Today it is Christmas and this is what I know–love came into the world and took the form of a babe. It is that love, that hope in swaddling clothes that has made all the difference. It is faith that the God-Man, the very embodiment of love, was born to live an earthly life with all its suffering and sorrow to make my life meaningful.
Have you ever sacrificed sleep to experience the sun rise? It is a truly magnificent event. It’s the type of thing that happens everyday that we take for granted because we are not present. So much of the beauty and majesty in life we miss because we are not present. Not centered. But raging all over with thoughts of what to do and not do, of bullets to strike off a never-ending to-do list. Or else we lack the discipline to be prepared–to be at the right time and the right place to experience something valuable. Beauty is fleeting, yes, but if you don’t plan and take active steps to corner it, you will miss it entirely. Worse, you will think it does not exist.
So as a spiritual discipline, I challenge you to plan, be prepared, and present to witness the dawn at some point in this coming week. For Orthodox Christians who follow the liturgical cycle, dawn is part of everyday. It is how we are born into the new day. Most matins start before the break of dawn, four or five am. As the psalms are sung, the light of dawn paints a soft brush over the darkness of night. The songbirds signal its entrance with spontaneous madrigals. And of course, that golden orb, that mystical sun cracks just at the tip of the horizon bathing the world in blessed light. It is a triumph of light over darkness day after day. It is a miracle. And we miss it because we prefer to sleep. The few times I have witnessed the dawn, during early morning services at a monastery, after all-night partying on the islands of the Cyclades, walking up Mount Sinai at Saint Katherine’s monastery, as a young mother nursing my firstborn, after agonizing insomnia as a result of anxiety and depression, I have never forgotten it. Every dawn is unique, just like a birth.
One of my bucket list endeavors is to live in a place where I can see the sun rise and the sun set–every single day. The daybreak brings order to the rest of the day; if you greet it mindfully like you would a baby about to be born, it sets the course for the rest of the day. It is not harried nor hurried.
Plus, for a photographer and an artist, the dawn presents a spectacular display of color. I could be painting and shooting images every single day if I had the liberty.
It is not coincidental that I came across this “Prayer for Daybreak” during one of my sleepless nights. It is not coincidental that it was written by Father Sophrony of Essex. It was this year that I was blessed to visit the monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex and see his cell: a sparse cell, extremely cold and humid, with a hospital bed and a lever to lift his frail body. It has become one of my most endearing prayers. I make sure to start the day with the dawn and this prayer. After all, what do you have but one dawn, one day, one prayer?
Prayer at Daybreak
O Eternal Lord and Creator of all things, in your inscrutable goodness you have called me into this life and have given me the grace of baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. You have instilled in me the desire to seek your face. Hear my prayer!
I have no life, no light, no joy, no strength, no wisdom without you, O God. Because of my unrighteousness, I dare not lift my eyes in your presence. But I obey you who said:
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11)
Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father He will give it to you in my name. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16)
Therefore I now dare to approach you. Purify me from all stain of flesh and spirit. Teach me to pray rightly. Bless this day which you give to me, your unworthy servant.
By the power of your blessing enable me at all times to speak and to act with a pure spirit to your glory; with faith, hope and love, humility, patience, gentleness, peace, purity, simplicity, sobriety, courage and wisdom. Let me always be aware of your presence.
In your boundless goodness, O Lord God, show me your will and grant me to walk in your sight without sin.
O Lord, unto whom all hearts are open, you know what I need and what is necessary for me. You know my blindness and my ignorance. You know my infirmity and corruption. My pain and anguish are not hidden from you. Therefore I beg you: Hear my prayer and teach me by the power of your Holy Spirit the way in which I should walk. And when my perverted will leads me otherwise, O Lord, do not spare me, but force me back to your way.
Grant me, Lord, to hold fast to what is good by the power of your love. Preserve me from every word and act which corrupts the soul, and from every impulse that is unpleasing in your sight and harmful to the people around me. Teach me what I should say and how I should speak. If it be your holy will that I be quiet and make no answer, inspire me to be silent in a peaceful spirit that causes neither harm nor hurt to my fellow human beings.
Establish me in the path of your commandments, and until my last breath do not let me stray from the light of your ordinances. May your commandments be the sole law of my being in this life and for all eternity.
O Lord, I pray to you: Have mercy on me. Spare me in my affliction and misery and hide not the way of salvation from me.
In my foolishness, O God, I plead with you for many and great things. Yet I am ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness. Have pity on me! Cast me not away from your presence because of my foolish presumption. Increase rather in me the right presumption of your grace and grant that I, the worst of people, may love you with all my mind, all my heart, all my soul and all my strength, as you have commanded.
By your Holy Spirit, Lord, teach me good judgment and sound knowledge. Let me know the truth before I die. Maintain my life in this world until the end that I may offer worthy repentance. Do not take me away while my mind is still blind and bound by darkness. When you are pleased to end my life, give me warning that I may prepare my soul to come before you. Be with me, Lord, at that awesome hour and assure me by your grace of the joy of my salvation.
Cleanse me from secret faults. Purify me from hidden iniquities. Give me a good answer at your dread judgment seat.
Lord of great mercy and measureless love for all people: Hear my prayer! Amen.
Tucked away in the periphery of a gated community in Coconut Creek, Florida the humble ROCOR chapel dedicated to St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon of Crimea bears witness to the power of love between two souls searching for God. Like St. Luke the blessed saint is a relatively new saint in the Russian Orthodox East whose grace has garnered him a loyal following, especially as many are still alive to tell of the acts of mercy of this soft-spoken surgeon and bishop in their life. The chapel is connected to the larger Paideia Classical Academy, a private K through 12th grade Orthodox Christian School serving approximately 100 students. During the Dormition of the Theotokos according to the Old Calendar, the students were in attendance for a blessing for the new academic year. The school has undergone an establishment change, with the church itself having been resurrected from a previous Catholic church dedicated to St. Luke the Evangelist. The church’s story is a long one beginning with its charismatic spiritual founder, Father Demetrio Romeo.
