St. John of Rila (Ivan Rilski)
On June 10, 2003, I entered the church at the Rila Monastery in southwestern Bulgaria. I walked out a changed man, or at least one with the seeds of change within me. St. John of Rila (876-946) is the national saint of Bulgaria, and the monastery he established at Rila is a symbol of Bulgarian nationalism, particularly during their 500 long years under the Ottoman yoke. This church also contains his relics.
Converting to Orthodoxy was the farthest thing from my mind when I entered Rila. I was a firm, iconoclastic Protestant, albeit with keen ideas about how Protestantism in general--my own religious heritage in particular--should, indeed, must change. But I had never challenged the underlying presuppositions of the Reformation. I have related my experience at Rila elsewhere in these pages. So, I will only say that I encountered something new and altogether unexpected--something special, something Holy. I suppose I caught a glimpse of what I had been yearning for in my church--real authenticity. For we made not insubstantial claims for ourselves, though it was as if we had to keep reminding ourselves of it--and deep down, in our heart of hearts, I suspect few really believed it. At Rila, what I saw-- shorn of all intellectual and Enlightenment rationality--simply was the Church. So, in an unusual sense, St. John of Rila awakened me, and was my introduction to an Orthodox faith. When I was received into the Church, I took his name.
Two months after returning from Bulgaria, I happened to pick up a small unread book I had purchased years earlier: Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers. I chose to read St. Ignatius, primarily because his 7 letters were short. The historical context of his biography was not lost on me. Martyred in 107 A.D., Ignatius was a younger contemporary of the Apostles themselves. As I lay in bed reading, I suppose you could say the scales fell from my eyes. The hierarchical nature of the Church was clear. The sacramental nature of what we called "the Lord's Supper," was most evident. We had been taught such things were digressions, obscuring the purity of the original "1st Century Church." Hardly. I realized that they were the accepted belief and practice of the early church. A nagging question lurked in the back of my mind. If what I had been taught was so off-base on these subjects, then what else had we missed? Did all those verses that had been explained-away actually mean exactly what they said? St. Ignatius taught me that the church is Apostolic, its worship liturgical, and its communion sacramental. So, I have a special fondness for St. Ignatius, whose writings 1900 years later, started me down the road to Orthodoxy.
The Most Holy Theotokos
What Orthodox list would not include the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin, Mary? After my experience with St. Ignatius, I began reading various Orthodox materials online ( NOT necessarily recommend for inquirers). I soon discovered that there was such a thing as an Orthodox Study Bible, which I purchased. I began reciting the Morning and Evening Prayers, reading the Psalms, as well as the daily Lectionary readings. Within a few months, I had also located a small monastery, which I was to visit several times. A young monk there, Fr. A____, was a great support and encouragement. In what amounted to a confession on my part, I laid out for him my struggles, desperation, lukewarmness, etc. He pointed me in the direction of some beneficial reading, and then he said, "Ask the Theotokos to intercede for you. She will help you." At that point, I was still very hesitant to embrace anything that smacked of Mariology. But I took his advice. And she did. This was perhaps the best advice I have ever received. In my personal experience, the difference was almost quantifiable. And since that time, the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin, Mary has been the most cherished of saints for me, and the one that I beseech most often to intercede for me.
St. Ephriam the Syrian
By early 2005, I had become familiar with St. Ephraim the Syrian. Perhaps it was his noted prayer during the Lenten season. Later, I discovered a little blue book: The Spiritual Psalter from the works of our Holy Father Ephraim the Syrian, excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse. These prayers, in my opinion, are the most sublime Christian writing outside of the Psalms. They accompany me on my travels. It is my gift to the newly-illumined. It is my Lenten reading. The humble St. Ephraim has revealed to me the depth of my own fallenness. From his prayers, I begin to comprehend the nature of true repentance. He has shared with me the unfathomable mercies of our Lord. And St. Ephraim meets me in unexpected places. Last year, I sought out the 4th-century Church of the Virgin Mary amidst the twisting maze of alleyways that is old Diyabakir in eastern Turkey. Behind the compound walls, a remarkable 3 families of Suriani Orthodox Christians hold out in the center of this teeming, seething Muslim metropolis of Kurdish discontent. The Suriani churches have far fewer icons than other Orthodox churches. In fact, this ancient church, outside of the altar itself, had only one; my companion St. Ephraim.
