"Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than show. Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities" (Ps 51:7-9).
It is through the sorrow or contrition we have for the sins we commit that, when accompanied with repentance and God's grace, will lead us to salvation. We shall give you an important example of repentance from sin that leads to salvation, because we sin every day in our words, thoughts and deeds.
St. Pelagia, who we commemorate on October 8, was a beautiful actress of Antioch during the third century. At that time, the people of Antioch, hearing that the virtuous Bishop Nonnus had come to town to attend a Church council, gathered around St. Julian's tomb to hear him give a homily. Pelagia found the opportunity to provocatively dress and walk amongst the people to display her beauty. She created a spectacle and distracted the people from listening to the Bishop.
Bishop Nonnus, who was moved to tears by her zeal and success in her profession, sorrowfully said, "The efforts this woman has made to be like by men on one occasion, I have not matched in a lifetime's desire to be liked unto God". He continued, "I am also sad for you, because you have left the word of God by looking at that loitering spectacle of vanities". He then prayed to God that Pelagia would repent, and on the next morning, when he was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in the cathedral of Antioch, Pelagia felt the need to pray in Church. On her arrival, the Bishop was giving a sermon on sin, repentance, confession and the Day of Judgement. She felt that the sermon was aimed exclusively to her, and fell to the ground with tears and contrition for her sins.
On conclusion of the sermon, people leaving the Church noticed Pelagia and asked her why she was crying. She then requested to be taken to the Bishop for confession and Baptism. Seeing her, the Bishop said, "These are not the actions of a repentant soul. The first thing that a repentant soul would do is to change the way it looks. The possessed man who was liberated from the demons first put his clothes on and stood by Christ". Pelagia insisted that the Bishop did not pay attention to her, and running away cried out, "My soul unto yours if I die today". Pelagia returned to her house, and cried all night.
During the night, the Bishop saw a horrible vision of himself in Church giving a sermon on philosophy, and while speaking a dirty dove came close and disturbed him. The dove continued to distract him from giving his sermon by fluttering in front of him. He then saw a baptistery containing pure water in the centre of the Church in which he pushed the bird. It was immediately cleansed, and its beauty became stunning. The next day, the Bishop, discussing his vision with the bishops in the council, saw Pelagia and told her, "It would have been better for me to have accepted you, and then told you about chastity". Pelagia asked, "What must I do to save myself?" She was told to repent honestly, give away your treasures gained with sin, release her servants, and seek salvation as a nun.
Pelagia accepted the Bishop's instructions and went to the Mount of Olives dressed as a man, and lived a solitary life until she died towards the end of the third century around 284 AD. She was later the topic of repentance given in a sermon by St. John Chrysostom.
We are not asked why we sin; God knows why and knows that we have turned our backs to Him by being careless. The question is "Why do we remain in spiritual darkness?" St. Chrysostom answers, "To sin is human, to sin and repent is divine, to sin and not repent is diabolical, because we do the work of satan, which damages the soul".
In the fifth century, at the Mount of Olives, satan continuously attacked a desert father in his seventies. The monk told the devil, "You grew old with me, leave me alone". The devil replied, "If you do as I tell you, I will never try you again Stop calling and honouring her" as he pointed to an icon of the Blessed Ever-Virgin Mary. This is why the heretics are peaceful and quiet, because the devil does not try them hoping to make us believe that they are doing well. The person who tries and battles is tempted and attacked by the devil. You may have noticed that the heterodox churches on Sundays are quiet, whilst Orthodox churches are always noisy. In the heretic environment, the devil does not need to disrupt the services, whereas he always tries to disrupt the Orthodox services.
If you resolve to be more zealous in your worship and regularly pray, study the Bible and writings of the Church fathers, fast, go to confession, and save your money to give to the poor, you will discover that the devil will not leave you alone day or night. Alternatively, if you do not bother to make an effort to live an Orthodox life, the devil will not disturb you making you feel that he does not exist. Do you have courage?
A soldier, respectful of the Holy mother Theotokos, was not spiritually virtuous. One day he asked for the Theotokos' help, because he was very tired, hungry and thirsty. He then saw a graceful lady appear from a mountain, who told him, "You asked for me". He was afraid as she gave him a tray containing food and water. While he noticed that the food and water were filthy, the Lady told him, "It is hard to eat this filthy food even though you are hungry. How do you expect me to stay in your heart, which is full of dirt and sin?" It is essential that we struggle to cleanse our hearts and sow Christian virtues, so that the grace of God remains in us. It is then that our hearts will become a heaven on earth.
In the city of Larisa in central Greece, during the time of Turkish occupation, there was a poor father with a few children. One of his boys was in love with a neighbour's poor servant girl, who was noble and very graceful. The father asked the boy, "Why would you marry a rich girl, and not this girl who even though is poor is virtuous?" The boy replied, "I will do as you say, father". The 'wise men' of the town, however, hearing that the boy wanted to marry the poor peasant girl instructed him to marry a rich girl. The son did not listen and proceeded with the wedding, but the so-called wise men actively tried to break the marriage. The girl seeing what was happening told the boy, "I do not want to be an obstacle in your life. Do as you want". The boy told her, "I do not pay attention to their words", but they realised that they will not find any peace. The girl prayed and kissed an icon of the Theotokos and left the town with only what she was wearing. She walked some 70 kilometres to the coast where she asked a sailor to be taken to a deserted island. She soon realised that she was pregnant and later gave birth alone to a boy, and started begging God day and night to send her a priest to baptise the baby, and take Holy Communion. They lived on grass, water and whatever dried fruit they could find.
