Happy Orthodox Awareness Month!
So October is Orthodox Awareness Month, and I thought, what better way to participate than to have the blog focus on the “superheroes” of the church that make this month possible. As Halloween is also approaching and kids are getting their superhero outfits, I thought it would be a fitting theme for October. We are going to hear about Holy People, both alive and dead, and I am super excited for what this month’s publications will bring!
I am going to kick us off with a personal favorite saint of mine, St Evyenia (or Eugenia) of Rome. Okay yes, she is my patron saint, but she is still super cool! So let’s dive in.
The Holy Martyr Evyenia was a Roman by birth. She lived in Alexandria, where her father Philip was sent by Emperor Commodus (180-192) to be Prefect of Egypt. Evyenia was noted for her beauty and good disposition. Many illustrious youths sought her hand, but she did not wish to marry anyone, for she was determined to preserve her virginity.
She became acquainted with the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, and yearned with all her soul to become a Christian, but kept this a secret from her parents. During that time, Christians were banished from Alexandria by the command of the emperor. Wishing to learn more about Christianity, she asked for permission to visit one of the family estates outside the city, supposedly to enjoy the countryside. She left with her two servants, Protus and Hyacinthus, dressed in men’s clothes. She and her companions were baptized at a monastery by Bishop Elias, who learned about Evyenia in a vision. He blessed her to pursue asceticism at the monastery disguised as the monk Eugene.
By her ascetic labors, St. Eugenia acquired the gift of healing. Once, a rich young woman named Melanthia turned to her for help. Seeing “Eugene,” this woman burned with an impure passion, and when she was spurned, she falsely accused the saint of attempted rape. St. Eugenia came to trial before the Prefect of Egypt (her father), and she was forced to reveal her secret. Her parents and brothers rejoiced to find the one for whom they had long grieved.
The entire family accepted holy Baptism. Philip, after being denounced by pagans, was dismissed from his post. However, the Christians of Alexandria chose him as their bishop. The new Prefect, fearing the wrath of the people, did not dare to execute Philip openly, but sent assassins to kill him. They inflicted wounds upon St. Philip while he was praying, from which he died three days later, so her dad was also a saint, how cool is that.
St. Evyenia traveled to Rome and continued with monastic life, bringing many young women to Christ. She, along with St. Claudia, built a wanderers’ hostel and aided the poor. After several peaceful years, Emperor Galienus (260-268) intensified the persecution against the Christians, and many of them found refuge with Sts. Claudia and Evyenia.
The pagans dragged Sts. Protus and Hyacinthus, her servants, into a temple to make them sacrifice to the idols, but just as they entered, the idol fell down and shattered. The holy Martyrs Protus and Hyacinthus were then beheaded. They also brought St. Eugenia to the temple by force, but she had not even entered it, when the pagan temple collapsed with its idol. They threw the holy martyr into the Tiber River with a stone about her neck, but the stone became untied and she remained unharmed. They then cast her into a pit, where she remained for ten days. During this time, the Savior Himself appeared to her and said that she would enter into the heavenly Kingdom on the day He was born. When this radiant Feast came, the executioner put her to death with a sword. After her death, St. Eugenia appeared to her mother to tell her the day of her own death (information taken from http://ww1.antiochian.org/node/17207 and stories from my mom).
Okay, so is she not one of the coolest people ever. I was thinking about how she had to stumble across the epistles of St. Paul, and I realized how fortunate I was to be able to actively read the bible without facing persecution. As one of the readers of the Epistle at my local church, I have access to people who lived with Christ! St. Evyenia didn’t have that same luxury. She had to run away to become acquainted with literature concerning Christ.
So, why is she my superhero and a superhero of the church? Well, for starters the fact that God delivered her from her persecutors is amazing. It reminds me of the Psalms we sing in vespers, “Deliver me from my persecutors for they are stronger than I”. Another reason she is a superhero of the church is that she was able to perform miraculous healings! I truly believe that she and St. Pelagia were kick starters for women monasticism because they both disguised themselves as monks. I recently went to the Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan (mother Gabriella is the Abbess). We were in church a lot, and I looked up during one of the services and right next to me was a huge icon of St. Evyenia, honestly bigger than I am. I realized that while she is one of my superheroes, she is also a superhero to nuns and monastics everywhere. After talking with mother Gabriella, I discovered that it is not rare to have an icon of her at a women’s monastery. Also, she was a princess. A costume most girls dress up for Halloween in, and something every little girl most likely wants to be.
