Telling the Stories that Matter: June 25 – Peter and Febronia, Newlyweds, Prince and Princess, Committed to Each Other

Peter was the second son of Yuri Vladimirovich the prince of Murom in what we might now call Russia. Eventually he became the prince of Murom himself. He had been raised in the Christian faith by his family and friends and this provided him some comfort but it did not immediately address Peter’s most pressing issue: the leprosy he had contracted shortly before taking the throne. Each day presented fantastic opportunities for a prince like Peter and his faith instructed him to use his power to take care of those who had been outcast. He had a calling and was equipped to do God’s will for his life but he struggled daily under the burden of his disease. Likewise he prayed daily for either healing from or understanding of this burden. One night after many days in God’s service as prince of Murom he received an answer to his prayers that offered both healing and understanding. He was told that there was a woman who was the daughter of a beekeeper and a peasant named Febronia. If he would go to her, then she would work a wonder over him and heal him. Peter went to find her the next day.

When Peter saw Febronia he gasped at her beauty. As prince had been surrounded by pretty women who were both alluring and flirtatious.Yet in Febronia he saw something different–she was only a peasant but there was a beauty within her that seemed to shine only for Peter.For a moment he forgot all about anticipated healing and sought only to talk to this woman who so thoroughly captivated him. Each day he would return to her home only to rest in her presence and learn more and more of who she was and what she believed.He was encouraged to learn she was a Christian but was even more encouraged by the fact that she held no disgust for his leprous appearance and, in fact, seemed to see some beauty within him that had been made only for her. Peter told Febronia about his vision and she seemed humbled by the very thought that God would use her to heal a prince. She agreed to pray over him and to serve God’s will by fulfilling God’s promise of healing. But before she could pray, Peter asked her to marry him after she was done working God’s wonder over him. She agreed to his proposal and then prayed for his healing as his beloved fiance. Peter was healed at the request of his beloved–made whole by the love of another and the will of God–and soon the two were married.

There was one very big problem with this fairytale romance, however. The Russian nobles detested the very thought that a noble prince would marry a peasant. Even worse was Peter’s clear infatuation and devotion to Febronia who they viewed as an unworthy commoner. They came to Peter and they urged him to cast his peasant wife aside. They appealed to his sense of tradition and nobility but this proved unsuccessful.They encouraged him to be thankful to Febronia for the healing–perhaps even pay her handsomely–but not to persist in marriage to a woman unable to attain nobility by their standards. Peter stoutly refused and remained committed not only to his beloved wife but also to their common faith which taught them the value of devotion and vows. So, Peter and Febronia were forced out of Murom and they traveled by boat away from the city. In their travels and wanderings they knew that they were “home” as long as they were with each other. They performed miracles and wonders as they traveled and their reputation not only as wonder-workers but, also, as devoted husband and wife spread. They died as they had lived–together and within the same hour. They were buried in the same grave for they shared one life.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: June 22 – Alban, Protomartyr, Convert, Hospitable

It’s hard to guess why Alban had agreed to shelter Amphibalus. Maybe he didn’t know why Amphibalus needed a place to live or maybe he did and thought that he might be compensated for his charity.Perhaps, he wanted to be kind to a man who was obviously in need. Regardless, though he was a Roman soldier and loyal to the Roman gods and values, Alban invited the Christian priest Amphibalus into his home and gave him both a place to sleep and meals to eat. As is the case for those who demonstrate love through hospitality, he began to genuinely question Amphibalus on matters both mundane and essential. Soon, Amphibalus made it clear to Alban that he was a Christian priest and he carried with him a story greater than any Rome could offer. Alban was intrigued by the simultaneous confidence and humility of the priest and he listened attentively as Amphibalus both prayed and explained the Faith that was so dear to him. He learned that Amphibalus was on the run from the emperor and the terrible imperial decree of death and destruction for those who dared to swear their allegiance to any Kingdom besides Rome. Alban knew that his lords had labeled this man a traitor and criminal but the life giving story he told suggested that perhaps it was Rome that had it all wrong. Soon, Alban was converted to the faith of the priest and baptized. He had made a decision to condemn himself in the eyes of Rome for the hope of mercy and life more abundant.

