Friday, 17 November 2017

Saint Hilda of Whitby

St. Hilda at Hartlepool by James Clark (Oil Painting)

Celebrated November 17

St. Hilda was the daughter of Prince Hereric of Deira, a nephew of King Edwin, by his wife, Lady Bregswith. Hereric had followed his uncle into exile during the invasions of King Aethelfrith of Bernicia and Hilda was probably born at the court of King Raedwald of East Anglia at Rendlesham in Suffolk.

Two years later, in the year that Edwin recovered Northumbria, the family, or at least Hereric, was at the court of King Ceretic of Elmet. Here the unfortunate Prince was poisoned and subsequently died. This may have prompted King Edwin's invasion of Elmet in AD 617.

Hilda and her sister, Hereswith, were raised at Edwin's dual-court at York and Yeavering. They were both baptised by St. Paulinus in AD 627 and apparently educated by him. Though Hilda did not enter the service of the Lord until the age of thirty-three. Hereswith married Prince Aethelric of East Anglia, brother of King Anna, to whom she bore the future King Ealdwulf. Hilda appears to have accompanied her sister to East Anglia.

However, by AD 647, Hereswith had entered the monastery of Chelles in France. Hilda planned to join her, but was persuaded instead, by St. Aidan, to return to Northumbria. He gave her a small plot of land on the north bank of the Wear to build a monastery, but she soon moved on to Hartlepool where she succeeded St. Heiu as Abbess. She organised the community per the Rule of the Irish Church, particularly that of Columbanus.

In AD 657, Abbess Hilda had founded a double monastery of both monks and nuns at Whitby (Streoneshall) and here she finally settled. Hilda was a patroness of the arts, including her former cowherd, the poet, St. Caedmon. She herself was a notable teacher, whose advice was sought by Kings and Abbots alike; while her monastery became famed as a centre of learning.
It trained at least five bishops.

In AD 664, she played hostess to the famous Synod of Whitby at which the path of the Northumbrian Church was debated. It was decided that it should follow the teachings of the Roman Church rather than those of Celtic Irish Iona. Hilda herself was, of course, sympathetic to the latter party, but she accepted the council's ruling.

Fourteen years later, she was somewhat more enthusiastic in her support of Archbishop Theodore's division of St. Wilfred's Northumbrian See; for it meant that two of her pupils, Saints Bosa and John of Beverley, were raised to new Bishoprics. She died at Whitby, after a long and painful illness lasting some six years, on 17th November AD 680.

Whitby Abbey North Yorkshire
St. Hilda was buried at Whitby and miracles were soon reported at her tomb. She was venerated as a
saint and her bones suitably enshrined. Her shrine was demolished, in AD 800, when Whitby Abbey was sacked by the Danes; but her body was, apparently, recovered from the ruins by King Edmund the Magnificent in the 10th century. He gave them to the Abbey of Glastonbury in Somerset where they were revered until the Reformation.


A local legend says that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in honour of Saint Hilda.

Another legend tells of a plague of snakes which Hilda turned to stone, supposedly explaining the presence of ammonite fossils on the shore; heads were carved onto these 'petrified snakes' to honour this legend. In fact, the ammonite genus Hildoceras takes its scientific name from St. Hilda. It was not unknown for local “artisans” to carve snakes' heads onto ammonites, and sell these “relics” as proof of her miracle.

The coat of arms of nearby Whitby includes three such 'snakestones', and depictions of ammonites appear in the shield of the College of St Hild and St Bede, Durham. A carved ammonite stone is set into the wall by the entrance to the former chapel of St Hild's College, Durham, which later became part of the College of St Hild and St Bede.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Saint John of the Cross

