31 August 2020

Venerable Nikolai, Schemamonk of Optina

Optina Monastery

As I have mentioned before, historically speaking there has been a small but significant witness of the Orthodox faith among the Turkic-speaking peoples of Asia, among whom the Chuvash, Gagauz and Khakass peoples have already converted en masse to Orthodox Christianity. The vast majority of this witness has been borne among them by the Russian people. The saints Abraham of Bolgar (1227), Peter of the Golden Horde (1290), Pafnutii of Borovsk (1475), Paul and Stephen of Kazan (1553), Serapion of Kozheozersk (1611), Misail of Ryazan (1654), ’Ahmad the Calligrapher (1682), Platonida of Revda (ca. 1785) and Constantine of Smyrna (1819). To these we add the memory, today on the thirty-first of August, of the holy schemamonk of Optina, Saint Nikolai (Abrulakh).

We know the following about Saint Nikolai of Optina primarily from the Optina Paterikon, who is sometimes in other sources also erroneously called Saint Pavel the Turk. At the time of his death on the eighteenth of August (on the Old Calendar), 1893, he was sixty-five years of age – which would have put the date of his birth sometime in the year 1827 or 1828. (The Paterikon lists his birth in the year 1820.) He was born by the name Yusuf Abdul. He was born in the largely-Armenian village of Baghaghesh, to impoverished parents of noble lineage, who weaved cloth for a living. He was the eldest of three, having a younger brother and a younger sister.

When he was five years old he fell blind, and for three years no remedies were successful. His mother took him to an Armenian shrine which had just come into possession of some holy relics – in this way his blindness was cured. His father died in a famine, leaving the family without means of subsistence. Because of the cruelty of his wealthy Kurdish neighbours, Yusuf Abdul was dependent on the charity of the Armenians, to whom he went around begging as a child in the name of Christ. In this way he developed a kindness for the Christian faith even though he did not understand it, because the Armenians helped him when his fellow Muslims could not or – in the case of the Kurds – would not. He was apprenticed to an Armenian weaver, though the wealthy Kurds continued to treat him badly: beating him when he made a mistake or displeased them, for example. His Armenian master, however, took his mother and his siblings into his house and provided for them all through Yusuf’s apprenticeship. He also learned from an Armenian the barber’s trade, though his uncle disapproved of that line of work (as well as of the folk he was learning from).

When he came of age, he travelled to Trebizond and then to Istanbul where he made the acquaintance of the vizier, and then to Sivas, where he came to serve in the Ottoman Army. His regimental commander was pleased with him and he served there as an officer of the guard, attaining the rank of captain. He began to have dreams about the Divine Liturgy and about the Theotokos, and his sympathy for his Armenian compatriots in particular continued to grow. His unit was transferred from Sivas to Konya, and then to Erzurum, where he married the daughter of a senior officer – a great beauty and a politically-advantageous match. In 1853, during the Crimean War he was captured in an engagement outside Aleksandropol (modern Gyumri in Armenia), and as he observed the Russians who had captured him and how they treated their prisoners, he began to ask them questions about their faith. They recommended him to a certain monastic abbot, who sheltered him in his abbey in Tbilisi and where he was free to learn about the Christian faith. All during his captivity he attended Liturgies, primarily in Russian, and he determined to accept Christianity and to be baptised. However, this would not come to pass as yet. The Russian officer in charge of the prisoners would not allow Yusuf to be baptised, fearing that he was a spy and that his interest in Christianity was a ruse to gain intelligence for the Turks.

At the end of the Crimean War in 1856, Yusuf Abdul was returned to Turkey along with the other prisoners, and he was forced to leave behind the friends he had made in the Christian monasteries, which he bitterly regretted. He was pensioned in gold for his time spent as a prisoner, and then retired to Erzurum and lived for some time with his wife and daughter. His father-in-law began to suspect him of apostasy, though he made no move against him. He became very good friends with the Armenian families in Erzurum, and they discussed the Christian faith. Yusuf collected a large number of icons and prayer-books from them.

At length, though, his house was searched by the gendarmes. They found his icons and books, and placed him under arrest. They stripped him of his pension and beat him severely with two hundred blows of the cane. It turned out that his wife had betrayed him to his father-in-law, who had informed the authorities. He was transferred to a civilian prison, where he was sustained only by the kindness of Greek and Armenian residents who took pity on him and brought him food. As a gâvur, he was despised by both the other prisoners and by the prison guards, who beat him and tortured him whenever given the opportunity. He was transferred to Beirut and then to Cyprus, where he was forced to live as a beggar. He was mocked and abused while he lived there, though he managed to get enough food to survive.

At length he was allowed – or rather forced, by greedy and vicious gendarmes who found equal pleasure in extorting him, beating him, and forcing him to march barefoot before them – to return to Erzurum. His erstwhile wife and his father-in-law cruelly turned him away from their house, calling him a gâvur, refusing his request to let him see his sons, and telling him never to show himself at their door again. He went to the Greek and Armenian merchants of his hometown and asked them for funds to get to Russia, and they arranged for him to flee there, raising a thousand roubles for his travel expenses. The Turkish authorities got wind of this and planned to arrest him again, but he managed to flee into the Caucasus in a beggar’s disguise, with the money stitched into his clothes. He was met with suspicion on the Russian side – they believed him to be a Russian deserter from the Crimean War – and was forced back into Turkey where again he faced arrest.

Not being able to return home to Erzurum in the open, without being recognised, Yusuf Abdul instead turned southward, seeking to undergo a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Here again he was aided by the Greeks and Armenians, who saw fit to aid him with money and supplies for the journey. Yusuf Abdul joined the throng of pilgrims to the Holy Land, and took a route through Sivas, the city where he had begun serving the Ottoman state. He proceeded through Cæsarea and Adan, and in one Kurdish village he was attacked by dogs, and was saved from being mauled, or worse, only by reciting the Jesus Prayer. After he had said the Jesus Prayer, another dog leapt into the mêlée, and the four attacking him turned on that dog and savaged it instead of him. From Adan Yusuf Abdul made his way to Tarsos the birthplace of Saint Paul, and then to Mersin.

At Mersin he was able to board a Russian steamboat which was carrying pilgrims to the Holy Land, and which made port in Jaffa. Yusuf Abdul accompanied the Russian pilgrims to Jaffa and thereafter to Jerusalem. Again he was nearly turned away at the door – being still in his Turkish garb he was taken for a local guide for the pilgrims, and was not allowed inside the Christian dortoir. He explained that he had come seeking baptism, and after they had inquired about him, the Russian churchmen decided to allow Yusuf Abdul to stay with them. He soon fell ill there, however, and was treated by a Russian doctor. The doctor promised Yusuf that if he took a turn for the worse, he would call for a priest to baptise him and administer the unction to the sick.

After he recovered some forty days later, he began looking about in Jerusalem for someone to baptise him: the archimandrites of monasteries, the chaplain to the Russian Consulate, even the Patriarch of Jerusalem himself, Prokopios II. All of them, however, citing the severity of Ottoman law upon apostates from Islâm, refused to put his life in danger. Crestfallen, Yusuf Abdul returned to Constantinople, where again he attempted to seek baptism through the Russian Embassy. Here, at last, he was able to make headway toward his goal. Fr Makarii of the Russian Skete of St Panteleimon in Constantinople referred him to the Russian ambassador, Nikolai Pavlovich, Graf Ignat’ev (the same one who would negotiate the Treaty of San Stefano in 1877). Ignat’ev listened to Yusuf Abdul’s tale with sympathy, and ordered that he be given a Turkish passport with a Russian visa for entry, as well as some gold for expenses and a ticket on a steamboat to Odessa.

In October of 1874 Yusuf Abdul entered Russia a second time. He was set up in travellers’ quarters, given accommodations and food, and made the acquaintance of the mayor of Odessa, who offered to be his sponsor at baptism. This baptism, of which Yusuf Abdul had spent nearly two decades in deep desire and steadfast pursuit, occurred on the tenth of November, 1874, in the quarantine Church of Saint Nicholas in Odessa. Naturally enough, Yusuf Abdul took the Wonderworker as his patron saint, and was baptised with the name of Nikolai.

