Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Saint Peter of Atroa (+ 837)

St. Peter of Atroa (Feast Day - September 13);
photo shows Mount Olympus in Phrygia, known today as Mount Uludag

Verses

Peter was inclined towards the release from the flesh,
Approaching God as an unbreakable rock.

He was born in 773 near Ephesus, the eldest of three children. His given name was Theophylact. At eighteen, he determined to become a monk and joined Paul the Hesychast at his hermitage in Phrygia after being instructed to do so through a vision of the Theotokos. There he took the name Peter. On the day he was ordained several years later in Zygos of Greece, at the door of the church he cured a man possessed of an unclean spirit. This was the beginning of his numerous miracles.

The two of them started a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but, because of a vision, they went instead to Mount Olympus in Bithynia. There Paul established a monastery at the Church of Saint Zacharias in the area of Atroa. The monastery grew quickly, and Paul named Peter, who was now 32 years old, as his successor on the former's death in 805.

The monastery flourished, but after ten years Emperor Leo V the Armenian was in power, and supported the Iconoclasts in their efforts to destroy holy icons. Peter was forced to disband the monastery for the safety of the monks during these persecutions, himself traveling first to Ephesus and later Cyprus. When he returned he found he was a wanted man. He escaped the imperial troops seeking him by miraculously making himself invisible, and wandered with a companion named John from place to place. He visited his own home where his brother Christopher and widowed mother received monastic habits from his hands.

His reputation as a wonderworker and spiritual father who was a clairvoyant had become widespread by this time, and he was rarely left to pursue the secluded life he sought in peace. He wandered throughout the area in his efforts to find seclusion, ultimately finding some privacy in the area of Korakesion, also called Kalonoros, in Cilicia. He made several journeys to various points in western Asia Minor and each was punctuated with a miracle.

Upon the death of Leo V in 820, the iconoclast persecution dissipated, permitting internal struggles within the Church to rise to the forefront. One of these involved accusations by several bishops and abbots that Peter was a magician and exorcised demons not by the power of God, but rather the power of Beelzebub. Peter tried to convince them otherwise, unsuccessfully, and ultimately had to seek the help of Theodore the Studite in persuading them. Theodore was living in exile with some of his monks at Kreskentios, on the gulf of Nicomedia. When he had made careful enquiry and questioned Peter closely, Saint Theodore wrote a letter to all the monks around Mount Olympus, declaring that the conduct and doctrine of Peter of Atroa were irreproachable and that he was as good a monk as could be found. The detractors were thus rebuked, and the vindicated Peter returned to Korakesion. This letter survives to this day.

Peter then returned to the Monastery of Saint Zacharias, which he renovated, and helped to reorganize two other monasteries he had established. During this time, he himself resided at a hermitage in Atroa. Iconoclastic attacks broke out again, more virulent than before, and Peter again found himself having to disperse his monks, successfully doing so just barely before the local iconoclast bishop arrived to forcibly remove them. Peter himself left to reside with a locally famous recluse named James, near the Monastery of the Eunuchs on Mount Olympus. While living with him, Peter cured Saint Paul the Bishop of Prusias of a fever, who had been driven from his see because he was an iconophile. This was ascribed as a miracle at the time, but was apparently accomplished by doing nothing more than giving Paul a good, nutritious meal.

Iconoclast persecution increased in the area, obliging Peter and James to leave for the safety of the Monastery of Saint Porphyrios on the Hellespont. Peter later left for the Balea Lake area, where he visited his friend and fellow opponent of iconoclasm Ioannikios before returning again to the Monastery of Saint Zacharias. A few weeks later, Saint Ioannikios had a vision. In it he was talking with Peter at the foot of a mountain whose crest reached to the heavenly courts. As they talked, two shining figures appeared and each grabbed one of Peter's arms in order to lift him upwards in a halo of glory. At that same moment, while his monks were singing the night office, Peter died at Atroa after lovingly addressing his brethren one last time, on 1 January 837.

The life of Saint Peter was written by one of his disciples at the Monastery of Saint Zacharias, whose name was Savvas, and who wrote several lives of saints from this time who lived in the area of Mount Olympus in Bithynia.

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