The blessed Holy Martyr Saint Paraskevi was born in Rome (circa 130 A.D.) during the reign of the pagan Emperor Adrian. Her parents, Agathon and Politia, were devout Christians even though belief in Christ was a crime against the state punishable by death. Agathon and Politia, who were of nobility, likewise ignored the disdain of their peers by championing the cause of the down trodden. In spite of their devotion to Christ and His teachings, Agathon and Politia secretly and painfully bore the cross of a childless marriage. Trusting in the great mercy and love of God, this Christian couple did not despair, nor did they cease praying for a child, which they vowed to rear in a God fearing manner. Lo the miracle! Late in life Agathon and Politia were blessed with a daughter. Because the child was born on Friday (Paraskevi in Greek), they named her Paraskevi.
Keeping their promise to God, Agathon and Politia were vigilant in exposing Paraskevi to the fullness of Christianity. The task was made considerably easier because the young girl had a natural penchant for learning. With the help of private tutors, Paraskevi became an ardent student of both Holy Scriptures and secular learning. However, the greatest influence in her life, according to her own testimony, was the Christ-like example of her parents.
Young Paraskevi developed into a cultured, sensitive and beautiful woman. It wasn’t long before some of the noblemen began to take notice of her, and to seek her hand in marriage. Paraskevi always managed, however, to find some excuse to politely refuse. Because inwardly she was convinced that she was destined for a more sublime mission in life.
Paraskevi was orphaned of both parents when she was twenty years old. At this point in her life, that inner feeling, that she was destined for a higher calling, had crystallized into love and zeal for Christ. Her greatest desire was to become an apostle for Christ. To achieve her goal, Paraskevi distributed all her inheritance among the poor of Rome; entered a convent and was tonsured a nun. At the convent, Paraskevi distinguished herself in humility, love and spiritual fortitude. When she finally became proficient in prayer and sacrifice, the Abbess granted her leave so that she could fulfill her life’s ambition; to preach the love of God to all men. This was truly a precarious mission, because the pagan Roman Empire was extremely hostile toward Christianity. Even the most courageous of Christians were reluctant to openly admit that they were followers of Christ. Nevertheless, this did not daunt Paraskevi, nor did it dampen her zeal. As a matter of fact, she began her preaching mission right in Rome! The fervor of her kerygma, and the example of her commitment were such an inspiration, that great multitudes were converted on their very first encounter with the Saint. In spite of her great fame and legacy, Paraskevi managed to elude the authorities. Heartened by this, she decided to extend her ministry to Turkey.
It was in Turkey where Paraskevi experienced her first encounter with the law. One day, as she was preaching just beyond present day Istanbul, in the village of Therapia, the soldiers of Emperor Antonius Pius arrested her. The charge against the young missionary was that the blasphemous words which she uttered were the cause of all the ills that had recently befallen the empire. At her trial, the Emperor, infatuated by her beauty, begged Paraskevi to renounce Christ and worship the idols of Rome. To entice her further, Antonius Pius offered to take her as his wife, and to give her half of his empire. Paraskevi’s reply was quick and resolute: “I have made my choice; no amount of wealth or deprivation can separate me from my love for Christ." Rebuffed and infuriated, Antonius Pius ordered that Paraskevi be imprisoned and beaten mercilessly until she died. The soldiers were astounded to discover that no matter what punishment and torture she received one day, the next morning she would be as refreshed and carefree as if nothing had happened. Fearing the wrath of the Emperor, the soldiers decided to report this strange phenomenon to him. Castigating the ineptness of his soldiers, Antonius Pius shouted another form of execution. This time he ordered the soldiers to take Paraskevi out to the spot where she was arrested and to prepare a cauldron of boiling water, tar and oil. He further stated that it would be his pleasure to personally supervise the scalding of that "blasphemous Paraskevi".
When Paraskevi was finally thrown into the boiling cauldron, she reacted as if the water were delightfully lukewarm. In utter disbelief, Antonius again began castigating the soldiers. Softly and with a loving smile, Paraskevi reassured the Emperor that his soldiers had executed his command faithfully. She also stated, "My Lord and Master wills that I continue His work". Utterly enraged and oblivious of her words, Antonius yelled, "Sprinkle me with the oil and tar. I don’t believe what I see!" Obligingly, Paraskevi scooped some of the boiling mixture in her hands, and splashed it on the Emperor’s face.
Antonius squealed with pain and began yelling, "I’m blind! I can’t see!" Instinctively, he began imploring the Saint to have mercy and pity on him. "Restore my eyesight, and I shall believe", he begged. "Your God is surely the true God!" Accepting his latter statement as a confession of faith, Paraskevi jumped out of the cauldron; rushed to a spring of water that was nearby, and scooped up fresh cool water onto Antonius’ face, invoked the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and sealed his eyes with the sign of the Precious and Life-saving Cross and the Emperor’s eyesight was restored immediately! The miracle had such a profound effect on Antonius that he not only freed Paraskevi and ordered that all persecutions against Christians be stopped, but he himself was baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. Thus, Paraskevi resumed her apostolic mission with greater zeal and faith. The calm, however, did not last long. Marcus Aurelius, Antonius’ successor, renewed the persecutions against the Christian Church. Paraskevi was beheaded in Rome on the 26th of July, in the year 180 A.D.
The history of our Church is full of examples of individuals who dedicated their lives to God. Their stories are different and vary, yet the one thread that links them all is their Love for God. They endured whipping, stoning and other forms of torture because of their belief. Some, where even fed to lions and beheaded, yet, even when faced with this enormous pressure to deny Christ they stood firm and fearless even to death.
One such heroine, named Barbara, lived in the city of Heliopolis in the beginning of the third century. She was a lovely and intelligent girl and the daughter of Dioscorus, who was a wealthy nobleman and a pagan. In his zeal to protect his young daughter, Dioscorus built a magnificent tower for her to live in and to keep her safe. He spared no expense, providing her with every material luxury, the best food, clothing, servants and teachers, but forbade her to have friends and even speak to anyone without his permission. Dioscorus's intentions were simple - he wanted to surround his daughter with the greatest comforts and attendants focused on teaching her how to worship the pagan gods. He felt that by keeping her secluded from the world, she was sure to remain a pagan worshipper. Barbara was a bright and intelligent girl who was obedient to her father's wishes and remained in the tower, without complaint, even during his frequent business trips.
One day, before leaving on one of his many business trip, Dioscorus decided to build a bathhouse for Barbara next to her tower. He drew up plans and left strict instructions for the builders to follow. Dioscorus’ business however kept him away for an unusually long time, so that the workers were over half finished with the bathhouse and still there was no word on his return. It was around this time that Barbara came down from her tower to inspect the new structure. She noticed that it only had two windows, and thought to herself that the pool would have more light if there were three windows in the bathhouse and she instructed the workers to create a third window.
Remembering Dioscorus’s stern instructions, the workers were afraid to deviate from the plans, but Barbara assured them that she would assume full responsibility for the change in plans. The workers, aware of the love that Dioscorus had for his only daughter, agreed and placed a third window in the bathhouse. One day, as Barbara stood by the pool facing the east she said, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and she miraculously drew the sign of the cross in the marble wall of the bathhouse with her finger. She then returned to her tower and spent her days praying and fasting.
When Dioscorus finally arrived home he immediately noticed the additional (third) window in the bathhouse and became very angry. He entered the bathhouse, to inspect it further, and then noticed the large cross, carved on the marble wall. He became furious. He quickly went to the workers and demanded to know who gave them permission to make changes to the bathhouse? The workers, cowering in the face of such anger, replied that Barbara instructed them to add the third window and then drew the cross herself, on the marble wall with her finger.
Dioscorus immediately sought out his daughter and demanded to know why she had deviated from his strict instructions and if the inclusion of this third window had an additional meaning. Barbara responded in a very loving way to her father stating that indeed the three windows represented the three Lights which guide everyone who comes into the world (the Holy Trinity). Barbara then proceeded to explain and confess her faith in the Holy Trinity.
Upon hearing Barbara’s confession of faith, Dioscorus became furious! His plan of keeping his daughter in darkness had failed! Even though she had no 'human' teacher to bring her to the knowledge of God's existence, Barbara's mind, heart and soul were opened by the grace of God to feel His presence. Secretly, she was able to meet with some Christians who told her about Christ and His teachings. Convinced of the Truth concerning Jesus, she became a Christian whose love for God inspired all who heard of her.
Blinded by his fury, Dioscorus delivered Barbara to Marcian, the Roman prefect, to torture her until she denied Christ. Young Barbara was stripped and struck with whips and clubs until she was standing in a pool of her own blood. To increase the pain and suffering, the soldiers rubbed vinegar into her wounds. Through all this however, Barbara stood firm in her faith and would not deny Christ.
She was then thrown into prison and ordered to return the following day. While in her cell Barbara knelt in prayer to ask God to continue to grant her the strength that she needed to remain faithful, and as she prayed her heart was filled with heavenly joy and her wounds were completely and miraculously healed.
In a nearby cell, was another pious young lady named Juliana, who was also imprisoned because of her belief in Christ. Upon witnessing the miraculous healing of Barbara, Juliana praised God and promised to endure what ever terrible tortures that were facing her because of her faith.
The next day, Barbara was brought in front of Marcian. He was amazed to see that her wounds had healed, and demanded that she deny her faith in Christ. Her refusal angered the prefect who ordered her body to be hung on a stake and ripped with iron claws. The soldiers then burned her wounds with hot irons and beat her head with spiked clubs. Yet through it all, Barbara found consolation in prayer.