It behooves us readers of his hagiography to notice, at this point, the many obstacles and dangers that were presented to this Turkish man – who faced disownment by his family, imprisonment, torture, mutilation, forced marches, attacks by dogs, official harassment of all kinds, threats of death – in pursuit of baptism in the Orthodox faith. This is something we in the West too often take for granted. Our crosses are far lighter than his, a fact for which we should be thankful to God and to which we should be attentive as evidence of Saint Nikolai’s remarkable personal valour and trust in God. Here I look to score no political or sectarian points, as I speak as much for myself here as anyone else – having been baptised in a Russian consulate in China, where Orthodoxy is not legally recognised, but having still been subject to no official harassment either there or anywhere else. We moderns have a very easy time of it where religious freedom is concerned; what we do with that freedom, on the other hand, bears a great deal of scrutiny when placed next to the holy simplicity and deep faith of someone like Yusuf Abdul, who would become Saint Nikolai of Optina.

At any rate, having been baptised Orthodox, Yusuf Abdul – now known as Nikolai Abrulakh – conceived a desire to stay in Russia and to visit all the holy places there. Early on, during his Crimean War imprisonment, Yusuf Abdul had been told by a holy fool that he should go ‘walk in the forest’: even though at the time he was offended by this, he would only late in his life come to understand what it meant. He stayed in several monasteries – the Svyatogorsk Lavra in Kharkov, the Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra in Moscow – but did not embrace the monastic life just yet. He stayed in Russia for twenty years longer. He had fallen in love with the Russian love for God, love for Tsar, love for motherland, all expressed and felt with simplicity. But he began to notice a creeping idolatry on the edges of Russian society: the idolatry of Mammon, the worship of trade, the pursuit of profit at all costs. The cupidity and materialism of the Russian bourgeoisie disgusted and repulsed him, and he began to entertain far-left and revolutionary political sympathies. In his biography he even says that his faith in God was shaken and that he came close to embracing atheism, but that God saved him from this disillusionment by pointing out to him again how the faithful still lived in Russia.

Nikolai lived in Saint Petersburg for some time, but spent most of his intervening years in Kazan. He again came under suspicion from the Russian police on account of his Turkish heritage, and was afraid he would be deported as a suspected Turkish spy. In 1891 he began making plans to move to Tashkent and take up a position in the civil service there, but God prevented. Nikolai had made a petition to Fr Ambrosii of the Optina Monastery, who occasionally came to the Kazan area for pastoral purposes. Fr Ambrosii bade Nikolai come to him, and began to speak with him about his way of life for the prior fifteen years. Then Fr Ambrosii sternly enjoined Nikolai to come to the Optina Monastery and stay there, for only there would he find peace for the rest of his days. He was accepted under the abbacy of Fr Anatoli, who would later refer to Nikolai as ‘our very own Saint Andrew the Fool-for-Christ’.

Nikolai obeyed, and he was tonsured as a novice at Optina later that year, and undertook the obediences of a novice to read from the Psalter. This outward obedience he found very easy, and he truly loved his brethren and the life he had chosen to lead; he did not consider himself worthy of the holy equality in which the monks of Optina lived. He soon found, though, that the real work of the monk was the inward work: not judging his neighbours, concentrating on his own sins and working to heal them. He found himself able to rely upon God, and even in the midst of the uneasiness and the terrible knowledge of his own sins, he was able to find forgiveness and joy in his life among the brethren. A year into his novitiate, however, the elderly Turkish monk fell gravely ill. It was decided among the brethren of Optina to place upon him the obedience of the schemamonk, lest Nikolai suddenly die.

As had happened several times in his life before, Saint Nikolai was given visions of things that would happen in the future upon earth, and also beatific visions of the heavenly realms, granted to him by the Most Holy Theotokos. Saint Nikolai had seen once, in his youth, the church in Odessa where he would be baptised, which is one reason for his devotion to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker. At one point in his illness he was visited by blasphemous thoughts and sensory images of devils for three days. He describes how his soul was gripped by horror, and he found it a great effort even to begin to pray.

When he began reading the akathist to Saint Nicholas, he began to weep uncontrollably, and then his head was bathed in a light and a fire which did not burn him. He beheld a vision of an ocean of light, and before him appeared Saint Andrew the Fool for Christ and his disciple Saint Epiphanios, standing in silence before him. Looking beyond them he beheld a shroud of dark crimson, and enthroned in glory, our Lord Jesus Christ in robes like those of a bishop, and at his right hand the Most Holy Theotokos, and at his left Saint John the Forerunner holding the sign of the Cross. Saint Nikolai was filled with a sense of his own unworthiness even to behold them, but they all looked upon him with great kindness. He said it was not given to him to hear one word from their lips, but he did see Father Nikolai the schemamonk of Optina being welcomed into their company in the form of a child and in the robes of a novice.

He also saw a vision of hell, with Satan holding Judas at his side, and the false prophets, and numerous people of every age and condition in great despair, unaware of each other and unable to reach each other. These were all within an abyss, which lay between him and the crimson robe upon which Christ was seated.

He was then given a vision of paradise, which to him seemed both ineffable, inexpressibly joyous in any sort of human language, and yet also unaccountably familiar: there were trees heavy-laden with ripe fruits and birds which sang sweetly in harmony. Indeed, it seemed to him that paradise looked a great deal like the Optina Monastery, and its abodes seemed to him grander beyond measure than the palaces he’d seen in Constantinople, yet in the same familiar style. He saw the walls of Paradise inscribed with the names of the Twelve Apostles, yet he did not know the language of the writing. In his paradise, Saint Nikolai saw that it was peopled by a great multitude of those who had been beggars. These were conversing with an elderly man whom Nikolai was told was Saint Filaret the Merciful. He was seated in a garden, in the midst of which was planted the Cross. By an unearthly compulsion Saint Nikolai bowed before the Cross and his heart was filled with a great and unspeakable sweetness.

He was then granted a vision of the Most Holy Theotokos, enthroned as the Queen of Heaven, upon the balcony of a monastic palace and guarded by young men in luminous white robes. Saint Nikolai later recounted that he was not worthy to hear a word from her lips, but that he spent an immeasurable length of time in her presence meditating upon the mysteries of the Holy Trinity.

Saint Nikolai spent his time in Optina Monastery meekly and quietly, and did not speak about this vision to any except his confessor, Fr Barsanufii (and that only under obedience to Fr Anatoli), during his life – of which only two years were spent in the Optina Pustyn’. He only undertook his duties at the monastery, which included gathering wood for the common stove, meekly and quietly, and often did this alone without being told. When his neighbour, Fr Martirii, asked him why he did this, he merely told him ‘I love you’ and continued on with his work.

Saint Nikolai was given the great schema shortly before his death, and reposed in the Lord on the eighteenth of August (that is to say, the thirty-first of August on the civil calendar), 1893. Only when his body was being washed for burial and the brothers beheld the scars all over his body, did Fr Anatoli reveal to the monks of Optina what sort of man Saint Nikolai had been, what he had suffered in his life and what spiritual heights he had attained as a reward for his faithfulness. Blessed and long-suffering Nikolai, witness to the love of Christ among the Turkish people, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

25 August 2020

Holy Hierarchs Barsēs and Eulogios of Edessa, and Prōtogenēs of Carrhæ

Edessa, now ar-Ruhâ in Turkey

The twenty-fifth of August is the feast-day of three holy confessing bishops of Mesopotamia, Saints Barsēs and Eulogios of Edessa, and Saint Prōtogenēs of Carrhæ. These bishops suffered under the unwise rule of the haughty and overconfident Arian Emperor Valens, who fell in battle against the Goths under Fritigern at Hadrianople in 378. Of these three, Saint Barsēs, similarly to Saint John Chrysostom, died in exile. The other two were returned to their sees under the saintly Emperor Theodosius and finished the course of their earthly lives in peace. However, the Church has never forgotten their sacrifices for the Incarnate truth of Christ’s full manhood and full Godhood.

