The veneration of saints is extremely important to Orthodox Tradition
Augustin Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, Priest
According to the words of the Apostle Paul, the saints “by faith conquered kingdoms, worked righteousness, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, avoided the edge of the sword, got strengthened out of weakness” (Heb. 11:33–34). Just as in the Old Testament the promises were made to the Fathers and then to the People, so also in the New Testament, in the time in which we live, salvation comes through the Church founded on the Apostles and is visible in the saints.
Therefore, together the Apostles, the Church, as the new people of God believing in the Lord Jesus, have been writing the Fifth Gospel, which is nothing else than the history of the salvation of the world in Christ. It will end only with the end of history, when “the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night, and then the heavens will pass away with a noise, the elements, having flared up, will be destroyed, the earth and all the works on it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10).
The veneration of saints is extremely important to Orthodox Tradition. Therefore, each day of the year in the liturgical calendar is dedicated to the memory of a particular saint.
The memory of many wonderful saints is celebrated in February. Thus, on February 1, the Church celebrates the memory of Saints Macarius the Great (300–390) and Macarius of Alexandria (295–394). Both lived at the same time and at the same time they laboured – that is, they prayed and limited themselves in everything for the sake of God and their neighbors in the Egyptian desert. They left behind a great legacy and were among the greatest seers of God in the history of Christianity. The life of the saints was recorded by Bishop Palladius of Elenopolis (364–430).The names “Egyptian” and “Alexandrian” in relation to these saints aren’t accidental. Indeed, in the Roman Empire, the capital city of Alexandria and Egypt itself were different administrative units.
Macarius the Great was a little older than his brother who, as Palladius writes, was “second in time, but first in monastic prowess”. Both studied with the founder of monasticism, Anthony the Great (251–356). Macarius the Great was born in the Nile Delta near modern Cairo to a Christian family. At thirty he came to the desert where he had spent sixty years! At the age of forty, he was rewarded with great gifts, so that he was nicknamed “the old man” and “the elder boy”. Elders in the monastic environment were called ascetics who were rewarded with the gift of foresight and the ability to perform miracles. At the same time, Macarius was ordained a presbyter. The monk lived in the inner desert, called Skete, and he had two disciples.Hiding from the laity and hermits who came to him, Macarius dug a special grotto. “When he was disturbed, he went into the cave, and no one found him”. The Bishop of Alexandria, the Arian heretic Lucius, sent him into exile to the pagans, in the hope that they would kill him. However, the latter, having heard the sermon of Macarius, were baptised. With the name of Macarius, a message, numerous prayers and 50 sermons have been preserved. The saint cast out demons, performed miracles and signs, and was a prophet. Macarius the Prophet… hiding from people.
Macarius of Alexandria or Macarius the Citizen – according to Palladius – until the age of forty “sold snacks and was an Alexandrian citizen”. At the age of forty, he experienced conversion. After being baptised, he went into the wilderness, where he spent about sixty years. He lived in different parts of the desert – in Skete, Cells, in the west as well as in Nitria – but he did not have a permanent place of residence. The saint became one of the first monks ordained to the priesthood in Egypt. The fact is that original monasticism was a purely ascetic movement and was in no way connected with the Church as an institution, and therefore with the priesthood.
Macarius was distinguished by an amazing desire to compete with other ascetics in all those feats that he managed to “peep” or see. So, once he incognito entered the monastery of Pachomius the Great (292–348), located on the territory of modern Sudan, but due to his extreme austerity he was recognised among the many thousands of the latter’s disciples. The monastic rules, the epistle to the monks and the “a funeral sermon” have been preserved with his name. Macarius of Alexandria – a hermit … who did not have a desert.
Palladius also wrote about another Macarius. Sometimes he is mentioned under the name of Macarius “the younger”, and therefore by mistake he is identified with the “city” Macarius. Macarius the Younger was a shepherd. As an eighteen-year-old youth, he effortlessly fought with a peer and unintentionally killed him. “Without saying a word to anyone,” writes Palladius, “he went into the desert”. For three years, Macarius simply wandered, and then for twenty-five years he lived in the shelter he built for himself. “And he was rewarded with such grace that he defeated demons”.
