November 9, 2017

Saint Theoktiste of Lesvos (+ 881)

St. Theoktiste of Lesvos (Feast Day - November 9)


Offspring of Lesvos virgin Theoktiste,
You approached God the Creator as an all-beautiful bride.

Theoktiste was born on the island of Lesvos and was tonsured a nun at the age of seventeen. The savage Saracens attacked this island and enslaved all who fell into their hands including Theoktiste and her sister. When the Saracens brought the slaves to the market place on the island of Paros, Theoktiste escaped from the crowd and hid in an abandoned church in the middle of the island known today as Panagia Ekatontapyliani where she lived a life of asceticism for thirty-five years. She entered into rest in the year 881. Her life was recorded by Niketas the Magistrate in the early 10th century.

Life of Saint Theoktiste of Lesvos

By Niketas Magistros (early 10th cent.)

I was once on the island of Paros. I happened to land there while sailing to Crete, dispatched by the pious emperor of blessed memory, the truly fortunate emperor who took with him to the grave the good fortune of the Romans. I was being sent on a campaign with the renowned Himerios, the most excellent general and commander of the dromos and of the entire fleet and, to speak more truly, of the passions themselves. But lest I dishonor the man by making the account of his campaign, which deserves many praises, secondary to this story, after this brief reference to him here, I will pass over in silence his achievements, which are beyond words. For I will remember the general in due time, while now I will go on with the present story.

I was sent partly to campaign with him and make progress in the exercise of command, skipping along, like a colt by the side of its mother, toward the mastery of the best strategies — for such was the intent of my late emperor — and partly to serve as an ambassador to the Arab conquerors of Crete. But as I was approaching the island of Ios, the onset of headwinds halted our advance and we sailed towards Paros, to observe incidentally the situation of the island and to see the Church of our Lady the Mother of God, which is there.

Having come to anchor in the harbor that faces toward Naxos (this harbor gets deeper gently and gradually and naturally retreats from the waves, as if it were built for that purpose, being enclosed in the hollow of the mountain, so that ships can pass the winter or the summer there comfortably), we disembarked and, after a short walk, arrived at the church. We burned incense, offered the customary prayers, and walked around the church in wonder. For it was indeed worth seeing and preserved vestiges of its old beauty. Built in perfect symmetry on all sides, it was supported by numerous
columns of royal marble. Every wall was covered with sawn marble similar to that of the columns. The artisan had carved (lit. “woven”) the marble so fine as to give the impression that the wall was dressed in cloth of fine linen. The marble gleamed with such translucence and sparkle as to surpass even the luster of pearls. That is how superior was the marble or rather the zeal of the artisan who strove to bestow additional beauty on nature.

But when we saw the ciborium over the venerable and holy altar inside the gate of the sanctuary, we were astonished at the delightful sight. For the carving did not seem to be made of marble nor wrought by hands with iron and skill. Instead, as if it had been made out of milk mixed with the juice of the fig tree (in order to thicken) and had been cast in the shape of a canopy. Made of such stone I saw once (a statue of) Selene [i.e., the goddess of the moon] driving a chariot drawn by bulls. The ciborium lay broken in pieces and we ran up to it and stood before it, uttering all manner of curses and revilement at the man who smashed it, for it was surely a treasure and an heirloom and offering worthy of the house of God.

While we were standing there in amazement, crying out against the man who shattered it, all of a sudden we saw coming toward us a monk who had emerged from the wilderness and was stepping forward from the grove. His face was pale, his cheeks drawn, his feet bare, and he was all shriveled up. He was wearing a hair shirt, a cape and headcover similar to the shirt, and a leather belt around his waist. He was as hairy as a beast, as kind as an angel. For he did not look like a man who lived on bread, but like someone without flesh, almost without blood, in a word, like the abode of virtues or even of God Himself. As he approached, he greeted us and we greeted him in return and urged him to tell us who he was, about his homeland and family lineage, and whether he lived here alone. “I have nothing to say,” he answered, “about a homeland and family lineage and all the other things upon which city-dwellers pride themselves. Nor do I have any worldly concerns or find pleasure in things transient. God is my father and master for Whom alone I live and practice asceticism. For His sake I have persevered for more than thirty years, wandering alone in this wilderness. My name is Symeon and my rank is that of a lowly monk, priest, servant, and minister of the living and bloodless sacrifice.”