The next morning Roman soldiers arrived at the place where Amphibalus had been hiding and they knocked on the door of Alban’s home with orders from the emperor. Before he opened the door, Alban made an important decision. He had heard the story of Amphibalus and the Lord Jesus and knew well that there is no greater love than to lay yourself down for another. So, he took the cloak and hood of Amphibalus while he slept and opened the door silently to greet the representatives of Rome on his threshold. They threw him to the ground and tied his hands behind his back. Alban offered no word to them and, instead, prayed that he might have courage enough to see his plan through to the bloody end. They brought him before the governor and he was beaten severely. As he was beaten his hood fell back from his face and his true identity was revealed. Not only was he not the accused priest but he was, also, a Roman soldier who had apparently allowed himself to be turned over into the hands of the Roman empire to protect a Christian priest. The governor was furious at being fooled and at the audacity of Alban to perpetrate such a scheme. He ordered Alban to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods so that, perhaps, he might have mercy on this fallen soldier. Alban shook his head and uttered the words that signed his death warrant: “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.” With his profession of faith he had sealed his fate.

He was beaten severely again and then forced to walk to the top of a hill where he would be executed. Being a Roman citizen he was condemned to decapitation at the hands of an executioner. As they walked to that lonely place of death his crimes were intoned to the crowds who watched questioningly. Each step deepened the conviction and shame in the heart of the executioner and he began to ask questions of Alban as to why he was going to give up his life instead of make the same sacrifice he had made so many times before. Alban told the executioner of his own faith and the fundamental conviction that gripped his heart:Jesus who had been executed had been the True God and had died so that sinners might find grace and true life in this world. The executioner was astonished at not only the words of Alban but, also, the confidence with which he walked to his certain death. When they arrived at the place of Alban’s death the executioner confessed Jesus as his Lord and refused to be a party to Rome’s imperial death sentence. He was arrested by the soldiers and held there to watch as a second executioner finished the task and made a martyr of Alban. Soon thereafter, the executioner joined him in martyrdom. Eventually, Amphibalus was caught, as well, and he suffered the same death in the same place for the same crime of allegiance to the same Lord.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: June 17 – John XXIII, Pope, Reformer, Friend of the Sick and Prisoners

On the ninth day of October, in the year 1958, pope Pius XII died from complete heart failure brought about by overworking and taxing himself in service to the Church. The death of Pius XII was entirely unexpected among the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church but soon they were meeting in conclave to select the next pope. Any Roman Catholic man was eligible for selection but there was one man in particular who was considered the likely successor to Pius XII: Giovanni Montini, the archbishop of Milan. The diocese of Milan was the largest Italian diocese and Pius XII had appointed Montini to serve as its archbishop because of a great trust he held for him. But, Montini was not a cardinal and was not present for the conclave. This made the potential selection of Montini uncomfortable for some of the cardinals.Though any Roman Catholic man was eligible– regardless of vocation, calling, or appointment–it was the usual practice of the conclave at the time to select a cardinal to become the next pope. Wanting to select Montini but unable to do so easily, they selected an older cardinal–Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli–to serve as pope. They expected that he would be a nice buffer between the nearly twenty year papacy of Pius XII and the very likely eventual papacy of Montini. Though Roncalli was selected as something of a stop-gap pope (Montini was selected to succeed Roncalli and took the name Paul VI) he understood it to be a powerful calling with important duties nevertheless.

Roncalli selected the regnal name of John even though it hadn’t been used in over 500 years. The last pope to use the name John had divorced himself from the other cardinals and from the pope to select their own pope and establish a different route of apostolic succession. This meant that the previous pope John was better known as antipope John XXII. By choosing the name John, and the number XXIII, Roncalli affirmed the antipapal status of the previous John while redeeming the name for use among future popes. John reasoned that the history and tradition of the name John was greater than that of one antipope who had strayed from the path. In doing so, John insisted that the Church’s work was comprised of both confession of sins and redemption. One of his first acts was a surprising one for any pope–let alone a pope who was 77 years old. He made visits to the local prison and children’s hospital to provide pastoral care for both the sick and the incarcerated. He laid his hands upon children with polio and lifted them up in his prayers and visited prisoners, insisting, “You could not come to me, so I came to you.” From the outset, John established his papacy as one concerned with others and the great commandment of loving others.