On February 12, when almost half of the last winter month is over, the Church celebrates the memory of Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. This holiday is extremely important for all of Russian Orthodoxy abroad. The fact is that the historical cathedral church of the Korsun Diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate in March 1931 was consecrated in honour of Vasily, Gregory and John, and received the name of the Three Hierarchs Cathedral.
A joint celebration in honour of the Three Hierarchs was established in 1084 in Constantinople under Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1056–1081). It aimed to put an end to the disagreements that had arisen at that time about patristic authority in the Church. Three Hierarchs were proclaimed equally important for the Orthodoxy. That is why in the liturgical calendar this holiday is called the Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers.
The feast of the Three Hierarchs has something in common with the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, celebrated on the first Sunday of the Great Lent. This is the joy of the impeccability of the Orthodox faith and gratitude to God for the fact that by the Holy Spirit the Lord Jesus raised up the Holy Fathers in His Church. Such a celebration always contains some idea and representation, and therefore in theological language it is called ideological. In this sense, the memory of the Three Hierarchs is also a remembrance of those great Churches to which they belonged, of the Churches with which they were in communion, and of those churches and communities that are no longer with us.
This is the great city of Antioch, the apostolic capital founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, and one of the first episcopal sees. The place is where the disciples of the Lord Jesus first began to be called Christians (Acts 11:26). Antioch gave the world a famous theological school and the Church the great exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), Theodoret of Cyrus (393–460) and Bishop of New Rome, as Constantinople was originally called, John Chrysostom (347–407).
Antiochian monasticism glorified the Church with the virtues of the Stylites. The theology of Antioch greatly contributed to the understanding of the Christological mystery, helped the world to realise the fullness of the humanity of Christ, without which our Eastern Orthodoxy would be different.
In 526 Antioch was destroyed by an earthquake. In 529, Justinian I rebuilt the city, and in a superstitious impulse, he renamed it the City of God, in Greek “Theopolis”. But it did not help. After the Arab conquest in 637, the great early Christian capital, now the provincial Turkish town of Antakya, gradually faded into historical decline.
This is Christian Cappadocia. This huge formerly Christian country – in fact, the eastern half of Asia Minor and the whole continent, the church metropolis with the centre in Caesarea – gave the world George the Illuminator (257–331) and Equal-to-the-Apostles Nina (280–335).
The Great Cappadocians were born and worked here: Basil the Great (330–379) and Gregory the Theologian (329–390) celebrated in the Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs, as well as Gregory of Nyssa (335–394) and Amphilochius of Iconium (340–394).
In 1071, after the battle of Manzikert, the Constantinople Empire lost these territories forever. Today, ancient frescoes in caves are a reminder of Christianity here. Their blinded eyes, because they were gouged out by the conquerors, beg not to forget about the glorious living past of Christian Cappadocia.
This was the great Carthaginian Church. The Church that gave the world an incomparable, amazing, great, harmonious theology. It gave the universe the glorious adamant apologist Tertullian (160–240), staunch martyr Bishop Cyprian (200–258), Saint Augustine (354–430), who wrote more than all the Fathers of the Church together, the fighter against the Arianism of the Vandal kings Fulgentius of Ruspe (462–533), the theologian and bishop Facundus of Hermiana (+570) who, in his polemic against government interference in the affairs of the Church, was not afraid of the Emperor Justinian the Great himself (482–565).
Augustine is rightly called the Teacher of Grace and the Father of the Christian West. Without Carthaginian theology, Christian Europe would have been completely, unrecognisably different. The Carthaginian Church perished after 698, when Carthage was completely destroyed by the Arab conquerors.
“We will not have enough time” (cf. Heb. 11:32) to talk about the Syrian Church of the East, whose dioceses stretched to China itself. The great son of this Church was St Isaac the Syrian (640–700). He was born in what is now Qatar and was Bishop of Nineveh. According to the writings that have come down to us, his heart was merciful even for demons, and he himself was completely blind from profuse crying. It is Isaac who is quoted by the Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.