Francisco de Zurbaran ‎Date: 1656

Celebrated December 14

St. John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church
St. John’s family name was Yepes, and he was born of poor parents in Fontiveros, Spain, on June 24, 1542. He entered the Carmelite Order in 1563 and then studied at Salamanca and was ordained in 1567.
Soon after ordination, he met St. Teresa of Jesus, who told him that she and her religious sisters were restoring the primitive Carmelite Rule. Because John was then searching for a more austere form of religious life, he adopted St. Teresa’s reform and began a monastery of his own.
It was at this time that he changed his name to John of the Cross. Because he and his followers wore sandals, they became known as Discalced Carmelites. John’s reformed group soon grew in numbers, but because some of the other Carmelites wanted to put a stop to its expansion, they seized him and imprisoned him in Toledo.
After nine months of imprisonment, he escaped in August 1578 and made his way to his discalced monastery. For the remainder of his life, he guided his monasteries and wrote spiritual treatises.
He is especially renowned for his mystical poetry and his ascetical writings.
He died in Ubeda, Spain, on December 14, 1591, and was canonised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726. Recognising the influence that St. John of the Cross’s mystical writings have had in the Church, Pope Pius XI declared him a doctor of the Church in 1926.
John’s two most famous works, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night, are hinted at in today’s opening prayer when it says that God had led him to the mountain that is Christ, through the dark night of renunciation and burning love for the cross.


O God, who gave the Priest Saint John
an outstanding dedication to perfect self-denial
and love of the Cross,
grant that, by imitating him closely at all times,
we may come to contemplate eternally your glory.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Saint Lucy

Saint Lucy by Artemisia Gentileschi

Celebrated December 13

Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

St. Lucy is said to have been martyred in Syracuse, Sicily, about 304, during the persecution under Diocletian. Devotion to her in Sicily was popular by the fifth century, and from there, during the following centuries, it spread to Rome and northern Italy. Her name is found in the Roman Canon, and it was probably placed there by Pope Gregory the Great.

Whatever else is said about St. Lucy’s martyrdom is derived from an account of her death written about two centuries later and is hence of questionable reliability. The Hieronymian Martyrology gives the date of her death as December 13.  

The name Lucy means “light,” and this is most probably why she had been invoked, especially during the Middle Ages, against blindness and in cases of eye disease.

She is often portrayed with two eyes on a dish. The prayer of the Mass today makes a play on her name when it asks God to fill us with joy and light so that we may one day contemplate his glory with our eyes.

May the glorious intercession
of the Virgin and Martyr Saint Lucy
give us new heart, we pray, O Lord,
so, that we may celebrate her heavenly birthday
in this present age and so behold things eternal.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Ambrose, Bishop of Milan

Celebrated December 7

He was born the son of a prefect in Gaul (modern France) in about 340 and was raised in a powerful, ambitious, and influential family. As such, he was appointed the governor of the province of Liguria when he was twenty-nine.

As governor, he ruled from Milan and he ruled with wisdom, discretion, and fairness. When the bishop of Milan died, there was great confusion and striving for the office. As secular governor, he attended the election gathering and spoke calming words to the assembly.

Then, a child cried out, “Ambrose bishop!” and the cry was instantly taken up by the crowd who wanted such a wise and fair governor as their Church leader. Though yet only a catechumen, Ambrose reluctantly allowed himself to be elected. He was baptised and ordained bishop in 374. He was thirty-four years old.

One of his first acts as bishop was to request from St. Basil the relics of St. Dionysius. Western society in his day was falling to pieces and the Church was locked in a struggle with the Arians. He set an example of holiness, fasting frequently, and living simply.

When he had to feed the poor as bishop, he sold the treasured church plate to raise the money. When criticised for this as sacrilege, he simply said, “Which is more valuable—church vessels or living souls?” He strove against the Arians and suffered from their harassment.

He had always been close to his brother and sister and when his brother died, Ambrose was overcome with grief. “What can I do now?” he exclaimed. “What is there worth living for?” He was depressed and comforted himself with thoughts of the future resurrection. He continued to be a good pastor to his flock. One of his most famous pastoral acts was the conversion and baptism of the then-young Augustine and his son.

He could also be stubborn and unyielding before secular powers. When Emperor Theodosius had a crowd of Thessalonian rioters massacred in 390, Ambrose excommunicated him and called him to repent of murder. Theodosius appeared at church and Ambrose would not admit him. “How can you uplift a prayer with hands which still drip with blood? I say, Repent!” Theodosius repented and did public penance, prostrating himself in church and weeping.

Ambrose continued to serve as a pastor to his flock. He introduced antiphonal singing to his congregation (which was popular before in the East). He taught catechumens and wrote sermons for their instruction. The “Te Deum” hymn is ascribed to him. He discovered the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, long since buried.

