Saint Beatrix of Rome and the Darkness Before Dawn

Saint Beatrix of Rome

Working as a historian, there is a temptation to feel like an omniscient narrator of lives and events. “If only they had known this fact, they would not have chosen that path, and their lives would have been quite different…” Endless hours of roundtable speculation regarding battles, personalities, who said what and when, all end up being so much Monday morning quarterbacking. The truth is, since we cannot even fathom our own motivations, we cannot  transpose onto others what they would have done. We have our ideas about fairness or justice, our underdog in the fight of human social struggle. Why did they die so soon? Just a few days later or a year later, their world changed, and their lives would have been spared.

My parish, St. Raphael of Brooklyn Mission, in Fuquay Varina, NC, recently accepted a generous gift of three saints’ relics. Over the last three weeks, Fr. James has introduced us to each saint individually and we have venerated their relics. We are honored to have St. Joseph the Betrothed, St. Luke the Evangelist, and St. Beatrix of Rome at our parish now. While the other two saints need no initial introduction, St. Beatrix’s story intrigued me. As she would be in our veneration and act as intercessor for our parish, I delved into the background of her life and martyrdom.

The reign of Diocletian, from 286 to 305, was that darkness for the Church before a dawn they could not fathom would arrive. Emperor Diocletian, from a political and military standpoint, was an incredible reformer of the empire. He restructured the provincial governments, reformed the tax code, attained peace with the Persians, and secured the borders of Rome. He was a successful, hard, and shrewd Emperor who pulled together an empire which was threatened on every side. One threat he could not stamp out were the Christians.

The Diocletian persecution, which was begun as a call to purge the “impious”, or those who were not worshipers of the Roman gods, was the most systematic in the the first 300 years of the Church. Edicts went out to the whole of the empire, commanding that any Christian places of worship be razed, wealth & land confiscated, and Scriptures burned. When the imperial palace caught fire, not once, but twice, Christians were blamed for the plot and several were tortured and burned. Further edicts called for clergy to be arrested and called all Roman citizens to make a universal sacrifice to the gods. Those not complying would face torture and death.

Beatrix and her brothers, Simplicius and Faustinus, lived in Rome when these edicts were made in 303. The brothers were the first who were called out as refusing to sacrifice to the gods. They were beaten with clubs, beheaded, and thrown into the Tiber River. Beatrix found their bodies and had them honorably buried. For seven months after her brothers’ death, Beatrix lived with another Christian woman and helped the persecuted in secret. Eventually, her neighbor reported Beatrix to the authorities because he wanted her property. When she appeared before the judge, she stated she would never sacrifice to demons because she was a Christian. Beatrix was strangled in prison and her fellow Christians buried her next to her brothers. Her accuser, though, did not live long. At a feast, he ridiculed the martyrs, and a child called him out on his treachery. The crowd took vengeance on him and threw his body into a pit.

From our vantage point, we can see those persecuted Christians in the Roman empire only had twenty more years before Constantine made their faith universal. For St. Beatrix and her brothers, though, and all their predecessors, that ‘dawn’ was unfathomable. Freedom to build churches? To worship and pray openly? To make iconography, mosaics, and other religious art without fear of destruction? The truth of the faith to be preached to the people? The faith made universal was the sea-change to which all future experiences would be held. Persecution is that darkness which comes and goes – like the waxing and waning of the moon. We will never be fully free in all the lands where Christianity is lived. Yet, we can wait in that darkness, in the prison cell, with those who suffer, knowing the light of Christ will come, either in this world or the world to come.


Reflections on Political Martyrdom

The Romanov Family

What makes a martyr in the eyes of the Church? You may think the definition is easy: those who died for their faith in Christ. We have hundreds of accounts of martyrs who had a simple choice, acknowledge Christ in front of those who did not and receive tortures and death. Those are counted as martyrs in the eyes of the Church at other times and circumstances often arrive at that status is less direct ways than we might think. St. Thecla is called a martyr, though she suffered multiple times and was spared. Her death, ultimately, spared her from further suffering when she cried out to God. St. Maria Skobtsova died in a concentration camp, when she stepped forward to take another woman’s place in the line for the gas chamber. The point A of faith to the point B of death and how those two are connected is a curving and twisting line for many of our glorified saints.

The Church in Russia and in the diaspora recently marked the 100th anniversary of the deaths of the Romanov family, now glorified as martyrs. This brought to mind how complex the situation surrounding their demise was and how the Church has come full circle, by God’s mercy from the situation. When I was a girl, my mother was fascinated with the Romanovs and the Russian revolution as a historical event. I read several books she owned, from secular writers, about the family. At the time, the Russian people were still Communist and the Church had not yet glorified the martyrs from that yoke. To my young mind, it was a tragic tale without any sort of redeeming value, no happy ending to satisfy my fairytale yearnings. Young princesses died without princes to save them and their bodies dumped far away so their people would forget their horrendous deaths.