Out of respect for the man’s virtue, his words, his appearance and monastic habit, as well as for his asceticism, but above all for the fact that he was a priest of God, we fell at his feet and begged him to pray for us and for the forgiveness of our sins on the day of judgment. He both prayed and spoke words of comfort. He urged us to take heed to ourselves and not to be discouraged, saying, “God is compassionate and long-suffering and receives into His arms those who return like the prodigal.” By these and other such words he comforted us and then he fell silent. I, however, being more inquisitive and anxious to know better the man’s character, begged and implored the great man to instruct us about some of the things that are mysterious to us, for he seemed to me to be in communion with the Divinity. But he said, “Enough of this! I have not yet been deemed worthy of such revelations. I withdrew to this wilderness to mourn my sins, not to seek what is above me.”

I cannot tell whether he was feigning or telling the truth when he said this. Nevertheless, he seized my hand and pressed it, as if he were an old acquaintance; this is what his simple disposition prompted him to do. For when the souls of great men are in communion with the highest power, they strive to become like it and, through communion with the Original Good, they become good in every way, pure, simple, removed from all our affectations, just like this great man who, by being gracious and good, appeared in his unaffected manner to be one of us. And then, on a sudden impulse, he asked me to sit down. There were some fallen blocks and columns as well as thick green grass and a spring gushing out fresh water and the whole place was filled with quiet and was suitable for godly tales.

Having sat down on the grass and seated me beside him, he seemed to be pleased with our chance encounter. So I looked at him and said, “Now is the time, father, for you to tell me anything good and deserving to be recounted that you may have witnessed here. But do start by telling me first who was the man who broke the cover of the divine altar and what beastly soul dared to smash such a masterpiece.” (For I had in mind to lead him little by little to more exalted topics.)

He answered thus: “Have you heard of the notorious Nisiris, the commander of the Cretan navy? He came here in person and, astonished at the beauty of the ciborium, planned to carry it off to Crete. He measured the doors of the sanctuary and then this holy and divine ciborium and decided that the deed could be easily accomplished. He lowered the ciborium to the ground and was dragging it to the doors of the sanctuary to take it out, but the ciborium immediately grew in size. He dug through the wall and, after taking the measurements, he tried again to take it out. But the ciborium kept getting bigger and bigger and this happened many times until the Arab gave up. Since despite his efforts he failed to attain his objective — for it seems that the divine object did not deign to be defiled and become an instrument of foul sacrifices, for rumor has it that he was eager to dedicate it to the mosque of the Agarenes — he went into a frenzy and decided to smash it.” When I heard this, I railed at that murderous and thrice accursed one. But the holy man said, “Never mind! He was indeed punished for his insolence shortly thereafter. His ship was dashed to pieces against the cape of Euboea called Xylophagos and he perished beneath the sea.”

I then begged that holy man to partake of our food and to relieve our anxiety over the voyage and its progress. For we feared that we were wasting time because adverse winds were blowing against us. He partook of our food and without concealing anything, he said to me: “You will sail across to Naxos and after lying in harbor there for one day, you will sail away on the second day and reach Crete on the third, without having to fear any hardship. You will carry out your mission in accordance with your wish and the emperor’s order, and when you return home you will be well received by him who sent you.” All this was indeed fulfilled and accomplished later as he predicted. For, after praying and singing hymns at the church, we went down to the ships with the great old man, and early the next morning we crossed over to Naxos, the width of the strait being approximately ten stadia.

The holy man celebrated the divine liturgy, administered to us the holy mysteries, and partook of food with us. Then he began to speak to me as follows: “You may perhaps offer some excuses regarding a request that I wish to submit to you, my devout friend. You may claim the lack of literary training or your concern about your duties or the care of your wife and children and home, or you may find some other reason for evading my request. But I promise you happiness and prosperity and an abundance of everything and much leisure. And I implore you to remember my words at that time and write down what occurred here, for it deserves to be remembered and recounted so that our God may be magnified and glorified by those who hear this story. For the psalmis> says, ‘God is wonderful in His holy places’. Moreover, many will emulate those glorified for their virtue and obtain equal rewards and you yourself will be rewarded because of them.”

