That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

Month: August, 2010

Free at last!

Coptic icon of the Resurrection

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. — John 8:36

To the one who conquers, I will give… a new name… — Revelation 2:17

An Orthodox friend relates this story: She and her family attended a talk  by a black woman they knew. Someone asked the speaker why she had adopted an African name, though she grew up as Mildred. She replied that Mildred was a “slave name” — an English name that slave-owners would give to a slave because it was easier to remember or pronounce than their real African name.

Some time later, The same family were at a social gathering, and an acquaintance asked one of them (who had taken the name Joseph in baptism) “Why do you call yourself Joseph when you used to be called Francis?”

Without hesitation, he replied, “Oh, Francis was my slave name.”

•  •  •

Thanks to Matushka A. with apologies for probably getting her story wrong.

St Basil: Practical guidance on simplicity and humility

Coptic Icon of St. Basil the Great

How are we to come to this humility and leave behind us the deadly swelling of arrogance? By exercising ourselves in it in all things, and by keeping in mind that there is nothing which cannot be a danger to us. For the soul becomes like the things to which it gives itself, and takes the character and appearance of what it does.

Let your demeanor, your dress, your walking, your sitting down, the nature of your food, the quality of your being, your house and what it contains, aim at simplicity.

And let your speech, your singing, your manner with your neighbor, let these things also be in accord with humility rather than with vanity.

In your words let there be no empty pretence, in your singing no excess sweetness, in conversation be not ponderous or overbearing. In everything refrain from seeking to appear important.

Be a help to your friends, kind to the ones with whom you live, gentle to your servant, patient with those who are troublesome, loving towards the lowly, comforting those in trouble, visiting those in affliction, never despising anyone, gracious in friendship, cheerful in answering others, courteous, approachable to everyone, never speaking your own praises, nor getting others to speak of them, never taking part in unbecoming conversations, and concealing where you may whatever gifts you possess.

St. Basil the Great, Homily on Humility, 20

This text is from this post on the fine blog Orthodox Way of Life. emphasis added.

Here is a short life of St Basil from my site God is Wonderful in His Saints:

Our Father among the Saints Basil the Great (379)

In its services, the Church calls St Basil a “bee of the Church of Christ”: bringing the honey of divinely-inspired wisdom to the faithful, stinging the uprisings of heresy. He was born in Cappadocia to a wealthy and prominent family. Their worldly wealth, however, is as nothing compared to the wealth of Saints that they have given to the Church: his parents St Basil the Elder and St Emmelia; his sister St Macrina (July 19), the spiritual head of the family; and his brothers St Gregory of Nyssa (January 10), and St Peter, future bishop of Sebaste (January 9).
Inspired and tutored by his father, a renowned professor of rhetoric, the brilliant Basil set out to master the secular learning and arts of his day, traveling to Athens, where he studied alongside his life-long friend St Gregory of Nazianzus. When he returned from his studies in 356, he found that his mother and his sister Macrina had turned the family home into a convent, and that his brothers had also taken up the monastic life nearby. Puffed up by his secular accomplishments, he at first resisted his sister’s pleas to take up a life devoted to God, but at last, through her prayers and admonition, entered upon the ascetical life.
After traveling among the monks of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, he settled in Cappadocia as a hermit, living in utter poverty and writing his ascetical homilies. A monastic community steadily gathered around him, and for its good order St Basil wrote his Rule, which is regarded as the charter of monasticism. (St Benedict in the West was familiar with this Rule, and his own is modeled on it.)
In about 370 he was consecrated Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Even as bishop, he continued to live without any possessions save a worn garment to cover himself. At this time the Arian heresy was rending the Church, and it became St Basil’s lot to defend Orthodoxy in Sermons and writings, a task which he fulfilled with such erudition and wisdom that he is called “Basil the Great.” He reposed in peace in 379, at the age of forty-nine.

The un-judging monk

Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece

Teach me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother — from the Lenten prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Following is a re-telling of a story that I came across years ago in some patristic source (the Philokalia?) which I now can’t recall. Perhaps a commenter will know the source of the story.

