but other monks who were jealous of Romil’s peace began to whisper against them, and rather than contend with them Romil went instead to Athos. Seeking deeper and deeper solitude he settled at last at Melana, and then to the spare, forbidding northern slopes of Athos. But even in these remote places, spiritual elders would send Saint Romil pupils and spiritual children of theirs whom they thought to be in need of correction. Romil advised them on ways to be loving and humble, and ways to love God in greater perfection. Keeping in mind his own sins, Romil humbly encouraged those who came to him always to be obedient, just as Christ obeyed His Father.

After the Serbian despot Uglješa Mrnjavčević fell in battle against the Turks at the disastrous Battle of the Marica River in September 1371, the impious Turks were emboldened to mount attacks on the Holy Mountain itself. Saint Romil was among those who were forced to flee the Turkish assaults on the island, and he wound up first in Vlorë on the Adriatic Sea coast in what is now Albania. Once again he sought solitude, and once again it eluded him. Many monks and laymen sought him out in his hermitage for spiritual advice and healing. However, the unjust governors in Vlorë and the poor catechesis among the priesthood there precipitated his move from there to Ravanica in Serbia.

In Ravanica there was a newly-built monastery which Prince Saint Lazar had dedicated to the Most Holy Theotokos, and Saint Romil set himself up in a cell near to this monastery. Here he lived for the remainder of his days, before he reposed in the Lord on the sixteenth of January, 1385. When he was buried, it was said that his tomb gave off an ineffable sweet fragrance. Many wonders of healing and exorcism attended Saint Romil’s burial and took place over his relics. Holy and venerable Romil, humble hermit and luminous beacon of hesychasm, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Romil the Hesychast, Tone 8:

By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile,
And your longing for God brought forth fruits in abundance.
By the radiance of miracles you illumined the whole universe!
O our holy father Romil, pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

Ravanica Monastery, Serbia

15 January 2021

Venerable Gavriil, Hermit of Lesnovo

Saint Gavriil of Lesnovo

The fifteenth of January is also the feast-day of the great and venerable Saint Gavriil of Lesnovo, a contemporary and friend of the meek Serbian Saint Prohor of Pčinja, with whom he shares this day of veneration. Both of them were disciples of Saint Ivan of Rila. As with both Saint Ivan and Saint Prohor, his hagiography bears some resemblance to saints in the Celtic tradition.

Saint Gavriil [Bg. Гавриил] was born in the eleventh century to noble parents, in the town of Osiče near Kriva Palanka, in what is now North Macedonia – although at the time it was part of the Byzantine province of Bulgaria. His parents, who had been without children for much of their adulthood, had prayed to God for a son, and Gavriil was His gift to them. They arranged a marriage for him and left him all of their property. But Gavriil’s young wife soon died, and Gavriil fled his inherited estate in search of a life which would be well-pleasing to God.

He met a deacon named Thomas, whose love for Christ inflamed in his heart a desire for the ascetic life. Thereafter he had a vision of the Archangel Michael, whereupon he returned to Osiče and established a church there, in honour of the Nativity of the Theotokos. However, he was soon compelled to leave his home and seek a monastic vocation at the Monastery of Saint Michael in the village of Lesnovo – today located in the foothills of northeastern North Macedonia. Here he distinguished himself by his humility and meek obedience to the abbot, and the abbot, soon recognising his spiritual potential, granted him the privilege of living in a cell apart by himself to devote greater time to prayer and vigil.

The monk Gavriil lived in this way meekly for some time. However, he had great compassion on his brethren, and his prayers for them when they were injured or ill had great efficacy in healing them. Many sought out Gavriil on account of this grace he demonstrated. As the crowds grew larger, Gavriil moved out of the monastery to avoid them, and he ventured first northward toward the forested hills around Lukovo. There he met a shepherd whose flock had been infected with a certain incurable and deadly blight of the flesh. The shepherd asked Saint Gavriil to bless some water and sprinkle it on his sheep. The sheep were healed wondrously by this water. The shepherd spread the news around of the holy man, and soon again Gavriil was thronged about by crowds. Again the hermit withdrew to a high mountain peak – possibly Orlov Kamen on the border of Serbia and Bulgaria. Here he spent thirty years toiling in solitary struggle, unknown to men. Here he met his repose in the Lord.

