From September 15 until the Leavetaking, we sing “O come, let us worship and fall down before Christ. O son of God crucified in the flesh, save us who sing to Thee: Alleluia” at weekday Liturgies following the Little Entrance.
Saint Eumenius from the time of his youth was noted for his virtuous life. He strove to serve the One God and therefore he shunned worldly temptations. Concerned for the salvation of his soul, he distributed all his substance to the poor.
By the blessing of God Saint Eumenius was chosen as Bishop of Gortyna on the island of Crete. The saint, like a compassionate father, comforted his flock in their sorrows, and cared for the orphaned and indigent. His prayers were so strong before God that once, during a drought, he called forth abundant rain upon the earth.
Saint Eumenius wisely and zealously defended the Orthodox Faith against the Monophysite heresy. For his opposition to the heresy the saint was banished to the Thebaid, where he died in the seventh century. His body was then transferred and buried in Gortyna.
The Holy Martyr Ariadne was a servant of Tertillos, a city official of Promyssia (Phrygia) during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-161). Once, when on the occasion of the birth of a son, the master made a sacrificial offering to the pagan gods, the Christian Ariadne refused to participate in the impious ceremony.
They subjected her to beatings and lacerated her body with sharp iron hooks. Then they threw the martyr into prison and for a long while they exhausted her with hunger, demanding that she worship their gods.
When they released the saint from prison, she left the city, but Tertillos sent pursuers after her. Seeing that they were chasing her, she ran, calling out to God to defend her from her enemies. Suddenly, through her prayers, a fissure opened in the mountain, and Saint Ariadne hid in it. This miracle brought the pursuers into confusion and fear. In their depravity of mind they began to strike one another with spears.
Saint Sophia endured martyrdom with Saints Castor and Irene in Alexandria.
In the 17th century the Persian aggressors razed churches, monasteries, and fortresses and drove out thousands of Georgian families to resettle them in remote provinces of Persia. The deserted territories were settled by Turkic tribes from Central Asia. In the chronicle The Life of Kartli it is written: “The name of Christ was not allowed to be uttered, except in a handful of mountainous regions: Tusheti, Pshavi, and Khevsureti.”
But the All-merciful Lord aroused a strong desire in the valiant prince Bidzina Choloqashvili of Kakheti and, together with Shalva and his uncle Elizbar, princes of Aragvi and Ksani provinces, he led a struggle to liberate Kakheti from the Tatars. (The Persian governor of Kakheti, Salim Khan (1656-1664), had been encouraging the Tatar tribesmen to profane the Christian churches.)
Fearing that the enemy, who had already conquered Kakheti, would soon move in and also dominate Kartli, the princes Bidzina, Shalva, and Elizbar united the forces of those two regions in preparation for the attack.
After much deliberation, Bidzina announced his intention to his father-in-law, Prince Zaal of Aragvi. Zaal’s soul was spiritually pained by the countless misfortunes and injustices his country had suffered, and he quickly pledged his support for the effort. He agreed to participate in the insurrection anonymously, while the Ksani rulers Shalva and Elizbar would command the armies.
On the moonless night of September 15, 1659, the feast of the Alaverdi Church (The feast of Saint Joseph of Alaverdi) the united army of all eastern Georgia assembled and crossed over the mountains, past the village of Akhmeta, and launched a surprise attack on the Persians from Bakhtrioni Fortress and Alaverdi Church. The invader’s armies were so utterly crushed that their leader, Salim Khan, the Persian governor of Kakheti, barely succeeded in escaping from the avengers, after he had abandoned his family and army.
The victorious Georgian army offered prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord God and Great-martyr George, the protector of the Georgian people, who had appeared visibly to all during the battle, riding his white horse like a flash of lightning and leading the Georgians to victory.
The joy was great but short lived. The furious Shah Abbas II (1642-1667) ordered King Vakhtang V of Kartli (1658-1675) to deliver to him those who had instigated the insurrection.