After these exhortations, he began his tale: “A few years ago some hunters came here from Euboea, for the island of Paros has an abundance of game, deer, and wild goats. One of the hunters, a pious man who was very much concerned with his salvation, recounted an extraordinary story of the majesty of God Who performs at times strange and wondrous works. ‘Once upon a time,’ said this hunter, ‘I came here to hunt and, as was my custom always, I went up to worship and pray at the holy church of the Mother of God. Having said my prayers, I looked around and saw a few lupine seeds soaking in water in a shallow hole in the ground — for they grow on this island, just as other plants grow on other islands. One island produces an abundance of fennel with its widely spreading shoots, while another produces only rue, and another savory or thyme or some other herb. But each island has its special product that grows and flourishes there better than anything else — as I was saying, I saw the lupine seeds being softened and I reckoned that someone, no doubt, had placed them in that hole and that he must be a holy man to live in this wilderness. I was thinking of this as I hastened to catch up with my companions who had already advanced into the forest, and I was praying that I would come across this great quarry, for I was hoping to gain therefrom something very important.

‘Having bagged a lot of game, we started our return to the ship. But while my companions walked in the direction of the sea, I turned aside to pursue the object of my prayer. I went into the Church of our Lady and, as I was praying, I saw to the right of the church’s holy altar something that resembled a thread being blown by the wind. I thought at the moment that I was seeing a spider’s web, but when I decided to step forward and determine what was there, I heard a voice saying, “Stay man! Do not go further, nor come closer! For being a woman, I am ashamed to show myself to you in my nakedness.” When I heard this I was astounded by the unexpected voice and wished to flee. For the hairs rose on my flesh and were sharper than a thorn. For when something unexpected appears suddenly, it enthralls the spirit, and even if one thinks of himself as fearless, when taken by surprise, he stands with his mouth agape. When I recovered, I plucked up courage to ask who she was and how she came to be living in the wilderness. Again a voice reached me saying, “Throw me a cloak, I beg you, and when I have covered myself, I will not hesitate to tell all that God bids me.” Right away I took off my outer garment, left it and ran out the door. She took it, put it on, and when I returned after a while, I saw her standing in her original position.

‘She had the shape of a woman but the appearance of a superhuman being. Her hair was white; her face was black with an underlying tinge of whiteness; the skin alone kept the bones in place, for there was hardly any flesh. She was almost a shadow, the shape alone resembling a human being. When I saw this, I was afraid, I trembled, I reproached myself, I cursed the ill-timing of this encounter, for by being over-curious I was left behind by my companions. Trembling all over, I threw myself on the ground, begged for her prayers, and entreated her to bless me. She first turned towards the east, wishing perhaps to set my mind at ease so that I would not suppose she was an apparition, and stretching up her hands she prayed in a faint whisper. Then she turned to me and said, “May God have mercy on you, sir! But for what reason did you come to this wilderness? What necessity has brought you to an uninhabited island? But seeing that the divine will brought you here — for the sake of my humility, I believe — I will tell you all about my life, as you requested.”