Saint Gavriil appeared in a vision to a Bulgarian monk named Iosif, asking him to make a journey to uncover his relics. Iosif – fearing that the vision might be a delusion sent by the Evil One – went to consult with his abbot and with the Metropolitan about it. The Metropolitan believed the vision to have been genuine, and enjoined the monk Iosif to make the journey and follow the saint’s instructions. The monk Iosif took with him a party of fellow-monastics and set off for the peak, and being guided by a second vision they found there the relics of Saint Gavriil lying in his cell, incorrupt. The monk brought them with great reverence to Lesnovo Monastery, where they were interred with honour and became the site of many wondrous healings and spiritual prodigies. The Serbian voivode and despot Jovan Oliver, in the fourteenth century, visited the now run-down monastery and built a church to house the reliquary, as well as giving generously of his own funds to restore the monastic house to its former glory. Later in the fourteenth century, the relics of Saint Gavriil would be transferred to Veliko Tărnovo to keep them safe from the depredations of the Turkish Sultân Murad I. His relics today, however, rest at the Lesnovo Monastery – which today bears both the name of Archangel Michael and the name of Saint Gavriil. Holy and venerable Gavriil, steadfast athlete of Christ, ascetic and healer, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Apolytikion for Saint Gavriil of Lesnovo, Tone 8:

By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile,
And your longing for God brought forth fruits in abundance.
By the radiance of miracles you illumined the whole universe!
O our holy father Gavriil, pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

St Michael and St Gabriel Monastery, Lesnovo, North Macedonia

Venerable Prohor, Hermit of Pčinja

Saint Prohor of Pčinja

The fifteenth of January is the Orthodox feast-day of Saint Prohor of Pčinja, another of the great saints of the mediæval South Slavs. A ‘desert’ monastic of the Balkan Peninsula in the eleventh century, Saint Prohor was a disciple of Saint Ivan of Rila and a contemporary and friend of Saint Gavriil of Lesnovo, whose memory we also celebrate today. Many elements of Saint Prohor’s hagiography are shared by certain of the Celtic hermits of Britain and Ireland, which is not surprising given the common heritage of desert spirituality that they share.

Saint Prohor [Bg., Srb. Прохор] was born in the Ovče Pole in what is now North Macedonia around the year 1000. Not much of his early life is known except that he became a follower of Saint Ivan of Rila. Seeking solitude for himself, he found a deserted spot for himself near where the town of Vranje now is, in the Pčinja River Valley. Here Prohor spent his life in solitary struggle against the passions, praying, fasting and keeping lonely vigil in the wilderness. He was tempted by many devils in his struggle. He subsisted upon wild cabbage and root vegetables, which he harvested for his food once a week. He went without seeing another human soul for thirty-two years.

What follows in his hagiography will be familiar to the students of Celtic spirituality, and in particular those who have read the lives of Saint Illtud of Wales, Saint Pedrog of Padstow, Saint Melangell of Pennant, Saint Neot of Cornwall or Saint Wihtburg of Dereham. It so happened that a doe which was being hunted fled into Saint Prohor’s cell and hid behind him for protection from the hunter’s hounds. Soon enough the hunter, who happened to be the future Rōmanos IV Diogenēs, came upon the hermit’s cell. The hermit was standing outside the door of his cave, barring the hunter from entering it. Prohor made the Sign of the Cross and gently commanded the hunter not to kill the doe. However, young Rōmanos, seeing the unnatural way in which the timid doe was not frightened of this holy man, fled from Prohor as though from an unearthly apparition.

However, Prohor came out from his cell and began calling Rōmanos by name. It may well be that the young Eastern Roman nobleman’s curiosity overpowered his fear, because he responded to Saint Prohor, and went back to meet him. Saint Prohor engaged the young Greek hunter in conversation, and when it came time for Rōmanos to take his leave of the saint, he asked for his blessing. Saint Prohor blessed him, and foretold that in time he would take the laurels. In return, Saint Prohor asked that the young nobleman not forget him. After this encounter, Saint Prohor retreated further into the wilderness.

Years passed, and Rōmanos IV Diogenēs took the throne in Constantinople. He did not forget his promise to Saint Prohor, who returned to him in a vision. Rōmanos went back to the spot along the Pčinja where he had met Prohor, but the holy man was nowhere to be found. The saint, who had long since reposed in a remote cave deep in the wilderness, appeared once more to Rōmanos and told him where and how his relics might be found. Following the vision’s instructions exactly, Rōmanos and his entourage came to the holy man’s cave, and found his body inside… completely incorrupt, lying down peacefully as though he were merely sleeping.

Emperor Rōmanos had a reliquary wrought out of fine gold for the saint, and placed his precious remains inside. The emperor then tried to move the reliquary, but it was so heavy that even an entire team of horses could not get it to budge. In this way the saint made manifest his will not to be removed from the place of his repose. And so Emperor Rōmanos established the Pčinja Monastery in the same place where Saint Prohor’s cave was. Today Pčinja is the second-largest Serbian monastery which is still active, after the Hilandar Monastery on Athos. Holy and venerable hermit Prohor, wondrous athlete for Christ and friend to all creation, pray unto Christ our God to have mercy upon us sinners!
Apolytikion for Saint Prohor of Pčinja, Tone 8:

By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile,
And your longing for God brought forth fruits in abundance.
By the radiance of miracles you illumined the whole universe!
O our holy father Prohor, pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

Prohor of Pčinja Monastery, Serbia

14 January 2021

Holy Hierarch Ilarion of Măglen

Saint Ilarion of Măglen

The fourteenth of January is the feast-day of one of mediæval Bulgaria’s great episcopal patrons and defenders of Orthodox doctrine, Saint Ilarion of Măglen. The small village of Măglen seems to be distinguished by holiness, both on account of this bishop and on account of the God-fearing virgin-martyr Saint Zlata; however the bishop predates the girl by over six hundred years. Saint Ilarion is venerated both on the fourteenth of January and on the twenty-first of September.

