17 January 2009

Two Saints of Hilandar Monastery

Today, 4 January on the Old Calendar, the Serbian Church commemorates St Eustathius (Јевстатије) I, Archbishop of the Serbs, and the Venerable Martyr Onuphrius of Hilandar Monastery. Born in 1230, St Eustathius was tonsured at a very young age in Montenegro and quickly attained a very high spiritual state. Fr Daniel Rogich writes that he went to the monastery at the age of fourteen, and—

Spending his days and nights in prayer, fasting and vigil, the young izkushenik (novice, or literally ‘one who is being tested’) rapidly became known as a virtuous ascetic and devout Christian. As a matter of fact within a short period of time he was received into the monastic ranks and, due to his great ascetic feats, was allowed to live in hesychia and silence in a cell away from the monastic community. (Fr Daniel Rogich, Serbian Patericon: Saints of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Vol. I, January-April [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994], p. 34)

After praying for an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, two monks he had never seen before came to St Eustathius and said the Lord had sent them to accompany him. St Eustathius spent about a year in the Holy Land, and rather than returning to his former monastery, he went to Hilandar, where he was eventually made abbot. According to Slavko Todorovich, in his study, The Chilandarians, ‘Medieval chronicle’s [sic] often referred to Hegumen Jevstatije, i.e., when ascertaining the time frame of an event (‘at the time of Hegumen Jevstatije’). Also they often pointed to his journey to Jerusalem (‘before’ or ‘after’ Jevstatije’s journey to Jerusalem)’ (The Chilandarians: Serbian Monks on the Green Mountain [Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, 1989], p. 60).

His fame as abbot of Hilandar led to St Eustathius being made Bishop of Zeta against his will in 1270, and Archbishop of Serbia in 1279. After pastoring the nation for 7 years, St Eustathius became ill. Surrounded by bishops, priests, monastics, and laymen mourning his eminent passing, he said, ‘Thou alone, O God of gods and Lord of lords, knowest the end of my life; into Thy hands I commend my spirit!’ He reposed on 4 January 1286, and many wonders and miraculous dreams, as well as a holy fragrance, accompanied his passing (Fr Rogich, pp. 36-8). According to Todorovich:

Jevstatije’s presence in Serbia coincided with one of the most decisive periods in the history of the nation. The country’s situation had improved considerably, as King Milutin (1282-1321) . . . was successfully advancing the cause of Serbia. The new King had catapulted Serbia into the orbit of dominance in Balkan politics. Jevstatije was the one who had talked the older brother (King Dragutin) into abdicating [!] in favor of Milutin. This was a decision of great salutary effect. (Todorovich, p. 60)

St Onuphrius the New Martyr was born in Trnovo, Bulgaria, in 1785, and baptised ‘Matthew’. Although his parents tried to raise him as a good Christian, he was a rebellious teenager and began hanging out with Turkish boys, even going so far as to tell one that he was thinking of becoming a Muslim. Thanks to God, through the prayers and love of his parents, he was saved from such a great fall, and after finishing school, became a monk at Hilandar, taking the name ‘Manasia’.

But, according to the experiential teaching of the Holy Fathers, the closer one approaches the Lord, the more one sees his own sins; and, to the God-fearing ascetic, the most minute sin or flaw in character is as a huge abyss between him and his Lord. Thus, Manasia, constantly examining and guarding his soul, was pierced by his past youthful fall, that is, his rejection of Christ the Lord when he was a teenager. His heart was convicted each time he heard the words of the Savior, ‘So everyone who acknowledges me before, men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in Heaven; but whoever rejects me before men, I also will reject before my Father who is in Heaven’ (Matt 10:32-33). . . . In his heart stirred the notion that he would only be purified when he acknowledged and confessed his faith in the Lord Jesus before unbelievers. Thus, Manasia decided to vindicate his rejection of Christ by going before the Turkish authorities and confessing Him; and he understood that for him this would result in nothing less than death! (Fr Rogich, pp. 42, 43)

Not trusting in his own will, however, St Onuphrius visited his spiritual father, Elder Nicephorus, who lived in a skete in the woods outside of Hilandar. The elder told him that he approved of his desire, but that he should keep it a secret and spend his time warring against the passions in order to prepare for the coming contest. Elder Nicephorus allowed the Martyr to live in his own cell alone for four months, wherein St Onuphrius practiced the strictest asceticism and was given ‘the gifts of tears and of unceasing prayer in his mind [nous], which was now firmly rooted in his heart’ (Fr Rogich, p. 44). The elder tonsured him to the Great Angelic Schema with the name ‘Onuphrius’, and the ‘entire brotherhood’ of the monastery gave him a blessing to go to Chios, accompanied by Elder Gregory, an experienced trainer of martyrs, to suffer death for the Lord.

On Chios, St Onuphrius experienced a number of spiritual temptations as he prepared for his trial, but by the grace of God he overcame them, and at last Elder Gregory deemed him ready. On the night before his death, St Onuphrius spent the whole night in prayer and received the Mysteries at the Liturgy the next morning. The elder then shaved his beard and dressed him in Turkish clothes. St Onuphrius went before the Judge and said—

‘As a youth, in my lack of understanding, I rejected the Orthodox Christian faith before your fellow Moslems. But I never followed the Muslim religion at any time, as I have kept the faith of the Orthodox Church and have fulfilled her commandments. Yet, upon growing to maturity, this fall of mind pricked my heart and has constantly afflicted my soul with deep pain and sorrow. I have visited many places in the world hoping to heal my soul, but to no avail, as my repentance has never granted me total peace. Therefore, I curse your religion with your false prophet Mohammed, and confess before all of you that I am an Orthodox Christian.’ (Fr Rogich, pp. 48-9)

St Onuphrius spent a short time in prison with some other Christians, but he was afraid of falling into pride and would only tell them that he was named ‘Matthew’ and was from Trnovo. Then, 3 pm on Friday, 4 January 1818, ‘the same hour and week day’ that our Lord suffered and died, and at the same age as our Lord, 33 years, St Onuphrius was beheaded and his body cast into the sea. His ‘pure and undefiled soul ascended to the Heavenly Mansions where a place of honor had been prepared for him’ (Fr Rogich, p. 50). Fr Rogich concludes his account of the Martyr:

O Holy Venerable Martyr Onuphrius, thou wast privileged to demonstrate and reveal that true martyrdom begins at ‘home’, with the slaying of our own passions and inordinate desires. We beg thee, All-Virtuous one, pray to Christ our true God that we, most miserable sinners, may also witness to His Saving Passion and Bounteous Resurrection by our humility of mind and meekness of heart, being made worthy to inherit His Eternal Crown of Glory, to Whom belongs glory, honor and worship, together with His Unoriginate Father and His Life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. (Fr Rogich, p. 50)

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