Saint Barsēs [Gk. Βάρσης] and Saint Eulogios [Gk. Εὐλόγιος] were Syriac monks of extraordinary virtue and holiness in Edessa. According to the Church historian Sōzomenos, both men were given the honourable title of bishop in their monastery, not so that they could rule over a see, but rather in recognition of their many merits.

During the reign of Valens, there was a fierce persecution of the Christians who accepted the Nicene Creed. Because Saint Barsēs was among the most vocal supporters of the Council of Nicæa and, thus, opponents of the doctrines of Arius, the Roman authorities under Valens evicted him from his monastery in Edessa and had him exiled to the island of ‘Arâd (now al-Muḥarraq in Bahrain), which at that time was settled by Orthodox Christians of Syro-Phœnician and Arabic descent. The holy monk and bishop was greeted with great enthusiasm by the Christians of the island and treated with great honour. The authorities then had him banished further still, to the city of Pemdje (now an archæological site near al-Bahnasa) in Ægypt. Here too the Christians of the city greeted him with great warmth and hospitality. The exasperated Valens had Barsēs exiled still further away, to the remote location of Thenon. Saint Barsēs, physically exhausted by this succession of exiles, reposed in the Lord en route to this place.

Valens appointed an Arian named Lukos to the bishopric of Edessa. Lukos turned out to be a ruthless oppressor and persecutor of the Nicene Christians. He dismissed all the parish priests and replaced them with Arians, such that all the church buildings were under his control. This being the case, there was little for the Nicene Christians to do but to gather together in the open air outside the city of Edessa to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. When word of this reached Valens, he cruelly ordered the præfect of Edessa, a man named Modestos, to seize anyone found gathering for worship outside the city and have them put to death at once by beheading.

Modestos, who was in truth a kind-hearted and sensible man, baulked at this order. He met in secret with the leaders of the Nicene Orthodox Christians in Edessa, informed them of his orders, and besought them not to leave the city for worship. But this had the opposite effect of the one he intended. Desirous of martyrdom, the Christians of Edessa came out of the city on the appointed day and met in their accustomed place. Modestos brought the Roman soldiery there and grimly prepared to attack the Christian assembly. However, when he saw a woman running to the place with her infant son so as not to deprive the infant the opportunity for a martyr’s salvation, Modestos had a change of heart and called off his soldiers. He begged the Emperor to spare the laity and instead only make an example from among the clergy.

Modestos brought the monk Eulogios – who was trusted by all of the assembly at Edessa – along with eighty other clergy of the city before Valens. The Emperor ordered them to enter into communion with Lukos and submit themselves to his spiritual authority, but none of them would do so. Then Valens had them chained, paraded through the streets in disgrace, and then cast into a nearby Thracian prison. But as they were led through the streets, the faithful of Thrace took pity upon the imprisoned clergy, succoured them, gave them food and bandaged their wounds. Seeing this, Valens became infuriated, and ordered them to be sent two-by-two into exile.

Bishop Saint Eulogios was sent into exile together with Saint Prōtogenēs [Gk. Πρωτογενής], a cleric from Carrhæ (modern Ḥarrân in Turkey), who had suffered a similar fate to the confessors of Edessa. The two of them were sent into exile in Ægypt: the city of Antinoöpolis (modern aš-Šayḵ ‘Ibâda), which was then still a bastion of paganism. Here it was hoped that they would suffer ignominy and death among the hostile non-Christians, but the two holy men instead lived humbly among the pagans, taught them about Christ and patiently converted them to Christ in the fulness of time. When Valens fell in battle against Fritigern, and was succeeded by Theodosios, both Eulogios and Prōtogenēs were found alive and well, and were restored to Edessa. Here they lived out the rest of their natural lives, and departed to the Lord in peace. Holy hierarchs Barsēs, Eulogios and Prōtogenēs, confessors who suffered for the truth of Christ’s Godhood, pray unto the only lover of mankind that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saints Barsēs, Eulogios and Prōtogenēs, Tone 8:

Champions of Orthodoxy, teachers of purity and of true worship,
The enlighteners of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs:
All-wise fathers Barsēs and Eulogios,
Your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things.
Intercede before Christ God to save our souls.

21 August 2020

Holy Hieromartyr Nikodim, Archbishop of Kostroma

Saint Nikodim of Kostroma

The twenty-first of August in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of the martyr under Stalinist repression, Archbishop Saint Nikodim of Kostroma. As one of the martyrs glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 2000s, Saint Nikodim is particularly important to the modern Church for his insistence on serving his flock despite having the opportunity to flee. Much like Patriarch Saint Tikhon, Saint Nikodim was an advocate of Church unity and of peaceful action; and so he deserves to be remembered alongside the other saints who suffered under Soviet repression for reasons which were (on the part of the sufferers) non-political: such as Saint Valentin of Kansk and Saint Andrei of Ufa.

The martyr-bishop Nikodim, in the world Nikolai Vasil’evich Krotkov, was born on the twenty-ninth of November, 1868, in the village of Pogreshino, southwest of the town of Kostroma. His father, Vasilii Fedorovich, was a poor rural priest, one of the generally underfed, underpaid, underappreciated ‘black clergy’. He chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and entered the Kostroma Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in the year 1889. Around the same time he married a woman named Apollinariya Uspenskaya, and began teaching at a parish school in Olesh’. In February of the following year he was ordained a priest, and appointed to serve in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the rural Ivanovo Kineshemskii region.

In 1896, the priest Nikolai lost both his child and his beloved wife. He undertook to join the Kiev Theological Seminary, and three years later took monastic vows and was tonsured under the name of Nikodim, after the righteous Pharisee and secret follower of Christ. He graduated from seminary and quickly became a priestmonk and an archimandrite; he sat for his doctorate in 1900, and then served consecutively as sexton of the Vladikavkaz Theological School, and as rector of the Pskov Theological Seminary.

In 1907, Saint Nikodim was appointed to be the bishop of Cetatea Albă in Bessarabia, which was then called by its Gagauz name of Akerman. In this position he also served as vicar to the Metropolitan of Chișinău. In 1911 he was ordained bishop of Chigirin in central Ukraine, vicar to the Kiev Diocæse and abbot of Saint Michael’s Monastery ‘of the Golden Domes’ in Kiev. In this position he headed several humanitarian and philanthropic projects, including missionary societies and the charitable Brotherhood of Saint Vladimir. In May of 1916 he personally made a trip to the Eastern Front in the Great War with gifts for the Russian soldiers.

The one consistent political instinct shown by Saint Nikodim through these turbulent years was the instinct for unity, both political and cultural. He opposed the Provisional Government of 1917, and was a signatory of a letter from the clergy to the Tsar calling for the State Duma to be dissolved. (He faced a brief three-month stint of exile to Saratov for this signature.) He also supported the hetmanship of the White general Pavlo Skoropadskii in 1917 also because he thought it would promote cultural unity, but he soon came to oppose many of Skoropadskii’s cultural policies in following years for precisely the same reason.

During the Russian Civil War, as well, he refused to take sides. In February of 1918, in response to a call from the new Patriarch Saint Tikhon and with the blessing of Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoyavlenskii) of Kiev, he was instrumental in creating the Council of United Parishes – a union headed by AD Samarin which attempted to peacefully organise Orthodox believers at the grassroots level in the Soviet model, in order to protect the rights and promote the well-being of Orthodox under the new government.

Saint Nikodim was, like Metropolitan Antonii (Hrapovitskii) a steadfast and vociferous opponent of Ukrainian autocephaly. And even more strenuously than Metropolitan Antonii, he was one of three Kiev bishops who upheld the Petrine anathema on Ivan Mazepa despite the danger to his career from such a stance from the new government. Both of these activities put him at odds not only with the Soviet government, but also with the advocates of Ukrainian independence and – to a lesser but still noteworthy extent – the Whites. Later, under questioning from Soviet interrogators for his rôle in these events, he said in his defence: ‘I stood for one indivisible Church and Motherland, regardless of what kind of power it would have.