Thirty years later, a priest from Constantinople, returning from a meeting in Rome, was forced to go to the island during a disturbance on the ship. He wondered if there was any monastics living there and started to explore the island, whilst praying. As he walked, he noticed a well-worn track, which he followed until he saw a shadow and heard a voice saying, "Father, you have been sent here by God. Go back to the ship and gather all that is necessary to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and perform a Baptism". The priest returned to the ship, collected his vestments and came back to see the woman. He asked her, "Why are you here, and how have your survived here all these years?" She replied, "God has given me and my son, who is at the spring, strength. In the days, we do not feel the heat, and in the nights, we do not feel the cold. My clothes eventually wore out and our hair grew to cover our nakedness, and we have the birds for company". They then went looking for the son at the spring, but he hide himself after seeing the priest, because he never saw a man before. The woman told her son, "Do not be afraid, didn't I tell you that God will send us a priest to Baptise you and give us Communion?" It was at that spring that the Sacrament was performed on the son with a blinding grace as the young man cried with flowing tears. The man left the spring looking like an angel full of grace.
The blinding light of grace is present during the Holy Sacraments, although many do not sense it. Some years ago, for example, an old man who had visited the Holy Mountain for a few months asked to be Baptised. At the time of his Chrismation, someone took a photo. When the film was developed, a dove could be seen above the man's head, although no one saw it during the Sacrament. These sorts of miracles happen to those at the monastery everyday during Communion. The Bishops there have instructed us to spread this story, but not to tell people where the monastery is so that visitors do not inundate it.
It took thirty years before Christ answered the women's prayers and forty years before the Israelites entered the Promise Land. In both cases, those who are with Christ will be supported and will be encouraged in their struggle to find their Promised Land. The fundamental question is "Are we with Christ?" If not, God will be obscured from us. Our greatest insurance is not what you can purchase from a company, but is spiritual in nature.
We have great confusion inside and around us. We can, however, still communicate with people. There were four friends and one became a monk, whilst the other three remained in the world with their families. Eventually the three decided to search for the monk and try to convince him to return to the world. When they first saw him he was filling a bucket with muddy water from a well. The friends asked, "What have you found here, and what have you achieved by being here?" The monk told them "Look at the well; do you see anything?", and they answered "We see our faces". The monk quietly replied, "That is what I have achieved; to recognise and know my internal self-portrait. We know what is in the stars and in books, but we do not know what is in ourselves". They had not explored themselves, and they stayed away from our Savour Christ. Christ reveals Himself, extends His saving hand to our drowning souls, and yet we refuse to turn to Him. That is the Word, that is the Truth and that is the Life, who is the Doctor of our body and soul.
St. John Chrysostom said, "If you do not have money to buy the New Testament, go sell your body and become a slave to buy the Scriptures". The Scriptures are inexpensive these days. Therefore, it is better to be a slave who owns the New Testament than being a slave to sin.
In 1815, a French historian was in a city of western Greece. He was staying in a motel, where the guests gathered around a log fire for warmth. A boy was there waiting for the guests to fall asleep, and the Frenchman deciding to see what the boy would do pretended to fall asleep. Thinking that everyone had fallen asleep, the boy took some papers from his shirt and started to cry. He was reading handwritten homilies by St. Kosmas. In another paper, written by the poet Regas Ferreos, the boy read "People who raise their children with the ideals of faith can never be terrified". What are the ideals we raise our children with? They do not know the fundamentals of faith, and so suffer as we do.
A woman visited a theologian called Panagopolos in Athens and told him that her daughter knew how to play the piano, could speak English, and could put make-up on. The theologian asked, "Does she have possessions, property, or Christ?" The woman answered that her daughter only had Christ, and the theologian said, " she has a 'unit'. A unit placed in front of 'zeros' will give you an immense treasure".
I ask myself, "Do we have Christ?" Even if we can speak many languages and have large amounts of money, we will go to hell with our possessions. The blessed Fr Paisios said, "The most intelligent man is he who gives alms and is merciful. Such a man will die with his spiritual possessions. The silliest man is he who loves money. He is the greedy man who pays the devil to take him to hell".
We must live a virtuous life now in preparation for death, asking, "Will we be alive tomorrow?" It is a great art to be Orthodox, we must remain Orthodox until our death, and improve every day with our works of virtue. Our Orthodox faith and works of virtue will remain with us, and everything else will be left behind at death.
As is written in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom I pray that each of us will have "Christian ends to our life, painless, blameless, and of good defence before the fearful Judgement Seat of Christ ".
"They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work" (Titus 1:16).
from The Truth, November 1998
published by the Missionary Association of Our Lord
PO Box 1548, BOORAGOON WA 6954 AUSTRALIA