Wednesday, September 30, 2015

St. Simeon the Stylite

Երանելի Սիմէոն Սիւնակեաց
One of the more interesting saints that we commemorate in the Armenian Church (on the Monday of the second week of the Cross) is St. Simeon the Stylite, a monk who lived in Syria in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. The son of a shepherd, Simeon was born in Sis around the year 390.

At the age of 13, Simeon heard a reading of the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, which permanently altered the way he would live his life. At the age of 16, he decided to join a monastery where he lived an extreme form of asceticism, which resulted in alienating him from his monastic brothers.

He eventually left the monastery to continue his strict style of asceticism, first living in a hut, and then inside a circle of stones in the open air. He then constructed the first of 3 pillars, the final pillar being 60 feet high, with a platform about 6 feet square, on which he lived for 28 years!

It’s not entirely clear why St. Simeon climbed the pillar, but while living on its platform, enduring all weather conditions, he devoted his time to prayer, fasting, preaching, and ministering to pilgrims. As a result of him working with the sick, intervening for the poor, defending the oppressed, giving insight into the church politics of the day, and acting as an arbiter and counselor, his fame stretched all the way from Britain to the Persian Empire.

As they all come from every quarter, each road is like a river: one can see collected in that spot a human sea into which rivers from all sides debouched. For it is not only inhabitants of our part of the world who pour in, but also Ishmaelites, Persians and the Armenians subject to them, the Iberians, the Homerites, and those who live even further in the interior than these. Many came from the extreme west: Spaniards, Britons and the Gauls who dwell between them. It is superfluous to speak of Italy..

St. Simeon died on top of his pillar on September 2, 459, his body being discovered in a position of prayer. A mere 50 years after his death, inspired by the life and faith of St. Simeon, the Byzantine emperor Zeno had an enormous octagonal basilica and monastery complex constructed around the pillar (19 miles northwest of Aleppo, Syria), of which only ruins remain. The only writings that survived are of those who saw St. Simeon and disciples who served him.

As counter-cultural as his life may sound, St. Simeon the Stylite understood the counter-cultural nature of the Beatitudes, the cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian. Their message is the same today as it was when Jesus first delivered them. That is, there is a paradigm in which we are the center, and there is the Christian paradigm with Christ at the center.

Holy Simeon imitated his teacher, Christ. Calling on him, he made the lame walk, cleansed lepers, made the dumb speak, made paralytics move about with ease, healed the chronically ill. Each one he warned and exhorted, “If someone asks you who healed you, say, “God healed me”. Do not even think of saying, “Simeon healed me”, otherwise you will find yourself again in the very same difficulties.”

Today, we are called to the same kind of dedication as St. Simeon the Stylite. This is not a challenge or suggestion to live on top of a pillar (although a modern-day monk has taken that challenge). It is a call to live the Beatitudes, to follow Jesus, to remove the clutter from our lives, and whatever it takes, to sacrifice all distractions that would get in the way of being in communion with God and loving His creation.

Սուրբ Սիմէոն, բարեխօսեա՛ վասն մեր։
St. Simeon, pray for us!

For excerpts above and amazing stories about St. Simeon, get this book!

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Holy Cross of Varag

Holy Cross Monastery at Varag (photo: Vartan A. Hampikian)
“But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” ~ Galatians 6:14

In the Armenian Orthodox Church, there is a season of the Cross which begins with the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the Sunday nearest September 14th, and ends on the Sunday nearest November 18th. Within this season, there is a feast particular to the Armenian Church - the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varag, the celebration of the discovery of a true piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

According to tradition, in the 3rd century, St. Hripsime and her companions brought a relic of the Holy Cross to Mt. Varag when they sought refuge from persecution, and left it to the local priests for protection.

The location of the relic remained unknown until the 7th century, when a monk by the name of Totig had a vision of a cathedral with twelve pillars on the summit of Mt. Varag. In the midst of the cathedral was a radiating cross. The cross slowly descended down the mountain and rested over the altar of the monastery of Varag. Totig and his student Hovel rushed to the church and found that the vision revealed the location of the relic of the Holy Cross that St. Hripsime entrusted to the priests!

Catholicos St. Nersess the Builder certified its authenticity, and ordered that the Armenian Church dedicate the third Sunday of the Cross to venerating the Holy Cross of Varag, although today, the location of the relic remains unknown.

The hymn sung during the Morning Service of the Armenian Church on the Feast of Varag speaks of the significance of the cross of Jesus Christ to our Christian faith. (Translated by: V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan)

You shined today the light of your unspeakable divinity upon the Cross,
On the mount of Varag.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

You made known today the appearance of your awe-inspiring second coming,
By the sign of your Cross, beaming it on earth.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

You gave a sign to those who fear, and a weapon against the enemy.
With it, protect those who believe in your holy name.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

He adorned today the sign of the Cross,
With a heavenly light brighter than the sun.
Bless the Lord and exalt him forever!

He revealed today the redemptive sign to the angels,
By descending to the mount of Varag.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

Come all you saved by the life-giving Cross,
Bowing down to Christ our Savior upon it.
Blessed is the Lord God of our Fathers!

The cross... What was once looked upon as a torture device and instrument of death is now gazed upon as the source of healing and life. Through the eyes of faith, the mystery of the cross transforms our tragedies into blessing. Lord, we believe; help our unbelief!

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” ~ I Corinthians 1:18