Father Demetrio was born a middle child of 7 in a devout Catholic family from Calabria, Italy and grew up in Montreal. He had always been fascinated with the Orthodox Church sneaking into the liturgy in the churches in the highly Greek enclave of Park Extension where he grew up. But the Greek parishioners would question his compatibility in their church because of his Italian background; Italians have an extremely close tie to the Catholic Church. He knew there was something beyond the ethnic divisions in the church. Leaving Catholicism, his search for the true faith led him to study many faiths including Calvinists, Evangelicals, Islam, Hindu, and Kabbalah. It was during this search that he met another seeker, Hannah, an Askenazi Jew. They fell in love. She was kind, straightforward and unrelentingly honest. He was funny and jovial; his heart filled the entire room. “It was our love for God that brought us together,” Father Demetrio recalls.
Towards the end of Fr Demetrio’s search for the right faith, he was brought into contact with Orthodoxy through his meeting Archmandrite Fr John Lewis (of blessed memory) from Holy Theotokos Monastery. Fr John became spiritual father and godfather to him. Later on, Fr Demetrio left his worldly job to join the priesthood. While still a deacon, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion suggested to Father that he explore the possibility of doing mission work at a new Classical Orthodox school in South Florida. Father Demetrio was tentative as he had other plans; he was seeking to do missionary work specifically to reach out to non-Orthodox Americans and didn’t think being chaplain at an Orthodox school would fit into his vision.
“No matter what I did, God kept leading me back here [the school],” Father Demetrio said. In obedience to his spiritual superior, he accepted Metropolitan Hilarion’s suggestion. The final decision was made easier by the fact that his wife, Matushka Hannah, gave him her blessing and thought it was a good thing he remain to serve the Russian community and lead the children in an Orthodox education.
But the two aims, which although seemed conflicting at the time, have found grounding in this small community. Father Demetrio makes a point of teaching his congregants to be missionaries to their neighbors “You are in America, God has put you here to bear witness to Orthodoxy to the American people. You must teach them about your faith and your traditions and not keep insular lives.” There have also been non-Orthodox people who have come to St Luke’s seeking to know about the Orthodox faith and many of them have converted. At the same time he drives the point of a true Orthodox upbringing to the children and their parents at the school. Father declares in a slight Italian drawl, “Parents, teach children not the luxuries but how to detach them from the luxuries, teach them the virtues, the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. There is more to this world than owning a nice car.” He insists in sermon after sermon to teach children the art of detachment from riches. “He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions but who desires nothing,” he pronounced in his most recent homily. St Luke’s has became a parish home to many people from different walks of life.
Olga Belokin, a parishioner of Kozak South Russian descent raised in Venezuela, was looking for a church to call home when she moved to Florida. She met Father Demetrio back in 2013 and she too fell in love. “What keeps me here is that we are all true Orthodox. Kindness. Generosity. Familiarity,” she explains. “If I don’t attend on a Sunday, I feel like there is something wrong.”
The name that was originally intended for the chapel was St. Tikhon Patriarch of Moscow and the enlightener of America. This seemed like a nice fit for the chapel but for some reason this dedication did not sit right; it seemed like it was not God-will for the chapel to be dedicated to this saint. It so happened that after his ordination, Father served his first liturgy along with Father Nicholas, now His Grace Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan and New York, at the Synod in New York City with the Kurst Root icon on the altar table. People congratulated him on the completion of his first liturgy. In his chamber at the Synod, he received a text from a good friend in Crimea, who congratulated him on establishing the church of St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon. “No, you are mistaken,” he explained. “The chapel used to be Catholic and was dedicated to St Luke the Evangelist, not the Blessed Surgeon.” But the mistake turned out to be God’s will. It was not a mistake that he was to perform without his deciding the first liturgy in the chapel on the feast day of the unveiling of the relics of St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon. When Father Demetrio presented the idea to his Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion for the chapel to be dedicated to the Blessed Surgeon, Vladyka received this idea with joy and straightway gave a blessing. Father Demetrio attributes the decision to the help of the Mother of God who was present for his first liturgy in her wonderworking Kursk Root icon.
Three years ago, a 76-year-old woman from Russia visited the chapel to venerate an icon of St Luke and she told Father Demetrio her story. She was born with a congenital defect and was bound to die within several months of birth. But she was told that a certain surgeon named Valentin (St Luke) visited her ward and made rounds. Through his intercession, she lived. Multiple people over the years have visited the chapel to pray and to ask St Luke to interceded on their behalf. Many of these prayers have been answered. In 2017, the chapel received from Crimea an icon of St Luke with his relics.
In 2016, Matushka Hannah passed away from cancer on January 12 on Father Demetrio’s birthday. Her presence and the love of the parish for her are palpable as her photos don the entrance into the chapel. Before her repose, she received the prayers and support of the parish and prayed vigil in front of the Kurst Root icon for three nights. Finally, she told Father “I’m going home.” She resigned herself peacefully to her passing. She even ironed out the details of her funeral. She is buried at Holy Trinity Monastery, in Jordanville, New York and Father Demetrio already has his burial plot reserved right next to hers.
Even though they inhabit different worlds, they are not separated. Their love story speaks to the power of the psalmist, “Love is stronger than death.”
“Don’t forget,” Father Demetrio called from the church’s vestibule, “it’s all about love.”
