Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Life of Saint Irene Chrysovalantou

On July 28th we celebrate the memory of Saint Irene from Cappadocia whose earthly remains now lie in the monastery of Chrysovalantou, near Constantinople.

After the death of the apostate Theophilus, his wife Theodora occupied the throne of Byzantium. She freed the church from the iconoclasts, restored the Holy Icons and re-established a true spirit of holy Orthodoxy. This very blessed woman was to rule the empire until her son Michael came of age.

On Michael’s 12th name day messengers were dispatched by his mother, the empress, to find a suitably beautiful, virtuous and refined girl to be his wife. They found such a candidate in Irene, the daughter of an aristocratic family from the province of Cappadocia. She gladly accepted their proposal and the whole company proceeded to Byzantium greatly impressed by the presence of their future empress. Among the company was Irene’s sister who later married the Empress Theodora’s brother Vardas. While passing Mt. Olympos (near Asia Minor), Irene asked to visit Ioannikos, a saintly recluse of that mountain, to receive his blessing. As he was well known as one who only became visible to the most worthy pilgrims, her request had to be granted.

The hermit, through his gift of spiritual insight, not only foresaw the arrival of the company but also the young girl’s future merits, so as they approached he called out, “Welcome Irene, Servant of God. Proceed to the Imperial City in joy because the convent of Chrysovalantou needs you in the community.”

Irene was amazed at this prophetic power and fell to the ground imploring his blessing. Ioannikos lifted her up, gave her strength with spiritual thoughts and blessed her, so that she was able to continue her journey in great joy. On reaching Byzantium her relatives there, some poor, others patricians and senators, all came to meet her with great ceremony. However, the King of Kings Who created everything out of nothing and orders all things, had, only a few days before arranged for this earthly king to marry another girl so that He, the immortal, invisible, only-wise God could use Irene for His special purpose. Far from being upset, she gave thanks to Him Who had led the Emperor to take this course. Later many of the outstanding men of Byzantium, captivated by her grace and beauty, proposed marriage, but she refused all others, desiring only contemplation of the heavenly Bridegroom.

Remembering the hermit’s prophecy, she visited the great monastery of Chrysovalantou and was so impressed by the climate and the beautiful way of life led by the nuns that she freed her slaves, gave all inherited wealth (and her imperial dowry) to the poor and, rejecting any remnants of vanity and worldliness, entered the community. Dressed in a simple habit of sackcloth and gladly accepting the “easy yoke and light burden” of Christ our Lord (St. Matthew 11:30), the aristocratic young lady served the sisters with amazing humility and obedience. Never resorting to argument or thoughts of her past, she performed the most lowly and despised tasks with cheerful alacrity and an attentive consciousness. The very wise and virtuous abbess advised her that she was living our Lord’s words that “Without Me, you can do nothing. Anyone who remains in Me as I remain in him will bear much fruit.” (St. John 15:5.) So this young novice, like a fertile orchard, bore rich fruit in Christ, winning the admiration of all people through her obedience, humility and concern for all. Such was her enthusiasm that it was said by the community, who were united in love for her, that she had the spirit of a freed slave.

In her cell (the room of a nun or monk), she read the lives of the saints and from the great Arsenios she learned of the discipline of the night-long prayer. The abbess finally granted Irene’s request to attempt this arduous trial through a realization of her profound humility. Thus she embarked on this superhuman task before the end of the first year of her novitiate and was so blessed with divine grace that she was able to stand from morning to night with hands raised like the prophet Moses (on Mt. Sinai). She was so devoted to this exercise (to the abbess’ amazement) that she would even stand twenty-four hours without movement.

Three years of this practice caused the adversary great anguish (we speak of the evil-one) but his every effort failed to divert her, so greatly had she subdued all earthly thoughts. She was now totally free of worldly temptations through abstinence. For food she only took bread and water, occasionally supplemented by herbs or vegetables. For clothing she took a new habit every Easter –Holy Pasha-- and only cleaned it as a gift to the poor the following Great Lent. For her task in the house she chose to clean the toilets, never giving a thought to her noble past.