My family celebrates the feast day of the patron saint, almost more than we celebrate birthdays, we have parties, no joke. The hard thing with St. Evyenia though is that she is celebrated December 24, so the parties usually have fasting food (a real tragedy because my brother gets lamb). But another reason she is my superhero is because I got presents on the 24 for my nameday and then presents on the 25 for Christmas!
As we delve into more saints the rest of the month I challenge you all to either learn more about your patron saints, and/or learn about different superheroes of the church!
Publications Student Leader
Hi, I am Evyenia Pyle, and I am the publications student this year! I am in my second year of college studying speech and hearing sciences! I play 12 instruments as of right now, and in my free time I play with my dog. I am really excited about this upportunity. Never hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or if you are interested in writing a blog! firstname.lastname@example.org
What do you get when 10 young adults representing six different OCFs in five states and 11 nuns hailing from Kansas to Berlin spend the weekend together in close quarters? In preparation for Great Lent, the Cornell OCF and friends from Upstate NY, Manhattan, New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia, journeyed to the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA for a long-anticipated weekend retreat for a chance to rejuvenate, a chance to re-establish a lost connection with Christ, and a chance to go back to taking on the world.
Everyone arrived at sunset on Friday evening and celebrated Vespers before partaking of a wonderful fish dinner, complements of the local firemen and the nuns. This was a rare treat for the monastery, permitted by a timely fast-free week going from the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee to that of the Prodigal Son. After a delicious meal, it was time for introductions. The Very Reverend Mother Christophora, the abbess of the monastery and the spiritual leader of the community, threw a curve ball and had each nun introduce the sister to their left. Despite being put on the spot, the nuns did an outstanding job and said only the nice things (by request). This was a delight to witness and set the tone for the entire weekend: one of openness, laughter, and just simply being.
Later that evening, Mother Paula gave us a tour of the grounds and taught us about the monastery’s founder, Mother Alexandra, also known as Princess Ileana of Romania. The men even had the privilege of staying in her former house! Saturday was our only full day at the monastery. It began with Commemorations to St. Raphael of Brooklyn throughout Divine Liturgy, followed by brunch where Mother Christophora read us a reflection on the psalm “By the Waters of Babylon” which is sung at Matins in the weeks preceding Great Lent to remind us that our true home is in the heavenly Jerusalem, and not the Babylon of this world. Great Lent is a return home. One of the highlights was singing this hauntingly beautiful hymn together with the nuns at Saturday evening Vigil. In between the morning and evening services, we spent our free time exploring the trails around the monastery, including the cemetery where Mother Alexandra, Fr. Thomas Hopko, and several other faithful are laid to rest.
We were very blessed to have many wonderful conversations with the nuns throughout the weekend. Casey Garland (Cornell OCF) reflected, “The nuns were very open with us, answering our many questions about their lives (how they became nuns and what life in the monastery was like), providing us with guidance and practical tips for growing closer to God.” Each conversation yielded spiritual gems. An older priestmonk who frequents the monastery said that we must always say to the Lord, “Take my life in your hands.” And, “If we ask sincerely, God will always help us.” Mother Karitina challenged us to never shy away from our faith, saying that “we must always fight for our freedom.”
On Sunday morning, after celebrating the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things” and then the Divine Liturgy where we commemorated the return of the Prodigal Son and received the Eucharist, we had the pleasure of one last meal together. Mother Magdalena brought us to tears with her own story of returning home after losing everything, including her faith, during her turbulent college and young adult years. She reminded us that the Orthodox Christian Faith is not about an idea, but about a person: the person of Jesus Christ. And prayer is the means by which we develop our relationship with Him. Mother Magdalena warned us against approaching prayer as we would a skill to be mastered. Prayer is not like riding a bike or building a bridge. You don’t simply learn how to do it and then you’ve mastered it. Nobody can teach us to pray except for the Holy Spirit. In order to keep our prayer and our hearts pure, we must follow the Holy Fathers and “deflect unwanted thoughts with the flick of the will before they bite the heart.” As Saint Paisios says, “If you pay attention to them [thoughts], you create an airport inside your head and permit them to land.” Satisfied by this enriching discussion and Sister Helene’s scrumptious cookies (which also kept us awake on the long ride home), we set out into the glorious 60 degree sunshine to pack and to say our goodbyes. In addition to the cookies, each of us received an embroidered pouch of soil from St. Herman’s grave courtesy of Mother Galina, as well as some other generous gifts from the monastery.
