15 July 2009

'Fearless Defender of the True Faith'—St Stephen the Great of Moldavia

Today, 2 July, there is another Saint I’d like to mention—Saint Stephen the Great of Moldavia (1432-1504). The holy Hieromonk Jacob of Putna (15th c.) addressed him as, ‘The right-glorifying and beloved-of-Christ Stephen Voievode, by the mercy of God Prince of the Moldavian land, son of Bogdan Voievode’ (Archimandrite Ioanichie [Bălan], Romanian Patericon: Saints of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Vol. I [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996], p. 210). Archimandrite Ioanichie (Bălan) calls him the ‘greatest Voievode of the Romanian nation’ (Romanian Patericon, p. 179). Here is the assessment of Bishop Seraphim (Joantă), in Romania: Its Hesychast Tradition and Culture (Wildwood, CA: St Xenia Skete, 1992):

Stephen the Great is the greatest figure of Romanian history. The country being harassed and attacked incessantly by the Turks, he was able to defend its integrity and independence at the price of numerous sacrifices. The piety of Stephen can be judged by the number of monasteries he built: ‘forty-four’, says the chronicler Gregory Ureche. According to tradition, the pious Voevode built a monastery after every victory over the Turks. (p. 66, n. 33)

When St Stephen was just 19, his father, Prince Bogdan II of Moldavia, was murdered by the latter’s bastard half-brother, and St Stephen was forced to escape with his cousin, Vlad Dracula Ţepeş, ‘via the famous Borgo Pass’ (Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times [Boston: Back Bay, 1989], p. 66). After the latter had gained his father’s throne, that of Wallachia, in 1456, he helped his cousin, St Stephen to take his own father’s throne in the Moldavian capital of Suceava in 1457 (p. 83). Thus began a reign marked by nearly constant warfare, largely against the Muslim Turks pouring into Europe, but also by a flourishing of Moldavian culture manifested particularly in the monasteries that St Stephen built, widely considered some of the most beautiful in the world. In this he was guided by some of the holiest men of the Romanian lands. According to Fr Ioanichie:

This wise Metropolitan [Theoctistus I of Moldavia and Suceava] was the first counselor of Stephen the Great. When the land was threatened by war, Stephen took counsel with him before doing anything. And when the Prince left for battle, the Metropolitan commanded all the monks in the monasteries and all the hermits in the mountains to keep all-night vigils with fasting and prayer until the Voievode should return victorious to Suceava. And when by God’s allowance Stephen was defeated in battle (as he was at Războieni in 1476), Metropolitan Theoctistus with his clergy was the first to encourage him, pray for him, and urge him to not surrender the country. He also counseled Stephen the Great to erect a monastery after each battle as an offering of thanksgiving to God. The Great Prince built Putna Monastery (1466-1470) at his exhortation, and the Metropolitan himself consecrated it on September 3, 1470. At the Metropolitan’s request, Stephen entirely rebuilt Zographou Monastery on Mount Athos (1466-1475), and gave much help to other monasteries on Athos. (p. 181)

But St Stephen also maintained a very close relationship with a seemingly more unlikely figure—St Daniel the Hesychast (†1496), a hermit who lived in a cave in Moldavia. According to Fr Ioanichie, the future Prince visited St Daniel after the murder of his father, Prince Bogdan—

He remained there for several days, confessing his thoughts before the Saint and receiving from him the remission of his sins and many words of consolation. Stephen’s agitated soul became calm, and the great hesychast blessed him and prayed for him. Then he prophesied that he would soon become Prince of Moldavia, and dismissed him in peace. (p. 189)

The prophecy being fulfilled upon St Stephen accession to the throne in 1457, the love and devotion of the holy Prince toward the anchorite became even greater. Fr Ioanichie writes:

From that time the Saint became an important counselor of the Great Prince, and his spiritual father and intercessor with God. The Voievode often visited his cell, confessed his sins, asked him for a profitable word, and did nothing without his prayer and blessing. The Saint encouraged him and exhorted him to defend the country and Christianity against the pagans. Saint Daniel assured him that if he would build a church to the glory of Christ after every battle, he would be victorious in all his wars.

Stephen the Great obeyed him and defended the Church of Christ and the Moldavian land with great courage for nearly half a century after the fall of Byzantium. He won forty-seven battles and built forty-eight churches. (p. 189)

Here is the Troparion in Tone 1 for the Holy Prince, taken from Fr Ioanichie’s book, p. 180:

Fearless defender of the true faith and protector of the land of thy forefathers, great founder of holy churches and monasteries, O Prince Stephen, pray to Christ God to deliver us from our needs and sorrows.

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