A monastery was once burdened with a very difficult monk. He did hardly any work. He rarely came to the services. He lied. He stole food. He drank in his cell. He was a constant trial to all the other brethren.

Eventually the monk died and, with some relief, the brethren buried him.

Not long afterward, the Abbot of the monastery had a dream in which he saw the departed monk in Paradise. The Abbot said to him, “You? How is it that you, of all monks, are now in Paradise?”

The monk answered, “As many as my sins were, throughout my life I never judged anyone. It is written, Judge not, lest ye be judged. Since I judged not, I have been spared judgment.”

The abbot awoke and told the brethren of his encounter. All were filled with compunction.


Update: I found a reference to this story in the Prologue of Ohrid by St Nikolai Velomirovich. It turns out that the un-judging monk is commemorated in the Menaion! In my telling above I hope I got the main point right, but I got many details wrong; so here is St Nikolai’s (much better) entry for him (commemorated March 30):

Commemoration of a Monk who died joyfully and never judged anyone in his life

This monk was lazy, careless, and lacking in his prayer life; but throughout all his life he did not judge anyone. When dying, he was happy. When the brethren asked him how it was that with so many sins he could die joyfully, he replied: “I now see angels who are showing me a page containing my numerous sins. I said to them, ‘Our Lord said: Judge not, and ye shall not be judged (Luke 6:37). I have never judged anyone, and I hope in the mercy of God that He will not judge me.’” And the angels tore up the paper. Upon hearing this the monks were astonished and learned from it.


Saint John and the Dove

Saint John Maximovitch

“The sight was unforgettable. St. John stood there with lifted hands, holding a huge golden Cross high above his mitered head, and the bird flew high about the building next door, and then with a swift graceful glide descended upon the Saint and sat on his shoulder.”

The Dove of Archbishop John
by Monk Herman, taken from The Orthodox Word #191

When I came to San Francisco to be close to the saintly Archbishop John Maximovitch, I heard a lot of fascinating accounts of his ascetic life. Frequently I visited St. Tikhon’s Orphanage, founded by this Saint, and run then by his long-time assistant, Mrs. Maria Alexandrovna Shakhmatova (+1967). Archbishop John was a very busy man, and I did not dare to be often in his presence. …

The orphanage was no longer a place where children were sheltered….Within its walls was Archbishop John’s tiny office, which was so small that even a bed would not fit, where he both lived and had his prayer-room and office…I would visit him there, and have long constructive talks that shaped my life.

One day I came to see Mrs. Shakhmatova, and she, as usual, insisted that I stay for tea, even though I never liked tea. She would get me into her kitchen, almost next to Archbishop John’s office, and ask, almost in the form of an interrogation, about my whereabouts, what I had done that week, what I had read, etc. Usually she scolded me for not visiting her more often and not being closer to her “orphans,” who by then were already leading their own married lives.

This particular day I noticed a white pigeon with a reddish pattern in its feathers, making pigeon noises outside the window on a specially built ledge. It was pacing back and forth, obviously not intending to fly away, but, as I assumed, waiting to be fed. As it seemed no stranger to her, I paid little attention then.

On that particular feast day of the Baptism of the Lord, I chanced to be in St. Tikhon’s for the Blessing of Water. The service was performed in the little courtyard right under the kitchen window, which had a separate gate from the street through which I had entered. To my great surprise, as St. John was blessing the water, a dove flew right out into the courtyard. It flapped its wings and actually soared over the basin of holy water, while all of us vigorously sang: “When Thou, O Lord, west baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness unto Thee, calling Thee the beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed His word as sure and steadfast …” I was amazed, as I had never seen such a service with a live dove hovering over this holiness.

