Juliana of Lazarevo and Remembrance

As an archivist, I was, and still am, fascinated with how people are remembered in the future. A few years ago, I had the unique privilege of working with a large mass of personal & professional papers from a single influential family in a small town. Their ancestors had lived in the same house for over 140 years and their attic was a proverbial treasure trove. They didn’t throw away anything that pertained to themselves – they just stashed it upstairs! I discovered the intricacies of relationships, like a play unfolding before me in the scraps of silverfish nibbled paper. Local historians know their cast of characters but we often do not understand how they behaved towards each other or what they liked to eat. Finding these tidbits of memories was like panning for gold in the dusty boxes from an antebellum brick house on Main Street.

Through the endless sorting of papers, I was able to piece together the life of a young woman, who died at age 29, a person whom we only knew from her name and two dates on a headstone in the family plot. She had a full life – was able to attend a finishing school for ladies in the 1870’s, taught in local grade schools, enjoyed reading the classics and current literature, and went on excursions with her friends. Along with her letters and essay books, the family donated a trunk of clothing, the unpacking of which was a somber but thrilling chore for a material culture historian. In the trunk were the black and grey shaded accouterments of Victorian mourning garb from 1882, the year Miss Emma died. The expense shown in the jet buttons, the parasol, the silk shawls, the custom dresses, was a visible sign to the world of how bereaved the family felt at her loss.

When handling her personal effects, I often reflected on the nature of the survival of memory, of whether Miss Emma had any idea the contents of her writing box would be read three generations later. The remarkable gift of love and stability – or some may argue – a lazy neglect from her future relations gave us a peek into a rare story, an ordinary life. Ordinariness is easily lost. Peasant linen clothing was worn to shreds and then eventually turned into paper. Wooden houses burn down. Small traditions die out with families. The real struggle for social historians is finding the examples and explanations for why a thing or an image exists. We have to accept some questions may never be answered.

When teaching the girls in my parish about women saints, I wanted to include an ‘every day’ saint – one who, from outward appearances, was ordinary to her time and place, but lived a holy life nonetheless. When I read about St. Juliana of Lazarevo, I found a saint, who, but for the loving attention of her son, would be unknown to us today. She was a pious soul from early childhood, being orphaned and left with relatives who did not understand her ways, she kept a practical faith. She cared for the sick and sewed clothing and burial shrouds for the poor. A fellow nobleman fell in love with her and brought her into his parents’ household. Juliana quickly showed her skill in managing a burgeoning home, having given birth to ten sons and three daughters. Her in-laws turned over the keys to her for the estate.

Juliana suffered deep sorrow when six of her children died from plague. Her desire was to retire from the world to the monastery. Her husband, Yuri, encouraged her to stay with the family and see their remaining children grow into adulthood. So, Juliana stayed at Murom and re-doubled her ascetic efforts. After her husband died, Juliana did not go to a monastery but decided to stay in the world, living in poverty because she gave away her inheritance to the poor. Even during famine, she made sure to have bread to give to beggars which was, “sweeter than anything they had ever tasted.” Several years after her death, Juliana’s relics were found incorrupt and streamed myrrh that brought healing to many.

There are several themes I could have taught from St. Juliana’s life – her practical holiness, her obedience to the path of salvation within marriage & family life, her charitableness from a position of inherited wealth – all of which are foundational lessons. What I found most fascinating is the gift of remembrance St. Juliana received within the life of the Church as an otherwise unremarkable woman in her time and place. Her son, George, praised her in writing, which, at the time in early 17th century Russia, was a rare task and this writing was preserved after his death, providentially, at the time his mother’s relics were found incorrupt.

For Orthodox Christians, remembrance is the task of the living. I heard it said, that even in the darkest times of the Communist era, when no service books survived in a town, priests could rely on the grandmothers to know the liturgical prayers by heart. We have a vast family ‘attic’ of written collections in a hundred languages of saint’s lives and the liturgical functions of the Church. The akathists teach us through rhythm and song the lives of the saints. In most countries where Orthodoxy has grown, the majority of people are literate and can have access to all these materials in their native language. While the printed word ‘outsources’ memory to a certain extent, it has never replaced the inherent nature of our faith tradition, that which is taught by example, what is sung by the elders and repeated by the young. Paper, vellum, and stone are trustworthy to an extent, but only so far as the people who value them. Living in the Church of the martyrs, we know all too dearly how quickly the elements burn. Our strength in Christ is our collective memories, to keep the Word alive in speech and deed, that no man or element can destroy.





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 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.



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.




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!





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.