The communist era for the formerly Orthodox people, as one Ukranian friend described, was like cutting a plant from its roots and expecting it to live a normal life. No matter the brutality against the people, the annihilation of buildings, the stripping of language and indoctrination of atheism, any monumental effort the state tried to eradicate the roots of faith did not ultimately prevail. Grandmothers remembered the prayers and taught their grandchildren, bringing them in secret to be baptised. A Romanian friend said her grandmother taught her that instead of crossing herself with her hand, to use her tongue inside her mouth to make the sign to bless her food, so that no one would see what she was doing. What of these anecdotes, in the face of such grand horror and the near daily martyrdom at the hands of the state? At the time, that was all they could do, to keep the faith. When Christ dwells in the heart, the mind will not forget.

The uncomfortable reflection from the wisdom of adulthood and the hindsight of history is that in the tale of the Romanovs, the ‘bad guys’ were their subjects. The people wanted their deaths, not in a fit of passion, but in a systematic cleansing of the past. They did not want a new ruler in the same manner – they wanted to forget this family and way of life existed as one in which their faith had been nestled for a millenia. Regicide is a particularly evil means of martyrdom. They sought to exterminate a family, a lineage, from the world because of their inherited power and their status as supporters of the Church. The culpability was not just with one upstart dynastic family over another; it rested with the Russian people.

St. John Maximovitch spoke in memory of the royal martyrs, in 1934:

What did Russia render to her pure-hearted Sovereign, who loved her more than life? She returned love with slander. He was of great morality, but people began to talk about his viciousness. He loved Russia, but people began to talk about his treason. Even the people close to the Sovereign repeated the slander, passing on to each other rumors and gossip. Because of the ill intention of some and the lack of discipline of others, rumors spread and love for the Tsar began to grow cool. They started to talk of the danger to Russia and discuss means of avoiding that non-existent danger, they started to say that to save Russia it would be necessary to dismiss the Sovereign. Calculated evil did its work: it separated Russia from her Tsar and in the dread moment at Pskov  he was alone; no one near to him. Those faithful to him were not admitted to his presence. The dreadful loneliness of the Tsar… But he did not abandon Russia, Russia abandoned him, the one who loved Russia more than life. Thus, in the hope that his self-belittling would still the raging passions of the people, the Sovereign abdicated. But passion never stills. Having achieved what it desires it only inflames more. There was an exultation among those who desired the fall of the Sovereign. The others were silent. They succeeded in arresting the Sovereign; succeeded, and further events were almost inevitable. If someone is left in a beast’s cage he will be torn to pieces sooner or later. The Sovereign was killed, and Russia remained silent. There was no indignation, no protest when that dread, evil deed happened, and this silence is the great sin of the Russian people, and it happened on the day of Saint Andrew, the writer of the Great Canon of Repentance, which is read in churches during Great Lent.


In the 100 years since the Romanov martyrdom, with the changes politically and the resurgence of the life of the Church, an vital recognition of culpable silence is seen in how the Church has remembered the dead from the communist yoke. We saw the 100,000 people in procession which Patriarch Kirill led to the place of their martyrdom outside of Yekaterinburg. He told the faithful,  “We should truly have lasting immunity against any ideas and any leaders who call on us to embrace some new, unknown happy future through the destruction of our life, our traditions and our faith.” This is the great hope, to do the work of healing through the recognition of saints, who died at the hands of one’s immediate forebears. The Church recognizes the failure as one within its house: we made our own martyrs. Similar to the turmoil surrounding the 4th and 5th centuries, when theology and politics drove away, tortured, or martyred many holy fathers, only to have them reinstated late in life or after their death, the Romanovs and the martyrs of the communist yoke are kept as a signpost of tragic transgression. The ‘Memory Eternal’ we sing for their martyrdom is also a reminder to never be silent in the face of evil.

A special thank you to Isabelle Guirguis, my Church school student, who suggested this article topic and helped find the links for this article.


Gratitude is the Foundation

St. Paisios of Mount Athos

“He is not coming back, Anna. You have to begin a new life.”

Those hard words came over the phone from a trusted priest. I sat shivering in my car on a chilly November night after a Nutcracker dance rehearsal. The life I had known for a decade was over and shattered like the thin ice forming outside. After delivering the final verdict, Fr. S. gave me the best life advice one can receive in such a situation and this practice has become the bedrock of my spiritual life.

“Every day, even if you cannot see anything good and all seems completely dark, thank God for everything.”

For the following chaotic weeks and months, I struggled to pray.  At the very least, I held the small wooden cross from my prayer corner morning or night and cried. The wretched, lonely days soon filled with more good people and circumstances and things I could offer back in gratitude. I am wealthy in friendship now in more ways than I have ever experienced in my life.

When I find myself discontented or grumpy with my circumstances, I know I’ve strayed from my ‘square one’ of gratitude. As St. Paisios describes,

When a person is grateful, they are pleased with everything. They think about what God has given them every single day and find joy in all things. However, when they are ungrateful,  nothing pleases them and they grumble and complain about everything . If he doesn’t appreciate the sunshine and complains, the cold north-west wind comes and freezes him. He doesn’t want the sunshine; he wants to shiver because of the cold wind…Christ wanted the lepers to be grateful not for His sake, but for their sake, because gratitude would have been to their benefit.

How can you thank God for the terrible things someone else has done to you? Or for physical pain? Or for financial struggle? Gratitude for the ‘ugly’ things raises our hearts towards the the Kingdom of God, where there is love and redemption. I can testify that what you lose does come back, maybe not in the same form, but often in a much richer, unexpectedly wonderful way. Love comes to you when you are most broken and you let others see it.  I can start giving back now, as long as I am not afraid to show my scars. The redemption of suffering is being able to turn around to others who are going through the same pain and say, “You are not alone.”

Mother Maria of Paris and Divorce

Mother Maria of Paris

When choosing a patron saint or when you are adopted by one, you may not know in all the ways they will be a support to you throughout your earthly journey. This certainly has become the case with my ‘second name saint’, Mother Maria Skobtsova. I first heard of her during my time as a catechumen as she was recently canonized in 2004 and her writings were being published online. The turbulent historical period surrounding her life in Russia and France, her work with the poor Russian diaspora in Paris, her bravery in aiding the underground network to smuggle out Jewish refugees, her writings about the faith, all of these actions drew me to her as a saint who would understand my motivations in life. What I did not expect was how I would share in her personal suffering.

I am divorced.

When I joined the Orthodox faith, I joined as a wife with a husband who also wished to live the Christian life. Then, three years ago, he suddenly chose to leave everything: the faith and our marriage. As my friends, both in daily life and through social media can attest, I have been very careful to not discuss the details surrounding his choices. This is still a living person for whom I pray out of obedience and with the hope he may come to repentance. I do not hope for a reconciliation, only that he may not be harmed in whatever I may do or say. Any more discussion about the circumstances is uncharitable.

Liza Pilenko was born and raised as an Orthodox Christian, but the young woman was attracted towards Bolshevism and atheism in her teens. She spent most of her time with young visionaries, artists, and political malcontents of early 1900’s St. Petersburg. At age 18, she married Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev, a member of Social Democrat Party. She wrote poetry and taught at a factory. After three years of marriage and while pregnant with her first child, Dimitri left her. Liza returned to her family home where she lived during WWI and the Russian civil war. Her interest in Christianity renewed at this time and as the dark clouds of war and unrest closed in she knew that, “God is over all!”

Her second marriage to Daniel Skobstov came about in a dramatic fashion. Liza became the acting mayor of Anapa when the town’s Bolshevik mayor fled when the White Army took control of the region. The Army thought she was a Red, though she spoke in her defense that she had no political allegiance other than, “I will act for justice and for the relief of the suffering. I will try to love my neighbor!” Daniel was her judge that day. He spared her execution. Liza returned to thank him. After several days, the two got married.

The family fled Russia, eventually finding refuge in Paris in 1923. Liza joined the activities of the Russian Student Christian Movement and sought out ways to serve her neighbors. A major turning point in Liza’s life was when their young daughter, Nastia, died from the complications of influenza in 1926. Liza turned to her faith in God more deeply. She saw her motherhood expanding, even as her older children sought education away from home. Her work with the Russian refugee community grew; she rolled up her sleeves and earned their trust through practical service. Liza also published a collection of lives of the saints. Daniel and Liza separated, with her moving into rooms with the workers. She desired to dedicate herself towards building a new monastic vocation in the poor districts of Paris. It was only when Metropolitan Eulogy visited Daniel, that he consented to an ecclesiastical divorce. Liza became Mother Maria.

The double edged sword that modern saints bear as their witness is having more details recorded about their lives. On the one side, this helps us who bear their names, feel more kinship with them because of all the aspects of their personalities which shine through the anecdotes. Mother Maria was known for enjoying cigarettes and a stout glass of beer in street side cafes. She spoke as an equal with the mongers in the markets where she begged food in Paris. Her directness, her unqualified charity and hospitality, her command in doing what was right no matter the cost, all endear her to those who are only a generation away. I could very well ring a bell at her doorstep and know she would welcome me with open arms.

The other side of the sword, however, is using these anecdotes to become too comfortable with a saint in their fallen humanity. The spiritually immature may think, “This saint had these foibles or propensity towards sin, therefore, I am excused in the same behavior and I will turn out alright.” We can see a person living with a malady and not see the suffering involved with a cure or the management thereof. Someone may walk with a limp as an adult, but they began life unable to crawl or stand. Years of pain, rehabilitation, and even surgeries can bring about the ‘miraculous’ in our physical bodies. This is no less true in our souls.

Is it better to know less about a saint’s life than more? Like the seed of the Gospel, it depends on the hearer, whether a few sentences or a whole book is profitable. The example of Mother Maria, with her struggles through war and upheaval, the death of a child, and the ending of two marriages, that the greater the challenges in life, the greater the response in living out holiness in the world. God forbid we should face the same sorts of calamity and evil as was visited upon the Russian and European peoples in the 20th century! Even so – in the face of dread darkness – the light of one nun who refused to turn away her neighbor in need and to spare another’s life with the payment of her own is worthy of all the words written by her and about her. The words we write about the saints are our gift of eternal memory, whether many or few, to their faithfulness in Christ.


Troparion (Tone 4)

You became a bride of Christ, O venerable Mother,

And offered your body and soul to Him as a living sacrifice.

You exposed the evil side of humanity’s ways

By allowing the light of the Resurrection to shine forth from you.

We celebrate your memory in love.

O Martyr and Confessor Maria

Pray to Christ our God that He may save our souls.

Kontakion (Tone 6)

You became an instrument of divine love, O holy martyr Maria,

And taught us to love Christ with all our being.

You conquered evil by not submitting yourself into the hands of the destroyer of souls.

You drank from the cup of suffering.

The Creator accepted your death above any other sacrifice

And crowned you with the laurels of victory with His mighty hand.

Pray fervently that nothing may hinder us from fulfilling God’s will

Because you are a bright star shining in darkness!




Saint Ia and Journeys

Saint Ia on the leaf

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

No, it doesn’t.

It begins after the 60th mile. You’ve already put 4 or 5  days distance between you and home. You can’t go back; you’ve come too far. Your friends and family now feel your absence. They are starting to believe you will do it this time. You have blisters. The scenery has changed noticeably. The people are strangers. This is the furthest point you have come away from what you had always known, just as Sam stopped while leaving the Shire, knowing where he tread next was the adventure. The next step is the first one and the next mile is the journey.

Ia, pronounced Hi-ya, was a young Irish noblewoman living in the 6th century, during the great flourishing of Christianity on that island. She was a sister to St. Erc of Slane and companion to several holy leaders. They had banded together to make a missionary journey to Cornwall and set up a monastic establishment. Ia was a contemporary of St. Melangell and shared many commonalities. The group of missionaries had gathered at modern day Waterford to set sail.

Ia missed the boat.

We don’t know exactly why she was not with her companions on the day they left or if they purposefully left her behind. The stories say she was too young to travel by herself, which is why she did not hop the next boat to the Cornish coast. She did not give up and turn back to what could have been an acceptable Christian life in Ireland. To Cornwall God had called her and to Cornwall God would take her.

Ia saw a leaf washing up near the shore. She reached out with her staff and poked the leaf. It did not sink. Then she watched the leaf grow into the size of a coracle, a basket-shaped boat made for one. Ia stepped into the leaf and the wind took her out across the ocean. She landed near the Hayle River and set up a monastic cell near her companions. The group continued to witness to the Gospel of Christ until she and the entire group suffered martyrdom at the hand of the King of Cornwall. The port city of St. Ives is named after her.

We often make ‘beginnings’ as St. Anthony says, “Every day I say to myself, ‘Today I will begin’” I know I often leave a wake of well-intentioned beginnings which never come to fruition, new habits which do not stick and unfinished projects. Yet, what the life of St. Anthony shows us, is that we never begin at the same place. What we work with, our soul and body, are ever changing, one towards God (hopefully) and one towards the grave. The key is perseverance. Every morning may be a fresh day with no spots on it. The materials we are given, however, are there to be shaped from the clay of yesterday.

For St. Ia, she had already put ‘skin in the game’, of forsaking all for the Gospel of Christ. The coastline was her last safe step. Beyond there, she ventured into the unknown. Where have you stopped? Do you hear voices telling you that success is impossible because you’ve never made it past a certain point? Have you stopped because you see no other way forward according to your best reckoning? Perhaps you need just a leaf and a step forward, instead of a boat and a gaggle of friends, to bring you towards where God would have you.


Troparion of St Ia

Tone 5

Thy life and mission

were pleasing to God, most pious Ia,

for seeing thee left behind in Ireland,

He miraculously transported thee across the sea to Cornwall on a leaf.

Wherefore O Saint, pray to God for us

that we may never give way to despair

but ever trust in His great mercy.


Patron Saints

The Three Holy Generations

The major assignment I gave my middle school girls in Church School was writing a report on their patron saint, which they presented in class and before the parish at the end of the year. Like a proper teacher, I made a report form with a series of questions that would guide my students towards including the most important information about their saint. My librarian  instincts for categorization ran into a few difficulties right away. One girl has St. Michael the Archangel as her patron. She couldn’t answer when he was born or where he was buried! This made me reflect on the ideas surrounding patronage and relationships with saints. Let’s get down to the basics.

A patron saint is an intercessor in heaven for a nation, region or church, a profession, an activity, families, and for each Orthodox Christian. Patron saints of places have some sort of connection with it, either they lived or died there, preached the Gospel, performed a miracle, or had their relics interred in a church. A personal patron saint is the one for whom we are named at baptism (or chrismation) and are known in the Church when we take communion. For those of us from the Western churches, the patronage distinctions are more holistic than explicit categorizations. You could have four dozen saints just for a simple lifestyle! In my observation, most Orthodox Christians have 3-4 saints who are a central focus of their lives: personal, church, sometimes a family saint (Slava), and a regional/national identification.

There is an interesting contrast for those who were born into the Orthodox faith and for those of us who entered the Church as adults as it pertains to our patron saints. I have heard ‘cradles’ express disconnect with their patrons – as though not having a choice in the matter means they are automatically distant from this saint. “I would have picked this one! They are so much  more interesting!” Or, sadly, they are ignorant of their patron beyond just a name they say when receiving communion.

On the flip side, many converts must choose a patron because their birth name is not of Christian origin. How can we make such a major life decision – an alignment with the kingdom of God for the rest of our earthly lives! Do we just go by the day we were born, our nationality, our interests or suffering in life, or that form of holiness to which we aspire? I was providentially given three saints names at birth, though my family was not Orthodox. God knew I needed all the help I could get! Yet, when I became a catechumen, I still wrestled with accepting that St. Anna was indeed my patroness. What of others with whom I shared more life experiences?

What might give peace these situations is understanding that patronage means an abiding, unfailing love and care within Christ’s Church. Godparents might fail you at some point in time (I pray that never happens) – but not your patron saint. They will ever intercede for you, provide assistance, and guide you towards wise choices. Like any relationship, however, when you have a need, you should just ask those who love you! If you feel no connection with your saint, perhaps starting with the basics like learning their life story, how they have acted within the life of the Church since their repose, and acquiring an icon of them for your prayer corner are good actions. Beyond that, reading the akathist for your saint is both instructive and builds trust with them.

Life is about entering a story already in progress. We accept the treasury of good gifts the Holy Spirit has given us! For cradles, you were given the gifts of a heritage in the faith through your patron saint, and through your parents and godparents. For those of us who made a conscious shift to become Orthodox, we honor the myriad of ways God has directed us here.  I accept the wisdom of choices made before I was born. When choosing a patron saint, there really isn’t a ‘wrong’ way to go. As you grow in the faith, you may feel closer to another saint or a series of saints, just as you make friends with other Orthodox or others help you on an emergency basis. Your home base, however, is with your patron.



Saint Thekla and Preaching the Gospel

St. Thekla, Equal to the Apostles

We would like to think of Thekla in our modern definitions as spunky or unconventional. The branding of materials marketed to girls likes to emphasis bravery, pioneering attitudes, and achieving the remarkable. While there is much to be lauded in teaching young women to value their intelligence and capability, this sort of “I’ll show you” message is not what we encounter in Thekla.  No, friends, being merely spunky does not get you almost martyred several times. There is a difference between being a non-conformist and embarking on the radically different. There is also a difference between trivial personal rebellious monikers (tattoos, hair color, clothing choices, piercings, etc.) and the life lived out of the desire to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One thing might get you noticed for five minutes and the other will have you remembered for the ages of the Church.

Thekla was the daughter of Greek nobles from the city of Iconium, which is now in central Turkey. She was a famed local beauty and was engaged at the age of eighteen to a respectable man named Thamyris. As a young woman in the first century Greek culture, her future life was well set up.

The Apostle Paul stopped in Iconium on his way from Antioch. He stay with Onesiphoros and taught all who came to visit at his house. Thekla followed others to the house and listened at the doorway to this strange teaching. She forgot food & drink, even her family and obligations to her fiance. All she wanted was to hear more about Christ!

Before long, Paul was captured and imprisoned, partly at the behest of Thekla’s mother, who complained about Paul ruining her daughter’s life. This did not stop Thekla from seeking him out. She bribed the jailer with her jewelry in order to sit in the jail cell with Paul to hear more of his teachings. At the trial, Paul was flogged and banished from Iconium. Thekla refused to return to her home and marry Thamyris. In a rage, her mother asked the judge for a death sentence, a trial by fire. Thekla crossed herself and walked into the flames. A storm blew up and extinguished the fire. She was completely unharmed.

After this, Thekla fled Iconium and found the Apostle Paul and his companions praying in a cave not far from the city. The group then set out for Antioch, including Thekla as one of their number. Not long after they began preaching in Antioch, a Greek man named Alexander began to pursue Thekla, demanding she marry him. Again, she was put in front of the authorities and condemned to death. Wild animals were set on her twice, but each time they refused to touch her and became gentle. Then her torturers tied her to oxen and chased them with red hot irons. The cords broke and the oxen ran off. The people began shouting, “Great is the God of the Christians!” The prefect was frightened at the display of God’s power and set Thekla free.

At the direction of the Apostle Paul, Thekla returned to her region, Isaurian Seleucia, and dwelt in the hills. She constantly preached the Gospel and was granted the gift of healing. Several prominent pagan priests were converted through her witness. When she was 90 years old, Thekla was confronted by a coven of sorcerers who were angry at her healing the sick for free. They sent a group of young men to defile her. St. Thekla cried out to God to protect her. The rocks cleft and swallowed her, thus God took her to Himself. St. Thekla is invoked at the tonsure of women into monasticism and is a frequent patron of parish women’s societies. Her feast day is September 24th.

The Church has granted St. Thekla the titles, Protomartyr and Equal of the Apostles. Her icon depicts her holding both a cross for martyrdom and a scroll or Gospel book for her teaching. Though Thekla did not die until old age at the will of God, she faced martyrdom without fear multiple times. She spent 70 years proclaiming the Gospel. I find it fascinating that Thekla encapsulated so many traits of all the saints to come. She was a teacher, an unmercenary, a virgin martyr, and an ascetic (one could say proto-monastic). As her Kontakion says,

“You shone out with the beauty of virginity, you were adorned with a crown of martyrdom, you were entrusted with the work of an apostle, glorious virgin; and you changed the fire’s flame to dew, while by prayer you tamed the raging of the bull as a victorious first Champion.”

Now, to address the overwhelming negative reaction to Thekla’s choice to forsake her family and marriage. Here is a young woman (like many virgin martyrs, her beauty is noted in the hagiography) who had a promising life plan. Running away from home is one thing, and her reputation probably would have been repairable, if she had come home sensibly and married. Rejecting both the gods and marriage, here was an incomprehensible ‘crime’: she wanted to follow this religious teacher who came out of nowhere to spread the same message! Such lunacy was incredibly destabilizing to the Greco-Roman culture who had formalized state recognized monogamy with rights for both parties.

I would posit that St. Thekla was doing more than getting stars in her eyes and running away from home to follow a religious fanatic. In all of her long life after she encountered the Apostle Paul, she made fundamental choices, in obedience, to reflect how the Gospel should be lived. She was not merely first in one mode of holiness; she was first in them all. Her boldness was for Christ and not for her gain. The Church says she is ‘the glory of women’. Note how she is not sent away from the Apostles’ company; she is welcomed and taken aboard. She is able to communicate the Gospel in both word and her physical witness. The Apostle Paul recognizes these gifts and sends her back to her people as an apostolic presence.

In those long years, I believe, is where most of us in regular parish life, can feel the most kinship with St. Thekla. Her zeal did not consume her like a quickly moving grass fire. She was planted as a lighthouse; a beacon for travelers and neighbors, using every opportunity to turn souls away from destruction. Thekla accepted the obedience of being an apostle to a place, of loving generations of people and watching the Church grow. How do we accept the call as Orthodox Christians to be a vocal (yes, using our words) witness to Christ? Are we prepared to explain our faith? Do you have enough humility to say you do not know and go to find the answer for an inquirer? Do often shun the opportunity to speak because you are ‘just a layperson’? St. Thekla is an amazing excuse smasher.

St. Thekla be our guide!



The Saints are Alive

Feast of All Saints Icon

Recently, I saw a round of questions in a Facebook group which welcomes inquirers to ask questions about the Orthodox Christian faith. The questions reminded me of ones I asked more than a dozen years ago when I was at that stage of my conversion. They can be summed up like this: “How can you feel comfortable talking to the saints and the Theotokos? The prayers look like ‘worship’. My wife/husband/children are seriously confused or feel like they can’t continue in learning about Orthodoxy over this issue.”

Revisiting these doubts and concerns helped clarify for me why I am writing about the saints. I am not merely writing nice stories with pithy commentary. I want to introduce you to real, living people who want to be a part of your earthly journey. The ultimate goal of learning about the saints is to get to know them, as you would know your family and your colleagues and your teammates.

For those who were not raised in the Church and even those who may not have had strong grounding in the faith, their understandings of the ‘dead’ and the ‘living’ are not the same as the prevailing bifurcated Western mindset. Fr. Stephen Freeman describes this division as a ‘two story universe”. God lives above us, separated from our affairs on earth. When someone dies, and they seemed like a decent human, we think of them as with God, again, separated from our first floor existence. In the reverse, if someone was clearly rubbish at living on earth, they get tossed into the the ‘basement’ of hell. Meanwhile, we carry on in our sphere, with gulfs fixed between the basement and the second story. We might hear a footstep or two from above our heads and proclaim, ‘miracle!’ but that is the most we can hope for. One someone is dead – they are truly gone away. The best we can do is celebrate their lives on the first floor because that was all we were certain of. In the modern parlance, “you are dead to me”, sums up the idea: this person no longer exists in an interactive way in my life.

The Liturgy, the primary mission of the Church, is the uniting of Heaven and Earth for the healing of mankind. We Orthodox Christians live in a one story universe. There is no ‘practice my religion’ time and every other moment where God is forgotten. The Holy Spirit moves and broods and is active everywhere. Those who repose have not merely become worm food and vanish into a great unknown. We do not fairy wish that someday we might see our loved ones again after we die. When say we live in a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11 and 12:1), they continue to see the world because there is no death in Christ. Those the Church recognizes as saints have their holiness rise to the surface of our memories and their continued action within the Church serves as a confirmation.

The honoring of saints and asking their intercessions is also part of the living tradition of the Church. G.K. Chesterton describes tradition as, “…giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (Orthodoxy, p. 48) Either the Church is universal through time and space or it is not universal at all. Beyond recounting stories, we continue to experience their aid and presence in our lives. This adds to their “lives” as lived in Christ with us.

What I hope to do through this blog is the write what I consider a ‘speaker’s biography’, which one might encounter before attending a conference. You will know enough to recognize them in public and appreciate what they have to say. Unlike most conferences, however, you then get to share dinner with them, then have unlimited access to talk with them any time afterwards. They become friends, surrogate family members, teachers, counselors, protectors, providers, finders of lost things (and people), and so many other points of relationship.

You are never alone as an Orthodox Christian. Let me repeat that: You are never alone! There is no suffering, no shame, no triumph, no need, no insurmountable task, no sadness, no joy, nothing that has not been shared by a fellow saint in their earthly struggle. Unlike our fellow Christians in the flesh, they have finished the race. They can tell you every pothole, every twist and turn, dark corners where enemies lurk to pull you away from the goal. They can protect you, as a mother protects a toddler from rushing towards danger. Even if you are holed up for years in solitary confinement or hide on a  rock in a desert, there you will find a feast prepared for you, with guests innumerable. Come, let us join them!

Saint Melangell and the Animals

Abbess Melangell

A young maiden with a hare, an old woman with a lion, a hermit with a bear, a dying woman with dove, what do all these people and animals have in common? They are signpost towards the Kingdom of God – one marked with gentleness and reconciliation. With the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, the reconciliation in and among His Creation has certain signs for us to see as a return to this original relationship. The hallmark of living out the Gospel in the world is the peace a soul reaches with Creation through asceticism and gratitude. The hagiographic theme of saints’ interactions with animals is consistent sign of holiness.