I watched “GASP,” one of the episodes of This Strange Rock, a 10-part series from National Geographic. It happened! That numinous moment when the veil of conformity and taking-things-for-grantedness lifted. The realization that WOW! The complexity and interconnectedness of everything—the simple act of breath is an accumulation of several cosmic and chemical events. Oxygen the ability to hold oxygen in the atmosphere that thin layer made possible by ozone; the dust from the salt beds once sea beds filled for half miles with the carcasses of trillions and trillions of diatoms in Africa gets lifted up by mighty winds that transport it to the Amazon where it settles on the forest floor feeding it with the most luscious layer of fertilizer. How water is pulled through the underground networks and sucked through a trillion trees that make oxygen the product of photosynthesis. How fragile yet how complex life is for the simple fact that oxygen exists in the atmosphere. Too little and there would only have been one-celled creatures to make earth home; too much and oxidation would make earth a roaring bonfire. Salt deserts that feed rain forests, glimpses of flying rivers from watch towers higher than a skyscraper. 27 million tons of dust from the salt desert in Africa winds up on the Amazon basin. One tree produces enough oxygen to support two people. The Amazon so full of oxygen uses it all up to support the diversity of life there. Diatom blooms, microscopic up close, are seen as blotches of moving blue from space.
It is a miracle that we exist. The wonder of the creation when looked at by those astronauts from the space station. How we have evolved to the point where we can understand the unique place we hold in the cosmos.
And then I consider the daily competition for living. The pettiness of human micro and macro aggressions. How we live with our passionate brutality, vain strivings. Our mortality. I consider my life—the inconsequence of it. I have accomplished so little, my sphere of influence so narrow. I am a nothing who is granted but a short breath, a short walk over and over through a tiny tract of this strange rock. Who will remember me? Who will know me? I am but a mote on a speck on the churnings of time. Small-minded and miniscule, does it matter if I never exist? I am given to understand that we are so small, such specks on the floor of this strange rock.
This realization is enough to crush our egos into the layers of rotting diatoms. Our collective consciousness is just a blip on the primordial canvass, our individual consciousness is but a falling diatom of dust.
Yet at the same time, it is this smallness that makes me huge—that I count for so little but the very fact of my breath and this thought that I hold about my smallness in relation to the cosmos makes me huge. My God! Is it not enough to realize what greatness lies in a thing so small? When you come out of the menial myopic self-focusing and view the whole creation in its miraculous complexity, you realize—I am alive! This is the greatest miracle! How strange! How beautiful! What a gift! I am so grateful to understand this awe in the unfolding layers of knowledge science and technology with its space stations and photographs of the blue planet and space suits hissing oxygen
The awareness of the miniscule mightiness that governs creatures great and small reminds me of Juilana of Norwich, that 13th century English mystic I came across in my survey of English lit class. In her Revelations of Divine Love she has a vision: she looks upon a little seed in the palm of her hand and sees God’s whole creation.
“He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; ; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.
In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it.” (Revelations of Divine Love, Juliana of Norwich)
Perhaps I am taking a great leap of faith here but my poet’s soul cannot help but clutch my breast at the awesome mystery of this—that nowhere else in the cosmos would it have been possible to have just the right conditions, enough oxygen, for one, to allow for life and consciousness to evolve as we know it. And the miracle is this—that we can contemplate this little nut that holds the cosmos in the palm of our hand and know that Providence governs a thing so small just as the hugeness of the universe, our nut of a galaxy, in the palm of God’s hand.
We are everything, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, a manifestation of the Divine Presence in the cosmos.
How can anyone watch these documentaries and not get a sense of awe—that this Created reality we live right now is nothing short of miraculous, whether you attribute it to God or chance. The more I know about the working of the universe, the more I feel the presence of the Divine, that Spirit that ties it all together. Perhaps we as mankind in our dirty dealings with one another have shaped this world into the hell it is, but by God’s Providence it is not so. Look at it as Chris Hatfield the astronaut did from inside the space shuttle and it is a wonder, it is heaven on earth. The Creator must have had a soft spot for us indeed to have fashioned the conditions just right. “Without the energy from oxygen life couldn’t grow any bigger than a pinhead” the astrobiologist Dr Felipe Gomez Gomez cites in the documentary.
Gasp! The contemplation of this miracle leaves you holding your breath.
When I lived in Jerusalem, the locals would talk about the mysterious figure of Saint Pelagia, an ascetic “monk” who had repented of her life as a high-class courtesan and retreated to a small cave in prayer and contemplation on the Mount of Olives. There were rumors that her grave was near the Hulda Gate, next to the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. They told me the pious Muslims that reside in that part of town refer to her as the Muslim mystic Rava’ad Aludayah. Was she the same person? The grave cave of the saint they said was somewhere close to the Ascension site. It was hard to get to–in a Muslim part of town few pilgrims visited as it was outside the confines of the Old City. But I pushed myself to visit and in the journey I uncovered three stories woven around a single female saint. The enigmatic figure of Saint Pelagia, the Prophetess Hulda, Rava’ad Aludayah–speaks to the beauty of a female holy person that unites the three monotheistic traditions in the Holy Land.
The Physical Grounds:
The grave of Saint Pelagia is housed in a small mosque in an underground crypt just around the bend from the Chapel of the Ascension (also kept as a mosque to the present day.) The mosque was built on top of this grave dating from the 17th century. According to the site, allaboutjerusalem.com, “The famous French archeologist Da Sussey uncovered the sarcophagus in the 19th century and noted the following Greek pagan expression written on the sarcophagus: “Adopt Demetila, man is not immortal.” Apparently, there is a marker, the word “sarcophagus” inscribed in Greek over the grey stone of the grave that roused the archeologists curiosity that led to the discovery of the grave.
The Jewish Tradition:
First and oldest, lets get to know the Jewish tradition of the enigmatic saint. Hulda was a prophetess mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in 2 Kings 22:14-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22-28. According to Jewish tradition, she was one of the “seven prophetesses”, with Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther. After the discovery of a book of the Law during renovations at Solomon’s Temple, on the order of King Josiah, Hilkiah together with Ahikam, Acbor, Shaphan and Asaiah approach her to seek the Lord’s opinion.
There was something written in that book that gave the King high anxiety about the Temple and his people. The book spoke of the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish nation, or something apocalyptic like that. He had to be sure, so just to be on the safe side, the king had his ministers consult the prophetess to interpret the scripture. His choice to consult a female prophet and not the “go to” man at that time, the prophet Jeremiah, had to do with the king’s assumption that as women were more prone to pity, she would pray more earnestly. Maybe her prayer would divert the wrath of God and spare the Temple and convert the Jews?