Saint Christina the Great Martyr and Owning Your Faith

Saint Christina the Great Martyr

Saint Christina was born in Tyre, an important port city along the Mediterranean, just to the west and north of Galilee in the mid-200s AD. Her father was the pagan Roman governor of that city and surrounding region. At the age of 11, Christina was a beautiful and intelligent young lady, who could garner any future marriage proposals she wished. Her parents, however, chose to dedicate Christina as a pagan priestess. In order to discern which god or goddess she would serve, her mother locked the girl into a small house with her servants and many different idols, hoping one would choose her daughter as a devotee.

During her home imprisonment, Christina began to study the stars and what natural beauty she could see from her window. Just as St. Paul remarked to the Athenians, to begin his soliloquy in the Areopagus, (Acts 17), Christina intuitively discerned there was an ‘Unknown God’ who had created the world and He was sovereign over it. The idols in her room were just the creation of men and could do nothing, she reasoned. She began to pray to this Unknown God and fasted, asking Him to reveal Himself.

In time, an angel appeared to Christina and taught her the true faith of Christ. The angel also forewarned her of the things she was to suffer. Seeing the idols as now superfluous, Christina smashed them all and threw them out the window. When her father visited, he asked where all the idols had gone. Christina was silent. When the servants told him, her father flew into a rage and slapped his daughter. She then gave the explanation of her new faith in Christ. The hapless servants were all put to death and Christina was dragged off to prison.

The pleading of her mother did not change her mind nor a trial to which Christina was given one last opportunity to recant. A long series of tortures awaited the young maiden. For Christina, her valiant struggle included burning over fire, being locked in a furnace for 5 days, and multiple beatings. An angel came and revived her at one point. Her torturer thought this was sorcery and he died immediately as a consequence. During her long imprisonment, people from the surrounding area began to visit her and she brought about the conversion of 300 souls. Finally, she was executed with a sword. Her feast day is July 24th.  

To help refresh our memories, martyrs are categorized in the menaion with certain titles:
Martyrs as a whole are those saints who suffered death in Christ’s name, for remaining loyal to the true faith, or for refusing to serve idols. They often had no warning about their immediate suffering and were sometimes ‘baptised in their blood’.

Great Martyrs are those saints who suffered particularly harsh treatment and punishments before suffering death.

Hieromartyrs are those saints who suffered death as priests.

Venerable Martyrs are those saints who suffered death as a member of monastic orders.


Saint Christina is entitled a Great Martyr because she endured many rounds of suffering before her death. As modern readers, we often wonder why the stories of martyrs were so ‘gruesome’ in their details. In the wisdom of the Church, we can see that certain things, like cruelty and hatred, have endured where and whenever Christians have lived. The cast of characters have changed and their motivations, whether religious or political, have altered, but the means of breaking men & women in mind, body, and soul have not. We read the lives and deaths of martyrs not as quaint and curious stories of long ago from a vantage point of safety and prosperity. Anyone of us might be called to wear the crown of martyrdom in our lives; a sudden reckoning or a slow, torturous beat down is always a possibility for the final witness of a Christian.

We do not sugar-coat suffering or the reality and consequences of sin as Orthodox Christians. When teaching children, it is helpful to ‘titrate’ the stories where the details of sin might not be comprehensible. An example might be, when teaching the life of Mary of Egypt, to describe her pre-repentant life as one where she could not choose to do right at all. Otherwise, as children grow in their life experience and knowledge, we do them no favors by sparing details. They can handle much more than we give them credit.

From the lives of virgin martyrs, especially, we draw the lesson of ‘owning our faith’. We take responsibility of how we honor our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit  through what we eat, what we listen to, what we look at, where we spend our time, and how we move. These are small, daily choices, often with small social consequences. They add up, though, like a tree which bends to find sunlight and can be warped for life. For martyrs, the choice is a high-stakes one – choose bodily life over spiritual death. In both cases, the consequences are the same – life or death, slowly or quickly. Christina, in her youth, chose spiritual life and a martyrs crown. Training ourselves through fasting, prayer, liturgical worship, and study means we will be prepared for the tests, both great and small, where we may have to say, “I belong to Christ!”

Read more about the life of St. Christina the Great Martyr


Saint Mary of Egypt and the Problem of Spiritual Pride

St. Mary of Egypt

When you think you have arrived, you have only just begun. This is the greatest life lesson for St. Zosimas and he learned it from a naked woman in the desert.

