|7:00pm||- Deacon's Mass/Silent Prayer|
|7:00pm||- Deacon's Mass/Silent Prayer|
|7:00pm||- Deacon's Mass/Silent Prayer|
Two hundred years after St. Anthony followed the Gospel admonition to sell all that he had and follow Christ to a life of asceticism in the Egyptian desert, another was born whose decision to lead this same life has had a lasting influence through all the centuries since then.
Twins Benedict and Scholastica were born in 480 in the town of Nursia to Christian parents. The world they were born into was crumbling: the Church was suffering from the heresy of the Arians; the Western part of the Roman Empire had been overrun by barbarian tribes, leaving the great monuments in ruins and the people terrified; there was no order in society. When Benedict was sent to Rome to complete his formal education, he saw more of this troubled world and decided to abandon it in order to save his soul. Leaving Rome, he settled in a cave near the town of Subiaco, where he lived in complete solitude until a monk from a nearby monastery began bringing him bread in a basket (which Benedict retrieved by pulling a rope). During three years in this cave, Benedict fought with many temptations, as had St. Anthony before him.
Before long, local shepherds and others who had heard of Benedict came to seek his counsel, and the hermit lost his solitude. When the abbot of the monastery in Vicovaro died, the monks there asked Benedict to join them as their abbot. At first, he refused, but eventually went with them to begin communal monastic life. The new abbot’s strict life of prayer and fasting proved to be too severe for these monks, and they tried to rid themselves of him by offering him poisoned wine. When Benedict made the sign of the Cross over the bottle, it shattered and the wine spilled, sparing the life of this man for whom God had much planned. Benedict returned to the safety of his cave, but he was never again able to live in complete solitude.
Others came, seeking to be disciples of the monk, so Benedict, following what he knew must be God’s will, found it necessary to organize communities of monks. He established twelve monasteries – each with twelve monks and a prior – who lived, prayed, and worked together, each striving for sanctification within the society of his fellow seekers.
As with all endeavors involving sinful men, there were jealousies, slanders against Benedict, and further attempts to poison him. So he left this area and moved to Monte Cassino (near Naples), where his most famous monastery was founded and where he was abbot for fourteen years. Here the Rule – or way of life – which Benedict formulated was established and proved to be of lasting value. The Rule, which was based in part on other monastic systems, required that a monk take vows of stability, obedience, conversion of life. Thus, the monks of Monte Cassino were committed to their community for life, they led celibate lives of common prayer which excluded possession of private property, they studied Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, and they also worked with their hands and provided hospitality to guests. Abbot Benedict was loved by all the monks here and revered for his charity and his spiritual gifts of healing and “second sight”. The abbot was also fearless in rebuking sinful authority: he severely chastised Totila the Goth for his cruelty, so the barbarian reformed his practices and became known for clemency in his treatment of those he conquered.
St. Benedict, foreseeing his death, asked his monks to dig his grave beside that of his beloved sister, Scholastica (who had also lived the monastic life in a women’s monastery nearby and who had died forty days earlier). Six days later, the saint fell asleep in the Lord and was buried in the newly-dug grave, in the year 547 or 550. His last advice to his monks was, “Count nothing dearer to yourselves than Christ.”
St. Benedict’s influence was not widespread at first. As a lay monk, he was probably unknown beyond the few places he lived, and his Rule was written for the use of his monastery only. But God, in his eternal plan, intended for this way of life to be followed by others in many places and in many ages.
Less than forty years after St. Benedict’s death, invading Lombards sacked Monte Cassino and left the monastery in ruins. The monks were able to escape with their most precious remembrance of their Abbot – his original copy of the Rule, which they carried with them to Rome. There they settled on the Coelian Hill, in the Monastery of St. Andrew, founded by St. Gregory the Great. From this same monastery, in 597, St. Augustine and his fellow monks traveled to England to convert the Angles to Christianity, taking with them their knowledge of the Rule of St. Benedict. The Benedictine way of work and prayer, of studying and teaching, of hospitality, helped to re-create civilization where it had been destroyed; it brought order where there had been chaos; and it gradually became the standard way of life for monks all over the western world.
May we, like St. Benedict, accept God’s will for the direction of our lives even when we had something else in mind; may we always balance our lives with work and prayer; and may we “count nothing dearer to ourselves than Christ.” May our holy father, Benedict, pray for us.