The sight was unforgettable. St. John stood there with lifted hands, holding a huge golden Cross high above his mitered head, and the bird flew high about the building next door, and then with a swift graceful glide descended upon the Saint and sat on his shoulder. Then, loudly flapping its wings, it flew way up into the air, only to descend again, to the utter joy of all there, and it did this several times. St. John, apparently oblivious to the bird’s spectacular maneuvers, continued deep in prayer. It seemed so natural, as if it were all a standard part of the holy ceremony. A similar event occurred in the life of St. Basil the Great, when a dove was seen by St. Ephraim the Syrian to be whispering holy words into St. Basil’s ear.

After the service I was invited to drink a lot of the water inside St. Tikhon’s Orphanage, and to partake of tasty treats. Archbishop John was there, and the bird was outside the window on his ledge, apparently feeding. There I learned the following touching story of Archbishop John’s “heavenly bird.”

Once Archbishop John came home to discover that a pigeon was hurt, his wing was damaged, and was sitting outside the window. He opened the window and let it in. The bird could barely flutter, and Archbishop John bound its wing and fed it. That was enough to make it feel adopted. The bird stayed around, especially when the Saint would arrive and would feed it.

Actually it remained a mystery how both of them conversed. But one thing we knew: the pigeon reacted to the words of St. John as if it understood what he said. I was told that both of them would sit facing each other, the man softly speaking and the bird making its pigeon sounds in agreement and peacefully walking to and fro, as if memorizing what it was taught. This company Archbishop John kept for a long time, until his death. The pigeon lived on that window ledge and would often fly around in the kitchen and the main visiting room, and in the little corner office of Mrs. Shakmatova in the northwestern corner of the house. I saw the bird fly around, and wondered why they had no cage for it, as for a canary. But I was told, “It is Archbishop John’s friend and companion.” It was a friendly bird, often eating from his hands.

Once I came and saw Archbishop John sitting silently next to the window, his head in his hand, thinking, watching the bird; and the bird was sick. I never learned what was the matter, but there was silent contact between the dove of the Baptism of the Lord and John its “Baptist.” (The altar boys said that, by sprinkling the bird during the blessing of the water, Archbishop John had baptized the pigeon, and that it was a “baptized” bird.) Mrs. Shakmatova later told me that the bird was a sort of messenger of mysteries for Blessed John, but I never pried for an explanation. On the day Archbishop John died, the bird began to pace the window and flutter in agony, as if knowing about its master.

Archbishop John blessing a garden.

One frequenter of St. Tikhon’s Orphanage wrote: “We all learned to love that little friendly bird, who became a close friend to man. It never flew too far from the house and never chased other birds, as if its little heart sought warmth from people; and it had no greater joy than to fly into the house and sit quietly on some corner of an armchair. Often when Archbishop John would drink coffee in the kitchen, the bird would knock at the window pane begging to be let in and then it would sit on the Saint’s shoulder and watch his hands as he blessed the bird.

“When the death knell announced the earthly end of Archbishop John, the bird was frantic. It fluttered in agony, missing the Saint, and its little heart also stopped a few months afterwards, to our deep sorrow.

“I remember how someone said firmly that one should not cry over a bird, it is sinful. How harsh this resounded in my ears! Why is it a sin when a quiet sadness touches a heart over the loss of the little ones given to us by the Lord Himself to protect, who also are capable of giving us love. I remember Archbishop John’s words to me when I used to complain that in some cities birds are removed from the streets: ‘Yes, now throughout the whole world, attacks are carried out against all living beings that surround us.’”

At that time there was a veritable persecution of pigeons in San Francisco, due to the assumption that they carried some disease, and hundreds of them were poisoned or shot. I do not know these details. But I do remember vividly the beautiful white-feathered creature flying about the little bent-down figure of the precious Saint, who not only loved this God-sent bird, but had some mystical contact with it. The bird appeared in his life when he endured the greatest of his earthly trials; it forbade his ascent to the other world, and some other mysteries I was told about. That feathered little creature of God was sent as a consolation to the sorrowing man of God, rendering him greater solace than men could do, who at that time were inflicting upon him his greatest pain. Men who hate men cannot understand how animals could be truly God-sent consolers.