‘Again I prostrated myself on the ground, begging her to go on with her story, and she began to tell me about herself thus: “My homeland is Lesvos, the city of Methymna. My name is Theoktiste and I am a nun by profession. Having been orphaned while still a very young child, I was entrusted to a nunnery by my relatives and assumed the monastic habit. When I was nearly eighteen years of age, I went to a village near the city to visit my sister during the Pascha season, for she lived near that village with her husband. But one night, Arabs from Crete under their leader, the notorious Nisiris, raided and took everyone prisoner. At dawn, after chanting the song of victory, they set sail and came to anchor at this island (of Paros). They brought out the prisoners, and started to assess and settle the price of each prisoner. But I made up an excuse and, going toward the forest, I fled running into the interior of the island. Indeed, I did not stop running until I had torn my feet to pieces, piercing them with stones and sharp twigs, and had stained the ground with my blood. Exhausted finally, I collapsed half-dead and spent the whole night in misery, unable to bear the pain from my wounds. But in the morning when I saw the abominable people sailing away, I was released from all pain and filled with so much joy as I cannot describe. And since that time — a little over thirty-five years already — I have lived here, subsisting on lupine seeds and other herbs that grow in the wilderness, or rather on the word of God, keeping in mind the divine saying that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. I am naked, of course, for the ragged habit in which I was taken prisoner was torn to pieces, but I am dressed and covered by the hand of God which sustains the Universe.” With these words, she raised her eyes to heaven and gave thanks. She stood at a distance for a while and then, as she saw me staring at the ground very quietly, not even daring to look at her, she started to speak again: “I have told you my story, sir. I ask you now to repay me with one favor for the Lord’s sake. Whenever in the coming year you are going to sail to this island for hunting (I know for sure that you will be back, God willing), place in a clean vessel a portion of the most pure gifts, the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. For since I began to live in the wilderness I have not had the privilege of receiving this gift.’ Having said this and enjoined me not to tell anyone at all about our meeting, she sent me back to my companions with her blessing. I agreed to fulfill all her requests and left rejoicing because God had satisfied my longing, finding me worthy to attain such treasure.

‘In accordance with the command of the blessed woman, when I was again ready to go hunting with my companions for deer and wild goats — the latter are numerous on the island of Paros and grow bigger than on any other island, a marvel to behold and describe. For their skin is almost like that of deer, but they are bigger in size than deer and their horn is up to sixteen palms long. Unlike that of deer, it is not embellished with offshoots and branches, but the entire horn is straight and protrudes in one piece — as I was just saying, when I was about to sail away and go on a hunt, I took in a small box a portion of the divine flesh of the Lord to bring to the blessed one. But when I reached the island and turned aside to the house of the Mother of God, I failed to find her. Whether she was there but hiding because some of my companions had come up with me to the church, or was not there I cannot tell; only that I did not find her. The others then hurried to the forest to start hunting, but I slipped away and returned to the church. Right away, the holy woman appeared wearing the cloak which she received from me on my previous visit. As I threw myself on the ground, she ran toward me and in tears called to me from afar: “Never do that, sir, when you are carrying the divine gift! Do not burn me, wretched that I am, by dishonoring the divine.” Taking hold of my tunic, she helped me to my feet and I took from my bosom the small box with the Lord’s flesh. And she, falling to the ground, received the divine eucharist and lamenting and watering the earth with her tears, cried out, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation. For I have received in my hands the forgiveness of my sins. Now I shall go wherever Thy power ordaineth.” Having said this, she stretched up her hands to heaven for a long time and sent me back to my companions with her blessing.

‘We hunted for a few days, bagged an abundance of game, and started out on our return. My companions hurried down to the boat, but I ran to receive the blessing of the blessed one as a companion on my journey. When I came to the church and looked around for her, I saw her lying dead on the spot where I had previously seen her. Falling to the ground, I kissed her venerable feet and watered them with my tears, and then remained there speechless for a long time wondering what to do. It would have been sensible and expedient as well, if I had begged God with tears and implored the blessed woman and asked them how to dispose of this matter properly and, in accordance with their decree, ministered to the divine command. Had I failed to obtain this divine guidance, I should have done the next best thing, as they say, I should have told the story to my companions, and with their assistance placed in a grave the remains of the blessed one and sung the burial hymns as best we could. But it seems that prudence is not an easy prey. Hence I, too, failed to do what was right and proper. Out of boorishness and simple-mindedness — indeed, being a hunter and an ignorant man, I could not have thought of anything different — I did a foolhardy thing, because of faith, as I believed, but it seems that it was not pleasing to God. For I cut off her hand, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and went back to the ship.