Bishop Nikodim was captured and mistreated by the pro-independence followers of Symon Petliura in 1918, and shuttled from Galicia to Poland where he was held in confinement alongside Metropolitan Antonii (Hrapovitskii) and Metropolitan Evlogii (Georgievskii). After his release, he was released to White Army-held Kiev, from which he went to Crimea to serve as an auxiliary bishop in charge of the cathedral in Simferopol. When in 1919 the Whites under Anton Denikin offered him the chance to flee Russia, Saint Nikodim refused at once – in what would ultimately prove to be a path of martyrdom.

He was sent to Crimea in 1920, which was then under the control of Baron Pyotr Vrangel’. Saint Nikodim was appointed as an auxiliary bishop in the cathedral of Simferopol’, and organised the churches along the Black Sea coast that were under the political control of the White Army. After the Reds seized Crimea in 1921, again Saint Nikodim refused to flee. After Archbishop Dmitri of Crimea went into a semi-forced retirement later the same year, Patriarch Saint Tikhon appointed and blessed Bishop Nikodim as Archbishop in his place.

In November 1922 he was arrested by the Soviet government on charges of resisting the confiscation of Church property, tried at an open trial and sentenced to eight years in prison. He fell ill and was released on probation to Moscow, where Patriarch Saint Tikhon elevated him to the Holy Synod. Here, at the Donskoi Monastery, he concelebrated the Divine Liturgy with the Patriarch, all the while intending to return to his Crimean flock and keeping up a sustained correspondence with them, in a spirit of self-giving pastoral care. He spent the next ten years of his life under surveillance, his travel curtailed, arrested, sent into exile or thrown into prisons. He was sent to Kazakhstan twice (once to Túrkistan, once to Qyzylorda) and once to Tórtkól in Uzbekistan during the space of that ten years. When he was released from his exile he settled again in Ivanovo, in the Kineshemskii region in which he had begun his career as a priest. On the sixth of October, 1932 he was ordained Archbishop of Kostroma.

He served here for four years before he was arrested again, in 1936, on charges of communicating with clergy in White-held territories, hosting a monastery with ten monks, and possessing two homiletical volumes printed under the Tsarist régime. He was sent to Krasnoyarsk in 1937 on political charges, and his health declined precipitously. A prison doctor described multiple problems with Saint Nikodim’s heart and lungs, and recommended against sending him into exile in his present condition. Repeated interrogations by the NKVD and accusations of political crimes (which, considering Saint Nikodim’s temperament, read as overtly ludicrous) further took their toll on the archbishop’s health, and he died in NKVD custody of cardiopulmonary complications on the twenty-first of August, 1938.

In 1995, the Diocæse of Kostroma proclaimed Archbishop Nikodim a local saint. This was followed in August 2000 by a formal glorification by the Russian Orthodox Church, among the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. He is remembered in the local Synaxes of Saints of Kostroma, of Rostov and of Odessa. In Moldova Saint Nikodim is considered to be one of the national saints, because of his early service as bishop of Cetatea Albă and as vicar in Chișinău.

Saint Nikodim of Kostroma, in his life, had two primary concerns: ‘for the unity of the faith and for the communion of the Holy Spirit’. He lived and served under a White government and under a Red government – under the subtle distrust of one and under the open persecution of the other – but his fundamental orientation to the faith and his two central commitments did not change, whether in poverty, in war, in revolution, in counter-revolution, in prison or in exile. As we hold Saint Nikodim in reverence, we should also take account of political upheavals, and act to discern the time. Holy hieromartyr Nikodim of Kostroma, witness for Christ amidst the fires of war and revolution, pray unto Christ our God for the salvation of our souls!

Apolytikion for Saint Nikodim of Kostroma, Tone 4:

Adornment of the region of Kostroma, New Martyr Nikodim,
Firmly confessing the faith you were unrighteously condemned by the godless;
In prison having endured much suffering, you received the martyr’s crown.
Now standing before the throne of God
With the Most Pure Theotokos and all the saints,
Pray earnestly to Christ to grant us
The steadfast faith of the Fathers, peace and great mercy!

Костромскаго края украшение, новомучениче святителю Никодиме,
Веру православную твердо исповедуя, от безбожных неправедно осужден бысть.
В заточении многая страдания претерпев, венец мученический восприял еси.
Ныне же предстоя престолу Божию
Со Пречистою Богородицею и всеми святыми,
усердно Христу молися даровати нам
Веры отеческия утверждение, мир и велию милость.

17 August 2020

Holy Martyrs Paulos and Ioulianē of Ptolemaïs

Saints Paulos and Ioulianē of Ptolemaïs

The twenty-seventh of August is the feast-day of Saints Paulos and Ioulianē, a brother and sister who were martyrs in Syria. They suffered under the reign of the Emperor Aurelian who ruled during the first half of the 270s. This brother and sister are highly venerated among the early martyrs, both in the East and in the West. Saint Ioulianē is one of the 140 saints whose statues adorn the Colonnade in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome.

The brother and sister Paulos [Paul] and Ioulianē [Juliana] were born in Galilee, in what is now the city of Acre, which was then called Ptolemaïs and was part of the administrative district of Syria Palæstina (Roman Palestine). Saint Paulos was a studious and sincere Christian, and he read the Holy Scriptures and applied them with diligence to his own life. He mastered his passions and drew many people to the Christian faith by his example. His sister, Saint Ioulianē, was largely cut from the same cloth as her brother.

At some point during his reign the Emperor came to Ptolemaïs. Paulos visited his sister and counselled her to be courageous and steadfast in her faith, as the time of persecution was shortly to come upon them. As the Emperor was in procession in the streets, Paulos made the Sign of the Cross upon himself as the Emperor’s party passed. He was seen by certain of the pagans, who seized him and brought him before Aurelian.

Even before the Emperor of Rome, Saint Paulos was without fear, and he confessed Christ boldly to Aurelian’s face and denounced the worship of idols. The emperor ordered that Paulos be taken by the executioners, strung up by his limbs, and his flesh torn from his limbs with whips laced with iron hooks. When his sister Ioulianē saw this, she began to rebuke the Emperor for his cruelty, for which he ordered that she be thrown into a vat of boiling pitch. These tortures were without effect on the two saints. The executioners, whose names were Kodratos and Akakios, took pity upon the martyrs and tended their wounds, and they came to believe in Christ through the martyrs’ sufferings. The emperor had the two executioners taken and beheaded, for which the glorious Saints Kodratos and Akakios themselves received the crown of martyrdom.

The emperor had the two siblings bound in iron shackles and thrown into the dungeon. There, messengers from the Lord ministered to their wounds, loosed their shackles, and gave them bread to eat and water to drink, which strengthened their spirits and their bodies for the trials to come. Saints Paulos and Ioulianē gave thanks to the Lord.

The following day the saints were brought before Aurelian, and commanded to make offerings of incense to the idols. Refusing, they were beaten. However, one of the executioners, a certain Stratonikos, took pity upon Saint Ioulianē, and came to believe in Christ through her sufferings. He offered to marry her and witness for her in order to deliver her from the executioners. However, Ioulianē sternly refused him, saying that he had his duty as a soldier of the Emperor, and that she had hers as a follower of Christ. When the Emperor learned what Stratonikos had done, he also had Stratonikos beheaded, and he too met martyrdom. He then had the two siblings cast into a pit with venomous serpents and reptiles. But again the Lord preserved them from death.

The following day Aurelian ordered that Paulos be beaten in the face with lead implements, and whipped on his sides with rods and thorns. Ioulianē, he ordered to be delivered to a brothel to be bodily defiled. However, again a messenger of the Lord kept the martyr safe from this mistreatment, and any man who approached Ioulianē to defile her was stricken blind by the angel. The saint, however, took pity on the men, and she poured water over their eyes and healed them.

Piqued to rage, the Emperor ordered that a fiery pit be prepared, that the two saints be cast inside, and that they be stoned to death. However, again an angel of the Lord appeared and threatened the Emperor with fire from heaven, and fearing for himself the Emperor had the two saints hauled out. He ordered that their eyes be put out and that they be burnt at the stake. Saints Poulos and Ioulianē went to their execution singing from Psalm 43: ‘But thou hast saved us from our enemies, and hast put them to shame that hated us.’ This fire, too, failed to harm them, and the Emperor gave the order to behead them. In this way the two siblings gained the crown of martyrdom in the year of our Lord 273. Holy martyrs Paulos and Ioulianē, righteous and steadfast witnesses of Christ before the pagans, pray unto Christ for us that our souls may be saved!