Certain that they would receive no mercy from the shah, Georgia’s heroic liberators nevertheless set out for Persia without complaint. The shah received them with respect and generously bestowed gifts upon them, but then demanded that they renounce the Christian Faith. Neither bribery nor flattery would break their will, so the shah ordered his servants to arrest and torture them, strip off their clothing, and cast them, bound, under the blazing sun. Tormented by thirst and insect stings, the martyrs were periodically tempted to renounce Christ, but with God’s help they resisted every temptation.
Finally the enraged Salim Khan, the vassal of Shah Abbas, ordered the beheading of Elizbar and Shalva, hoping by this to break Bidzina’s resolve. But his efforts were in vain. “There is nothing sweeter than death for Christ’s sake!” Bidzina proclaimed.
The Ksani princes calmly bowed their heads, but the undersized executioners could not reach the stately princes with their swords. So the shah’s henchmen hacked each of the princes in two at the shins, then decapitated them after they had fallen to an accessible height.
But even the murder of his companions would not cause Saint Bidzina’s will to waver. So the enemies resolved to break his will by mockery. They draped the bound prince in a chadar (the veil worn by Muslim women), seated him on a donkey, and paraded him through the streets. Then they began to butcher him alive. One by one they cut off his fingers and toes, then they chopped off his hands and feet, then his arms and legs, until only his head remained unharmed. It was clear from the movement of his lips that the holy martyr was praying.
Then one of the persecutors pierced his heart with a spear. This happened in the year 1661. The mutilated bodies of the holy martyrs remained under the open sky for one day, and no one was permitted to go near them. During the night they were illumined by a brilliant light.
Then a group of Christians secretly buried the saints’ remains. Several years later Saint Shalva’s wife Ketevan and son David sent several of the faithful to Persia to bring back their relics. Crowds of believers gathered at the Kartli border to meet the holy relics and accompany them with hymns of rejoicing to their final resting place at the Ikorta Church of the Archangels.
The Staro Rus Icon of the Mother of God was so named because for a long time it was in Staro Rus, where it had been brought by the Greeks from Olviopolis during the very first period of Christianity in Russia. The icon was in Staro Rus until the seventeenth century. In 1655 during a plague it was revealed to a certain inhabitant of the city of Tikhvin that the pestilence would cease if the wonderworking Staro Rus Icon were transferred there, and the Tikhvin Icon sent to Staro Rus.
After the transfer of the icons the plague ceased, but the people of Tikhvin did not return the icon and only in the eighteenth century did they give permission to make a copy of the Staro Rus Icon, which on May 4, 1768 was sent to Stara Russa. A feast was established in honor of this event. On September 17, 1888 the original was also returned to Staro Rus and a second Feast day established.
The original icon known as “Tselitel’nitsa,” or “The Healer” was from the Tsilkan church in Kartali, Georgia. It was painted at the time of Saint Nino (January 14).
There is another icon with the same name in the Alexeev women’s monastery in Moscow, and many miracles took place before it at the end of the eightheenth century. Saint Demetrius of Rostov (September 21 and October 28) relates a story about this icon in his book THE BEDEWED FLEECE.
A cleric of the Navarninsky church, Vincent Bulvinensky, was in the habit of venerating the icon of the Mother of God whenever he entered the church. He would also recite the following prayer before the icon: “Hail, Virgin Theotokos full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed is the womb which bore Christ, and the breasts which nourished the Lord God, our Savior.”
In time, he found himself suffering from a dreadful affliction. His tongue began to putrefy, and he passed out from the pain. When he came to himself, he prayed his usual prayer to the Most Holy Theotokos.
As soon as he had finished his prayer, he saw a handsome young man at the head of his bed. The sufferer realized at once that this was his guardian angel. The angel looked at him with pity, calling on the Mother of God to heal him. Suddenly, the Theotokos appeared and healed the sick man who was so devoted to Her. He got out of bed and went to church, taking his place on the cliros for the service. Those present were astonished to see his recovery.
This miracle inspired the painting of “The Healer” icon depicting the Mother of God standing at the bed of the sick man.