[Sources: Every Man’s Book of Saints, by Brother Kenneth CGA; The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, by David Hugh Farmer; The Prologue from Ochrid, by Bishop Nicholai Velimirović; St. Benedict and Christianity in England, by Patrick Barry, OSB.]
The story of St. Cuthbert must be told in two remarkable chapters – one of his lifetime of holiness, and the other of the centuries following his death.
The son (born c. 634) of Anglo-Saxon Christian parents living in the north of England, Cuthbert experienced a miraculous occurrence while still a youth which determined the direction of his life. He was tending sheep in the hills when he witnessed the soul of St. Aidan, abbot of the monastery of Lindisfarne, being carried to heaven by the angels at his death in 651 in nearby Bamburgh. Cuthbert was so moved by this experience that he entered the monastery at Lindisfarne himself and began his life of prayer. He helped found and lead several other monasteries and was involved in missionary activity at a time when many local people were still pagan. Cuthbert was eventually appointed prior at Lindisfarne but, like many monks before and after him, his desire for the solitary life became stronger and stronger. In 676, he relinquished his position as prior and withdrew to Inner Farne, an almost deserted area where he could live as a hermit. But – as has also been true for other holy men and women – many people sought him out for spiritual guidance. Archbishop Theodore (the Greek Archbishop of Canterbury) appointed him bishop, and Cuthbert left the solitary life to devote himself to service to the people of his diocese. He was beloved by all for his teaching, preaching, and gift of healing. Cuthbert died, surrounded by his monks, on March 20, 687, and was buried at Lindisfarne. When, eleven years later, his casket was opened so that the bones could be placed in a more elaborate shrine, the monks found not bones, but an incorrupt body, which looked just as it had on the day of his death.
Incorruption has been taken as a special sign of the holiness of the person and has also usually been associated with miracles of healing. Instances of incorruption abound among the saints and still occur today (as in the case of newly-declared St. John Maximovitch, whose shrine is in San Francisco).
The next chapter of St. Cuthbert’s story begins in the year 875 when, after years of raiding and terrorizing, the invading pagan Danes destroyed Lindisfarne. A group of monks managed to escape with St. Cuthbert’s shrine and began traveling around northern England and southwestern Scotland looking for a safe place to settle. This “wandering in the wilderness” lasted for succeeding generations of monks for 120 years until, in 995, they finally discovered a rocky piece of land almost completely surrounded by a river – Durham. A Saxon-style church was built to house the shrine of the saint and to provide a place for pilgrims to venerate his relics.
After 1066, a new invader to England brought more changes, but the Norman conquerors built a massive new cathedral in Durham. When St. Cuthbert’s tomb was again opened in 1104 in preparation for placing his relics in a new shrine, the body was again found to be incorrupt. New vestments were placed on the body and the faithful again came to venerate the holy saint.
The next threat to St. Cuthbert’s shrine was on December 31, 1540, when Henry VIII’s royal commissioners were sent to confiscate all articles of precious material and to destroy religious shrines. The commissioners – who in other places had scattered the bones of saints – were amazed to discover the body of St. Cuthbert, lying on its side, completely vested as if about to begin Mass, with “his face bare and his beard as it had been, a fortnight’s growth”! Afraid to desecrate a body which was still intact 853 years after death, the commissioners sent back to London for instructions and were eventually told to simply rebury the body under the floor where the shrine had stood.
St. Cuthbert’s tomb was opened one more time – in 1828 – and this time only bones remained. The vestments and other liturgical articles were removed to be placed in a museum and the holy bones were buried again.
Today, St. Cuthbert’s relics are among the few of pre-Schism Orthodox saints which can be venerated in England. Durham Cathedral is still a beautiful temple, giving a place of honor to a faithful servant of God. St. Bede, in his History of the English Church and People (written less than 100 years after St. Cuthbert’s death), describes him as follows:
Like a good teacher, he taught others to do only what he first practiced himself. Above all else, he was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort.
Like so many saints who have stepped onto the world’s “stage” for a brief period and then disappeared from the records, St. Joseph is one about whom we have only the bare facts. He appears in Holy Scripture from prior to the birth of our Lord until the 12-year-old Jesus is found in the Temple. Then he disappears from the pages of history. God obviously had chosen Joseph for a particular role in the story of our salvation, he played his part with mercy and kindness, and then he is gone. As a devout Jew, Joseph had been waiting in expectation for the coming of the Messiah, and now, the part that he is asked to play in the coming of the Savior is of utmost importance in our salvation story.