Thus the evil-one failed to sow spiritual tares in her soul because as soon as she recognized any sign of his activity, she confessed every wayward thought to her abbess and immediately recommenced her exercises. Then she had only to cross herself to render these satanic apparitions invisible. But on one occasion she was shaken with such powerful doubts that she fell to the ground shedding many tears of prayer to the Lord, His holy Mother and all the Saints, and particularly the Archangels to whom the monastery was dedicated. “O Blessed Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), everlasting God, at the intercession of Your most holy Mother and in the presence of the Archangels, their armies, the celestial powers and all Your Saints, help Your servant. Deliver me from the assaults of the devil.” She shed fervent tears for many nights in her prayers to God until under the shadow of His wings she found rest and shelter (Psalm 90:7).

So great was her renewed devotion that she became a chosen vessel of God. Blessed with the Holy Spirit in the manner of the holy Apostle Paul, living no more according to the flesh but so dwelling in Christ and Christ in her that she appeared transfigured to those many souls whom she led to the Lord. Public servants, senators, peasants and noble ladies alike experienced a renewal of faith and many unmarried women took vows and enriched the life of the convent.

At that time the abbess became very weak. Realizing that she would soon die, the community was filled with sorrow while the humble Irene shed many tears for her spiritual mother. One day when many of the nuns had gathered in her cell, noting that Irene was absent, the abbess offered them her last wishes. “Do not lament my departure for in my successor you have a leader who is wiser than I. Be obedient to her, this daughter of light, lamb of Christ and vessel of the Holy Spirit. Do not accept anyone but Irene.” Then with the words, “Glory to You, O Lord, in Your mercy,” she committed her soul to the care of the angels. To protect her humility, Irene wasn’t told of these disclosures. Meanwhile the community prayed that the Lord’s will would be done. Finally the Elders decided to go to the Patriarch and seek his advice.

At that time Methodios the Confessor was Patriarch. He was a leader of such courage that through the tortures of the Iconoclasts he bore on his body the stigmata of Our Lord. He was also blessed with the gift of foresight. After the community had paid their respects to this Holy Patriarch, he asked them to name whom they wished to be their superior. They could only reply that their one prayer was that he would be guided by the Holy Spirit. With no prior knowledge of the former abbess’ disclosure, the wise old Patriarch inquired as to whether there was one of their number of humble disposition called Irene. If so, he believed that she was the choice and that this choice was well pleasing in the sight of God. At his demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit the whole company was so filled with joy that Methodios immediately rose from his throne, took incense and gave thanks to the Lord. He then ordained Irene deaconess in the Holy Church. After he had advised her in the ways of administering and guiding the community, the Patriarch clothed her as Abbess and dismissed them with his blessing.

On reaching the monastery they held a great celebration for all their friends and spiritual children from the city. Only Irene could feel no joy, so great was her sense of inadequacy. However, the sisters reassured her. Alone in her quarters she prayed constantly, “Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd of Your sheep, help Your servant and this, my flock, because we have no power of our own to resist the assaults of the demons. Leave us not without Your grace.” In answer to her prayer Irene was told, “Watch and pray without ceasing for from this day you will have the responsibility of the spiritual welfare of many for whom our Lord was incarnate and shed His precious blood, souls that He has committed to your care. Take care that the ‘blind do not lead the blind’ so that both fall into the ditch.” So Irene redoubled her spiritual exercises and in return she was endowed with great wisdom and received many revelations as to how to lead the flock.

Thus strengthened, she addressed the community of nuns: “I know, beloved sisters in Christ, that it was not logical that I, your humble, unworthy and illiterate servant, should be called to teach you, but the ways of God are mysterious. If it is by His grace that I am your superior, then I pray that you will obey me. Surely if we do not obey the laws (promised before God and His angels) of the habit we wear, we achieve nothing. For it is said: ‘faith without works is dead’ (St. James 2:17). Why have we left the unreal and temporal world? To disobey His commandments? If so, like the foolish virgins we also will lose the eternal kingdom. The soul cannot be divided so as to have both pride and humility, unrestricted pleasure and abstinence. Therefore let us rid our soul of worldly desire and seek only purity, humility, patience and love (prayer of St. Isaac the Syrian-- this prayer is said only during Holy Great Lent) lest we lose not only ourselves but others also.”