Juliana witnessed Barbara’s tortures and wept bitterly over her inability to assist her. When Marcian saw this, he ordered that Juliana be brought forward and tortured in an effort to have her renounce her faith in Christ. The horrible beatings resumed and continued for several hours while the young ladies stood praying and chanting hymns. Their refusal to renounce their faith only further frustrated Marcian and he ordered that the two girls be taken out of the city and killed!
When Dioscorus, who was watching his daughter’s torture, heard Marcian pronounce the sentence, he offered to execute Barbara himself with his own sword. Saint Barbara and Saint Juliana were then led out of the city to a mountainside were they were beheaded – Saint Barbara, by her father and Saint Juliana by an executioner. As the two men hurried down the mountainside, a great bolt of lightning came from heaven striking Dioscorus and killing him, another lightning bolt killed Juliana’s executioner. When the cowardly Marcian heard of these events, he became so paralyzed by fear that he died of fright.
Saint Barbara gained her crown of martyrdom on December 4, 306 and joined her true Father in Heaven. Through her intercessions, O Lord, Have Mercy on Us.
Saint John the Merciful
St John the Merciful was born on the island of Cyprus. His father was Prince Epiphanius. John was raised as a true Christian from childhood. At the insistence of his parents, he married and had children. However, by God's providence, his wife and children passed from this world into the next. Renowned for his compassion and piety, John was chosen as Patriarch of Alexandria in the time of Emperor Heraclius. He governed the Church of Alexandria for ten years as a true shepherd, safeguarding it from pagans and heretics. He was a model of meekness, charity and love for his fellow men. He said: ``If you desire nobility, seek it not in blood but in virtues, for this is true nobility.'' All the saints have been distinguished by mercifulness, but St. John was completely dedicated to this wonderful virtue. Once, while celebrating the Liturgy, the patriarch remembered the words of Christ, "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matthew 5:23-24), and he remembered that one of the clergy in that church had a grievance against him. He quickly left the Holy Gifts, approached that priest, fell before his feet and begged for forgiveness. And only when he had made peace with this man did he return to the table of oblation. Another time, as he was on his way to the Church of Saints Cyrus and John, it happened that he met a needy and unfortunate widow who spoke to him at length about her misfortune. The patriarch's escorts became bored by the woman's lengthy complaint, and urged the bishop to hurry to the church for the service, intimating that he could hear the woman's story afterward. John said to them: "And how will God listen to me, if I do not listen to her?'' He would not leave until he heard the widow's complaint to the end.
When the Persians attacked Egypt, Patriarch John boarded a boat to escape from danger. Along the way he fell ill and, when he arrived in Cyprus, he reposed at his birthplace, in the year 620. After he entered the Immortal Kingdom of his Lord, his miracle-working relics were translated to Constantinople, then to Budapest, and finally to Presburg.
(From The Prologue by Saint Nikolai Velimirovich)
The Judgements of God
The blessed man always used to talk much about the thought of death and the departure of the soul so that on several occasions those who went in to him with a haughty bearing and laughing face and bold eyes came out from his presence with humble demeanour and a contrite face and eyes filled with tears. He used to say: 'My humble opinion is that it suffices for our salvation to meditate continually and seriously about death and to think earnestly upon the fact that nobody will pity us in that hour nor will anyone travel with us out of this life except our good deeds. And when the angels come hastening down, in what a tumult will a soul then be if it is found unready! How it will beg that it may be allowed a further short span of life, only to hear the words: "What about the time you have lived, have you spent it well?"
And again he used to say as though speaking of himself, 'Humble John, how will you have the strength to "pass the wild beasts of the thicket", [Ps. 68:30 = LXX 67:31, which reads "epitimeson tois theriois tou kalamou"] when they meet you like tax collectors? Woe is me, what fears and tremors will encompass the soul when it is called to account by so many keen and pitiless accountants?' And indeed the saintly man had especially noted that which was made known through revelation by St. Simeon the Stylite; the words were: 'When the soul goes forth from the body, as it rises from the earth to heaven there meet it troops of demons, each in his own regiment. A band of demons of arrogance meet it, they feel it all over to see whether the soul possesses their works. A band of the spirits of slander meets it; they inspect it to see whether it has ever uttered slanders and not repented. Again higher up the demons of harlotry meet it; they investigate whether they can recognize their pursuits in it. And while the wretched soul is being brought to account on its way from earth to heaven the holy angels stand on one side and do not help it, only its own virtues can do that.'