The Church acknowledges that the most important thing which St. Joseph provided in these few years was his protection. The Blessed Virgin Mary was protected from shame and punishment; both Mary and the child Jesus were protected from cruel rulers; the truth about the God-man Jesus was protected from a too early revelation to the world; and above all, the fact that God had taken our form upon himself was hidden from the Evil One.
Among other important characteristics of St. Joseph, St. Matthew’s Gospel begins with his family lineage. Joseph was a descendant of David, the great King, and Jesus – as the adopted son of Joseph – inherits this honor but is a greater King. St. Luke’s Gospel fills in another detail of the story – that because of Joseph’s family connection to David, who was of the city of Bethlehem, he and Mary had to travel to that city to register in the census that was being taken and that is where the birth of Christ took place. This fulfilled one of the prophecies of old: And you, O Bethlehem, House of Ephrathah, though you are fewest in number among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the One to be ruler of Israel. [Micah 5:1]
St. Matthew also tells us that Joseph was a “just” man. But if he had been merely seeking justice, Joseph would have reported Mary’s pregnancy to the Jewish authorities and she could have been subjected to a severe and humiliating punishment. Instead, he showed mercy by deciding to seek a divorce privately in order to spare her such shame. But God intervened and sent one of his messengers – an angel – to assure Joseph that the child Mary was carrying was of the Holy Spirit and would save his people from their sins. [Matt. 1:21] Joseph, being not only a just and merciful man but also a devoutly religious man who believed the words of the angel, took Mary to be his wife.
Perhaps Joseph now realized his vocation as the protector of the Virgin Mary and her Child. He saved her and the Child when Herod the King, in jealous anger, had all Jewish boys under the age of two murdered. They fled to Egypt after Joseph received another message from an angel in a dream. This, too, fulfilled a prophecy: Out of Egypt I called My Son [Hosea 11:1]
When they were finally able to settle down as a family, it was in Nazareth to avoid being under another cruel ruler, Archelaus. This, too, was given to Joseph as a warning by an angel of God in a dream. It is presumed that Joseph pursued his occupation as a carpenter in Nazareth and taught his foster-son the trade. Hence, Jesus was ridiculed by those of his own hometown: Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary? [Mark 6:3a]
As the head of a good Jewish household, Joseph made certain that the requirements of the law were fulfilled. Jesus was circumcised and named on his eighth day and He was presented in the Temple forty days after His birth when Simeon and Anna proclaimed amazing things about this Child. Scripture says that both Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. [Luke 2:33] The family also traveled to Jerusalem for Passover and it was there, when Jesus was twelve years old that He stayed behind in the Temple when His parents left for home and, after three days, was found by them speaking with the religious leaders. We are told that they then returned to Nazareth where Christ was subject to them [Luke2:51].
How much we can learn from holy Joseph! By following his example, we can learn to listen for the voice of God in our hearts, giving us direction for our lives – direction that we, living in the ways of the world, would not think of. Whether we experience God’s direction through the dramatic appearance of an angel in a dream or by quietly praying, meditating, and listening, we should be like St. Joseph and believe that God has a plan for our lives and cares about the decisions and actions that we take.
We should also remember that we – members of Christ’s body, the Church – are in the same royal lineage as St. Joseph. We are inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; to King David and all who followed. We are the New Israel, partakers of the New Covenant. As such, we will not only seek justice but always show mercy; we will remember that God’s ways are greater than man’s and that God’s laws should always be interpreted through the love of Christ. If we look to St. Joseph for an example, we will observe the practices of our faith and teach our children to do so, and we will perform our earthly occupations with humility and patience.
Holy Tradition tells us that Joseph was an “old” man, a widower whose children with his first wife, Salome, are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” referred to in Matthew 13:55, 56 and Mark 6:3. His icon shows him holding the two turtle-doves which were offered at the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple and he is depicted in the Nativity icon being tempted by the Devil to doubt Mary’s virginity. Since the tenth century, March 19 has been observed as the feast day for St. Joseph in the West; on Eastern calendars, St. Joseph is honored with his ancestor, King David, on the Sunday following the Nativity or variously, December 16 or 26.
May St. Joseph the Betrothed – a just, righteous, and devout believer; the protector of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus – intercede for us. Holy Joseph, pray for us.
Sources: Orthodox Saints, Volume Four by George Poulos; Prologue From Ochrid, Part Four by St. Nikolai Velimirovic; The Orthodox Study Bible; article from Orthodox Wiki; article from the website of Fr. Serfes; pamphlet by Fr. Nicholas Solak, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary.