April 12, 2011

Saint Neophytos the Recluse of Cyprus (+ 1219)

St. Neophytos of Cyprus (Feast Day - January 24 and September 28)

By Father Panagiotes Carras

St. Neophytos was born in the year 1134 of pious Orthodox parents who had eight children. His parents, Athanasios and Evdoxia, strove to impart to their children a love for our Lord. Evdoxia upon the death of her husband entered a convent. The family was extremely poor and the Saint had to till the fields with his father and was not able to attend school even for one day. When Saint Neophytos became eighteen years old, his parents, according to the custom of the time, undertook to arrange a marriage for him.

The blessed one, even at that young age, had come to understand the vanity of this world and his soul desired to give itself completely to our Saviour. He secretly departed from his paternal home and sought to find a monastery where his parents would not find him. He reached Mount Koutsoventes where he found a monastery dedicated to Saint John Chrysostom. When the Saint arrived at the monastery, the Fathers were in church and so Saint Neophytos entered. The Fathers were reading the first verse of the Book of Genesis, "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth". These words filled the Saint’s soul with a joy that he had never felt before. In his heart there was kindled the love of the knowledge of the Mysteries of God. He asked God to give him the Grace to understand the words of the Divine Books, for as we said earlier, he was illiterate.

The Holy Neophytos struggled devoutly in the monastery. He was obedient to the rule that he was given and supplemented it with trying to teach himself to read the Service Books of the Church. Cyprus, however, does not cover a great expanse and his parents soon discovered where he was concealed. His parents pleaded with him for many hours to return to their home and Neophytos as an obedient son agreed to follow them. Upon returning he immediately began to speak to them of his fervent desire to follow the angelic life. He appealed to them to grant him their blessing and when his parents saw the fervour of his faith, they acceded to his request. Once again he set out for the Monastery of Saint John Chrysostom.

On arriving, he sought out the abbot and begged him to put upon him the holy Schema of the monks. Wherefore, the righteous one was tonsured and was clothed in monastic garments. As soon as the service was completed the blessed one began to weep with joy and to kiss his new robes, all the while fervently praying that the Lord would give him the Grace to keep his garment pure. Saint Neophytos describes the joy that he felt at that moment in the following words: "Never has anyone been so captivated by their wedding clothing as much as I have by the wearing of the monastic garment."

In the monastery, the Saint was given the obedience to work in the vineyards. He remained in this service for five years, praying and studying the word of God night and day. Although unlettered, through the Grace of God he was soon not only able to read, but could recite by heart the Psalms of Prophet David. Here we see a great wonder. We know that Saint Neophytos had never attended a school even for one day and yet our Lord gave him such understanding that his writings can be compared with the works of the great Fathers of the Church. It is estimated that he was the author of many works totaling as much as five thousand pages. Currently scholars at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland are preparing to publish the surviving writings of Saint Neophytos. They expect that the publication will contain about one thousand pages. This great Father wrote interpretations to the Psalms, Song of Songs and the Six-day Creation. Included in his works are many Homilies, Hymns and Odes along with many letters written to the faithful. This is an accomplishment which can only be brought about by the Grace of God.

There are many events in the Saints life that witness to the fact that his gift was God-sent. On one occasion the righteous one was visited by a priest who had a great veneration for Saint Diomedes and requested that the Saint compose a homily on Saint Diomedes so that those who would hear it would be encouraged to emulate the Saint. The man of God, however, did not heed the priest’s request. Earlier he had decided not to write any more because some people inspired by Satan were scandalized by the abundance of the Saints writings. The priest would not leave the site of the cave. After twenty-four hours, Saint Neophytos, not wishing to be unbending, acceded to the priest’s pleas. That very night, Saint Diomedes appeared to the great ascetic and asked him to put his life in writing. When Saint Neophytos awoke he realized that this day was the feast day of Saint Diomedes.

After working obediently in the monastery’s vineyard for five years, he was given a blessing by the abbot to become the monastery’s ecclesiarch in which capacity he served for two years. At this time he asked for a blessing to become a hermit, but the abbot would not give this blessing. Obediently he continued in his position as ecclesiarch and then a year later the abbot approached him and told him that he was free to go and become a desert dweller. His desire was to go to the Holy Lands to live as an ascetic under the guidance of a desert father. Upon reaching the Holy Land he venerated all the holy places around Jerusalem. He then set forth northwards to the mountains of Magdala, Tabor and Jordan. During his six-month stay in the Holy Lands he sought out every cave and crevice in search of one to whom he could place himself under obedience. The fathers of the Palestinian deserts, however, had been driven away by the incursions of the Arabs and later by those of the Crusaders. In vain did the righteous one search for a spiritual guide. One day as he was asking for Gods direction our Lord appeared to him and spoke to him in the following words: "Not in this desert but go to another place where the king will descend and grant you a morsel."