When he fell ill with his final illness, he said, “I am not afraid to die for we have a good Lord.” He said that he saw the Lord coming to his bedside. He lay with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross and died whispering prayers, on Paschal eve in 397. He was fifty-eight and had governed Milan as bishop for over twenty-three years.

Kontakion of Ambrose, Bp. Of Milan in the Third Tone 
Flashing lightning-like with godly doctrines, thou, O Ambrose, dravest off the darkness of the impious error of Arius; and working wonders and signs by the Spirit's might, thou, O good shepherd, didst heal divers sufferings. Righteous Father, thou initiate of sacred mysteries, entreat Christ God to grant great mercy unto us.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker

Celebrated December 6

He was born at the turn of the fourth century in Asia Minor, possibly in the town of Patara in Lycia. Some say that his uncle was bishop of this city and that he served for a while as a monk in a monastery there.

It is likely that he suffered during the persecution of the Church prior to the Peace of Constantine. He was elected bishop of Myra and served there as a faithful pastor and possibly even attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325.

Certainly, he vigorously opposed Arianism—so much so that the story is told of how he punched Arius at the Nicene Council! As bishop of Myra, a busy seaport town, he was busy in charitable work.

The story is told of how he anonymously gave three bags of gold to a needy family with three daughters who otherwise would have had to send the girls out to earn a dishonourable living on the streets.

He was a kindly and compassionate pastor to his flock and a model for hierarchs, so much so that, in the weekly calendar where each day is given a special liturgical theme, he shares every Thursday with the Apostles. He died in peace in the fourth century, one of the most beloved of the Church’s saints.


Apolytikion (Fourth Tone)
The truth of things hath revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith, an icon of meekness, and a teacher of temperance; for this cause, thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty. O Father and Hierarch Nicholas, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.

Kontakion (Third Tone)
Saintly One, (St. Nicholas) in Myra you proved yourself a priest; for in fulfilling the Gospel of Christ, venerable One, you laid down your life for your people and saved the innocent from death. For this, you were sanctified as One learned in divine grace.

Read about the Legends and folklore....

Monday, 5 December 2016

Our Holy Father Sabbas the Sanctified

Celebrated December 5

He was born of wealthy parents in Cappadocia in 437. His father was an army officer and Sabbas was left in the care of his family. Dissension in the family prompted him to flee when nine years old to a monastery nearby his home at the foot of Mount Argaeus.

He stayed there until he was eighteen and then moved to live a life of asceticism in the Palestinian desert. He attached himself to an old fellow-Cappadocian who lived there as a monk by the name of Elpidius.

His piety was so great and his age so young that he was moved to the cenobitic monastery of St. Euthymius under the care of Theoctistus. He took care of the monastery’s donkeys until he was thirty years old.

Then, in 469, he was allowed to move to a hermitage nearby where he spent the next five years. He lived there in solitude, returning to the monastery only on weekends for Church services and to gather new palm branches for his weekday labours of handicraft by which he supported himself. He also was allowed to accompany the great founder of the monastery, St. Euthymius, when he went out to spend Great Lent in the desert.

After Euthymius died in 473, Sabbas withdrew further away to the Dead Sea area. There, after several years and inspired by a vision from God, he established a hermitage there for himself in the Cedron gorge in 478 and spent five years in solitude and prayer.

After much spiritual preparation, he decided to form his own monastic community, allowing other hermits to join him and soon seventy monks clustered around him. He used a large double-cave (built, it seemed, by God Himself). For his growing community, which soon numbered one hundred and fifty, the local Patriarch blessed his efforts and allowed the cave to be used as a church and ordained Sabbas as a priest to serve it.

There were Egyptians and Armenians in his community and Sabbas had them celebrate their offices and liturgies in their own vernacular languages.

As his fame grew, the Patriarch gave Sabbas leadership over all the hermits of Palestine, even as he gave his neighbour and friend Theodosius leadership over all the cenobitic communal monasteries in Palestine.

During the Monophysite controversy, Sabbas (with Theodosius) upheld the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Sabbas died in peace, a true father of Palestinian monasticism, in 532 at the age of 94.

Apolytikion of Sabbas (Sava), Archbishop of Serbia in the Third Tone

Thou wast a guide of the way that leadeth to life, and a first prelate and teacher; for thou wast the first to enlighten thy fatherland, O Saint Sabbas, having given it rebirth in the Holy Spirit. Thou didst plant thy sanctified children like olive trees in the spiritual Paradise. Wherefore, as we honour thee as an equal of the Apostles and holy hierarchs, we implore thee; Pray to Christ God to grant us great mercy.

Kontakion of Sabbas (Sava), Archbishop of Serbia in the Plagal of the Fourth Tone

The Church of thy people glorifieth thee as her first great prelate and a companion of the Apostles, O Saint. But since thou hast boldness with Christ God, by thy prayers save us from all harm that we may cry to thee: Rejoice, O divinely-wise Father Sabbas.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Saint John of Damascus

Celebrated December 4

Saint John of Damascus was born about the year 676 of Christian parents, John Mansur (his family name) grew up in an Arab environment, in the court of the Caliph Abdul Malek. His father Sergius was a minister in the court, as were many Christians in this time of Arab domination.

John was provided with the best education available to members of the court, but his father was concerned that he be educated as a Christian. One day while walking through the streets of Damascus, Sergius saw a new group of captives from Italy being offered for sale as slaves by their Arab captors. 

Among them was an old man who, upon close inspection, appeared to be a Greek monk. As a Christian and citizen of high rank, Sergius often tried to give assistance to Christians who were in difficulty. Interceding with the Caliph on behalf of the monk, Sergius brought him to his own residence to serve as a tutor to young John and his foster brother Kosmas.

The monk, also named Kosmas, trained the boys in theology, rhetoric, natural history, music, and astronomy. When he felt that he had taught them all that he could, the old monk asked Sergius to be allowed to spend the remaining years of his life in a monastery. Although both father and sons were sorry to see Kosmas leave, they bade farewell to him and he departed to the monastery of St. Sabbas in Jerusalem.

Sergius died suddenly and the Caliph appointed John to an important position in the government where he eventually assumed his father's duties. John served the Caliph well and was highly respected in the count. But his comfortable life at court was quietly being challenged by the simplicity and austerity of the monastic life that had been expressed in the person of Kosmas. John could not forget his old tutor, and the wisdom and piety he imparted. Eventually, the attraction of the monastic life compelled both John and his brother Kosmas to give away their wealth and join their mentor in the Judean desert.

About this time in Constantinople, the emperor Leo III was in a bitter controversy with the Church over the use of icons or images. Fearing the further spread of Islam-which forbade the worship or use of images, Leo had ordered the destruction of all icons and statues representing Christ and the saints. A riot ensued as the people of the city fought to protect their churches. All appeals failed; the emperor listened to no one, neither the patriarch in Constantinople nor the pope in Rome.

Even though John was far away from Constantinople, he decided to come to the defence of the iconodules, those who wanted to keep icons in the churches. Living in an Arab Province, under the protection of the Caliph, John could speak out more clearly and forcefully than those amid the controversy. He wrote three articles entitled "On the Defence of Icons", which became the most important arguments in favour of icon veneration. The battle would last long after John's death, but his works lived on as strong weapons in the fight:

At Saint Sabbas Monastery, John retired to a cave and was placed under the guidance of an old monk who agreed to be his elder or spiritual father. The elder gave John three rules to follow: to pray to God, to do nothing because he himself wanted to do it, and to weep for the sins he had committed. Although he had long followed his own will and had been accustomed to giving orders to others, John obeyed his elder and pursued the monastic life in humility.

Knowing of John's former position and his excellent education, the elder decided to test John to see how well he would obey. He sent him to his old city of Damascus to sell a load of baskets but told him to sell them at an exorbitant price, one that no one would pay for such an item. John did not object but went willingly to Damascus, the place where he once was so powerful and well known.

He tried to sell his baskets, but the people laughed at him for asking such a high price. No one recognised this thin sun-tanned monk, the important official he had been. No one, that is, but one man, John's former servant who felt sorry to see him ridiculed in this way. The servant pretended not to know the monk and bought all the baskets from him at the price that he asked. John could return to the monastery, having obeyed his elder in every way.