Mother Christophora and the sisters of the Monastery of the Transfiguration are masters of hospitality whose love for each other, for their guests, and for Christ is evident in everything that they do. Spyridoula reflected on her experience, “What surprised me the most was how welcoming, hospitable, and downright funny all the mothers and sisters were and how much they are like you and me. Sometimes, it is easy to think that the people in cassocks are worlds apart from our lives. But they are not. They help us through prayer, through their advice, and through their smiles and humor.” It is difficult to taste of this “fountain of refreshment” and not be transfigured. We are thankful beyond words for our time spent there. It appears that the retreat is already bearing fruit, as two freshman undergraduates who attended are in the process of starting new OCF chapters at Morris County Community College and Coldwell University respectively. One has reached small group status while the other is struggling to get off the ground. Providentially, their OCF district student leader, Janine Alpaugh, was also in attendance and was able to provide them with connections, resources, and suggestions from other chapters. God always provides!
While the time we spent in Ellwood City was brief, it was full of rest, laughter, and direction. “There are some moments that should never pass away. What is glimpsed in them should never end. That it does end, and, even more, that it is only experienced momentarily anyway, this is the real sadness of human existence.” These words, taken from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Eschatology: Death and Life Eternal were used by Daniel Stauffer (Cornell OCF) to summarize our weekend at the monastery. “What was glimpsed there should have never ended,” Daniel concluded. Simeon (Morris CC OCF) reflected on the weekend by sharing “This weekend I can truly say that I grew closer to God. The services allowed singing, ultimately resulting in a truly personal connection with Christ which engulfed me in prayer.” As we enter joyfully into the Great Fast and head towards the glorious Light of Pascha, perhaps it is only beginning.
This article was co-authored by the OCFers in attendance, Gregory Fedorchak, Janine Alpaugh, Casey Garland, Daniel Stauffer, Spyridoula Fotinis, and Simeon Brasowski. Simeon Brasowksi took all the pictures.
If marriage is a journey to salvation, what happens to people who stay single and don’t become monks/nuns? What is their journey to salvation?
Many people like to point out that the Church has blessed two “ways of life”: marriage and monasticism. These are the two ways, if you will, that have a definitive beginning through a sacramental initiation and for which the Church prepares us.
But are they the journey of salvation? When we look at the grand story of salvation and the message of the Gospel, is the answer to, “What must I do to be saved?” “Go, get married or join a monastery,” or is it, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me. If you love Me, you will keep my commandments. Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself”?
I think the answer is pretty clear. The way of salvation is the way of the Cross, the journey of self-offering out of love for God and neighbor, of repentance when we fail, and of trust and faith in the grace of the Father which is given to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me. John 14:6
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:24
If anything, then, I think the claim that there are two “blessed” ways in the Church must mean that these are the two ways that are laid before us as obvious crosses which can lead to the crucifixion of our passions and selfish desires. We enter into them sacramentally as the Church recognizes the blessing of the struggle that is to come. But in of themselves, they are not salvific.
And just as fasting or prayer or almsgiving can be outward acts that do not penetrate our hearts and actually help us in the struggle against the flesh (and often become a foundation for pride and judgment of others who do not do as we do), simply being married or tonsured is no guarantee for holiness.
We can have faithless, selfish marriages where we seek only to have our desires met that are no more a blessing to us than adultery and harlotry. We can be prideful, arrogant monastics that look down upon lay people as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God and no more gain salvation than if we were the Pharisee exalting himself on the steps of the temple.
And it can’t possibly be the case that there is no spiritual life outside of marriage and monasticism–that would negate the entire Eucharistic life of a Christian from baptism until deciding to be married or join a monastery. Would we say that every communion, every confession, every prayer, every act of kindness or devotion to God was meaningless in the life of a child simply because they were not married or tonsured? Of course not.
So why do we say it once someone hits the age of 25? Perhaps there is a sense in which as one is no longer under a rule of obedience to one’s parents and has more autonomy, the temptation to live a selfish and passionate life can increase. When the demands of siblings and family obligations diminish, certainly there is more opportunity for the demons to turn our lives inward and less obvious opportunities for acts of self-sacrificial love. But it is important to remember that every season of life has its particular temptations–that doesn’t make the single life devoid of spiritual value; it simply offers the single person an opportunity to recognize his particular temptations and repent when he falls prey to them.
I think talking about single life and also the decision to marry or join a monastery deserve their own posts, so I’ll save the practical advice for later, but for now, let’s set the record straight: the only “way of life” the Church blesses is a life in which we unite ourselves to Christ with self-sacrificial love. There is no other way.
