April 26, 2017

Saint Stephen, Bishop of Perm (+ 1396)

St. Stephen of Perm (Feast Day - April 26)

St. Stephen, the Enlightener of Perm, was a contemporary of St. Sergius of Radonezh, one of the great fathers of Russian monasticism. The spiritual affinity of the two Saints is illustrated by the following incident, as recorded in St. Sergius' Life:

Once, when St. Stephen was passing near St. Sergius' monastery on his way to Moscow, he stopped and turned in the direction of the monastery with the words: "Peace to thee, my spiritual brother!" Seeing this with his spiritual eyes, St. Sergius, who at that moment was sitting in the refectory with his monks, arose, said a prayer and bowed in St. Stephen's direction, saying as he did: "Rejoice also, thou pastor of Christ's flock, and may the blessing of the Lord be with thee!"

Born in 1340, St. Stephen was the son of a cleric, Simeon of Ustiug, and his wife Maria. When Maria was only three, Blessed Prokopy, fool-for-Christ of Ustiug (July 8), foretold that she would give birth to a great hierarch.

From childhood St. Stephen was marked by exceptional abilities: only a year after beginning his studies he became canonarch and reader at his father's church. At the same time there blossomed in his heart a yearning to please God.

He was still quite young when he entered the Monastery of Saint Gregory the Theologian in Rostov where he was tonsured and ordained a hieromonk. When he wasn't busy with his obediences, the youth studied the Holy Scriptures and the Greek language. He became inspired with the idea of bringing the light of Christianity to the pagan Ziryans who inhabited the distant land of Perm on the western edge of the Ural mountains. In preparation for this missionary work, the Saint studied the Ziryan language and, after composing an alphabet based on Ziryan monetary symbols, he translated into that language from Greek the sacred texts. The head of the Moscow diocese at that time, Bishop Gerasim, blessed the young missionary and gave him necessary church utensils, while the Tsar provided him with a letter of safe conduct.

The preaching of Christianity progressed slowly. The pagans would have killed the Saint had they not been held back by fear, knowing that he carried a letter of safe conduct. On his part, St. Stephen tried not to miss any gathering of people as an opportunity to preach the gospel. Gradually the pagans began to engage in religious debates with him.

They didn't know what to think of his meekness, and suspected that it was a form of craftiness.

The young missionary was grieved by the Ziryan's hostile attitude towards the Christian faith. But he was patient in his labors and God answered his prayers and touched the hearts of the pagans with His grace; they began coming in crowds, asking for Holy Baptism. He also had a church built dedicated to the Holy Annunciation.

St. Stephen's success angered the old wizard Pamoi (Pansotnik) who began to reproach the Ziryans for having abandoned their ancient beliefs and listened to the young Christian. "Go," they told him, "argue with him, not with us." The wizard proposed to the Saint a test by fire and water to determine whose religion was better. The Saint agreed:

"You desire that which exceeds my humble powers, but I trust in the compassion and mercy of the All-powerful God. May those who witness the miracle be confirmed in their faith, and may you and your idols be forever disgraced!"

A hut was set on fire, and the Saint, having prayed and having asked the people for their prayers, turned to the wizard: "Let's go together, hands joined as promised." But Pamoi was terrified; even the jeering crowd couldn't persuade him to go in.

They proceeded to the trial by water. On the river two holes were cut into the ice; they were to enter through one hole and come out through the other. When the wizard again refused, the crowd cried out demanding his death. St. Stephen interceded to save his life, ordering him only to leave forever the land of Perm. And that was the last anyone heard of the pagan wizard Pamoi.

In 1383 Stephen was made the first bishop of Perm. He provided a strong foundation for the fledgling Church -- erecting many temples and monasteries, establishing schools for future clergy, teaching them himself, and showing an example of active charity in caring for the poor and unfortunate. When there was a famine in the area he collected bread and distributed it to the populace, free of charge. He sought the reduction of taxes and protected his flock from oppression by secular authorities.

St. Stephen died in 1396 while in Moscow on church business. He was buried in one of the Kremlin churches, a fact which greatly saddened his orphaned flock. The monk Epiphanius described their grief in his prose epic "The Lamentation of the Land of Perm" which forms the basis of the present Life:

"...Had we lost but gold and silver, these we could regain. But we shall never find another like you .... What right does [Moscow] have? She has her own metropolitans and hierarchs; we had but one, and she has taken him for herself. And now we don't even have a bishop's grave. We had only one bishop; he was our lawmaker, our baptizer, our apostle, our preacher, our confessor...."

Apolytikion in the Fourth Tone
Aflame with divine desire from childhood, thou didst take Christ's yoke, O wise Stephen. Thou didst sow the seed in a hardened people grown old in unbelief, and give birth to them in the gospel. Venerating thee, we pray: Entreat Him Whom thou didst proclaim, that our souls may be saved.

Kontakion in Plagal of the Fourth Tone
Thou wast found to be a Hierarch to those who sought thee not. Thou didst free thy people from idols and bring them to the faith of Christ. Thou didst shame the sorcerer Pansotnik and become first bishop and teacher of Perm. Wherefore thy people hymn thee with thanksgiving: Rejoice, wise teacher Stephen.