Only once did John disobey the instructions that were his rule of life in the monastery. A fellow monk had lost his brother and could not be consoled. Knowing of John's ability to compose music and poetry, he begged him to write a funeral hymn for his dead brother. Because his elder had left the monastery for a few days, John refused, for he had agreed to do nothing without the elder's direction and consent. Finally, however, he felt so sorry for the bereaved monk that he consented and wrote one of his most beautiful hymns--which has become part of the Orthodox funeral service. It begins:

What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands forever on earth? All things are but feeble shadows or deluding dreams--one moment only and Death shall take their place. But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of Thy beauty, give rest to him whom Thou has chosen, for Thou only lovest mankind.

The monk was very moved by the lovely hymn and thanked John for helping him in his grief. But when the elder returned and heard of John's deed, he wanted nothing more to do with him for he had disobeyed his rule. John begged the elder to forgive him, but to no avail. The other monks also petitioned the older monk to take him back, even if it meant giving John a penance. The elder finally relented. He gave him the worst job in the monastery, and forbid him to write any more hymns. John accepted gratefully and willingly carried out all his duties.

One night the elder had a vision. The mother of God appeared to him in a dream and said: "Why have you sealed the spring of fresh water for which the whole world is thirsty? Let it pour freely and comfort those in need. Let John praise God through his songs." The elder then realised that he had dealt wrongly with John and hurried to him, asking forgiveness for his sternness and bluntness. He knelt and bowed low before John to beg his pardon. The talent which had been given to John could now be used to the glory of God.

John devoted himself to the composing of kanons, following the example of Andrew of Crete. He composed kanons for many feasts, including the Nativity and Baptism of Christ, Pentecost, and Easter. His Easter Kanon is the most glorious of all hymns in the Orthodox Church; it has been called the "Queen of Kanons." The first irmos exclaims:

Irmos: On this day of Resurrection, be illumined O People! Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord For from death to life, and from earth to heaven Has Christ our God led us, Singing the song of victory! Refrain: Christ is risen from the dead!
Arab domination

Besides the kanons, John is said to have worked on the Oktoechos, a collection of hymns in eight tones for the Sunday services. The Oktoechos was composed by Patriarch Severus of the Syrian Jacobite (Monophysite) church in Antioch in the Sixth century. John of Damascus adapted these hymns for use in Byzantine monasteries and churches. 

He also helped to establish the order of the services, using the rule that had been compiled earlier by Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem (634-38), according to the practice of celebrating the services at the monasteries of St. Sabbas and St. Theodosius. This rule was called the typikon; it included the calendar of feasts for the year and instructions for celebrating the feasts of special services of the Church. Through the efforts of John, this Jerusalem Typikon was revised and introduced throughout the empire.

Together with this brother Kosmas of Jerusalem (who wrote nineteen kanons, including one for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and the Great Kanon for the Matins of Holy Friday), John developed a method for teaching others how to sing their hymns. They introduced the practice of cheironomy, conducting or directing a choir by means of certain gestures of the hands and fingers. By teaching the monks how to sing the melodies by watching how the domestiko (the director) raised or lowered his fingers or gave signs for short melodic movements of the notes, they could sing together.

Both John and Kosmas were strong supporters of the true faith which they proclaimed in their hymns as well as in other writings. John studied carefully all the writings of the Church Fathers that he could collect and wrote a very clear and concise book on "The Exposition of the Orthodox Faith." It is a compilation of the teachings of the Church that has been acclaimed as a systematic presentation of the foundations of Christian doctrine.

Sometime before his death in December 4, 749, John was ordained to the priesthood, but he continued to live and work in his cell in the Judean desert.

Troparion — Tone 8
Champion of Orthodoxy, teacher of purity and of true worship, the enlightener of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs: all-wise father John, your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things. Intercede before Christ God to save our souls.

Kontakion — Tone 4
Let us sing praises to John, worthy of great honour, the composer of hymns, the star and teacher of the Church, the defender of her doctrines: through the might of the Lord’s Cross he overcame heretical error and as a fervent intercessor before God he entreats that forgiveness of sins may be granted to all.