A spiritual daughter of Archbishop John, Olga Skopichenko, recalling this dove, even wrote a lovely poem, in which she hinted that the appearance of the bird, damaged by cruel men, was for our Saint a little window through which he gazed into heaven.

Note: This story is the basis of an enjoyable children’s book on the life of St John, Saint John and Goolya, by Tamara Zaharek and Lydia Ionin.

Time travel: Tsarist Russia

St Nil Monastery, Tver

A friend recently reminded me of this amazing collection of color photos taken throughout the Russian Empire in the first decade of the twentieth century — decades before the development of color film. Sergei Prokhudin-Gorsky developed a technique that made three images, each through a different color filter, on a black-and-white photographic plate. When the images were recombined, also using color filters, a color image could be projected.

Tsar Nicholas II commissioned Prokhudin-Gorsky to travel throughout the Empire and make a photographic record of its diversity. The photos — of monasteries, mosques, peasants at work, Turkic chieftans — give a poignant view of the rich world that was lost in the revolution that soon swept away Imperial Russia.

The image of the beautiful St Nil Monastery illustrates a fascinating cycle in Russian history. St Nil Sorsky was the best-known spokesman for a monastic party called the “Non-possessors,” who believed that  monks should live in great simplicity and that monasteries should own a bare minimum of property. Yet after his death his monastery eventually became the elegant structure shown here.

Russian Peasant Girls, about 1910

This process repeated itself in many places: a single monk, or a small band, would retreat to an isolated spot to live in seclusion and uninterrupted prayer. In time, others would join them, then a settlement would spring up when Russian laymen sought to be near the holy site. In time there would be a new town with a “proper” monastery. Sometimes at this point a few monks would set off from there into the wilderness to seek greater peace and deeper prayer, and the cycle would begin again. Thus was “Holy Russia” built.

I’m grateful to the Library of Congress, whose researchers did the hard work of digitally reconstructing these photos from the original plates. They’ve given us a kind of time machine to visit a world that we never imagined we could see this vividly.

All the financial advice we need

Righteous Joachim and Anna, parents of the Most Holy Theotokos

Of the Righteous Joachim and Anna:

They lived devoutly and quietly,
and of all their income they spent one third on themselves,
distributed one third to the poor
and gave the other third to the Temple,
and they were well provided for.
— St Nikolai Velimirovich, Prologue from Ochrid for September 9

Joy of all who sorrow

Some of the Church’s wonder-working icons are honored in much the same way as Saints: they have feast days, are commemorated in the Synaxarion, and may have churches dedicated to them.

One of these is the “Joy of All Who Sorrow” Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. The original seems to have appeared in medieval Russia, and was kept at the Pochaev Monastery in Ukraine. Various copies and versions, several of them also wonderworking, spread through Russia.

The OrthodoxWiki article on the Icon describes it thus:

The design of this icon depicts the Theotokos, a most beautiful blossom of heaven, standing among the flowers of paradise. Her Son is visible above her in the clouds, the King of heaven and earth. Along both sides of the icon, framing the Mother of God, are suppliants (us), asking for her intercession. She stands with her arms spread open and her head tilted as if listening. The tenderness and kindness of a loving mother are evident in her face. She stands in paradise and yet among us.

The image shown here is an English-language “translation” of the Russian original at San Francisco’s Holy Virgin “Joy of All Who Sorrow” Cathedral, where the relics of St John Maximovitch are enshrined.

Here is the text (slightly modernized) of the icon. Each phrase is accompanied by an image of suppliants asking the Virgin to intercede for their various sorrows.

The Most Holy Theotokos — The Joy of All Who Sorrow

You who are being persecuted and are in exile and in prison, who are hungry and naked and thirsty, rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for behold, all is given life and comfort.

To the aged you are  a staff, a succor and a comfort, O Lady.

Visit those who are aged and ailing, and have mercy on them, O Mother of God on high.

Upon those who are naked and cold, have mercy.

Be a covering, O Lady, for those who are naked with the nakedness of unbelief.

O Lady, you are the healing of the sick and the deliverance from every illness.

O Virgin Theotokos and Lady, you are our hope and comfort in illness.

To all who sorrow and are downtrodden, who are hungry and thirsty, who are strangers and aged, who are poor and suffering, you are a comfort, protection & intercession.

You are the joy of those who sorrow and the defender of the downtrodden.

Change our sorrow into joy, O Lady, for we are greatly sorrowful.

You are a provider for the hungry, and for those in all sorrow and want.

Look down upon us, O Lady, as you are merciful, and guide and nourish us.

O Lady, comfort of the wandering,  comfort us.

As we travel, O Lady, be our companion.

Pastoral care: not always pretty

St Arsenios of Cappadocia

Recently I read Elder Païsios’  life of  Saint Arsenios of Cappadocia, who lived among the persecuted Greeks in Eastern Turkey in the last days of the Ottoman empire. I was struck by this strange story of one of the Saint’s miracles, a jarring reminder that Divine love and divine care are not always what we imagine.

When Father Arsenios had gone to the Holy Land for the fifth time, a woman by the name of Sophia got into his cell through the window, not to steal anything, but for revenge, because he had been very strict with her about some nasty things she had done in her life.

While her husband, who was with her, waited outside, Sophia got inside and turned the whole place upside down and knocked everything over he had in his cell, even the Crosses and Gospels. In fact, they say she even evacuated her bowels on the sheepskin on which Father Arsenios used to kneel and pray before his icon-stand.

So when Father Arsenios returned from his pilgrimage and saw all this, he felt sorry for that poor soul, and repeatedly invited her to go and see him, but she paid no attention. Finally the President [of the town] went and fetched her and presented her in front of Hadjiefendis, who, when he saw her, said to her:

“What was that you did? Not even an impious Turk would have done that, throwing the Gospels and the Crosses on the ground.”

But Sophia, unfortunately, instead of repenting and asking forgiveness started using bad language and swore at Father Arsenios shamelessly.

Then he said to her:

“You’d do better to have no brain at all that the one you’ve got, child, because that one will see you in hell. So I’m going to beg Christ to take it away from you, so at least you’ll be judged as a madwoman, and in that way your soul will be saved.”

And, indeed, from that very moment, Sophia lost her mind, and from the wild beast she had been, she became like a baby, a little child with no harm in her, smiling innocently all the time. She lived for a number of years here in Greece, too.

This is known to all the Farasiotes, only that some have misunderstood Father Arsenios, because they thought he had cursed her. But the way the President told me, and the others, and the way I see it myself, he not only did not curse her, but in this way actually blessed her and assured her entry into Paradise, because only sheep go there, not wild goats. This was the opinion of the serious-minded Farasiotes, that in this way Hadjiefendis saved Sophia.

— Elder Païsios, Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian, pp 124–125

Source of icon image: Full of Grace and Truth blog.

Note: “Hadjiefendis” is a Turkish title, meaning roughly “honored pilgrim,” by which St Arsenios was known among his people. He often healed the ailments not only of his Christian flock, but of many Muslim Turks who came to him for prayer.


In our travels up and down our stretch of the Ohio river (between Bridgeport OH and Steubenville OH) we recently spotted an amazing thing. Along an especially grim stretch of industrial landscape that includes a large coal-burning power plant, we saw a large bird’s nest, several feet across,  atop one of the many towers that support the electrical power lines that radiate from the plant. We wondered if the large, hawk-like birds in the nest might be bald eagles, but soon decided they were ospreys, big raptors that feed almost exclusively on fish.

Some online research yielded this short video of a couple of ospreys in the nest, with a beautiful view of one osprey landing with a fish in its talons. Apparently the nest was established in 1995 — at which time it was home to the only known ospreys in Ohio — and has been in use ever since.

It’s especially good to see these imposing birds so visibly re-establishing the natural in the midst of a landscape of coal, concrete, steel and electricity.

What is a merciful heart?

What is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.

— St Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homilies, Homily 71