Saint Neophytos returned to the Monastery of Saint John Chrysostom until he could determine to which desert our Lord was directing him. He learned that many desert fathers had fled from Palestine and Egypt to Mount Latros in Asia Minor. Once more with the blessing of the abbot he set out in search of the desert which his soul longed for. The Lord God in His wisdom and out of love for the Orthodox people of Cyprus did not allow the blessed one to leave the Island. When the Saint reached the port city of Paphos, he was arrested by the guards of that city who suspected that he was a fugitive. He was bound and cast into prison where he remained for a sufficient length of time. Certain Christians of the city learned of his situation and arranged for his release. Seeing this as a sign from God, he determined not to leave Cyprus.

Not having any particular place in mind he left the city and directed himself toward the highlands. North of Paphos, high on a mountain, he found a desert place with a steep precipice. On closer examination he was able to discern a small cave and immediately the Saint knew that this was the desert which the Lord selected for him. This cave was found on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, June 24th, 1159. He began cleaning and leveling it out, using his own hands or stakes that he found nearby. The site was extremely rugged and it took him about fifteen months to complete his task. On the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross [September 14th] his cave was ready. He dedicated it to the Feast not only because on that day his labours ceased, but more so in order to have the Cross of our Lord always before him. For the Saint, a monk had to be above all a Cross-bearer. He had a great love for the Holy Cross and this can be seen in the many hymns he wrote glorifying the Precious Cross.

Along with preparing a place to sit and lie down he also prepared his tomb inside the cave. Once the tomb was completed he inscribed underneath it the following: "You will gain no more than this, even if you should acquire the whole world." Truly the King descended here and granted His Saint much Grace. One may imagine the suffering and hard­ships of the flesh that Saint Neophytos must have endured in that desert place. These the man of God countered with readings from the Holy Fathers, prayers, prostrations, vigils and standing all night with his hands extended towards our Heavenly Father begging for a morsel of His Grace. Here he would remember that Paradise was lost because of sin and that man was a prince who had lost his inheritance. He would weep and lament for hours, pleading to regain Divine Sonship. He was no longer the Kings son but a stranger in a strange land, a captive in a foreign land. How could he not weep?

Within this cave he vowed to enclose himself giving it the name Enkleistra or Enclosure. He confined himself to physical darkness so that he may receive the Heavenly and Uncreated Light of the Most Holy Trinity. In a vision our Lord revealed to the Saint the time of his departure from this life. Our Lord first told him that he would be taken up to worship the Heavenly Cross in fifty years and then said that it would take place in sixty years. This extension was given so that Saint Neophytos would be able to make the faith of the Cypriot people firmer. The holy one then increased his ascetic struggles vowing not to eat cooked food and to wear chains on his body. Later he com­manded his disciples to bury him with these chains.

His fame spread everywhere and many flocked to him for his prayers and blessing. Those who loved this God-loving man came nearly every day and besought him fervently to become his disciples. After much pleading he consented to accept a few disciples, later commanding that his monastery never exceed eighteen fathers. The holy one avoided the esteem of men, but the all-merciful God, Who cares for the salvation of our souls, ordained that the Saint’s Grace become known to all. In a divine vision Basil, the Bishop of Paphos, was commanded by our Lord to ordain His Saint to the Priesthood. For four years the bishop, who had great love and veneration for Saint Neophytos, pleaded with him to accept ordination from his hands. Finally, in obedience the man of God received the Grace of the Priesthood. He was thirty-six years of age when through Gods Providence he entered the final stage of preparation which would make him the spiritual father of all Cyprus when the Latin cloud would descend upon it.

Every day during the Divine Liturgy he would receive the Sacred Mysteries which would restore the lost sonship. With his few disciples he started the construction of a monastery not too far from his cave. For thirteen years they worked unceasingly to build this future spiritual centre of Cyprus, as if the man of God knew what the Lord had ordained for him. The people of Cyprus were about to go through great temptations, but the Lord would provide them with the means to withstand. The funds for the construction of the monastery were provided by the Emperor of Constantinople himself and many other Byzantine nobles, as a Patriarchal document which survives to this day attests to.

The Saint called the fathers of the monastery the Enkleistoi or the Enclosed Ones. He diligently instructed them not only in the ways of ascetic struggle but also gave much attention to teaching them the Orthodox Faith. Not only did he insure that the monastery had as many writings of the great Fathers as possible, but he zealously endeavoured to acquire the Holy Relics of many Saints for the fathers to venerate and from which they would receive enlightenment.

The monastery was filled with many Holy Icons. Especially noteworthy are the frescoes depicting scenes from the Holy Gospels. It is at this point where we notice how concerned Saint Neophytos was to lead not only his monks but all Christ-loving people closer to our Lord. We observe that the Saint commanded the iconographer to include him in many of the icons. In the icon of the Mystical Supper he places himself next to Judas, in the Washing of the Disciples feet, near Saint Peter, and in the Descent from the Cross he puts himself in the place of Saint Joseph of Arimathea. This was done to set an example of how we should fervently desire to be inseparably united to our Lord.