Much of what we know about Saint Ilarion [Bg. Иларион] comes from the Prologue as well as from mediæval Bulgarian sources. He was of Greek origin, and was born at some point in the 1080s in the mountain village of Promachoi, which is in the remote northern Pellas region in Greece very close to the border with North Macedonia. His parents – who were of the peasant class – were said to have been particularly observant. Ilarion followed closely in their footsteps: by the age of three he was said to have been chanting ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabbaoth!’ in great reverence. At the age of eighteen he left home to become a monk.

His monastic career was notable for his crystal-clear honesty and his sterling devotion, and it was not long before he was selected by the brethren to become the igumen, or abbot, of his monastery. He loved his fellow-monks and looked after them like a mother hen looks after her chicks. In particular he sought to bring his monastic brothers toward a sober way of life, and strictly limited the amount of wine they were allowed to drink. Later he founded his own monastery, dedicated to the Apostles, which followed the cœnobitic Rule of Saint Pachomios of the Ægyptian Thebaïd.

The holy abbot came to the notice of the Archbishop of Ohrid, Eustathios, when Eustathios was granted a vision of the Most Holy Theotokos, directing him to appoint the abbot in the Pellas Mountains as overseer of the flock in Măglen. Archbishop Eustathios heeded the voice of the Queen of Heaven, and lay his hands upon the abbot. This was indeed to the great benefit of the Bulgarian Church.

At this time, the hæresy of Bogomil was widespread and gaining strength among the Bulgarian people. Bogomil had preached among his followers a Gnostic and dualistic belief, possibly imported from the Paulicians of Armenia, that matter is inherently evil and that the servants of light must live as though they are divorced from all material concerns. The Bogomils scoffed at honourable marriage, at the eating of meat and the drinking of wine. And they also rejected the Incarnation of Christ, and with the Incarnation also the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. No sooner was the holy abbot elected to his position than he found himself embattled against this militant hæretical sect. Saint Ilarion preached, in particular, one fiery homily against them, which went thus:
You are not Christians at all, since you are hostile to the Cross of Christ the Savior. You do not acknowledge the One God, you slander the teachings of the Old Testament venerated by Christians. You deceive people by hypocritical meekness while full of pride. True piety is not possible in those who do not see their own heart's corruption, but by those who ask God’s grace with prayer and humility. Evil thoughts, envy, vanity, greed, lies are not the deed of some evil thing within man to be conquered by mere fasting. These vices are the fruit of self-love which demands rooting out by spiritual efforts.
But he did not preach against Bogomilism merely in words. By his meek and ascetic example he also bore witness to the Truth of Christ. Saint Ilarion matched the fastidiousness of the Bogomils in his personal diet and in his abstentious way of living. But: he also honoured the Cross, he taught the veneration of icons, he gave great glory to the Mother of God who had called him out from his abbey. He taught the value of every one of the Sacraments by administering them with great love to the faithful, and by living an example of love and virtue in his dealing with all who met him. By Saint Ilarion’s personal example, many of Bogomil’s followers left him and again embraced the true Orthodox faith. For thirty years, from 1134 to 1164, he exhorted the faithful in the South Slavic lands, and toiled in the vineyard without rest. And on the twenty-first of October in the year 1164, Saint Ilarion reposed in the Lord, at peace with all of his monastic brethren and with his parishioners. He passed on the abbacy of his monastery to his trusted prior, Peter, before his passing. During his funeral procession, it was said that his eyes streamed tears of myrrh, and that he appeared in visions to his monks to strengthen them in their ascetic labours.

He was venerated as a saint very quickly upon his repose, and a careful investigation was made as to the genuine nature of the wonders of healing, visions and prodigies that occurred around his monastery when his name was invoked. Indeed, his relics were also uncovered sometime during the early thirteenth century (before 1207), and found to be incorrupt. This was when his remains were transferred from Măglen to Veliko Tărnovo by the great Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan, to brighten the glory of the Bulgarian capital. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church promptly glorified him and asked his intercessions in the diptychs ever since that time. His relics were again moved in 1393 when they were taken by the Sultân Bayezid I of the Turks and entrusted to one of his vassals, who moved them to the Church of Saint Michael in Sarandopor – now in North Macedonia. Holy hierarch Ilarion, meek monastic and fierce champion of the Orthodox belief, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Ilarion of Măglen, Tone 4:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,
An image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;
Your humility exalted you;
Your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Ilarion,
Entreat Christ our God
That our souls may be saved.