Like the sybil of ancient Greek tradition, she was a holy woman whose insight into the Word helped shape human decisions, even those of the ruling elite. Unfortunately, she told it like it is–because of their transgressions, the people of Israel would lose their Holy City, the Temple would become a heap of rubble. However, to King Josiah she softened the blow, he would be spared witnessing the destruction as he would die in peace as God had heard his prayer and understood his piety– “thou shalt be gathered unto thy grave in peace, neither shall thy eyes see all the evil which I shall bring upon this place”(wikipedia.org)
Hulda also ran a school for women in Jerusalem at that time, the 7th century B.C. E., and would be chastising the female side of the Jewish people–to repent, to love God, to stop their sinful ways–the same way her male counterpart Jeremiah was haranguing the male side on his end. Indeed, Hulda was regarded as a prophet accustomed to speaking the word of God directly to high priests and royal officials, to whom high officials came in supplication, who told kings and nations of their fates, who had the authority to determine what was and was not the genuine Law, and who spoke in a manner of stern command when acting as a prophet.
Photo: Ron Peled
The source of this tradition and the placement of this grave are based on the writings of Rabbi Moshe Basulah, who visited Jerusalem in the 16th century, and on Ishtori Haparchi’s 14th century work “Bulb and Flower” (a play on the writer’s name which in French is “the Florentine” and in Hebrew “flower”).
According to the Tosefta, the prophetess is buried to the south of the Temple Mount, thus the name of the southern gates of the old city “Hulda Gates.” Up to the 19th century, the Jews had a tradition to climb to this grave, though no one is certain of the exact location.
The Mulsim Tradition:
According to Muslim tradition, Rava’ad Aludayah is buried here, a prophetess among the early Muslim mystics in the 7th century C.E. There are rival reports of which Sufi mystic female saint is really the one buried in this grave as at least three names surface. But suffice it to say that what they all had in common was there zeal for God and the sensuous richness of their verses. One source, the Islam and Islamic Studies Resources site out of the University of Georgia, labels this mystic as: Rabi’a al-Badawiya is often confused with the more well-known Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya, but appears to be the same as Rabi’a bint Isma’il al-Shamiya, a Sufi woman well-known for becoming enraptured in spiritual states. While in such states of love she would recite the following Arabic poem:
Habibun laysa ya’diluhu habib
wa-la siwahu fi qalbi nasib
habibunghaba ‘an basari wa-shakhsi
wa-lakin ‘an fu’adi ma yaghib
A beloved whom no beloved can equal
and for other than whom there is no share of my heart
is a beloved who is absent from my vision and my person
but who is present to my heart
She was the wife of the well-known Sufi Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawaari (d. 230 AH/ 844-45 AD). According to conclusion of the Egyptian scholar, ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi, she died in Jerusalem (al-Quds) in 235 AH/ 849-50 CE and not in 135 AH/ 752-53 CE–as had been noted by some scholars but which would be impossible considering that her husband died in 230 AH. She was buried in a cave in which the tombs of the Christian woman saint Pelagia (d. 457 CE) and the Jewish prophetess Hulda (see 2 Kings 22:14-20) are also located. The shrine is near the Chapel of Ascension (al-Mas’ad) and below Zawi’at al-As’adiyah (as of 1927 CE) on the Mount of Olives (Jabal al-Tur). The shrine has been described as follows: “Twelve steps lead from the upper room to the cave in which the tomb is shown, all hewn in the solid rock. A small room near the grave is said to be the place where she used to perform her daily devotions…. In the upper room there is a cistern whose water is said to have a specially pleasant taste.”
(Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-Safwa, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘ilmiya, 1409/1989, vol. 2 (book 4), p. 249; Margaret Smith, Rabi’a The Mystic, pp. 140-43, 184;Taufik Canaan, Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine, London: Luzac, 1927, p. 57; Ibn Khallakan, Wafayat al-a’yan, ed. Ihsan ‘Abbas, Beirut, vol. 2, p. 287; ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya, Shahidat al-‘ishq al-ilahi, 1978, p. 47-52). (Additions and corrections made 5/22/98)
Other Islamic scholars claim that the grave marks the remains of the most famous Sufi mystic, Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya or Raba of Basrah for short. She was born of humble origins, the fourth daughter which lends her name, (Raba means “the fourth”) in Basra, Iraq. she and her siblings were orphaned at an early age she was kidnapped and taken as a slave. She suffered hard labor under her master, but still had the zeal to pray at night and fast. It was when her master overheard her prayer that his heart was softened. In fact, her prayer that meditated on the paradox of how could she be free to be a slave to God while she was a slave to a human converted the slave master to set her free. It was clear that he was holding onto a saint. With that he granted her emancipation. Thus, Rabia as an unmarried woman and a freed slave, tasted the ultimate freedom as a woman. She chose to stay unmarried and devote herself to the contemplation of God. She kept her humble home in strict ascetism owning a broken pitcher of water to make absolution, a mortar to grind grain (something she ate her whole life), a straw mat she slept on and a brick for a pillow. She attracted many disciples in her life.
Some of her quotes
• When asked about some worldly thing she wanted to have, she replied: I am ashamed to ask for a thing of this world from Him to whom this world belongs; how can I ask for it from those to whom it does not belong.
• Indeed your days are numbered, for when one day passes; a significant portion of your life has passed away. And when that portion has fled, soon it will come to pass that your whole life has disappeared. As you know this, strive always towards the performance of good deeds.
• I am not after any reward for my good works, but only that on the Day of Judgment the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) should say to the rest of the Prophets: ‘Behold this woman of my community; this was her work.’
• All people are afraid of the reckoning of the Day of Judgment, whereas I long for it. At last Allah will address me as ‘O, My servant!’
• Conceal your good qualities as much as you conceal your bad qualities.
