Saint Lydia and Influence

st.lydiaWhat makes for an influential life? Why do you listen to certain people and not others? What sort of human qualities do you admire? These questions have occupied philosophers and religious people for all of civilization. How we define social power, outside of the brute strength of the sword, depends a great deal on when and where we live. There are a few universals: wealth, birth, physical appearance, sex, and character are the five main determinations of influence. For most societies, who your parents were and how much money or property you inherited delimited your social circle and how you could operate in that circle.

Lydia of Philippi had a rather unique standing in her time and place, as a woman and as a merchant. She was mentioned as being a ‘seller of purple cloth’ in the Book of Acts, who had settled in Philippi. Thyatira, in what is now Turkey, was the center for purple cloth production. Tyrian purple was once known in the Grecco-Roman world as is Belgian chocolate or Swiss watches today. Creating purple dye was a rare and labor intensive process, using thousands of snails, that once crushed and cooked with other chemicals, created an intense color not produced through any other process. It wasn’t until the 1850’s when the first synthetic dye, aniline, was accidentally invented, that the color purple was no longer a status symbol of wealth.

Lydia must have been born or married into the trade, as with many skills, the secrets of making the perfect shade of dye was closely guarded. Being a merchant in luxury trade also granted esteem in the community. Lydia had to know the social intricacies of the wealthy and also the technicalities of what was physically possible in creating the dyed textiles. The merchant was often in the precarious position of saying, “No, we cannot provide what you want, when you want it” or “It was a bad year for snails, so the price will be much higher for wool.”

The Church remembers Lydia and her household as the first converts in Europe. Remarkable also was her being a woman of prestige, who took the risk of believing in the messiah preached and sheltering Paul after his arrest. St. Luke mentions several times in Acts when a convert had status through wealth or birth. One might view this notation as a means of adding legitimacy to the newly formed faith. “Look, so-and-so joined, therefore, we are correct.” Yet, this is not what the early Church thought. Their understanding was, “Look, this woman has taken a great risk. She heard of Christ and his Kingdom, counted the cost, and went ahead!” We all have ‘loss’ in the world for being a Christian. What St. Luke noted and what other hagiographic details take into account, with wealth, beauty, and status, is those in position of them choose to no longer use it as self-indulgent power.

Having made that choice, Lydia, and saints like her, have a second fork in the road. Do I give away my wealth? Do I stay where I live or go elsewhere to spread Gospel? Do I shun married life thus keeping virginity and beauty for Christ? Or do I stay here, keep my trade and my marriage, and build the Church? Lydia chose the latter. She was already known for her devotion to God and to prayer. She knew the influence she possessed and chose to use it for the sake of the Gospel of Christ with the people she knew already. In the epistle written a few years later to the Philippians, St. Paul recognizes the people he met as, “…my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown”. Lydia was a key role model for the believers who joined the Church, being the first to welcome St. Paul and showing hospitality.

Most of us, in varying degrees, are like St. Lydia. We stay in our professions and our towns to use what influence God has given us to love our neighbors. As Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations, “Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one.”  It may not be the great influence of robing governors in purple, but we each have a means to communicate through our goodness and humility to everyone we meet.


Tyrian Purple –

History of Thyatira –

More on Lydia –


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.

Saint Sophia of Thrace and What to Do Next

St. Sophia of Thrace

What do you do when your plans go to ruin through unexpected ways? The lives of many saints show us the choices they made when confronted with the unthinkable: deaths of loved ones, natural disaster, persecution, abandonment, disease or infirmity, financial calamity, wars, famine, and so on. For the holy women we remember who faced such disaster, what they chose to do next is the illustration of their character and their faithfulness to God.

A recurring theme in good hagiography is one of holy eucatastrophe. This term, coined by J.R.R. Tolkein, is commonly defined as the happy resolution, an impossible problem which is solved by the end of a story. Why do I predicate eucatastrophe with the word holy? In the lives of saints, the plot twist in their lives is not usually rectified to the same status they were before. They may not have another child or remarry or regain wealth or live in peaceful times, all tropes we like to read or see in fairy tales. The resolution, the good to come from disaster, is a transformation of this person’s life path for their salvation, the choice to do good.

St. Sophia is known to us as ‘The Mother of Orphans’. In the first half of her life, however, she was a mother and wife, a devoted Christian woman, living in Thrace, most likely before 700 AD. She had borne 6 children and in the midst of a busy family, did not neglect prayer or Church attendance. A plague swept through her town, carrying off her husband and each of her children in quick succession. Sophia was now a childless widow.

There is a quote from Dorothy Day which I keep written at the beginning of my journals, where she offered advice to a young man who needed discernment about his life’s path.

“Pray this prayer, ‘Lord, what would you have me to do?’ The answer to this prayer is finding yourself doing more than you ever thought possible.”

In my experience, the work God has for us, especially when we are faced with monumental changes, is so much more than we can dream. I underestimate myself constantly and hide in fear of failure or of conflict. The parable of hiding talents is my constant reminder to use what little I have been given. I feel special kinship with these types of saints because they allowed the Holy Spirit to work humility in their lives, while at the same time, doing great works of faith.

Sophia, whether she consciously prayed this prayer or not, went about doing much more than she had expected in the second half of life. For the next twenty years, she took in 100 orphans and raised them as Christians. She sold property to care for fellow widows. She preferred to do without the necessities of life herself rather than allow any poor person to leave her home empty-handed. She continued to be a mother, seeing the fruit of her love grow in a multitude of ways beyond her first loss.

God blessed her humility and generosity through a unique miracle. She had a jug of wine that she used to serve poor guests. The jug never emptied and was replenished every day. This continued until Sophia told another person of the miracle and the wine dried up. She was immediately sorrowful about her indiscretion. Sophia took the monastic tonsure before her repose at age 53. Her icon often depicts her holding the wine jug as a sign of God’s provision. Her feast day is June 4th.

More about St. Sophia:

Venerable Sophia of Ainos

St. Sophia of Thrace