Saint Euphrosyne of Suzdal was born in 1212. Although she was a princess, she entered a women’s monastery in Suzdal, where she was tonsured with the name Euphrosyne, in honor of Saint Euphrosyne of Alexandria (September 25).
After her death on September 25, 1250, many miracles took place at her grave. Believers were healed of various infirmities, and their prayers were answered.
On September 18, 1698, with the blessing of Patriarch Adrian, Metropolitan Hilarion of Suzdal glorified the nun Euphrosyne as a saint.
On the night of Pascha, April 8-9, 1805, Saint Hilarion (Ponamarov) was born in Kluch, the third son of Nikita and Euphemia Ponamarov, who named him Rodion in honor of Saint Herodion of the Seventy. He always considered April 8, the day of his patron saint’s commemoration, as his birthday. After Rodion, a son and a daughter were born to the Ponamarovs. The daughter, however, died as a baby.
Nikita Ponamarov worked in town as a tailor, and sometimes his business took him to the homes of the local landowners. Consequently, Rodion seldom saw his father until he was fifteen years old.
Rodion was a quiet, uncoordinated child who did not play much with other children, since they made fun of his clumsiness. Even members of his own family behaved in a rude manner toward him, and seldom showed him any affection. The way he was treated made him thoughtful and introspective.
One winter he was playing in the snow with some friends, using an old board as a sled. The board broke and left Rodion with a permanent scar on the finger of his left hand. Another time he injured himself on a saddle-horn while riding. These injuries also had an effect on his health, which was never robust.
The family moved to the Novopersk region of Voronezh in 1820, and Rodion lived there until he was twenty. He helped his father in his work, and gradually acquired skill as a tailor. His parents wanted him to follow this trade, even though his mother once foretold that he would be a monk. Rodion himself desired the monastic life even as a young child, but now he applied himself to tailoring, for he knew that this handicraft would be very useful in the monastery.
Rodion went to Moscow in December of 1825 in order to learn more about being a tailor, arriving with very little money, and with nowhere to stay. He worked with various tailors, but the work was difficult and he became ill. His poor health, he said in later life, probably saved him from falling into many vices. Having increased his proficiency as a tailor, Rodion left Moscow and returned home.
The family moved again in 1829, this time to Saratov. Rodion was engaged twice, but the Lord did not want him to follow this path. His first fiancée died after a short illness, and Rodion simply lost interest in the second.
Saratov was the home to many sectarians of all sorts, and the future saint became involved with certain activists who tried to refute their false teachings. Rodion’s missionary labors may have influenced many sectarians to return to the Orthodox Church. Because of some misunderstanding, however, Rodion and his friends were put on trial. As a result, the authorities kept Rodion under observation for the next four years. This scrutiny was hard for him to endure, and made it very difficult for him to conduct his affairs.
Through his study of the Holy Scripture and the writings of the holy Fathers, Rodion’s desire to become a monk was reawakened. Therefore, he decided to find the monastery which was most suitable for him. In 1837 and 1838 Rodion visited monasteries at Sarov, Suzdal, Rostov, Tikhvin, Moscow, Pochaev, and other places. Finally, he arrived before the gates of Optina. He was thirty-four years old.
At first, Rodion was placed in a cell next to Father Barlaam, a retired igumen of Valaam Monastery. Father Barlaam was a man of great spiritual stature, who had a profound influence on the young man, and became his first instructor in the Jesus Prayer. In later years, Elder Hilarion recalled visiting Father Barlaam to tell him of the various things he had seen or heard. Father Barlaam would ask, “Is that useful? It would be better for you not to see or hear anything. Try to examine your thoughts and your heart more often.” With his wise counsel, Father Barlaam helped Rodion in his spiritual growth as a monk.
Saint Anthony (August 7), the Superior of the Skete, was transferred to Maloyaroslavets on December 1, 1839. He was replaced by Saint Macarius (September 7), the monastery’s confessor. Rodion was assigned to be his cell attendant, remaining in this obedience until the Elder’s death in 1860. Rodion went to Father Macarius for Confession, and to Saint Leonid (October 11) for the daily revelation of his thoughts. In an effort to cleanse himself of the passions, Rodion renounced his own will and obeyed Elder Macarius in all things.