• Death is a bridge between friends. The time now nears that I cross that bridge, and friend meets Friend.
|Rabi’a al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya|
|Born||between 714-718 CE|
The Christian Tradition:
According to the Christian tradition, this is the burial site of Saint Pelagia, born in Antiochus in the 5th century C.E. Pelagia was an elite prostitute who was also a singer and a dancer. (Think: Beyonce mixed with high class escort). She was as rich as she was beautiful. In fact, everyone in town knew she was rich and prominent as there was a line of customers waiting to be served outside her sumptious estate. Her feminine wiles were so much in demand, gentlemen from across the sea, would make frequent trips to bathe in her glory. So much in demand was she, that she would actually choose her customers. Rumor had it that those men who weren’t chosen were driven to commit suicide out of the despair of not knowing the pleasures of her flesh.
Everything was going fine, until that fateful day when Pelagia heard a sermon by Bishop Nonnus. Here’s the account from Antochian Church in Australia:
One day while Pelagia was elegantly dressed, she made her way past a church where St. Nonnus was preaching. Believers turned their faces away from her, but the Bishop glanced after Pelagia. Struck by her beauty, St. Nonnus prayed in his cell at length to the Lord for the sinner. He told his fellow bishops that the prostitute put them all to shame, explaining that she took great care to adorn her body in order to appear beautiful in the eyes of men. “We… take no thought for the adornment of our wretched souls,” he said.
Photo: Ron Peled
At her confession and first repentance, she began to weep and told the bishop her life story.
“I am Pelagia and I am a sea of sins – I walked myself and others along the path of sin – but from this point on I plan to renounce this behavior and walk in the righteous path.” After a full week of listening to the bishop speak, Pelagia was baptized; eight days later she took on a new spiritual path of faith and began the next chapter in her life.
Pelagia considered how she could be atoned for her terrible sins and decided to give all of her riches and possessions to the poor. After this she took off in the direction of Jerusalem dressed as a man so no one would recognize her.
At the end of her journey, Pelagia reached the Mount of Olives and there she lived until the end of her life. She lived an ascetic life and prayed most of the time. Her story reached all the way to Antiochus, the city of her birth, as the story of an ascetic monk who was honest and uncorrupted.
The Bishop Nonnus, who was unsure about whom the story was told, decided to send a messenger to this Jerusalem monk. The messenger was deeply impressed with Pelagia, returned to Antiochus and told the old bishop about the personality and life of the monk (Pelagia was still dressed as a man) and invited him/her to Antiochus.
Photo: Ron Peled
The messenger then returned again to await Pelagia for three days, hiding in her lonely cell in Jerusalem. After the three days, the messenger discovered that the monk had died and many other monks from the area came to mourn the death of this noble man.
Only after preparing the body for burial did the local monks discover that Pelagia was actually a woman. In order not to desecrate the body, they brought other female monks from the Jericho area to take care of the corpse and properly prepare her.
In Christian tradition, the cafe that is in the heart of the mosque on the Mount of Olives is considered as the grave of the holy monk Saint Pelagia. Her feast day is celebrated October 8th.
A tour through England will uncover thousands of grey Gothic buildings that housed chapels, churches, and convents dating all the way back from the earliest foundings of Christianity in the UK. But, as a pilgrim there is only one place to go—the monastery of St. John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, England in Tolleshunt Knights, the largest county of London. This is the sole living monument of Orthodox monasticism there is in all of the UK. As a tama this Great Lent, I resorted to a pilgrimage there during the bitterly cold month of February.
HISTORY OF ST JOHN of BAPTIST
As with all Orthodox monasteries, the history of St John the Baptist in Essex starts with a spiritual journey and the guidance of a spiritual father. This father is Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain (Mt Athos) in Greece.
An uneducated soldier, Silouan (originally Simeon Ivanovich Antonov) left Russia when he was 27 and found his way to the Holy Mountain where he was received into St. Pateleimon’s Monastery known to house Russian-speaking brethren.
During a period of spiritual crisis, Silouan had a vision of Christ sitting on the throne of glory during liturgy as a deacon. From that experience, he felt so unified to Christ that his soul’s purpose transformed into an everflowing fountain of love and prayer for the salvation of all mankind. St Silouan’s prayer poetry reveal the deepness of love for the most outcast and despairing of the creation. Indeed in his writings, Saint Silouan reveals an intensity of soul that distills the essence of Orthodox theology: that God cannot be known without discovering the “deep heart” (Psalm 64:6) “because that is the place where God manifests Himself” (Remember Thy First Love, 69). In his icons he is depicted in deep repentance with tears running down his face and beard for the agony he felt at losing the grace of God. He typifies the soul’s agony in knowing it is separate from God. His sensitivity even extended to feeling love for the most difficult of persons—one’s enemies. Indeed his writings stand out for their compassion and the need for repentance, especially love for one’s enemies.
This saint, although barely literate, started gaining a following of spiritual children. One of those would be the future founder of the monastery of St. John the Baptist, Elder Sophrony Zacharov. Indeed, Father Sophrony was the direct spiritual descendent of Saint Silouan. The Elder compiled many of his writings and a biography of the saint. But beyond the knowledge of good words and sentiments, what Elder Sophrony wanted was to continue the inner ascetic practices of the incantation of the Jesus Prayer that he had witnessed on the Holy Mountain.
Elder Sophrony left Mt Athos and returned to Paris, where he had spent time as an art student before his conversion to Orthodoxy. In Paris he lived in a Russian senior citizen residence assisting the priest there. Soon several people, both men and women, who desired to live the monastic life attached themselves to the elder.
“They were allowed to live at the old-people’s home, using the repetition of the Jesus Prayer in lieu of liturgical books and eating the food that the old-age inhabitants didn’t eat,” (Wikipedia.org). It soon became apparent that an actual physical building had to be found to accommodate the souls who wanted to continue the ascetic tradition.