Pondering on these things the glorious Patriarch would grow fearful and troubled about such an hour, for he also bore in mind the saying of St. Hilarion who, as he was on the point of leaving this life, lost courage and said to his soul: 'For eighty years, O humble soul, you have been serving Christ and are you afraid to go forth? Go forth, for He is merciful.' And the Patriarch would say to himself: 'If he, after serving Christ for eighty years and raising men from the dead and doing signs and wonders, was yet afraid of that bitter hour, what can you, humble John, do or say when you come to face those cruel and pitiless exactors of taxes and tributes? To which will you have the strength to make your defence? To the demons of falsehood, to those of slander, to those of unmercifulness, to those of avarice, to those of malice, to those of hatred, to those of perjury?' And with new doubts rising in his mind he would say: 'Oh God, do Thou rebuke them, for the whole strength of man is of no avail against them; do Thou, Lord, give us as guides the holy angels who protect and pilot us. For great is the fury of the demons against us, great is the fear, great the trembling, great the peril of the voyage through this sea of air. For if, when travelling from city to city on this earth, we require a guide to lead us lest we fall into crevasses, or into the haunts of wild beasts, or into impassable rivers, or into pathless and inaccessible mountains, or into the hands of brigands, or into some boundless and waterless desert and be lost, how many strong guides and divine guardians do we not need when we start on this long journey which is everlasting, I mean the exodus from the body and the journey up to heaven?' These were the teachings, full of God's wisdom, that the blessed man gave to himself and to all; these were his daily thoughts and meditations.
The Judgements of Men
Amongst his wonderful achievements the blessed man attained unto this also, I mean never to judge his neighbour without good reason, or to listen to those who condemned him. Here let me give his teaching on this point from which all may profit.
A young man eloped with a nun and fled to Constantinople. On hearing this the just man almost died of grief. But some time later when sitting in his sacristy with some of the clergy and enjoying a profitable conversation someone happened to speak of the young man who had carried off the nun. Those who were sitting with the Saint began cursing the youth for having destroyed two souls, his own and the nun's. But the blessed man interrupted and stopped them saying: 'No, my children, do not speak like that! For I can prove to you that you yourselves are committing two sins, one because you are transgressing the commandment of Him who said: "Judge not that ye be not judged'', [Matt 7:1] and the second because you do not know for certain whether they are still living in sin, and have not repented.
'For I read the life of an abbot which has the following story. In a certain city two monks were starting on an errand, and as one of the two passed through a square a harlot called out to him: "Save me, Father, as Christ saved the harlot." And he, without a thought of men's censure, said to her: "Follow me!" and taking her by the hand he went out of the city openly in full view of everyone. Thus the rumour spread that the abbot had taken the woman, Porphyria, (for that was her name) to wife. As the two travelled on so that he might put her into a convent, the woman found a baby which had been exposed and was lying on the ground near a church and took it with her intending to bring it up. A year later some of the citizens came to the country where the abbot and Porphyria (she who had been a harlot) were staying, and seeing her with the child said to her, "You have certainly got a fine chick by the abbot", for she had not yet adopted the monastic robe. The men who had seen her spread abroad the report when they got back to Tyre (for that was the city from which the abbot had taken her) that Porphyria had had a fine son by the abbot. "We saw him with our own eyes," they said, "and he is like his father."
'Now when the abbot knew beforehand by revelation from God that he would shortly die, he said to the nun, Pelagia, for so he named her when he gave her the holy habit of a nun, "Let us go to Tyre for I have business there and I want you to come with me." She did not like to refuse, so she followed him and they both came to Tyre with the boy who was now seven years old.
'When the abbot fell ill with a mortal sickness about a hundred people from the city came to visit him, and he said to them: "Bring hot coals!" When the censer arrived full of hot coals he took it and poured all the hot coals on to his robe and said: "Now be assured, brethren, that as God preserved the bush unburnt from the fire, and as the live coals have not even singed my robe, so, too, I have never committed sin with a woman from the day I was born." And all were struck dumb with amazement that his robe was not burnt by the fire and they glorified God who has such servants, though they are unrecognized by men. From the example of the nun Pelagia who had once been a harlot several other harlots followed her and renounced the world and went with her into her convent. For after the monk, the servant of the Lord, who had received her profession, had fully satisfied everybody of his innocence, he surrendered his soul to the Lord in peace. For this reason', the Patriarch continued, 'I warn you, my children, not to be so ready to mock at, or judge, the acts of other people.
'For we have often seen the sin of the fornicator, but his repentance, which he made in secret, we did not see, and we may have seen somebody steal, but we know nothing of the groanings and tears which he has offered to God. We still think of him as we saw him, a thief, a fornicator or a perjuror, but in the sight of God his secret repentance and confession have been accepted, and in His eyes he is honourable.'
Thus all were astonished at the teaching of this virtuous shepherd and teacher.
(From "The Life of Saint John the Almsgiver" by Leontius, Bishop of Neapolis in the island of Cyprus)