‘Late that evening, we put out from the land, set sail, and were on our way. Since favorable breezes were blowing, we were flying, so to speak, before a fair wind, and expected to reach Euboea by morning. But at daybreak we found ourselves back in the same harbor, as if the ship were held fast by an anchor or a sea monster. Fear and terror seized us all, and we looked at one another trembling, as we sought to determine the cause of this delay. We examined and questioned one another to find out whether we had committed an unforgivable offense and were held back for that reason. While one man said one thing and the other said another, being at a loss, I realized what a foolhardy thing I had done and, escaping the notice of all my companions, I ran up to the church, placed the hand by the saint’s body and returned to the boat. After giving words of encouragement, I started on my journey with my companions. When we were far out at sea — for the ship was flying like a bird, with the sail bellying out with wind, on a straight and unimpeded course — I told my companions what had happened; how I had found the blessed one and how she had recounted the story of her life and about the holy communion and her death. I also told them that I had boarded the ship the previous evening with the saint’s hand in my possession and that for this reason perhaps we were held back although we expected to sail away. And that now we were rightly proceeding on a straight course because I had put the relic back.

‘Having heard this, they reproached me a great deal and, putting the ship about at once, they hastened to return to Paros. All of us together went running up to the church. Fearful and trembling, but with the confidence of faith we approached and found that the place where she had been lying preserved the shape of her body, so to speak, but her corpse had vanished. Dismay and terror seized us all and we ran hither and thither, looking round about carefully lest she had been moved or come back to life. We ran around the entire forest and the groves seeking to discover if that divine treasure was perhaps hiding somewhere. We were wretched and foolish and thick-skinned men, running after what can never be captured, for we were altogether uninitiated into the miracles of God. We were not troubled by thoughts of the miracle of Elisha who, standing in the middle of the men sent by the Syrian king to arrest him, remained undetected, for he enveloped them in blindness and led them to Samaria and delivered them to the king. Not to mention the great miracle-worker [Gregory the Wonderworker] who, by turning himself into a tree while he was praying on the mountain, escaped the men tracking him down to arrest him. So, having failed to find the remains of the blessed woman, we went back to the ship, weighed anchor and went home, glorifying and praising God Who works wonders and miracles always.’”

Cell of St. Theoktiste in Paros

The blessed and great man [Symeon] recounted these things just as I related them above and received my sworn assurance that I would not cast them in the depth of oblivion nor would I make up excuses for keeping silent about the miracle, fearing both divine retribution and the wrath of the blessed one. When I inquired about the year and day of her death that it might be written down together with the miracle and that her commemoration might be celebrated, the holy man answered: “As you see, my friend, many details were left out of my account. For I should have discussed her lineage and all her ascetic exertions and suffering on the island and how she struggled against the assaults of spiritual enemies. But what can I do? The man who met the great Theoktiste was not like the great Zosimas who knew how to investigate the lives and struggles and achievements of saints; on the contrary, he was a man of the mountains, obtuse and ignorant of such things. This alone he remembered, as he said, that her death occurred in the fall, around November. Still it would be desirable to write down the Life of the blessed one and not bury it in the depth of oblivion. As for her commemoration, important people and zealous admirers of the saint will, no doubt, assign to it a feastday at the proper time, as they please. For what additional fame and glory can eulogies and celebrations bestow on those who have inherited the kingdom of heaven and the everlasting blessings, which things the hosts of angels desire to look into, except, of course, that eulogies can add zeal to persons of understanding and glory to God and the blessing of those saints who are commemorated. For they whose life glorified them are rightly blessed and honored when their life is proclaimed.” With these instructions and gentle admonitions that great man sent us on our way. And since the winds were fair, we reached the island of Dia on the following day.

This was the conspicuous profit of our visit to Paros, this was the unexpected gain of our Cretan expedition, that is, this Life of the blessed Theoktiste, this story of her ascetic discipline and her contest and battle against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. As for me, I have come forward to honor obedience and to repay a debt. What will the benefits of this be? Many and various, but the following three will be the most important: it will serve as a hymn, thanksgiving, and praise of God Who brings about and bestows these blessings; the saint will be pronounced blessed as a result of this eulogy and her memory will be honored and acclaimed every year; and Jesus Christ our munificent and great God will bestow on us who wrote it a lavish reward for our zeal, through the intercessions of His all-immaculate Mother, the Theotokos, the godlike angels and all the saints. For His is the glory together with the Father and the all-holy Spirit, now and unto everlasting generations. Amen.

From Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints' Lives in English Translation, translated by Angela C. Hero.