Providence led him to hear about an abandoned property near Maldon, England. It had belonged to a group of knights, the Tollshunt Knights in the name of the area, in the 12th century who had fallen in and out of favor with the monarchy. In the mid 1950s it was abandoned with an old barn used as a refectory. Under the blessing of the Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh at that time, the new community of St. John the Baptist was formed. The uniqueness of the monastery is that, from its beginning to the present, it houses both monastics and nuns as Elder Sophrony.
What started out as a humble community of six monastics now totals close to 40. It moved under the omophorion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1965, becoming Patriarchal; later, the monastery would also be titled ‘Stavropegic‘.
Elder Sophrony garned the grace of “staretz” during this lifetime as pilgrims flocked for his guidance. Living from a small cell, the Elder kept the practice of unceasing prayer of the Jesus Prayer. He was endowed with the gift of clairvoyance. In fact, he was conscious of the hour of his repose. As there was no space to bury the dead on the monastery’s lands, the construction of an underground crypt had been initiated. The Elder said that he would not repose until the crypt was ready. Then, having been told of the expected completion date of 12 July 1993, Elder Sophrony stated that he “would be ready”. On the 11th, Elder Sophrony reposed; and on the 14th his funeral and burial were held, attended by monastics from around the world. Mother Elizabeth, the eldest nun, reposed soon after on the 24th, according to Elder Sophrony’s words that he would repose first, and she would repose soon after (Wikipedia).
The current Igoumen is Father Kyrill, but it is Archmandrite Zacharias, a British Cyriot, who carries the flame of inspiration and in turn serves as a direct disciple of Elder Sophrony. Father Zacharias, soft-spoken but very wise, receives a river of pilgrims on the weekend. He has penned several volumes that carry the Athonite tradition of awakening the deep heart through inner and outer ascetisicm. One that makes for profound contemplation during this time of Lent is Remember Thy First Love, my favorite.
Since its humble beginnings as an abandoned property, the monastery has flowered into the major spiritual hub of England with two resident halls, a major refectory that fits hundreds, and a new wing for future pilgrim quarters. Thanks to the skill of Mother Maria, a nun skilled in stone mosaics, the buildings have become adorned with mural-sized mosaic icons of Christ and the saints. There is a whimsical wall mosaic of Noah’s ark on the side of a resident hall that has become a visual synonym for the monastery.
While I was there the monks and nuns were in constant flurry of action, fixing doors that would not budge, cleaning up footpaths, cleaning stains with buckets and a toothbrush, pushing wheelbarrows with construction materials for the new buildings across the road.
The central church is still quite humble in its iconography, but the refectory’s walls are vibrant with gilded lines that lend an ethereal glow around the faces of the elect, so that the human and heavenly company commune around a mystical trapeza in pregnant silence.
The best way to get to the monastery is via auto. It takes 45 minutes from the outskirts of London.
To travel via tube, go to Liverpool Station and take a regional train to Witham station. Then take a taxi ride of 15 minutes to the gate (not cheap as the taxi cost 16 Pounds each way).
While it is possible to get accommodation as a pilgrim, you should make arrangements at least a month in advance as it fills up on the weekends with the Orthodox who visit from London. There is a reasonably priced Travel Lodge in Witham that is a viable alternative.
The best time to call the monastery is afternoon from 12 to 3 pm as the other times the monastics are busy with services.
The actual address is Rectory Rd, Tolleshunt Knights CM9 8EZ. The phone (44) ( 0)1621 816471.
Excerpts from the Writings of St Silouan the Athonite
Keep your mind in hell and do not despair”: the slogan of St. Silouan that reverberated throughout his ministry which he heard as a heavenly warning during his spiritual crisis
“I ask you to try something. If someone grieves you, or dishonors you, or takes something of yours, then pray like this: “Lord, we are all your creatures. Pity your servants, and turn them to repentance,” and then you will perceptibly bear grace in your soul. Induce your heart to love your enemies, and the Lord, seeing your good will, shall help you in all things, and will Himself show you experience. But whoever thinks evil of his enemies does not have love for God and has not known God.”
“The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God.”
“The soul that has come to know God fully no longer desires anything else, nor does it attach itself to anything on the earth; and if you put before it a kingdom, it would not desire it, for the love of God gives such sweetness and joy to the soul that even the life of a king can no longer give it any sweetness.”
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, IX.13)
“Pride does not allow the soul to set out on the path of faith. Here is my advice to the unbeliever: let him say, “Lord, if you exist, then illumine me, and I will serve you with all my heart and soul.” And for this humble thought and readiness to serve God, the Lord will immediately illumine him… And then your soul will sense the Lord; she will sense that the Lord has forgiven her, and loves her, and you will know this from experience, and the grace of the Holy Spirit will be a witness in your soul of your salvation, and you will want to cry out to the whole world: “The Lord loves us so much!” (St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, III.6)
“With all your power, ask the Lord for humility and brotherly love, because God freely gives His grace for love towards one’s brother. Do an experiment on yourself: one day ask God for love towards your brother, and another day – live without love. You will see the difference.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, XVI.8)
“We have such a law: If you forgive, it means that God has forgiven you; but if you do not forgive your brother, it means that your sin remains with you.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, VII.9)
“Love of God takes various forms. The man who wrestles with wrong thoughts loves God according to his measure. He who struggles against sin, and asks God to give him strength not to sin, but yet falls into sin again because of his infirmity, and sorrows and repents—he possesses grace in the depths of his soul and mind, but his passions are not yet overcome. But the man who has conquered his passions now knows no conflict: all his concern is to watch himself in all things lest he fall into sin. Grace, great and perceptible, is his. But he who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics.”
“We may study as much as we will but we shall still not come to know the Lord unless we live according to His commandments, for the Lord is not made known through learning but by the Holy Spirit. Many philosophers and scholars have arrived at a belief in the existence of God but they have not come to know God. And we monks apply ourselves day and night to the study of the Lord’s command but not all of us by a long way have come to know the Lord, although we believe in Him.”