The greatness of the Assyrian Church was brought down by the invasion of Tamerlane (1336–1405). Many marvellous, great cities of Christian apostolic sees and entire Churches that have gone into oblivion. But like the mysterious Woman of the Apocalypse and her Child, the Lord, through the preaching of the Gospel and the good intention of His Predestination for the salvation of nations, raised up new Churches. The Lord spoke in the hearts of Equal-to-the-Apostles rulers. In 988 Russia was baptised under St Vladimir. Thus, the succession of faith and Apostolic Tradition was preserved where there had been no Christianity before. This is how the commandment of the Lord Jesus about preaching the Gospel even to the ends of the earth was fulfilled: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
On the last day of winter, February 28, the Church honours the memory of St Eusebius of Syria. The saint was one of those thirty great ascetics whose life was written by Theodoret of Cyrus (393–457) in his Religious Story. Their memory is celebrated by name by the Church from January 26 to March 14 and prepares the congregation for Great Lent. We do not know anything about the date of birth and death of Eusebius. All that we know about the life of this Syrian monk is contained in the four paragraphs that Theodoret dedicated to him. The Syrian bishop is extremely brief, careful in his statements and in his words. Therefore, every characteristic, detail and word must be treated with great attention, perceived as a treasure left to the Church by those who have seen God.
In the first paragraph of his narrative, Theodoret talks about the beginning of the monastic path of Eusebius. There is a surprising remark: “Eusebius first entrusted himself to the care of others, went where he was led”. Having learned austerity, the saint decided to live in seclusion. This classic scheme of the monastic transition from a community to a retreat, hermitage, loneliness, in the choice of Eusebius himself, acquires the features of a paradox. He settled on a mountain near a very large village. He built himself a fence of stones but did not fix it with any mortar. He began to live in the open air. An uncovered life was one of the amazing features of Syrian monasticism. Eusebius spent days and nights, and all seasons in the open air. He ate peas, figs with water. So, he lost his teeth and completely lost his muscles. In order to somehow fix the belt on the body, he simply sewed it to the tunic in which he walked. “For the muscles completely disappeared and the belt freely slipped down” (18:1).
The second paragraph of the description is devoted to this and the desperate attempts of the saint to avoid popularity. The monk responded only to rare visitors but, as soon as he finished his conversation, he immediately “smeared his door with mud”. Where Eusebius lived there was a door, but no cover. After all, he lived in the open air. And even this limited communication was too much for him. Having rolled a huge stone to the door – an undoubted reminder of a coffin in the Syrian tradition – Eusebius talked through a hole in the wall.
And here, a detail surprising in its human warmth: Theodoret himself was honoured to talk with the saint. “Finally, Eusebius began to refuse everyone in his conversation: he only honoured me with his sweet and God-loving voice; often, when I was about to leave, the elder held me back, continuing to talk about heavenly things” (18:2).
Having been ordained bishop Theodoret gave away all his property, had neither a house nor property. Being the only child of his parents, Theodoret was born through the prayers of those very God-loving religious people about whom he later wrote. In the third paragraph of the story about Eusebius, a new paradox awaits the reader. In order to avoid crowds of people who came to him this time not for advice, but for a blessing, Eusebius again went to the monastic community. Or, it would be more correct to say, he didn’t leave, but ran away, jumping over the fence. “And forgetting about the weakness of his strength, he jumped over the fence, which was not easy to climb even for a strong man” (18:3). Eusebius jumping over a fence to avoid people’s attention: this, judging by the content, was the last episode when Theodoret saw Eusebius alive. To leave, to run away, to leave, to avoid – in this a typical for Syrian monasticism way of perceiving the temporal, something deeply early Christian is revealed. The ancient Church did not strive for expansion but humanity, swiftly and in multitude, fled to it.
“Eusebius went to the nearest ascetics and in their monastery – a small fence attached to the wall – continued to ascetic in ordinary labours” (18:3). In the fourth and last paragraph, Theodoret writes about how the abbot of the very monastery where Eusebius tried to hide from people spoke about the last days of the Syrian father: “During Great Lent, the saint was content with fifteen figs. Then he was over 90 years old. “In such labours, bathed in streams of sweat, he achieved his goal” (18:4). Perhaps this recollection of the last winter saint, Eusebius, should end with the words of Theodoret himself: “I want to use his intercession before God, as I used it during his lifetime. For I believe that he still lives” (18:4).