High up in the Berwyn hills of northern Wales, in the late 6th century, a young Irish woman found solitude in prayer with her God. She lived in the wilderness before being discovered in a rather dramatic and fabled way. Melangell, by the tradition, was the daughter of the King of Strathclyde, who had renounced the world and sought to convert the Welsh. Thus she lived for several years in asceticism.

Prince Brychwel Ysgithrog, from what is now Shrewsbury, was a good Christian man, giving alms to the poor in his realm. He took his dogs out hunting one day near Pennant, a remote valley. The dogs startled a hare and went off in pursuit, with the Prince following on horseback. They chased it into a thick bramble, however, the dogs came running back out in fear. The Prince dismounted and went into the hedge to see what had frightened them. There he saw a young woman, standing at prayer, with the hare hiding at the hem of her dress.

Astonished, he asked who she was and where she had come from. Learning of her birth and her mission, at first, he felt compassion for her. Some stories say he proposed marriage first, to which she declined. His second offer, however, was more to her liking. He gave the land surrounding her as dedicated to God so that a church may be built. Other virgins gathered to Melangell to dedicate themselves to prayer and hospitality to the poor. Local traditions say that hares were always found in great number surrounding the settlement and called them ‘Melangell’s lambs’. In perpetuity, after Prince Brychwel’s death, this deed was honored and a church has continuously operated as a shrine to St. Melangell to this day. Her relics and those of the nuns who came to Pennant, were also discovered recently and several miracles are attributed to her.

What might seem like a fairy tale suitable for animation in the life of St. Melangell is really a kind of deep truth being played out in the lives of saints. A wild hare which seeks sanctuary with a human is a sign of that person’s sanctity. Indeed, the very idea of ‘wild’ animals is a byproduct of sin; we broke the relationship of caretaker for all of Creation and put fear between us. This fear is a two-way street, either the animals flee us because we may cause them harm or they could attack or poison us. As St. John Chrysostom writes:

It is clear that man in the beginning had complete authority over the animals…. But that now we are afraid and terrified of beasts and do not have authority over them, this I do not deny…. In the beginning it was not so, but the beasts feared and trembled and submitted to their master. But when through disobedience he lost boldness, then also his authority was diminished. That all animals were subject to man, hear what the Scripture says: He brought the beasts and all irrational creatures to Adam to see what he would call them. (Gn. 2:19) And he, seeing the beasts near him, did not run away, but like another lord he gives names to the slaves which are subject to him, since he gave names to all animals… This is already sufficient as proof that beasts in the beginning were not frightful for man. But there is another proof not less powerful and even clearer. Which? The conversation of the serpent with the woman. If the beasts had been frightful to man, then seeing the serpent the woman would not have stopped, would not have taken his advice, would not have conversed with him with such fearlessness, but immediately on seeing him would have been terrified and run away. But behold, she converses and is not afraid; there was not yet then any fear. (Homilies on Genesis, IX, 4)

Animals, by their type and their actions, are both real actors and symbols within hagiography. What do I mean by ‘real actors’? There were physical creatures who had relationships with saints and were witnessed in behaving in ways not regularly observed for wild animals. St. Zosimas had a lion come help him dig a grave for Mary of Egypt, marking both his sanctity (though he was afraid in the moment) and that of the reposed.  Symbolically, animals can be signs or portents of the spiritual realm. For example, when St. Scholastica died, her brother, St. Benedict, saw a dove ascend from her monastic cell and he knew she had reposed.   In one of the tales surrounding the life of St. Brigid is one where a poor family came to the saint with their cow who had gone dry inexplicably. She touched the cow and it returned to giving milk, ten times the amount before. This illustrates the providence of God to the poor and the compassion of the saint.

How does this healing between humans and Creation occur? Through asceticism and gratitude. Elizabeth Theokritoff notes, in her book, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, “Asceticism provides the link between our relationship to the material world and our spiritual life. It reveals to us that the way we use material things is absolutely crucial to our spiritual progress.” Fasting, giving alms, denying the passions all have the goal of transfiguring our lives into that which reflects brightly reflects Christ to the world. We rightly place ourselves in the order of Creation through gratitude. Theokritoff continues, “At the basis of that attitude is the understanding of the created world as God’s gift. Not a ‘gift’ in the sense that it is handed over to us to do what we like with; rather, in the sense that it is never ours by right. It entails a constant connection with a Giver, a cause of endless gratitude to one who graciously gives us the enjoyment of what is His own.”

The fruit of this ascetic labor is to return to the original authority structure in Paradise, where our Divine image is restored. Though we are still within the fallen world, glimpses of what this was and will be, are truly transformative. As St. Isaac the Syrian remarks, the mechanics of this renewed relationship is the recognition of the divine, “The moment they catch sight of the humble man their ferocity is tamed; they come up and cling to him as to their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and geet. They smell, as coming from that person, the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in paradise. This scent was taken away from us. But Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming.” (Homily 77) As with all relationships, animals also retain a choice as to whether they will engage with us. They may cooperate or choose to cohabit with us or keep to their regular life in the wild. The humble man removes the barriers for this choice.