Father Macarius was very strict with the novices, and would not permit the slightest disobedience. He was never the first to bring up a person’s failures and shortcomings, but waited for him to confess his own negligence. He taught the novices to love their neighbor, and to bear their afflictions with patience.
From the time Rodion came to Optina, he had other obediences in addition to serving as cell attendant to Father Macarius. He also tended the flower and vegetable gardens, and worked as a baker, and a bee-keeper. He carried out every task assigned him without complaint.
While his spiritual progress was hidden from men, it was certainly noticed by the all-seeing God. In due course, he received the monastic tonsure and was given the name Hilarion. Father Macarius recognized his disciple’s spiritual maturity, and predicted that he and Saint Ambrose (October 10) would succeed him as Elders after his death. Elder Macarius therefore entrusted Father Hilarion and Father Ambrose with giving counsel to his many spiritual children.
As the closest disciple of Saint Macarius, Father Hilarion was chosen to be Superior of the Skete, and the monastery’s Father Confessor. He confessed all the brethren entrusted to him five times a year, once during each of the Fasts, and twice during Great Lent. Each monk was questioned about the details of his inner life, and was given advice on how to conduct himself in future. Once he finished hearing the Confession of the monks, Father Hilarion began confessing the nuns, and the men and women who came to him from various places. Although there were many people, Father Hilarion never refused anyone. He rarely gave his own opinion, but quoted from the Scriptures or the writings of the Fathers. Sometimes, he would tell people what Father Macarius had said in similar situations. He was very effective in giving advice, because he always practiced what he preached, and he had already experienced the things that were troubling his spiritual children.
The Elder led people to feel sorrow for their sins, and through his questions he brought them to an awareness of their spiritual state. Sometimes he would help them to remember sins which they had forgotten to confess, sins which might lie at the root of their spiritual infirmity. He gave penances according to a person’s age, health, and circumstances. He might require the penitent to read certain prayers, do prostrations, give alms, and to avoid those habits and amusements which are not fitting for a Christian. Many people received much benefit from confessing to him, and continued to live according to the advice he had given them. Not only were they cured of their spiritual afflictions, but sometimes Father Hilarion also healed them of their physical or mental illness as well.
Father Hilarion, by God’s providence, became seriously ill for two years. All during that time he did not ask God to let him recover. Instead, he asked to be given the patience to help him bear the illness. He received Holy Communion frequently, and twice he was given Holy Unction.
During the last thirty-three days of his life, Father Hilarion partook of the life-giving Mysteries of Christ every day. In the last four weeks of his life, the Elder was unable to lie down in bed because of water in his lungs. Therefore, he remained seated on a couch in front of a portrait of Father Macarius. He experienced great discomfort, and was not able to sleep very well.
Father Hilarion observed the cell rule of prayer until the last moments of his life. Early on the morning of September 18, 1873 he listened to the morning rule being read, and received Holy Communion at 1:00 A.M. Five hours later, he rested from his labors and gave his soul into the hands of God.
It is said that during Father Hilarion’s final illness, Saint Macarius appeared to him many times in his dreams. As he drew closer to death, these appearances became more frequent. He died with his prayer rope in his hands, and was buried next to his beloved Elder, Saint Macarius.
The Moscow Patriarchate authorized local veneration of the Optina Elders on June 13,1996. The work of uncovering the relics of Saints Leonid, Macarius, Hilarion, Ambrose, Anatole I, Barsanuphius and Anatole II began on June 24/July 7, 1998 and was concluded the next day. However, because of the church Feasts (Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, etc.) associated with the actual dates of the uncovering of the relics, Patriarch Alexey II designated June 27/July 10 as the date for commemorating this event. The relics of the holy Elders now rest in the new church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God.
The Optina Elders were glorified by the Moscow Patriarchate for universal veneration on August 7, 2000.