Saying and Excerpts of Elder Sophrony Zacharov of Essex
“The Fathers of the fourth century left us certain prophecies, according to which in the last times salvation will be bound up with deep sorrows.”
“We must have the determination to overcome temptations comparable to the sorrows of the first Christians. All the witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection were martyred. We should be ready to endure any hardship.”
“Psychology brings the greatest evil to mankind today, because this science does not take into consideration Divine revelation, according to which man is created ‘in the image and likeness of God.’”
“The earthly life is for us a continual Judgment of God. If we follow Christ’s commandments, then the Grace of the Holy Spirit will come to us; but when we embark on them (even in small ways), God leaves us and we feel that abandonment about which outsiders do not even know. They do not understand what abandonment by God is.”
“The human soul is the image of God. It finds rest only when it attains perfection.”
“We do not think about how to change the world with our own powers. We strive to receive strength from God in order to act at all times with love.”
“When the grace of God comes to us, then we already here live in the dimension of eternity.”
“The most important thing in the spiritual life is to strive to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. It changes our lives (above all inwardly, not outwardly). We will live in the same house, in the same circumstances, and with the same people, but our life will already be different. But this is possible only under certain conditions: if we find the time to pray fervently, with tears in our eyes. From the morning to ask for God’s blessing, that a prayerful attitude may define our entire day.”
“Whoever gives up his cross cannot be worthy of the Lord and become His disciple. The depths of the Divine Being are revealed to the Christian when he is crucified for our Savior. The Cross is the foundation of authentic theology.”
“The Christian’s great tragedy is the inability to find a spiritual father. Laymen are themselves guilty in this, if they are unwilling to listen to the words of their spiritual instructors.”
“Life without Christ is tasteless, sad, and forlorn.”
One of the initial thrusts of the monastery was to publish the life and writings of St Silouan. These are various titles:
By Elder Sophrony
Monk of Mt Athos, Elder Sophrony’s biography of St Siloan, 1973
Wisdom of Mt Athos, 1975
His Life is Mine, 1977
We Shall See Him As He Is, 1985
Saint Silouan the Athonite, translated by Rosemary Edmonds, 1991.
By Archmandrite Zacharias
The Enlargement of the Heart, 2006
The Hidden Man of the Heart, 2008
Remember Thy First Love, 2010, commentary on the three stages of the spiritual life compiled from the sayings and counsels of Elder Sophrony
Man the Target of God, 2016.
by Sister Magdalen
Conversations with Children: Communicating our Faith, by Sister Magdalen, 2001.
Books about Elder Sophrony:
- Christ, Our Way and Our Lifeby Archimandrite Zacharias. “A Presentation of the theology of Archimandrite Sophrony.” (ISBN 1-878997-74-2).
- I Love Therefore I Amby Nicholas V. Sakharov. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003 (ISBN 0-88141-236-8).
- I Know a Man in Christ: Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologianby Hierotheos (Vlachos). Holy Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 2015 (ISBN 960-7070-89-5).
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Laganes. In case you don’t know this is the name of the unleavened bread sprinkled with sesame seeds that starts off the Lenten season along with kalamari, tarama, and that wicked orange fish roe you think would taste like cream cheese but is more like salty fish whipped cream. As our culture thrives on its strict maintenance of tradition with a capital T, there’s a reason we eat those on Kathari Deutera or Clean Monday.
The tradition harkens back to the ancient Israelites who in their haste to escape the slavery of Egypt did not have time to wait around to make the prozymi or the yeast filled first dough then knead it into the rest and wait for it to rise. They were in a hurry to get outta Egypt before Pharaoh’s armies got them. So they made bread without yeast that was unleavened and therefore pretty flat. (Think matzoh bread.)
Laganes, similarly, is a type of flatbread made without yeast (or at least very little) and the time to rise. Laganes are eaten once and only once a year, on this day, and are kind of synonymous with Clean Monday. People line up at bakeries early in the morning to buy them, hangover or no hangover left over from “Cheese” Sunday. By mid-afternoon the bakery shelves are empty, the laganes are sold out.
In the beginning bakers moulded it in the shape of a lady named Kira Sarakosti or Mrs Lent. She had seven legs that represented each of the weeks in Great Lent and instead of a mouth had a cross because she was careful of what came out and what went into her mouth. She stood as an symbolic bread puppet for the season. Eventually the figure died out but the oblong shape remained.
The Church places theological significance on the journey of Great Lent as it is supposed to be a time when the faithful turn from earthly things to spiritual. It encapsulates the entire history of humanity from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the act that heralds in the season on Forgiveness Sunday, through all the heightened events of the Passion, terminating in the pinnacle of Christian worship, the Ressurection. The taking of unleavened bread at the start of Lent culminates in the terminal act of bread giving with Christ breaking and blessing the leavened bread and exhorting His disciples to “Take eat this is my body which is shed for you for the remission of sins.” The act of breaking leavened bread during the Mystical Supper, the Passover meal in the Jewish tradition, marked the act that Christ was breaking with the old tradition and instituting a new one by giving of Himself. He literally became the sacrificial Lamb, His blood wine and his flesh, bread. That bread had to be leavened as He provided the mystical yeast, that miraculous energy that causes plain earthy bread to rise in spirit. Hence, leavened bread became His holy body, that godly flesh that transcends the physical. Christ infused holiness into a once flat bread and with the power of the Holy Spirit made it rise in the same way He would three days after His burial.
The Church uses only leavened bread as offering for Holy Communion in commemoration of Christ’s breaking flesh as sacrifice for sinful humanity. In the same way, we start off Kathari Deutera as exiles of Eden and refugee Israelis by eating the unleavened bread, the lagana, and through the course of crucifying our passions and weaknesses, we are made worthy to partake of Christ’s own flesh, the leavened bread of Holy Communion. The bread so sacramentally significant, both physically and spiritually, is the way God becomes flesh in us. Like the leavened bread infused with the spirit of Christ, we too will rise.
Meditate on this as you dip your lagana into the tarama. You will rise and your flesh will become holy if you take the same spiritual journey. Happy fasting.