If there’s one thing that can be said for the demons, it’s that they are persistent. They never rest from their attempts to get us sidetracked from the Way, and they’re relentless in bombarding us with distractions of every type, anything to keep us from focusing on Christ in our hearts. If we’ve been decently formed by the Church and are earnest in our pursuit of Christ, we’re often quick to notice the big temptations they hurl at us, even if sometimes in our weakness we still fall prey to them. So, of course, the demons get all the more tricky (have you read The Screwtape Letters?), and find ways to worm their way into our hearts and minds disguising their nonsense as “normal” thoughts or even “godly” thoughts.
One of these demons I noticed running around at College Conference this year was what I like to call the “What-If” demon. This annoying beast spends his time making us ask ourselves, “What if this thing I want to have happen never happens in my life?” “What if I had done this one thing differently?” “What am I going to do if some-thing-in-the-future-that-hasn’t-happened-but-could happens to me?” It seems he especially likes to pester young Orthodox Christians with all sorts of what-if’s about dating, relationships, marriage, and monasticism. Illustrative to this point are some of the questions we received from students in our question box:
What if we do not come to the realization to be married or enter the monastic life?
What if I don’t know by the time I’m 25 if I should get married or be a monastic? Does that mean I should automatically become a monastic if there is no one I can marry by 25?
Likewise, many young people who do feel called to marriage wonder, “What if I don’t meet the right person? What if I never get married?” Now, this is not to say that it’s not important to answer questions of how one should go about discerning one’s vocation. But the nasty What-If demon twists this necessary and spiritual undertaking into an anxiety-ridden, paralyzing question filling us with guilt, worry, and fear.
The What-If demon does his best to keep us looking anxiously to the future or mulling over the past, and this murky cloud of what-has-been and what-might-be is his greatest weapon. It swirls around us, becoming so encompassing, dark, and ominous that we can’t see clearly–we can’t see the present moment. And it is only in the present moment that we can meet Christ, hear His calling, and answer obediently.
In fact, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (really, you should read it) says it perfectly. Coaching his nephew on the ways of temptation, the demon Screwtape writes:
The humans live in time, but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.
The present moment is the place where time and eternity meet and where God enters into our lives. In an important way, the present moment is the only moment for the Christian. Do you say “yes” to Christ in this moment with this breath? Are you listening for His call in your heart right now? Can you see Him in the person or situation that’s right in front of you?
We must do battle with the What-If demon as we do with all temptations. First, we have to recognize him for what he is. We can’t confuse his what-if’s with repentance for the past or discernment about the future. Don’t let him convince you that his imaginary situations where he replays your past with anguishing regret are the same as contrition or the images he throws before you with terrorizing anxiety of futures that haven’t happened need to be addressed to find God’s will.
His cloud is just that: a cloud. A cloud that is blown away by the Holy Spirit when we call upon the name of Jesus Christ. And once we have recognized the What-If demon for who he is and called upon Christ to banish him away, we can be free to see clearly the present moment in which Christ dwells.
If the What-If demon becomes too strong in our lives, he can wreak all sorts of havoc on our hearts, giving rise to anxiety, fear, and depression. If he is pulling too strongly, it’s important that we bring to light this struggle in the sacrament of confession. Confession is a time to be open and honest about the demons that pester us, especially when we feel convinced by their nonsense.
And watch out because just as you start to name the What-If demon and try to escape from his distractions, he’ll send in his cousin the Don’t-Repent demon who will try to convince you that you should feel shame for your anxiety, you are helpless, and you don’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness. Don’t listen. He’s lying.
The best thing we can do when we are tempted by the What-If demon is to remember that he is actually powerless as long as we refuse to give him any of our time and energy. When he comes to distract us, instead of letting him drag us away from Christ in the now, we can answer with the Prophet,
Behold, God is my Savior and Lord. I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. I will not be afraid, for the Lord is my glory and my praise. He has become my salvation. –Isaiah 12:2, OSB
For this, the last week of my responses (Part I and Part II) to the question of “why is fasting important?”, I would like to look at fasting as a way of participating in a higher and more noble mode of living, a means by which we consciously emulate (to the extent that it is possible for us to do) the circumstances of the life of the Paradise that was lost, and the life of the Kingdom that is to come, a life the monastics in the “angelic habit” seek more fully to emulate in their daily life.
Why is this important? Unfortunately, under the circumstances of our fallen existence as human beings, we must participate in thousands of complex and often impossible to unravel systems of violence and deception. Everything from the clothing we wear, the energy resources we use, the financial systems we participate in, and the political systems of the nations in which we live are all tainted with abuse, waste, oppression, and violence in ways that we are often largely unaware of and in ways that we often cannot, by ourselves, repair or avoid even when we come to fully understand them. This is tragic, and the complexities of these realities often blunt our sense of sorrow or responsibility to repent for the shared sins and misfortunes that we are participants in.
The reality and significance of this kind of situation is reflected in the ancient Biblical story, in which the fundamental biological realities of death and decay enter the world as a result of human iniquity–a circumstance that only God, in His restoration of all creation, can finally repair. In response to the resulting human desperation, God subjects His creation to human necessities, providing clothes of skin from the bodies of slain creatures and permitting human beings to eat the flesh of animals who must suffer death for us to do so. This was then, and still is, a currently necessary state of affairs–for straightforward biological and agrinomical reasons. Even now, the world’s agricultural system could not function well or sustainably provide food for everyone were all, or even most, humans strict vegetarians or vegans–and we are certainly neither commanded nor expected to refrain from eating meat by the Orthodox faith. But our status as part-time carnivores comes at a price, and we should never shed the blood of other creatures lightly or without consideration for the well-being and care of the animals that we must raise for our own consumption. Fasting from meat (and this prohibition against meat during the fast is also related to the reasons for which both wine and oil, each of which were stored in animal skins in ancient times, were proscribed by the canons) is a way of limiting our dependence upon such a system of innocent suffering and an ecclesiasial and personal acknowledgment that such dependence, even though necessary and unavoidable as things now stand, is not a reflection of the ultimate and final will of God for his creation.
Here, too, is found the symbolic significance and importance of the canonical proscription of sexual relations between married individuals during the fast–as fallen creatures, humans participate in a biological world of procreation, birth, and death, a fact that the Patristic fathers also referred back to this business of God clothing human beings with “coats of skin.” Since procreation is necessary for the continuance of our race, the conjunction of this necessary biological function with the deep and lovely intimacy that grows up between maritally committed spouses is something which is God-pleasing and beneficial within the current organization of things. It is, however, something which will ultimately be transcended in the kingdom, where biological reproduction will serve no useful function, and where the related love and intimacy of the married state will be elevated to transcend the particulars of any individual relationship, becoming part of the greater love that unites the people of God to one another and to Christ. In either case, whether when fasting from food, or from sex, those who are fasting set aside, if only temporarily and by anticipation, the particular and the transitory, for that which is eternal and ultimate. In doing so, they find their aspirations clarified, their desires elevated, and their tragic participation in structures dependent upon death, decay, and the related to be warily re-examined with an eye to greater and more careful spiritual discrimination, moral self-examination, and sorrowful repentance.
As I hope to have convincingly argued, fasting is of incalculable benefit for Orthodox Christians. I hope, however, to have been equally clear that I am not encouraging anyone to start looking down their noses at those who have not yet embraced the fasting rules of the Church. Even less am I seeking to encourage the more obnoxious amongst us to engage in obsessive label reading of their roommates’ canned food products. Fasting, as I said at the outset of this series, is a second-order virtuous activity, one which is spiritually beneficial principally because of what it enables us to do, learn, or achieve. For rather obvious reasons, one can only benefit spiritually from one’s own fasting. Even then, one does not, as it were, acquire brownie points in heaven for fasting, nor does one seek to “earn” one’s salvation by starving oneself. Christ has told us what He shall ask us at the day of judgement, and whether or not we have fasted is not one of His questions. Indeed, given the character of those questions, extreme fasting without any effort to pray more, or to become more receptive to God’s grace, or to become more decent and kindly to others, is worse than useless, since it deprives the one who engages in such a pointless activity of the good and gracious things of God’s physical creation without increasing in him or her a portion of the better things of God’s uncreated grace. In the reasonable context of an authentically and piously lived Christian life, however, fasting is a genuine mode of participation in God’s grace–one that is, when combined with charitable acts, increased participation in the liturgical services of the Church, and regular participation and receptions of the Mysteries (especially Eucharist and Confession), strongly conducive to one’s own spiritual growth and eventual theosis.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Cassian Sibley at The Life-Giving Spring of the Mother of God Russian Orthodox Church in Bryan, TX. His wife is a college professor, and his daughter is a freshman in college. He was raised in Africa, and is an adult convert to Orthodoxy. Fr. Cassian also has an active prison ministry, and in his spare time is a permaculturalist and organic gardener.