On May 6th 1191, Richard the Lion-Heart invaded and captured Cyprus on his way to Jerusalem to take part in the Third Crusade. From this day on the people of Cyprus were ruled by non-Orthodox foreigners until 1958. Richard the Lion-Heart sold Cyprus to the monastic order of the Knights Templars, who in turn sold it to the deposed King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, in 1192. The Franks introduced the Feudal system and all Cypriots became serfs. The Orthodox Church was persecuted and all educated people and most bishops were forced to leave. Using similar methods in Southern Italy and in Sicily, the Papacy forced the people to become Roman Catholics.

Saint Neophytos, at fifty-eight years of age, was called on by God to undertake a new struggle as the spiritual guide of all Cyprus. In 1196, under the direction of Pope Celestine III, a Latin Metropolitan along with suffragan bishops were given the spiritual leadership of the people of Cyprus. This was the Papal policy in all the conquered lands where there were Orthodox. Saint Neophytos led the resistance against the latinization of Cyprus without going against his vow to remain in his cave. When it was necessary, he would write general epistles which were sent to the various parishes throughout Cyprus. On Sunday or a Feast day the priest would read the epistle to the people who had come to partake in the Divine Liturgy. The Orthodox Christians would heed the words of the Saint just as if they were coming directly from the mouth of God. The righteous one would instruct the faithful in all the matters that were needed for one to remain in the Faith. His letters would include admonitions against laxity regarding the holy fasts, the significance of the Great Feasts, and exhortations to stand firm in the current struggle against the Latins. On occasion he would also stipulate that an epitimion (penance) should be given for violating the Holy Canons. In one letter when he referred to the Crusaders coming to save Jerusalem, he wrote that it is similar to the wolves coming to chase away the dogs. In another letter he wrote: "Our country now is no better than that of a raging sea, under a great storm and tempest. Nay it is worse than a wild sea. For a calm succeeds the wildness of the sea, but here day by day the tempest increases and its fury knows no end."

Saint Neophytos observed that the growing numbers of the faithful and those who desired to attend to his teaching were depriving him of his cherished solitude. He decided that after forty years in his beloved cave of the Holy Cross he would have to leave and go higher up on the precipice. Placing a ladder on the ledge outside his cave he stood on top of the ladder and excavated a small opening which with time he enlarged so that it would become his new place of habitation. Once the new cave was complete he wished to make a ledge upon which he could walk. As the ledge was nearing completion, Satan, the hater of good, caused a boulder to dislodge and, as it rolled, it took with it the man of God. The Lord, however, wished to glorify His Saint even more and just as the Saint was about to roll off the ledge and fall to his death, the boulder was held back by the hand of God. Underneath the boulder the Saints right hand and part of his robe were caught whereas the rest of him was already over the ledge. The Fathers who were watching helplessly from down below glorified God for His mercy and rushed to dislodge the Saint from the boulder.

This new cave was named New Zion. There, he accustomed himself to living in total silence not even attending the Divine Services except on the Lords Day, on which day he would also instruct his disciples. At other times he would listen to the Divine Services and prayers of the fathers through a hole which was his only contact with the cave below. The Saint struggled in this way for a long time. He foreknew the day of his departure from this world, which he did not hide from his disciples; rather he summoned them and instructed them both verbally and in writing on how they were to continue after his departure. He also ordered that, after the funeral service, they bury him in the tomb which he had prepared and that it should be walled up and an icon painted on the wall because he wished his tomb to remain unknown. He also expressed his desire to be buried in the burial garments which he himself had prepared and with the chains which he always wore. He bade them live in peace and harmony and in a God-pleasing manner to obey the abbot they would elect. After he uttered these things, he prayed for them, gave them his blessing, and gave up his blessed soul into the hands of God.

The man of God reposed on April 12th, 1219* after having given the people of Cyprus the guidance which would assist them in resisting the efforts of the Papists to separate them from the Kingdom of Heaven. He had become a spring of living water that did not dry up after his departure from this world. The sixty years of his struggle in the Enkleistra, just as the Lord had foretold him, had come to an end. The Grace that flowed from that holy cave, however, would not cease. His presence was something the people of Cyprus always felt although for hundreds of years no one knew where his Holy Relic was.

Through the Grace of God its presence was revealed in the following manner. On September 27th, 1750, a certain monk who had thought that he found a hollow space in the wall of the Enkleistra was overcome by temptation and imagined that there was a treasure to be found behind the wall. That night he waited for the fathers to sleep and he went to the Cave of the Holy Cross with a pickaxe and made an opening in the wall. He was then struck down by a Divine hand. When he came to himself, he ran to the abbot to confess his sin. The abbot, realizing the true nature of the treasure that was found, summoned the other fathers and lifted the marble cover and immediately the cave was filled with indescribable fragrance. Since then the 28th of September is also kept as a feast day by our Holy Church.


* In 1854 the feast day of St. Neophytos was transferred from April 12th to January 24th, because occasionally April 12th falls during Great Lent or Holy Week.