It was with the instinct of a mother that the future saint taught her spiritual children. And in the same spirit she gave thanks for the immense fruit that it bore in their lives. These and other experiences instilled such assurance of the Lord’s presence in their work that Irene asked Him (our Lord God) for the most responsible charisma of all, that of foresight, so that she might be able to have knowledge of the sisters’ impending trials, not for the purpose of gaining fame but to be better able to advise them. In answer to this prayer, there appeared to her a guardian angle who greeted her, saying, “Hail, fruitful servant of God, the Lord has sent me that more might be saved through your guidance. I am to remain at your side and disclose the events of the future. He then disappeared, yet remained with her, continually revealing the hidden problems not only of the nuns but of all who sought her advice. Irene in no way used this knowledge to reprimand or humiliate people but corrected their confessions in such a way that they understood she had certain supernatural powers. Her fame spread to such an extent that rich and poor alike gathered to seek her advice and yet, continually offering thanks to God, she increased in humility.

Soon after, her sister, the wife of Prince Varda, sent her eunuch to see Irene who was thus able to inform him of a recent revelation that the Prince would soon die at the wish of the Emperor Michael, who would himself immediately lose his life and kingdom. Despite the obvious confidential nature of the information, the sister told her husband everything. Nevertheless, with characteristic pride and lack of faith, he dismissed the idea. The events took their course and as the saint predicted, the following week he was killed in battle, closely followed by the unworthy Emperor. Irene continued her very remarkable ministry in the reign of his successor, Basil the Macedonian.

At that time a young and beautiful novice came to the convent through a calling to follow the Lord rather than to be married and live in the world. But the devil incited her previous fiancé with such a passion that to retrieve her he had recourse to a magician (that most faithful servant of the adversary). Weaving his spells in distant Cappadocia, this wizard caused the young girl to lose her mind and threaten all the time to drown herself. Lamenting her neglect of this young lamb, the saint received the power to defy the devil in this struggle. So she assembled the community, explained the situation and ordered everyone to fast for a week, make 100 prostrations a day and pray continually for an understanding of God’s will. On the third night of this discipline, Irene had a vision of St. Basil the Great advising her to take the novice to the convent of Vlachernae where the Mother of God would heal her. Arriving at that place with two of the senior nuns, they were so exhausted that they all fell asleep during their first all-night vigil of prayer. While Irene slept, her vision continued. A pilgrim procession appeared all clothed in white and golden robes and shinning with a strange and unearthly light, scattering flowers and incense on the path behind them. When Irene inquired to their purpose, they replied that the Mother of God was approaching. At that moment Blessed Mary (the Theotokos) appeared surrounded by hosts of angels, with such a radiant countenance that no one could look at her. She first visited the sick and then came to Irene who fell at her feet in fear; while lying there she heard the All-Holy One first call to St. Basil of Caesarea (in Asia Minor) and from there to cure the young girl, for as she said, “My Son and God has given you this power. Irene then awoke with the message, “Return to your convent and within three days your novice will be healed.” So she disclosed her vision to the others and they all departed in great joy, arriving home just in time for Friday Vespers.

After Vespers she instructed the whole community to lift their eyes and hands to heaven and with all their heart to cry, “Lord, have mercy.” After many hours when the church was wet with tears, the voices of Basil and Anastasia said to Irene, “Stretch out your hand, accept the gift and do not trouble us any more.” The package which miraculously appeared contained all the evil magician’s aids, among them model idols of the nun and her ex-fiancé. They gave thanks to God during another all-night vigil and in the morning sent the sick nun back to Vlachernae with an offering of holy bread and all the magical aids. After the Divine Liturgy there, the priest anointed her and then solemnly burnt the satanic objects. As they were consumed by the flames the suffering patient was released from her invisible bonds, and the idols cried out from the fire like pigs anticipating slaughter. The nun and all who were present were filled with holy fear and gave thanks to the Lord Who had delivered her in such a wonderful way.