In case you needed a recipe for Laganes, try this one compliments of Anna, from www.sweetalmondtree.blogspot.com
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1 tablespoon yeast
1 cup warm water 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more flour for dusting 1/2 cup of canola oil 2 teaspoons sugar plus a pinch of sugar 1 teaspoon of salt 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
canola oil and olive oil for brushing the loaves
- Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water, and add the pinch of sugar. Leave it for about 20 to 30 minutes until the yeast comes alive and begins to foam.
- Shift the flour with the salt and sugar into a large bowl.
After the dough is mixed, place it on a floured surface to begin kneading it
- Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the oil plus the water with the yeast. Mix with your hands to incorporate, and start creating the dough. If it’s too dry you will need to add a little more water.
- Move the dough to a floured surface in order to begin kneading it. When it’s soft and no longer sticky it’s ready to be formed into loaves.
- The loaves can be round or oblong in shape, but they have to be flat, about ½ an inch high. Place them on baking sheets and cover them with clean kitchen towels. In about an hour they should double in size. If not, let them sit a while longer. The leavening process depends a lot on the temperature of the room.
- Decorate the loaves by pressing the tips of your fingers into them so that dots are formed. Push hard so as to make deep indentations that won’t disappear as the laganes bake. Brush the tops of the loaves with oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds. For brushing the tops I used a combination of canola and olive oil.
- Bake them in a preheated 375º F oven for about 35 minutes, until they are golden. Half way through baking rotate the pans, and if you like, brush a little more oil on the tops of the loaves. I did this, and I used just olive oil this time.
- The laganes will have that unbelievable freshly baked bread scent. It’s irresistible! Eat them the same day, while they are fresh. They won’t taste as good the next day. If you have some left over, what you can do is freeze them. They will last in the freezer for a good two months.
Here’s an unconventional life: A princess, great-grand daughter of Queen Victoria of England and Czar Alexander II of Russia, twice divorced, founder of the European equivalent of the Girls’ Scouts, gives up her pampered princess life to found and direct the first English-language Orthodox monastery in rural Pennsylvania. Although she passed away in 1982, her life still inspires, serving as a testament to the attractiveness of the ascetic life that Orthodox theology encourages. Her worldly name was Princess Ileana of Romania, but her tonsured name was Alexandra, eventually she became known as Mother Alexandra as the igoumena of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pa. The monastery is still open for pilgrims and serves as a blessing for those who seek refuge from the world into a Christ-centered life.
This is her bio from Wikipedia:
Birth and early life
Ileana was born in Bucharest on 5 January 1909, the youngest daughter of Queen Marie of Romania and King Ferdinand I of Romania. Although it was rumored that Ileana’s true father was her mother’s lover, Prince Barbu Ştirbey, the king admitted paternity. Ileana had four older siblings: Carol, Elisabeth – later Crown Princess of Greece, Princess Maria – later Queen of Yugoslavia – and Nicholas. Her younger brother Mircea was also claimed to be the child of Prince Ştirbey even though the king also claimed to be his father.
Before her marriage, Ileana was the organizer and Chief of the Romanian Girl Guide Movement.
Ileana was the organizer of the Girl Reserves of the Red Cross, and of the first school of Social Work in Romania.
She was an avid sailor: she earned her navigator’s papers, and owned and sailed the “Isprava” for many years.
Before King Michael’s abdication
In Sinaia on 26 July 1931, Ileana married the Archduke Anton of Austria, Prince of Tuscany. This marriage was encouraged by Ileana’s brother, King Carol II, who was jealous of Ileana’s popularity in Romania and wanted to get her out of the country. After the wedding, Carol claimed that the Romanian people would never tolerate a Habsburg living on Romanian soil, and on these grounds refused Ileana and Anton permission to live in Romania.
After her husband was conscripted into the Luftwaffe, Ileana established a hospital for wounded Romanian soldiers at their castle, Sonneburg, outsideVienna, Austria. She was assisted in this task by her friend Sheila Kaul. In 1944, she and the children moved back to Romania, where they lived at Bran Castle, near Brasov. Archduke Anton joined them but was placed under house arrest by the Red Army. Princess Ileana established and worked in another hospital in Bran village, which she named the Hospital of the Queen’s Heart in memory of her beloved mother Queen Maria of Romania.
After Michael I of Romania abdicated, Ileana and her family were exiled from the newly Communist Romania. They escaped by train to the Russian sector of Vienna, then divided into three parts. After that they settled in Switzerland, then moved to Argentina and in 1950, she and the children moved to the United States, where she bought a house in Newton, Massachusetts.
The years from 1950 to 1961 were spent lecturing against communism, working with the Romanian Orthodox Church in the United States, writing two books:I Live Again, a memoir of her last years in Romania, and Hospital of the Queen’s Heart, describing the establishment and running of the hospital.
On 29 May 1954, Ileana and Anton officially divorced and she married secondly in Newton, Massachusetts, on 20 June 1954, to Dr. Stefan Nikolas Issarescu (Turnu-Severin, 5 October 1906 – Providence, 21 December 2002).
In 1961, Princess Ileana entered the Orthodox Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God, in Bussy-en-Othe, France. Her second marriage ended in divorce in 1965. On her tonsuring as a monastic, in 1967, Sister Ileana was given the name Mother Alexandra. She moved back to the United States and founded the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, the first English language Orthodox monastery in North America. She was the third female descendant of Queen Victoria to become a Mother Superior in a convent of her own foundation. She served as abbess until her retirement in 1981, remaining at the monastery until her death.
She visited Romania again in 1990, at the age of 81 in the company of her daughter, Sandi.
In January 1991, she suffered a broken hip in a fall on the evening before her eighty-second birthday, and while in hospital, suffered two major heart attacks. She died four days after the foundations had been laid for the expansion of the monastery.
An Associated Press article about Mother Alexandra
FORMER ROMANIAN PRINCESS FINDS LIFE IS RICHER AS A NUN