St. Nektary of Optina said, “St. Gerasimus was a great saint and he cared for a lion. We are little so we have cats.” We all have little ways to pursue gentleness with God’s creation. How have you seen wild animals react to patient love and humility? How can we better cultivate relationships with the small living creatures and the great?


Read more about St. Melangell in this excellent article from Road to Emmaus.

More quotes from the Church Fathers regarding our relationship with Creation.

Queen Tamar of Georgia and Leadership

Queen Tamar of Georgia

Our culture exalts the potential of every person: the self-made man, the rags-to-riches stories, the underdog heroes are our foundational mythology. While those stories are based on some true-to-life examples, what we blinded to in our glittering wealth is our creatureliness. God formed us and placed us in families, in tribes, and in countries. He gave us innate skills in our minds and bodies, so individually and precisely, to love and serve our neighbors. Our strengths bear the weaknesses of others and, in humility, we allow others to care for us as unto Christ.

Do we not have choices? Of course we do! Queen Tamar knew what she would become from the earliest age – but how she would be known to her people was up to her. The Parable of Talents illustrates just how the balance of human free will and divine providence works in the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 25)  Throughout the ages, Orthodox Christians with great wealth knew they were handed a five or two talent deal when they were born. Some could make the choice of giving away the physical treasure to gain spiritual life, such as St. Marcella or Abba Anthony. Others, like royalty, knew their lot was cast with their people.

When Queen Tamar took the throne at age 17 after her father’s death, she convened a Georgian church council to address the clergy. She said, “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil. Begin with meif I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation…. You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”

Her speech is an excellent summation of what leadership for an Orthodox Christian looks like. What comes with the package deal, whether you lead a scout troop or a nation, you are a man or woman, young or old? There are three primary duties incumbent on leaders which Queen Tamar exemplified: service, generosity, and intercession. We heard of her valiant military command and shrewd political dealings with the Turks, which are rightly heroic, however, with any leader, what happens in the heat of life’s battle is the result of years of training towards unflinching, habitual response. Wisdom is knowledge wearing worn, muddy boots.

King George III knew that for his daughter to succeed as a full monarch of their people, she needed intense and lengthy training, which is why he made her co-regent at age twelve. For five years, she saw the daily choices her father made, learned who were the powerful people in the land and what their motivations were, which enemies could be trusted or not, and how to set the tone of piety for the court. She learned her role as a servant for the people. Though the power was hers to decide the fate of men, she knew the decisions were for everyone’s benefit or detriment, not for her personal schemes. For example, her first husband was the pick of the court and the Church. While George Rusi was a brave soldier, he lived a flagrantly immoral life, which brought shame to Queen Tamar. The court sent him away and the Church granted a divorce. George Rusi tried twice to overthrow the Queen’s rule but he was foiled each time. She would have been quite happy to remain unmarried but the pressure resumed for her to continued the royal line. Tamar asked her aunt, her king father’s sister, to choose her next spouse. Prince Davit-Soslan Bagrationi became a trusted co-ruler and military commander for Tamar, and father to her son and daughter. (While we use the term ‘queen’ for Tamar, in Georgian, the term is mep’e, which is best translated as ‘sovereign’, not a gender specific title. She would remain styled as mep’et’a mep’e, or ‘king of kings’ after her marriage.)

Service in leadership is also personal. Queen Tamar would wear her golden array to govern her people during the day and at night she would pray and sew. One evening, in exhaustion, she fell asleep and had a vision of richly decorated throne. She approached it, assuming it was hers, but an angel stopped her. “Who is more worthy than I to receive such a glorious throne?” The angel replied, “This throne is intended for your maidservant, who sewed vestments for twelve priests with her own hands. You are already the possessor of great treasure in this world.” And he took her away. When she awoke, the Queen set about to sew the twelve vestments as repentance for assuming an honor was hers.

The Queen learned that vanity and pride are always at the door, like hungry beasts, to eat away at humility. She was preparing to attend a festal liturgy and was fastening precious rubies to her belt. A beggar came to the monastery door and was told to wait for the Queen’s entourage. When the Queen was finely dressed, she found the beggar had gone away. She became greatly saddened at her vanity which prevented her from denying Christ in the disguise of a beggar and offered the ruby belt to the Gelati Icon of the Theotokos.

Throughout her life, Queen Tamar undertook ascetical labors in secret. During military battles, she would pray continuously until she received word of the outcomes, leading her troops to the city gates barefoot. Through prayer, the Queen recognized she is one under authority and one entrusted with authority, like the Centurion. When Queen Tamar was nearing the end of her earthly life, she is recorded as saying her final prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to The I surrender my soul, O Lord!”

Queen Tamar is an extraordinary example of a woman in leadership – for her own time and for all of Christian history. With studying the saints, it is easy to think they are outliers to regular human experience, and think what they accomplish in their lifetimes is not possible for the rest of us. True, I was not born into a royal family and a kingdom was dependent upon my wise choices. My responsibilities are miniscule in that regard. Yet, the gifts I have now, of communication, easy travel, potential influence, monetary wealth and physical comfort, all of these are astronomically above what Queen Tamar could comprehend. The model our ‘king of kings’ upholds for us is to wear our golden robes lightly, with humility, knowing in our final breath we surrender our multiplied talents back to God.

Read more about the life of Queen Tamar of Georgia.