Okay, I might get in trouble here. In my last blog post we looked at the spiritual benefits of reading the lives of the saints, both daily short biographical pieces and longer books.
But, to be super honest, I’ve gotta admit that a few saints’ stories leave me scratching my head. Some of the saints seem . . . well, a little weird to my modern mind. Or maybe a lot weird.
Better than a Poke in the Eye with a Sharp Stick?
I remember maybe 11 or 12 years ago when I was new to Orthodoxy, I had begun incorporating various disciplines. I planned menus so that our family could follow the fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, and I began using the daily readings and morning prayers for my quiet time. During the cool of the summer mornings I prayed and read while sitting in my painted adirondack chair in the garden, lining up little laminated icons on the armrests. I didn’t know I was supposed to pray while standing in front of our icon corner.
I used my spiral-bound book of Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints, and one day, early in the journey, I came across this odd little gem, the story of the Holy Virgin Mastridia. Her feast day is November 24, so I’ll read that day’s entry from The Prologue of Ohrid:
Mastridia lived in Alexandria and led a solitary life of prayer and handiwork. A young man, burning with bodily passion toward her, constantly harassed her. Not wanting to sin before God, and since she could not easily be rid of this unrestrained youth, St. Mastridia once asked him what attracted him most to her. He replied: “Your eyes!” Mastridia then took the needle with which she was sewing and put out her eyes.
The story concludes, “Thus, Mastridia preserved her peace and the young man’s soul. The young man repented deeply and became a monk.”
Umm, okay. . . . And they all lived happily ever after?
I think the original version I read said that she poked out her eyes with knitting needles, not a sewing needle. Either way, what in the Kingdom was I supposed to do with this?
I couldn’t see how deliberately maiming oneself, and in such a way that St. Mastridia would be dependent on those around her for the rest of her life, could glorify God.
I had a general idea of how people become saints in the Orthodox Church—actually, this topic would make a good future blog post. The Orthodox saint-approval process is less bureaucratic than the Roman Catholic way. The people around a godly person testify to the holiness of his or her life, ask for their prayers, and sometimes miracles happen. Saints kind of bubble up from the grassroots of the laity, and over time the Church recognizes what the people have already proclaimed.
So, that meant that after blinding herself, St. Mastridia must have lived a life so devout and prayer-filled that the folks in her parish, family, friends, and townspeople recognized her saintliness. But we don’t have any information about that. The OCA website finishes her bio with the statement, “Saint Mastridia finished her life in works for the Lord.”
The only specific detail is the poking-her-eyes-out bit.
Okay, maybe that was a one-off. Definitely weird, but I kept reading on, day after day, learning of the zeal, godly leadership, and martyrdom of St. Clement and others. Their inspiring stories filled me with gratefulness for their examples.
Of Hermits and Holiness
Many of our greatest saints have lived in monasteries, some even as isolated hermits. And this whole hermit choice I simply could not understand. With my Evangelical background, I was taught that everyone is supposed to share the gospel as much as possible, with the understanding that this is almost always a verbal exchange, often involving a prayer formula and sometimes with a lot of pressure applied. This requires living in the world, not withdrawing—we called it “being in the world, not of it.”
But over time I began to see that the only reason we know about many of these isolated, obscure believers is that God led others to them. Saint Mary of Egypt is a prime example. She is so revered by the Church that an entire Sunday of Great Lent is devoted to her. She spent 26 years repenting in the desert, completely alone until St. Zosimas, journeying into the desert to fast and pray, found her and marveled at her holiness. Because of this divinely led encounter, we know her story and her example of self-denial and deep repentance.
Still, my Western, practical mind said, Wouldn’t it have been more profitable to her if she had repented while serving the poor in a nearby city? She could open a lentil soup kitchen and be of use.
Then a different voice in my head asked, “Would she have been the same holy person if she followed a different path?” Wellll . . . maybe. But maybe not. We know only the path she actually took, which led to the entire Church venerating her, learning to repent, and seeking her intercessions.
As I thought about St. Mary and other saintly runaways from society, briefly I wondered if I really valued prayer and repentance as much as more measurable things. But I didn’t ponder that too long.
I was too scandalized by . . .
Peculiar People on Pillars
Two days after reading about St. Mastridia and her needles, I came upon one of the stylites, Venerable Alypius. A stylite is someone who lives on a pillar, from the Greek word spelled style, probably pronounced “steel.” According to OrthodoxWiki, “These holy saints would remove their bodies from the ground for days, months, or even years in order that they might pray and fast better.”
Stylites remove their bodies from the ground because . . . why? Okay, there’s yet another lifestyle (no pun intended) that I simply could not relate to. Retreating to a cave I can almost understand, or hiding out in a forest to fast and pray.
But what about service to others instead of selfishly concentrating on their own salvation? The article about stylites continues, “This did not mean that they were cut off from the world. On the contrary, many people came from far and wide to learn from them.”