However, the more Irene was respected for her good judgment and sanctity, the more she humbled herself. Especially at the offering of the Holy Mysteries to God (Holy Communion) on His holy altar, she was so consumed by her identity with the unrepentant thief that she had to hide her face to prevent people seeing the tears she shed. Let us now relate another miracle.

A young man named Nicholas, who was responsible for the convent vineyard, fell so desperately in love with one of the nuns that he lay awake at night listening to the suggestions of the evil powers as to how he might satisfy his desire. So demented was he that one night he became unconscious. When the good abbess heard of this the following morning she said, "Blessed be God who has allowed us to be the objects of the devil’s attention." Then she immediately gave orders for the boy to be sent to the Church of Anastasia, (Resurrection) so as to avoid taking the credit for his future healing. During the night St. Anastasia appeared to Irene and told her that she should not so readily lay aside the responsibility for healing her own servant. And so it was decided to confine him in a straightjacket tied to one of the pillars of the church, so that he might hear the many prayers the sisters offered on his behalf. Once during the singing of the Cherubic Hymn in the Divine Liturgy, after the priest had placed the Holy Gifts on the Holy Altar, the possessed man became so furious that he broke the chains, rushed to the Holy Doors (also called the Royal Doors), seized the priest and began to bite the flesh so savagely that Irene had to leave her stall and order him to be still. The command was so powerful that he immediately became calm and wished to return to his place of confinement, but found himself rooted to the spot. After the liturgy the saint prostrated herself beside the boy and with all her strength prayed to God for his healing. Finally she stood up and ordered the demon to leave his victim, seized the boy and hurled him to the ground. At this moment he was cured. He was then sent back to work with a strict rule of life to follow, and advised always to pray for the protection of the holy angels, that he might avoid such disturbances in future. He went on his way praising the Lord our God. The wonder-worker continued her way of patience and humility.

Sometimes she would remain in prayer and contemplation for as long as a week without ceasing, taking only uncooked vegetables and water for sustenance. On great feasts she would keep vigil in the courtyard in the company of the stars, continually giving thanks for the awesome beauty of creation. During one such vigil a truly marvelous miracle was, by divine grace, witnessed by one of the nuns, who, unable to sleep, left her cell and entered the courtyard. There she saw her abbess motionless, totally absorbed in prayer and in a state of levitation about one meter above the ground. This was not only one miracle, but another, that the nun observed for the two nearby cypress trees had bent their heads to the earth in homage before her. When she left her state of prayer, Irene blessed the trees and they returned to their former state. The sister (nun) who witnessed the event trembled thinking that it was a vision from the tempter, but later when others of the community noticed handkerchiefs placed in the tops of these same trees, she related the whole story. At this the whole sisterhood became so excited that Irene had to rebuke them, emphasizing the need to concentrate on their own way of prayer and charging them not to relate any extraordinary events until after her death.

All her life she kept the feast of St. Basil the Great with special devotion as he was from her own country. After that day, during the third watch of the night, she heard a voice from the invisible saying, “Welcome the sailor who brings fruit to you today and eat it with joy; let your soul rejoice.” Later when they were singing Matins again she heard a voice saying, “Go to the door and bring in the sailor who is visiting you.” So she went and invited him to enter. They bowed to one another and remained in church until after the liturgy. Then she asked how it was that he had come to them. He said, “I am a sailor from Patinas and I joined a boat coming to this town for business. As we were passing the coast of that island, we saw a very old man on the shore who called to us to wait for him. We could not because we were near the rocks, so with a good wind behind us we left. He then shouted all the more loudly ordering the boat to stop. This it did at once. Then he came to us walking on the waves and soon entered the boat. Then taking three apples from beneath his cloak, he gave them to me saying, ‘When you go to the capital, give these to the Patriarch and tell him that the Almighty sends them to him from His beloved disciple, John.’ After that he took another three and asked that these be presented to you, the Abbess of Chrysovalantou. To you he said, ‘Eat these and all that your beautiful soul desires will be granted you because this gift comes to you from John in Paradise.’ Having said this he blessed God, wished us well and disappeared.” When she heard this, the saint shed tears of joy and offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for His evangelist and most beloved disciple. The obedient sailor asked for a blessing and departed.

Irene then fasted for a week continually, thanking God for His most wonderful gift. Then, by His grace, she ate small pieces of the first apple daily without any other food or water for the next forty days. (As a further sign of God’s grace the remaining apples increased in beauty and aroma.) At the same time such fragrance came out of her mouth while eating that it seemed to all the nuns that she was always making myrrh. Then, on Holy Thursday, she directed the community to receive the Holy Mysteries and following the liturgy she took the second apple and gave each one a piece. When they tasted the amazing sweetness, it seemed as if their very souls were being fed. The third apple she kept until its purpose should be revealed. The presence of the apples was such a blessing that on Holy Friday the saint had a beautiful vision during the singing of the great passion hymns. She suddenly became aware of countless radiant angelic beings entering the church. Some had stringed instruments and sang most beautiful hymns to our Lord, while the others had goblets of Holy Myrrh, which they poured onto the altar, filling the whole convent with a wonderful fragrance. Among these beings was a particularly majestic man, his face shining like the sun. All the others treated him with great devotion when he approached and offered him a great shroud with which to cover the fragrant altar. Then the angel who stood by the altar cried out with great sadness to this great one saying, “Until when, O Lord?” A voice replied, “Until the second Solomon, when the heights will be united with the depths and all will be one. Then the Lord will be exalted and the memory of Irene will be glorified.” The good abbess immediately realized that the vision confirmed her most fundamental teaching, that neither she nor any of the sisters could be glorified until in death they achieved the Kingdom. So again she gathered the community and strongly re-emphasized the necessity to run from the honor of men because a soul who desires this honor will be blind to the glory of God. So let us now relate other wonderful events from her life before recording her blessed repose in the Lord.

A noble relative of Irene’s was falsely accused of plotting to take the Emperor’s life. The Emperor not only committed him to prison but was persuaded to order his death by drowning at sea. Various friends and relatives, unable to help, ran to the abbess to implore her intervention. So she comforted them and advised them to return home and have faith in the Lord. At the same time she retired to her cell to intercede for the unjustly condemned man. The good Lord who so readily does the will of His servants who call upon Him, intervened in a wonderful way by arranging for Irene to appear before the Emperor in a dream, threatening him and saying, “O King, get up immediately and release the prisoner condemned through jealousy. If you do not listen to me I will request the King of Kings to cause your death and the deliverance of your worthless body to wild animals. Naturally the Emperor became very angry and asked who it was who was threatening him so arrogantly. “I am the abbess of Chrysovalantou,” she said, “Irene is my name.” So saying, she hit him so hard that with pain he awoke. At that moment she disappeared. Thoroughly amazed, the Emperor summoned his guards to find out how the insolent woman had escaped. When all said they had seen nothing, he realized that he had experienced a vision from God. So the following day the condemned man was questioned concerning the accusation and quickly proved his loyalty to the Emperor’s satisfaction. Before releasing him the Emperor inquired if he knew of an Irene of Chrysovalantou. “Of course,” he replied, “She is a relative of mine, a most virtuous and God-fearing abbess, so humble that she never leaves her monastery and only rarely receives visitors.

Soon after, the Emperor sent his nobles with a skilled artist to pay a courtesy call on Irene, hoping that this artist might later paint a portrait of her to provide confirmation of the vision. By the grace of God all this was known to the saint, so shortly after Matins she returned to the church with the community and gave instructions to bring the visitors to her as soon as they arrived. As soon as the nobles approached to pay their respects to the saint, she became so radiant that they fell to the floor, unable to behold such a presence. Immediately Irene consoled them saying, “Do not be afraid. I am also a fallible creature. But why does your skeptical master put you to all this trouble? Tell him to do as I said and release the prisoner or else all that I prophesied will befall him.” Still overcome with awe, the nobles agreed to report this to the Emperor. But meanwhile they begged to be allowed to stay with her and hear more words of wisdom. (This they had planned to enable the artist to obtain a good impression of her appearance.) The portrait was later shown to the Emperor and once again the whole company was overwhelmed by a great light.

Temporarily blinded, the Emperor cried out in the words of Psalm 50, “Have mercy on me, O God, in Your great mercy." He was even more amazed when his blindness passed and he saw from the portrait that it was the very person he had seen in the vision. He immediately released the prisoner with full honors and sent a message of humble thanks to the saint for intervening in his irresponsibility. He also asked that at her convenience she would bless both himself and the Empress with her most holy hands. In reply she said, “Thanks be to God who desires not the death of a sinner but his repentance. Do not thank me, glorify Him.” With regard to the blessing, she said, “It is neither right for your Majesties to enter the convent nor for me to visit you. You do not need the blessing of a sinful woman when you have the Holy Patriarch and spiritual directors of the great monasteries to advise you. Do as they say and you will rule this empire with wisdom. Please attend to what I say and may the right hand of God watch over you.”

After this both the Royal Household and the family of the exonerated prisoner were very attentive to the example and teaching of the convent of Chrysovalantou. The convent in turn received numerous gifts. Among many other gifts of the Spirit, the holy abbess became known for her ability to predict death and was thus able to help strengthen many a soul during its last hours on earth. Despite all these wonderful gifts our future saint was, after all, only a mortal being and the angel’s prophecy that she would be called to the divine presence on the day following the commemoration of St. Panteleimon had to be fulfilled. They kept the day before St. Panteleimon as the feast of the foundation of their monastery. Irene spent the whole week before the feast preparing herself by remaining all day in meditation and fasting.

This meant taking only water with small pieces of that extraordinary holy apple sent from paradise by the beloved disciple of Christ our Lord. She ate it now because she felt that the time to join the bridegroom was near. From the time of eating the first fragment all enmity disappeared and the whole monastery was again filled with that extraordinary fragrance. Nevertheless, in a moment of doubt she cried out with great anguish and the sisters rushed to her aid. By the grace of God she immediately recovered her composure and said, “Today, my children, I depart from this world and you will see me no more. For the time has come for me to pass to eternal life. Therefore elect as your superior Sister Mary, for I know that she has already been chosen by God. I know that she will lead you according to His Will and keep you on the narrow path so that you will also attain to the broad avenues of paradise. Hate the world and all that is in it, for as our Lord and Master has said, ‘Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, there is no love for the Father in him’ (I John 2:15), because all these temporal things are vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Never follow the will of the flesh but only the Will of God because it is He who gave you all things that you may return them to Him in that day.”

So raising her hands and eyes to the heavens she prayed. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, the Good Shepherd who has saved and fed us with Your own most precious Blood, I deliver in Your Holy Hands this little flock. Hide it under the shadow of Your wings (Psalm 90), protect it from the wiles of the devil for Yours is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory and to You we give thanks for ever and ever.”

Having prayed thus she sat up and smiled at the sight of the holy angels who greeted her, and at once her face shone like the sun. Then she closed her eyes as if she wished to rest and her spirit was delivered to the Lord.

Such was the crowd of both peasants and nobles who flocked to keep the all-night vigil over her body that the monastery gates had to be closed by force. On the following day the entire congregation, now much larger, who came to pay their final respects were amazed at the beautiful features of one who was more than 102 years of age. Throughout the ceremonies of that day the convent was filled with an unexplainable and indescribable fragrance which persisted at the saint’s burial place for many years. Countless miracles occurred at that site and to this day many of those who, in faith, ask her prayers find that they are answered. All this the saint does to the continual frustration of the powers of darkness and to the eternal glory of the all merciful Lord to Whom alone is due all honor might, majesty, dominion and power, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Holy St. Irene,
Pray To God For Us!

Glory Be To God For All Things!