Mary was a beautiful girl, living in Alexandria. She left home at age twelve and lived a life of open sexual gratification. Rather than take pay from her partners, Mary supported herself through spinning flax or begging. Her pride in physical seduction, the thrill of the pursuit of men, kept her in this life for several years. One day, she heard a group of men were to set sail for the Holy Land in order to venerate the True Cross in Jerusalem. Thinking this would be an adventure, Mary joined them on the boat, trading her services with the men for passage.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem and following the crowds to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mary was held back at the doorway by an unseen force. She tried three times to enter, but it was impossible. Mary looked up at an icon of the Theotokos, which brought her to tears and repentant prayer. She promised the Theotokos that she would renounce her passionate life and follow Christ. She fled to the desert and wrestled with ‘mad desires and the passions’ for 17 years. After that period of time, she dwelt in prayer and solitude for another 30 years, when she met Zosimas.

Saint Zosimas lived a contemporary life to Mary, in Palestine. His parents took him to a monastery at a young age, some accounts say just after he was weaned. All he knew was a monastic way of life, which he embraced and stayed, excelling at the study of Scriptures and at asceticism.

Zosimas was tormented with the thought that he had reached perfection in everything and could not learn anymore in the spiritual path to God. The voice said, “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”

In a way, he was right. He knew the lives of his fellow brothers and of the lives of the desert fathers in the Sinai and beyond. Many of them made pilgrimage to visit Zosimas for his wisdom and teaching. All the indicators from his vantage point showed him there was nothing else to gain where he was, and what could be gained, like physical portliness, is pride.

Then an angel appeared with this message:
“Zosimas, valiantly you have struggled, as far as this is within the power of man, valiantly have you gone through the ascetic course. But there is no man who has attained perfection. Before you lie unknown struggles greater than those you have already accomplished. That you may know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan.”

In obedience to the vision, Zosimas left his home at age 53 and lived the rest of this life near the River Jordan. Here, the monks observed the Lenten fast by going out into the desert in solitude. While wandering in the desert, Elder Zosimas crossed paths with Mary, who told him her life story. The tales of both saints were recorded by Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the mid-600s.

Another father among the saints had a similar revelation to Zosimas –

“It was revealed to Father Anthony in the desert that there was one who was his equal in the city.  He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Trisagion with the angels.”

~From the 38 Sayings of Saint Anthony 

Both Zosimas and Abba Anthony had an experience of the parable of the rich young ruler.

Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” [Mark 10:21]

To outward appearances, yes, the monastics had left the world in obedience to Christ’s commandment, forsaking wealth and status. What they could not forsake, except through labor and repentance, was pride. Zosimas was led to a stricter monastery; Abba Anthony saw a man living in a town who excelled him in prayer and charity. Comfort and stagnation is a different experience for everyone, as is the remedy of asceticism.

Both Zosimas and Mary suffered from what might be called, ‘a big fish in a small pond’ syndrome. Mary, in her sinful state, could acquire any pleasure she wanted. Zosimas, in his monastic home of 50 years, knew all there was about that Christian way of life, in that context. Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, describes a tactic for when to begin a new habit called the clean slate. The clean slate is a moment in our lives where a big change occurs: marriage, changing jobs, graduating from school, etc. At these moments, when major behavior patterns shift to accommodate new people or new places, it is easier to change our personal behaviors, good or bad. A repeated pattern in many saintly lives is this clean slate type of move. Staying stagnant in sin is easy; repentance requires a new direction and, most importantly, movement.

Physical pride, of the kind Mary of Egypt owned, can be dealt with through physical asceticism and attempted profitably, sometimes, alone, which is why we have hermits or hermitesses. Mary knew she had no bargaining chips in her hands in regards to her soul: no godly heritage, no inclination throughout her youth towards God, no elder to shepherd her. For Mary, her remedy to overwhelming physical pride was renouncing all pleasures and contact therewith. Spiritual pride needs the mirror of living with others, even just seeing one other humble person in daily life is enough to bring us to repentance. There will always be someone in the Kingdom of God who is more ‘least’ than you.

Mary is a surprisingly contemporary saint for our decadent times. She made choices to suit her libertine tastes in ways that do not fit the paradigm we commonly assign to women of ancient history. As a professional, single woman living in a wealthy North American city, I could choose almost any way of life I wanted: eat whatever and whenever, associate with whomever I liked, wear whatever styles I choose, consume any media, and communicate with anyone in the world. Alexandria in late antiquity was a similar venue. Mary, being held back from entering the church, was the first time she encountered a ‘no’ to her wishes. We cannot have both worlds. Embracing the cross means we have to put down the other passion-fueled agendas in our arms, both the glory of physical pride and the illusion of spiritual success.

The story of Saints Zosimas and Saint Mary