The first stylite, St. Symeon, was born in 390. He was already well known for his holiness and asceticism before he ascended his first pillar. Many people came to him to ask for his blessing and for healing.
The Church historian Theodoret of Cyrrhus wrote that St. Symeon became so famous in Rome that nomadic Arabs by the thousands believed in Christ and were baptized, the King of Persia sent envoys to interview him, and the Queen asked for oil that he had blessed.
Talk about evangelism! But somehow I think this method won’t become popular in the 21st century.
Pilgrims kept interrupting St. Symeon’s prayer, so rather than expanding his teaching ministry, he pursued prayer above all. He made his pillar 10 feet tall and kept raising it higher and higher, until he was 50 feet off the ground. Saint Symeon spent 40 years on his pillar and died at age 69.
Another stylite, St. Daniel of Constantinople, lasted only 33 years on his pillar. He was a counselor of emperors, and Emperor Leo the Great loved him so fervently that he brought royal guests to meet St. Daniel.
And don’t get me started on the saints who are known as Fools-for-Christ, who battled the sin of pride by feigning insanity, often exposing evil through metaphorical words and actions.
None of these odd saints fit into my understanding of the Christian life and of being a good witness. I don’t know what my future holds, but there is zero probability that I will be spending it on top of a pillar.
The Principles behind the Peculiar
I grappled with these stories until a priest in my first Introduction to Orthodoxy class gave me a key to understanding these unusual lives of saints.
His message to the class was, “Don’t worry about the odd details of the saints’ lives. Look for the spiritual principle behind their behavior.”
And just like turning a key in a lock, that focus on principle helped me realize that the weird saints have a lot to teach me.
Thanks, Fr. John.
With St. Mastridia and her needles, you may have been reminded of Matthew 5:29, where Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”
There, Jesus was stating the principle of taking drastic measures to remove anything from our lives that causes us to sin. But Mastridia took literal action, not because she herself bore any guilt for the beautiful eyes that God gave her, but because she didn’t want to lead a young man astray.
In Romans 14:21, St. Paul tells us, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.”
Through her shocking deed, St. Mastridia shows me how singular her spiritual vision was: to pursue Christ in a life of prayer, even at the expense of her physical vision. She rid herself of all distraction and also cared enough about the man who harassed her to remove the barriers to his own pursuit of Christ.
I still don’t recommend poking your eyes out for any reason. But she didn’t ask my opinion.
Then there are the hermits. Initially they seemed to me to be wasting their lives. But when I think about them more deeply, I become uncomfortable. Do I honestly believe in the power of prayer, or is that just a spiritual-sounding set of words? Are my priorities really heavenly, or am I just a materialist with utilitarian values?
True, like St. Mary of Egypt or St. Seraphim of Sarov, God allows some of these spiritual loners to be known to the outside world, and they have blessed millions of people over many generations, through their words and examples and through their prayers for us even now.
But we know of only a handful of these isolated ascetics from each century. How many of these thousands of monastics can we name? Elder Ephraim of Arizona, who died in 2019, established 19 monasteries in the U.S. and Canada. Of the hundreds of monks and nuns who labor and pray in these places today, how many can you name? I can name one abbess. That’s it.
These people don’t author best-selling books or speak to stadiums full of believers. And yet, we will never know on this side of heaven how their prayers have sustained the Church and North America through their devotion and love for Christ. They teach me the significance of a quiet life lived in Christ, away from a society—and a Christian subculture—that values words and noise and numbers and attention seeking.
God knows the names of these quiet contemplatives.
And St. Mary of Egypt—26 years of repentance? That seems excessive. What happened to asking God’s forgiveness, claiming victory, and going along our merry way, rejoicing? Her extremism, her unseemly religiosity, reveal the truth that repentance is a lifetime pursuit, and that theosis—becoming freed from sin and united with God—takes time and discipline. Transformation in Christ does not come cheaply, and we must conquer our passions with prayer and effort on our side, all through God’s grace.
As for the stylites . . . Well, I’m still not quite sure about their life choices. And once again, they didn’t seek my approval. They sought God’s, subjugating their bodies in all weathers, pursuing salvation with radical focus. As a result, and not as a goal, they blessed the entire world and brought thousands to Christ.
The Fools-for-Christ seem to my rational mind to be poor witnesses of the Faith, but those around them recognized their holiness. And they often spoke prophetically, with knowledge of people’s thoughts and intentions. I definitely don’t have those gifts. But one look at any of their lives shows me that I often am more concerned about others’ opinions of me than God’s. I want too much to fit in.
If I will listen, they will show me my pride and direct me to Christ above all.
The Power of Weird
This seems to be the overall principle that I need to learn from these outcasts, these strange ones: Christ above all—above rationality, above acclaim, above comfort, above polite religious society.
Their lives demonstrate the power of Christ, in all their weird and distinctive glory.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to discovering more weird saints. I need them to challenge me.