St. John of Damascus
Upon becoming Orthodox, I have come to appreciate St. John of Damascus. This 8th-century saint was a true defender of the faith--whether in his hymnology, his defense of icons, his refutation of Islam, his exposition of the Orthodox faith, or countless other writings. As St. John lived and labored in a newly-Muslim world, in the first generations after the onslaught of Islam, his witness and life's work is timelier now than ever. St. John of Damascus is also the patron saint of our mission.
The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste
The story of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste is a bit of Christian history that you just never hear about as a Protestant. Our milksop American culture, with a faith that often seems "3,000 miles wide and 2 inches deep," does not know what to make of a story of 40 soldiers who chose to freeze together in a lake rather than renounce Christ. Their witness greatly encourages me. This particular icon of the 40 martyrs (12th-Century Svanetian) is one of my favorites, portraying the pathos of their situation, as well as their unity in Christ in martyrdom.
Even as a Protestant, I had at least a superficial knowledge of St. George. Now I have become more familiar with his story, and ask for his intercession. I have found that this Cappadocian soldier has always been extremely popular in the Middle East and in the Caucasus. This silver icon is from the 12th-Century Church of St. George in Iperi, Svaneti, Georgia. In Georgian iconography, St. George is often depicted spearing the Emperor Diocletian, rather than a dragon.
St. Peter the Aleut
As an American Orthodox Christian, the story of St. Peter the Aleut resonates with me. He was one of 14 Aleuts imprisoned by the Franciscans of northern California for being heretics and schismatics. After refusing to convert to Catholicism, Peter was subjected to horrific tortures, leading to death. Peter remained faithful. His constant reply was "I am a Christian." Peter's witness, maintained to the end, is as ours will have to be. St. Peter the Aleut pray for me.
St. John Kochurev
St. John Kochurev was one of the earliest new martyrs of Russia. He was apparently the first clergy murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Prior to returning to Russia, he had been a much-loved and effectual parish priest in Alaska and in Chicago. To the extent that Orthodoxy takes root in North America, we can look back to the labors of Fr. John Kochurev. His witness is especially poignant in light of the blood-drenched and largely Godless 20th-Century which his martyrdom heralded.
St. Grigol (1899-1942)
I only recently learned of Fr. Grigol (Peradze) of Georgia. In February, I posted about Lives of the Georgian Saints, a wonderful book which contains his story. Grigol (Georgian for Gregory) Peradze was an academic who become known as an expert on Georgian history and culture. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he lectured in Berlin, Paris, London and Warsaw. Grigol Peradze also helped spirit away many Georgian national treasures from the hands of the Soviets to safe-keeping in Paris. In 1931, he was tonsured as a monk, and then a priest. Fr. Grigol founded the Church of St. Nino in Paris, as well as a Georgian language journal, while continuing to lecture. He remained in Paris after the Nazi occupation. In 1942, Grigol was arrested and deported by the Gestapo for sheltering and assisting Jews. In Auschwitz, late in 1942, an inmate killed a guard. The Nazis made the entire barracks strip and then herded them out into the snow until someone would admit to killing the guard. Fr. Grigol stepped forward and took the blame, in order to save lives. The Nazis set their dogs upon him, then doused him in gasoline and set him afire. St. Grigol pray for me.
Now, as to those I believe should be glorified as saints, the names of Fr. Arseny, Fr. Seraphim Rose and Alexander Schmemman come to mind.
Finally, it seems like a lot of the usual suspects have already been tagged. I tag Hilarius, though I suspect he has probably already been chosen.