09 August 2020

Venerable Platonida, Anchoress of Revda in Sverdlovsk

Memorial plaque to Saint Platonida

The ninth of August – the twenty-seventh of July on the Old Calendar – in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of a mysterious, but highly-revered, anchoress of the eighteenth century who lived in the southern Ural Mountains, near Revda in the Sverdlovsk oblast, some ten or twelve kilometres outside the village of Krasnoyar. She is closely associated with the Tatar people to whom she likely belonged, and also with the Old Believers, though Saint Platonida also enjoys a significant folk-cultus among the canonical Orthodox faithful. Her holy well is the site of pilgrimage and the waters have healing properties.

Saint Platonida [Rus. Платонида] was probably named for the Syrian abbess Saint Platōnis of Nisibis, who is also called Platonida in Slavic and English sources. Little is actually known for certain about her life, though there are roughly a dozen legends about her and her holy well in the Ural Mountains.

The most commonly-heard one is that she was a member of the Kazan Tatar people, born to a Muslim family. The young girl grew curious about the principles of the Christian faith and grew to love Christ and to secretly believe in His death and resurrection. Her parents arranged for her to marry a Muslim man from her own village, and for some time she meekly agreed, unwilling to disobey her parents. But, as our Saviour Himself said in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ On the very eve of her wedding, the young Tatar girl escaped from the village of her birth, and after some wandering came upon a small secluded convent of Orthodox nuns.

Spending some time among the nuns, she grew to love and to trust them, and she asked to be baptised among them into the Church. This was done lawfully, and at length she also decided to devote herself to holy virginity, taking the monastic name which belonged to the Syrian abbess. Saint Platonida lived and worked and prayed among these nuns for several years, after which time she approached the abbess and begged her leave to find some desert place where she might make an anchorage for herself to live in holy solitude. The abbess agreed, and Saint Platonida went into the Ural Mountains, and there built herself a cell among the thick forests south of the village of Revda. As she prayed, a well of pure fresh water sprang up beside her cell, and from this she was provided with the necessity of life. She spent the following years of her life in the spiritual exploits of the desert, struggling against the passions with the help of Christ.

Among her relatives there were those who took her apostasy and consecration to the virginal life as an affront against their honour, and they set off in search of her in order to kill her. Eventually they came upon her anchorage. However, on account of her holy life, a bear which lived in the forest came forward and protected the martyress with its body. The Muslims were fearful, but they killed the bear – and then Saint Platonida – from a distance with guns, as they feared to come near either the bear or her. In this way Saint Platonida gained the crown of victory in Christ.

Several other versions of her life exist. In another version of her life, Platonida was the youngest daughter of an Old Believer couple who lived in the Urals. When her parents died, her greedy older brothers, seeking to divide their inheritance between themselves and leave no dowry for their much sought-after sister, dropped her off at a monastery and left her there. Around forty years later, filled with remorse, Saint Platonida’s brothers returned to the monastery to visit her tomb and ask her forgiveness. As it turns out, she was not only not dead, she welcomed them cheerfully with open arms and forgave them in person. The brothers were astounded to find their sister not only alive, but looking just as young and beautiful as when they’d left her there (though she had become a nun in the meanwhile). It turned out that she was kept young and pretty by the water from the holy well nearby.

These are the traditional versions of her life that are best-attested. As we can see from these legends, we do not know what her birth-name was, what her surname was or even what village Saint Platonida was from. We know only her monastic name. What is known for sure from historical records, thanks to the efforts of local historian Vladimir Trusov, is that she lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and that the tomb and chapel in her memory were placed around the year 1785.

Saint Platonida’s body was found by some villagers from Revda, who buried her with due reverence and built a shrine over her tomb. This apparently happened on the feast-day of Saint Panteleēmōn, which subsequently became one of the days of her commemoration. This chapel stood until the Revolution, though it was dismantled forcibly by the Soviets under Stalin, and the pilgrims were dispersed or arrested. Even during Soviet times, however, Saint Platonida was still held in reverence, and several brave pilgrims made the journey each year to her tomb and well on the ninth of August, bathing in her holy spring and taking home with them as much of the healing water as they could carry. Despite the official condemnation and discouragement of her cultus, wondrous things did occur around her spring. A young boy who was lost in the woods for two weeks was later found alive, well and in his right wits by her holy well.

The water of her spring has been tested several times by chemists. It was found to have practically none of the usual dangerous heavy metals or toxins often found in groundwater; instead it was shown to have a high content of manganese and dissolved radon. These elements were thought to have some curative properties – though the therapeutic effects of radon baths are, to say the least, controversial. In any event, Saint Platonida is held in high reverence by Orthodox Christians and Old Believers alike, and despite the shrine having fallen into some disrepair in the last decade, it has since been restored, and pilgrims still come to her well in order to pray and to receive healing. Holy mother Platonida, ascetic and struggler in Christ in the remote Urals, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

The holy well of Saint Platonida

08 August 2020

Your Name 《君の名は。》

I want to help build landscapes that leave heart-warming memories… I didn’t even know anybody in that town. Why does the scenery of a town that no longer exists wring my heart so?
Back when I did my review of Flavours of Youth I promised I’d get around to seeing this film: Your Name, directed by Shinkai Makoto 新海诚. In short, I’m incredibly glad I did. This film is a masterpiece, one which well deserves its reputation as a classic of Japanese animation.

Your Name is best described as a fantasy/sci-fi romance, which speaks directly to a Japanese but also a more broadly East Asian experience of being disconnected in time, of the tensions and antinomies that arise from being part of a landscape where ageless antiquity and glittering hyper-modernity exist side-by-side. But the two main characters, despite their frequent and sometimes heartbreaking alienation which sometimes takes the form of literal jumps in time, still seek a genuine connexion with each other. And the heart of the film rests in how they mature and grow.

Your Name is a story that defies easy categorisation. It’s a story about a (literal) disaster, when a comet strikes a remote, traditional Japanese town. It’s also a bildungsroman and a breathtakingly bittersweet teen romance. It freely borrows from SFnal tropes about time-travel (including multiple timelines and alternate futures), as well as fantasy tropes about body-swapping (think the Warehouse 13 episode ‘Merge with Caution’). It is steeped in traditional Chinese lore, Daoism and Shintô religious rites, but it also has the feel of a young-adult fantasy book by TA Barron. It would be easy for any feature film, but particularly a Japanese animated one, with this many moving parts to feel overstuffed, overwrought and pretentious. But Your Name avoids this in part because of the tender vulnerability and humanity of the two protagonists.

Your Name uses a lot of traditional tropes from East Asian literature that might get lost on American audiences. The ‘red thread of fate’ is probably a familiar enough one, and it gets used liberally here between the two protagonists. The ‘butterfly dream’ of Zhuangzi is also alluded to. The tradition of fermenting rice wine with human saliva (kuchikamizake 口嚼酒) plays an important rôle in the story. And despite all the fractures and disconnects in time that occur between the two protagonists, there is a subtle but persistent theme of continuity, of history repeating itself, of déjà vu.

A comet, whose orbit comes within sight of Earth once every 1200 years, passes overhead. As it enters Earth’s gravity well, its nucleus fractures, producing a spectacular meteor shower. One of these fragments is large enough to fall on the village of Itomori. It destroys the town and kills 500 of its inhabitants. Two young teenagers look up at the night sky and watch the comet streak across. One of them, Tachibana Taki 立花泷 is a high-schooler and part-time waiter in a fancy restaurant in Shinjuku ward in Tôkyô. The other, Miyamizu Mitsuha 宫水三叶, is a high schooler in Itomori, and one of the two granddaughters of the keeper of the local Shintô shrine there.

Mitsuha is frustrated with her limited surroundings, being (embarrassingly) involved in the rites of the shrine, getting unwanted attention from being the village mayor’s daughter, and feeling like she’s trapped in a fishbowl. She screams from underneath the torii that she hates her life, she hates her town, and she wishes she could be reincarnated as a handsome boy in Tôkyô. Not long after this, Mitsuha and Taki begin to have strange dreams.
Formerly, I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Zhou. Suddenly I awoke, and was myself again, the veritable Zhou. I did not know whether it had formerly been Zhou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Zhou. But between Zhou and a butterfly there must be a difference.

As though in answer to Mitsuha’s wish, Mitsuha and Taki begin swapping bodies, randomly, whenever they fall asleep. This part of the story might have been handled gratuitously or exploitatively, and sometimes it rides the line. (What’s the first thing Pete does when Robert Louis Stevenson’s bookends trap him in Myka’s body? Yup, Taki does the same thing. Typical teenage boy.) But Taki and Mitsuha are quickly intrigued by each other in deeper ways. Mitsuha finally gets to visit Tôkyô, go out to eat in stylish urban cafés, and hold down a job in a fancy restaurant. And Taki is enchanted by the charming architecture and wondrous vistas of Itomori – including the huge round lake which is very clearly and ominously a crater.

The two teenagers quickly begin setting ground rules for each other, what they are and aren’t allowed to do in each other’s bodies, leaving each other messages including by writing on each other’s hands and wrists with marker. Going through each other’s smartphones, they learn details about each other’s lives that they can appreciate. Taki begins asserting himself among Mitsuha’s classmates to get them to stop teasing her. And Mitsuha sets Taki up with an older girl at his workplace, Okudera, whom he has a crush on, and tells him in a message that he should be able to see the comet that night.

Taki’s date with Okudera goes poorly and no comet appears. He tries calling Mitsuha with the number she left him, and she doesn’t answer. The body-switching stops, but Taki can’t forget about the dreams he had from when he was Mitsuha. He then embarks, together with Okudera and his classmate Tsukasa, on a half-baked quest to find Mitsuha and her village. The only thing he has to go on, though, since he can’t remember her name or the name of the village, are the landscape drawings and sketches he did of the views from her house and the temple. An old man recognises his sketch as that of Itomori before the disaster, and Taki ultimately learns from him that Mitsuha was killed along with the rest of the village when the comet struck Itomori three years before.

Taki decides to leave Okudera and Tsukasa to try and find the holy place where Mitsuha’s grandmother took her to pay respects to the old Shintô god that had come 1200 years ago. It happens to be in the middle of a crater – and Mitsuha’s grandmother had told her that crossing over into the grounds of the shrine was like taking a step into the underworld. Taki finds the rice wine that Mitsuha made inside the shrine, and drinks it. This reconnects Mitsuha and Taki, and allows the two of them to rewrite the history of Itomori and save the townspeople from the impact of the comet fragment. But, as history changes, the dream ends, and the two of them lose each other again, even forgetting each other’s names…

I’m not going to spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say this: Shinkai Makoto has a brilliant and touching ‘ear’ for the voices of young adults. He makes real the connexion between these two people, so utterly different from one another and separated by time, space, class, sex, tradition and modernity. Although the director very cautiously refrains from overtly editorialising at any point in the film – with one partial exception – one gets the distinct impression that the same longing the characters feel for each other is connected intimately to a sense of loss of the traditions that Mitsuha embodies in her life even as she rebels against them.

One sees this same sort of traditionalism, actually, even in the gender-bending body-swap plot. Even though it’s a explicitly a comic point to see ‘Taki’ (inhabited by Mitsuha’s consciousness) act like a traditional-minded Japanese girl, and ‘Mitsuha’ (actually Taki) behave live a typical urban high-school boy – right down to their body language and pronouns (‘Taki’ almost gives the game away by calling himself by the feminine ‘watashi 私’ before landing on the more masculine ‘ore 俺’) – they each come to have a tender respect for each other’s physical embodiedness and an active interest in each other’s social lives. There is an almost Ruist sensibility here, in that Taki and Mitsuha come to understand and love each other by experiencing relationships with friends, family and surroundings through each other’s eyes.

The single most strained relationship in the film, actually, is that between Mitsuha and her father, who is a (presumably ruling-party) politician in the town, and who rather callously left his daughters behind with his shrine-keeping mother-in-law after their mother died. Throughout the film Mitsuha’s father refuses to listen to her or take her seriously. This is where I think the partial exception to Shinkai’s refusal to editorialise comes in. Mitsuha’s father represents a deliberate rupture with tradition even though he uses it to attain his personal goals.

As to be expected from a CoMix Wave production, the animation quality is amazing, even if – by Shinkai Makoto’s own admission – not quite reaching the Studio Ghibli gold standard. Both the urban and the rural backdrops are lovingly, painstakingly rendered – as though each frame is meant to be a landscape painting. The technical and stylistic use of proportion and perspective, also, enhance the thematic preoccupations with separation and reunion, rupture and continuity, alienation and connexion. I highly, highly recommend this film.

EDIT: Also, the title of the film called to mind this Tad Morose song, the lyrics to which seem almost appropriate at times:

07 August 2020

Venerable Teodora de la Sihla, Anchoress of the Carpathians

Saint Teodora de la Sihla

One of the greatest female ascetics of Moldavia, a daughter of the Carpathian Mountains during the time of the Unia, is Saint Teodora de la Sihla, whom we commemorate on the seventh of August. Saint Teodora is venerated in both Moldova and in Romania, being (like Saint Ioan Iacob) closely associated with the Neamț Monastery which is today located in northeastern Romania. She is mentioned in her hagiography alongside Saint Mary of Ægypt, Saint Pelagia the Penitent, Saint Kseniya of Saint Petersburg, Saint Euphrosynē of Alexandria and Saint Theodosia of Constantinople as one of the great women-ascetics of the Orthodox Church.

Saint Teodora [also Theodora] was born around the year 1650. Her father was a Moldavian boyar, Ștefan Joldea, who served the voivode Vasile ‘the Wolf’ as armourer and artilleryman for the Neamț Citadel – that same which Ștefan III had found to be of such strategic importance in defence of his territory against the Ottomans. For all his other faults, Vasile was nevertheless a firm defender of Orthodox faith in Moldavia. As such, he wound up facing political meddling and more overt warfare from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and allied himself with the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich under the hetman Senovi Bogdan Khmelnitskii by marrying his daughter Ruxandra to the hetman’s son Timofei.

As can be seen from the position he occupied, Ștefan Joldea was one of Vasile’s most implicitly trusted men, and like Vasile himself deeply committed to the Orthodox faith. He raised his daughter to have the same reverence he had for the Church and for the Moldavian country. It must also be said that the area of the Carpathian Mountains in which Saint Teodora lived had a number of monasteries: not just Neamț but also Secu, Sihăstria and Agapia. Visiting all of these monasteries with her father left a deep impression on young Teodora. After the death of her younger sister Marghiola, Teodora resolved to become a nun.

Her parents, however, had other plans. They persuaded her to accept marriage to a young man serving at the Neamț Citadel, who was originally from the county of Ismail in Bessarabia. Dutifully she entered her husband’s house, and he treated her with no small affection. However, the two of them remained childless. When Ștefan Joldea and his wife died, Teodora again began to consider the idea of becoming a nun. Saint Teodora’s husband was not averse to the idea, and by mutual consent they both entered monasteries. He went to Poiana Mărului monastery and was ordained a hieromonk by the name of Elefterie. Saint Teodora herself entered the Vărzăreşti Monastery in Buzău, where about thirty nuns lived together. The abbess there, Paisia, took her on as a novice when she was about thirty years old.

As a novice in the Vărzăreşti Monastery, Saint Teodora gained an understanding and an appreciation of the ascetic life. She respected the rule of the monastery not only in its outward principles but also in its inward orientation and tutelage of the soul. She understood the meaning of obedience, of stability, of chastity both physical and spiritual, as being steps toward the renunciation of self-will. She sang the Seven Lauds, partook of the Holy Mysteries, prayed in her cell, read the Scriptures and studied the lives of the holy saints. This was her primary mode of spiritual life in Vărzăreşti as recounted by her hagiographer, Fr Constantin Galeriu.

The nuns of Vărzăreşti were soon forced to flee, however, owing to an attack by invading Turkish troops. These troops were busy plundering, burning the countryside and taking captives. The nuns took refuge from the Turks in the mountains and in the woods, finding secluded areas to take shelter. One of these was a small altar and a few cells in the mountains of Vrancea, to which the Abbess Paisia, Saint Teodora and a few other nuns repaired and prayed for deliverance. The terror and strain of flight took their toll on the aged Abbess Paisia, who reposed in the Lord not long after settling her nuns in Vrancea. Saint Teodora and the other nuns continued in their disciplines.

Saint Teodora spent ten years in Vrancea, enduring the hardships of the remote life in the mountains with her monastic sisters. However, at the end of these ten years she returned to Neamț, and sought to live in the place of her nativity and childhood as a holy anchoress. She sought, and was given, leave from Abbot Varsanufie of Sihăstria Monastery to settle in a hermitage in the Neamț Mountains. Abbot Varsanufie suggested that Saint Teodora go into the woods, where she spent a year in the wilderness which many holy men since Roman times had used as anchorages. Saint Teodora met an old hermit living in that place, who offered her his cell beneath a cliff at Sihla, while he himself sought further reclusion elsewhere.

From this point Saint Teodora began praying without cease and living truly as an anchoress. She ate only of what the woods offered her: mushrooms, nettles, blackberries and blueberries – or else whatever was offered to her by the monks from Sihăstria or by pilgrims wandering through. She was served the Gifts by the priestmonk Pavel, who also served at Sihăstria. In this way, she progressed in a life of virtue. She also gave shelter as the need arose, to sister-nuns who were fleeing the rapine of the Ottomans invading Moldova – some of whom reached the cell of Saint Teodora. They found her praying, and when they told her what had befallen them, without hesitation Saint Teodora gave up her own cell and moved to another cave further up the mountains. Here in this yet more remote cave she spent twenty years of her life, eating and sleeping on the rocks within.

It happened that the Abbot of Sihăstria noticed that, for several days in a row, a small flock of birds came in through the window of the refectory, where they took crumbs of bread and grapes, and then flew out over the mountains toward Sihla. The abbot sent two monastic brothers to follow the birds, and walking out along the path they reached the top of the mountain. One brother managed to climb a fir tree, and from there he managed to see Saint Teodora. Saint Teodora called to him, and told him that she had been praying for forty days for God to send her a priest so that she could confess her sins before she died. She asked the brother to tell the abbot her last wish, which was that the priestmonk Antonie and the deacon Lavrentie could be sent to her with the Holy Gifts. The two brothers went back to Sihăstria and related to the abbot what the anchoress had told them. The following day the abbot sent out the priest Antonie and the deacon Lavrentie to her cave, together with the two brethren and the Holy Gifts. Saint Teodora gave a confession to Antonie of all the wrongs she had done in her life, and received the full absolution, partaking in the Body and the Blood of Christ. The last words that she spoke before departing to the Lord were: ‘Glory be to the Lord for all things.

Saint Teodora de la Sihla was buried right in her cave, with a full funeral service, and the monks of Sihăstria were present there to witness it. The fame of her holy life spread far, and many Moldovan villagers came to her cave to pray for her intercessions and help. Her earthly husband, the monk Elefterie, returned to Neamț from Poiana Mărului to find out whether or not Saint Teodora was indeed the woman who was once his wife. Having received the heavenly assurance that she was, Elefterie knelt and wept at her tomb, and took up a hermitage near hers under discipline to Sihăstria – in much the same way as Saint Aglaïa became a holy monastic and lived her life near the bones of her beloved Saint Boniface. Elefterie lived at his hermitage for another ten years before he, too, reposed in the Lord.

In the 1720s a monastery with a wooden church dedicated to the Transfiguration was built on the site of her hermitage. Sihla Monastery still stands there to this day. Saint Teodora’s relics rested in her cave. After the Russo-Turkish War when the Bessarabia Oblast’ was placed under Russia’s direct control, Mihail Sturza, who had ruled Moldavia in the 1840s and emancipated the Romani, had her relics interred in a precious reliquary, and then moved to his personal chapel in Iaşi. The Sturza family then arranged for her relics to be translated to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in 1853. There she has been faithfully commemorated as ‘Teodora of the Carpathians’.

As this history witnesses, the Moldovan people commemorated Teodora de la Sihla as a local saint almost at once after her repose, and her memory has been passed down through the folkways of the Romanian-speaking northeast country to the present day. The Iaşi-educated Moldavian, later Romanian, writer Calistrat Hogaș, in his book Pe drumuri de munti, said this of her:
Beautiful St. Teodora, the anchorite legend of these places, appeared in my imagination as a second Mary of Egypt, her life haunted by the same misfortunes. St. Teodora had also cast off, perhaps, the intoxicating pleasures of the world, contenting herself, at last, with the damp crevice of a rock, instead of the gilded palaces where luxury and indulgence reigned…
The Romanian Orthodox Church formally glorified Teodora de la Sihla as a monastic Venerable and Holy Mother of the Church at a synod on the twentieth of June, 1992, placing her feast-day on the seventh of August. Holy Mother Teodora, faithful bride of the Bridegroom, virtuous ascetic and friend of refugees, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Teodora de la Sihla, Tone 1:

Leaving behind the things of this earth and taking up the yoke of a solitary,
You were made a bride of Christ, O blessed one.
Through fasting, vigil, and prayer
You were granted heavenly gifts and became like the angels.
You overcame human nature and moved to the heavenly places,
Leaving us the consolation of your cave and of your holy relics.
Therefore, O holy and most venerable Mother Teodora,
Entreat Christ our God to save our souls.
Sihla Monastery, Sihla, Romania

05 August 2020

Saint Ioan Iacob the New Chozebite

Saint Ioan Iacob Hozevitul

The fifth of August in the Orthodox Church is also the feast-day of Saint Ioan Iacob Hozevitul, a twentieth-century monastic of Palestine. Because he is the second sainted John to live in the desert of Wâdî al-Qalṭ in the Dayr al-Quddis Jûrj – the first being one of the monastery’s two blessed patrons – he is known as ‘the New Chozebite’. As we can see from his life, the true monastic ideal in the modern world has not changed despite the modern world’s pressures. As Saint Ioan Iacob shows us, the true Orthodox monk is called to be dispassionate and gentle, not to be macho. The true Orthodox monk suffers at heart, even bleeds, for those who are themselves suffering. The true Orthodox monk may also be called to distant places, and his service and prayer for the world may look very different from how the world believes that service and prayer ought to look.

Saint Ioan Iacob [as mentioned before, also Eng. John James] was born Ilie, the son of working-class parents Maxim and Ecaterina Iacob, on the twenty-third of July, 1913, in the Horodiştea commune of Moldavia, what is now Păltiniș in northeastern Romania. He lost both of his parents at a very young age, leaving him an orphan. His mother died six months after his birth, and his father was killed in action in the First World War when he was two. He was thereafter raised by his grandmother Maria, a nun, who taught him the prayers and the fasts of the Church, and who encouraged his daily devotions. She raised Ilie until he was eleven years old, after which she reposed in the Lord and he was sent to live with his uncle Alecu. He was educated in the public middle school in Hotin, and later at the public high school in Cernăuți (both of which were forcibly incorporated into the USSR and are now in the Ukraine).

The upbringing his grandmother left him had an indelible impact on young Ilie, who had an intense love for Christ and the Church and who was drawn to the examples of the Desert Fathers in particular. His uncle and his aunt and cousins told Ilie that he ought to study theology to become a priest. But hearing this he told them flatly: ‘No. I shall become a monk.’ He was thoroughly sincere in his desire. When he was twenty, after hearing a voice from heaven, the young man went to his priest for absolution, then packed his icons and his prayer books and left for the monastery at Neamț. Ilie was received there and was given work in the monastery’s infirmary.

He took to the monastic life as a fish to water. His hagiography says that ‘his soul was nourished by the beauty of the services, the experienced spiritual instructors, and the silence of the mountains’, and that he ‘loved prayer, vigils, spiritual reading, and solitude, and soon he surpassed many experienced monks in obedience, humility and patience’. The abbot at Neamț, observing this, made use of Ilie’s talents by placing him in charge of the monastic library. There he took pleasure in recommending to the brother-monks books which they ought to read. Then he would advise that they ought to read attentively, make confession and attend to their prayers.

While still in his novitiate he was draughted into the army, but after his service he was welcomed back to Neamț, and the Archimandrite Valeriu (Moglan) saw fit to tonsure him as a monk on the eighth of April, 1936. He was given the monastic name of Ioan, and he was placed under the spiritual obedience of the elder Ioachim Spătarul, one of the most renowned spiritual fathers of Moldova, who would become the eremitical abbot of the nearby Pocrov skete.

With the blessing of his spiritual father, Saint Ioan, together with two fellow-monks of Neamț, embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, driven by a desire to walk where our Lord walked during his earthly life. After visiting the Holy Sepulchre and the other holy sites, they stayed for the winter at the Dayr Mâr Sâbâ. Here Saint Ioan would spend the next ten years, and he would struggle through many temptations among the Sabaites, ‘conquering the temptations of the demons, and progressing on the path of salvation’. He cultivated an attitude of humility, mercy and love towards everyone he met: it did not matter if they were Romanian like himself, Slavic, Arabic, Bedouin, Christian or Muslim. Again being placed in the monastery’s infirmary, he tended the ill and the wounded. During the Second World War his skills were put very much to test.

Here his spiritual father was a Yugoslav whose name was Sava, who deeply cherished and cared for the Romanian monks at the monastery. Again the literary talents of Saint Ioan were noticed and put to use. Here he taught himself Greek and began to read the texts written by the ancient Fathers, to ask his fellow-monks for commentary, and then translate them into Romanian. He also wrote akathists and troparia in Romanian, and gave them to Romanian pilgrims when they came to visit the monasteries or the other sites in the Holy Land. He lived as a hermit in the desert as well for some time in the late 1930s, and made the acquaintance of his closest spiritual disciple, Ioanichie Pârâială, who later wrote down his Life and many of the miracles attributed to him.

With the permission of the Romanian Orthodox hierarchs, Saint Ioan was ordained a deacon in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and then later as a priest in May of 1947. He served as an archpastor over a Romanian skete in the deserts of the Holy Land in honour of Saint John the Forerunner, again employing his remarkable talents for language in translating numerous works from Greek into Romanian for the benefit of the Romanian faithful who came to the Holy Land as pilgrims. He gave his homilies in Romanian every day, took confessions and gave communion, and continued in every way to minister to his people in the Holy Land.

In 1952, Saint Ioan resigned the abbacy of the Skete of Saint John, and he and his disciple Ioanichie Pârâială entered the monastery of Saint George Chozeba, which was close to the cave where Saint Anna was traditionally held to have prayed for a child. Here Saint Ioan and his disciple Ioanichie spent seven years in solitary prayer, fasting and vigils, fighting the temptations of the dæmons. Saint Ioan let no one into his cell in that time, and did not come out himself – in a manner similar to some of the Syrian Desert Fathers, he would communicate with petitioners and pilgrims by way of letters passed by and from his apprentice. He continued to work on his translations from his cell, and he and Ioanichie would hold the Divine Liturgy and partake of the Mysteries on important feast and fast days. The diet of Saint Ioan at this time consisted of a few biscuits, olives, wild fruits and some water, and he slept with a bare stone as his pillow.

Saint Ioan’s health went into decline during the summer of 1960, but he bore it without complaint. He took the Holy Eucharist one last time on the fourth of August that year, knowing that his earthly end was near – he had knowingly carved the date of his death into the wall of his cell. The following morning he reposed. He was buried with all due reverence in his cave by the abbot at Saint George Chozeba’s monastery. In witness to his sanctity, wild birds – of the kind he used to feed crumbs from his biscuits when they flew by his windows – flew into the cell during the funeral and perched tamely among the heads of the mourners who gathered near him. In 1980, over 20 years after his repose, his relics were exhumed from the cave and found to be incorrupt. They were translated reverently into Saint George’s monastery where he still rests. Holy Saint Ioan Iacob, beloved monastic father and patron of the Romanian and Moldovan people, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Ioan Iacob, Tone 8, Plagal 4:

In you, through zeal the one created in the image of God was saved, oh Father,
For forsaking the world and leaving your homeland,
You took up Christ’s cross,
And you have dwelled in the valley of Jordan to labour.
Wherefore, oh Righteous Father Ioan,
Your spirit rejoices now with the angels.
Intercede with Christ our God to save our souls.

Holy Martyr Eusignios of Antioch

Saint Eusignios of Antioch
القديس إوساغنيوس الأنطاكي

The fifth of August in the Holy Orthodox Church is the feast-day of another Antiochian martyr, Saint Eusignios of Antioch, a military veteran and martyr who suffered in the persecutions of Julian the Apostate in 362.

Saint Eusignios [Gk. Ευσίγνιος, L. Eusignius, Ar. Yûsâġniyyûs إوساغنيوس] was born in 252 – though we don’t know about his family, his hagiography describes him as a Christian who did many charitable deeds and had a merciful heart. He was a soldier under the command of Emperor Saint Constantine. After the famous vision in which Constantine looked upwards toward the sun and saw above it a cross made of light, and the words within ‘ἐν τούτῳ νίκα’ – ‘in this (sign), conquer’ – and the dream of Christ visiting him upon the following night, it was Eusignios who was called forward and commanded to interpret the Emperor’s vision and dream, and at whose recommendation the armies of Constantine painted crosses upon their shields and were thus led to victory over his rival Maxentius. This tale is told in several ways, with some versions having Constantine hear the interpretation from all the Christians among his soldiery. But the very name Ευσίγνιος, which means ‘the good sign’ in Greek, may in fact be a reference to this event and to the interpretation of the Sign of the Cross for Constantine’s armies.

Eusignios, having been a native of Antioch, retired from his sixty-year service in the army, under the emperors Diocletian, Maximian Herculius, Constantius Chlorus, Constantine and Constantius II, and returned home. He spent his life in prayer and fasting, attending the Divine Liturgy and distributing what he had among the poor. He lived in this way until he had reached an extreme old age – possibly 110 years old. He came to be trusted by the people of Antioch, and it was not unknown for them to bring disputes before him instead of to the magistrate. In one dispute, he found in favour of one Antiochian who was in the right, but the other man who had wrongly brought the charge became bitter, and nursed a grudge against Eusignios. He reported Eusignios as a Christian to the deputies of the Emperor Julian.

At this time, the Emperor Julian had lately travelled into the East to pursue his fatal war against the Persians. He was at Cæsarea in Palestine when he summoned Eusignios before him. Eusignios was accompanied there by a man named Eustochios, and he encountered a scribe in the court of Julian named Dionysios, who at the martyr’s insistence faithfully recorded everything that followed. When called forward to answer the charge of being a Christian, Saint Eusignios not only proudly proclaimed himself to be such, but he also began to berate the Emperor for his apostasy. Appealing to the example of Julian’s esteemed kinsman Constantine, in detail the saint recounted the wondrous sign which appeared to him in the sky. The implication in Saint Eusignios’s tirade against the Emperor was, indeed, prophetic. Just as the Cross had led Constantine to victory and to life everlasting, so Julian’s forsaking the Cross would prove to be his downfall in this world and the next.

The apostate Emperor did not spare the elderly man, and ordered Eusignios to be beheaded. According to the witness of Dionysios, Eusignios then said: ‘I thank you, Cæsar. Death respected me on the battlefield, in order to find me and strike me now for Christ’s sake. Such an end is worthy of a Christian soldier, and I glorify the Most High that it pleased Him to preserve me for it.’ The sentence was thereupon carried out upon Saint Eusignios, who in this way attained to the victorious crown of martyrdom even in his great old age. Holy Eusignios, beholder and interpreter of wonders, confessor of Christ before the pagan, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Eusignios of Antioch, Tone 8:

Today the Church honors a man martyred for his piety and devotion:
The sincere and Godly-minded Eusignios the Wise.
She glorifies his spiritual struggles, and cries out fervently:
O Most Merciful One, guard Your servants through his intercessions!