In his short tenure as pope–a little less than five years–he also began the process of renewal and reformation within the Church he loved and served. It was at John’s insistence that the Second Vatican Council was convened and conversations were begun about how best to reach out ecumenically and how best to approach and address a rapidly changing world. John was unwilling to see his beloved Church fall behind in its calling to love the world and so he sought to renew and reform it. Under John’s leadership, the Church began to accept that some things might have been done wrong in the past and that stoic refusal of change was neither Christian nor acceptable. John himself would not live to see the end of the Second Vatican Council but it would be finished under the guidance of his successor pope Paul VI (Montini–made a cardinal by John’s efforts). John died on the third of June in the year 1963 having served the Church he loved with devotion and great pride even though he was thought of as little more than a “place holder” at first. Even now he is remembered for his ecumenical efforts and his insistence of the primacy of love and compassion when interacting with the world and those in need.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: June 12 – David of Gareji, Missionary, Monastic, Worker of Wonders

David was Syrian by birth but he found himself far away from home in a cave atop a mountain near Tbilisi in Georgia. It hadn’t been his idea to go to Georgia but, rather, it was the idea of his teacher and spiritual father John of ZedazeniDavid trusted John completely and when John received a vision in which he was told the story of Nino and called to become a missionary to the people who dwelt in that foreign land of Georgia, David was willing to follow. After many years, he found himself living with his only disciple in a cave above Tbilisi. There were some of the worshipers of Ahura Mazda (what we might call Zoroastrians) in Tbilisi and David had been treated roughly and contemptuously by them each week when he had gone into the city to preach as was his practice. But the other six days of the week he spent in his cave praying for the inhabitants of the city–that they might be converted to the Love and Lordship of God as demonstrated in Jesus. He prayed for those who persecuted him and fasted every Wednesday and Friday so that he might teach his body to submit to God’s will. Every night, he would rise weeping from his prayers to go to the precipice near his cave that overlooked Tbilisi and raise his hands in blessing over the city that hated his presence but desperately needed to be loved. For many years, his prayers seemed to go unanswered as the crowds he preached to seemed utterly uninterested in what he had to say with only a very few exceptions.

One day when he went into Tbilisi to preach there was a crowd of people waiting for him. Among them were some of the Zoroastrian leaders and priests who were evidently shielding some person from his eyes. When he began to preach, they interrupted him and the crowd turned to see what they had resolved to do. From among them came a prostitute who was clearly pregnant. David knew her because he had preached to her before about the love and forgiveness of God and the high calling of the same. She insisted that the baby was David’s because she had been paid by the priests to lie and slander David. David was hurt and surprised but he had faith that God would not allow him to beslandered in such a way if it didn’t serve God’s purpose in some mysterious way–not after all the seemingly unanswered prayers uttered upon that cold mountain he called home at God’s calling. David reached out his staff and touched the abdomen of the woman and commanded her unborn child to speak the name of its father. He didn’t know if it would work but he trusted that God would work a wonder if this was God’s will. The crowd was awestruck when they heard a small voice name the name of another man and their awe turned to rage as they realized the sham they had just witnessed. The crowd picked up stones and stoned the woman as David screamed his horror at the thought and begged them desperately to stop. After the crowd had dispersed, David and his disciple left Tbilisi never to return and moved into the Gareji forest.

They took up their monastic lives in the forest and God provided for their every need. They were fed by the herbs and produce of the land and by the milk and meat of deer that God sent to provide for them. In their huts, they prayed for Georgia and for the people with whom they came into regular contact. Though they had moved away from Tbilisi, people began to come to David seeking a miracle or a wonder. The blind regained their sight and the sick were made whole when they came to David and soon his reputation as a worker of wonders and preacher of truth spread throughout the countryside. In what seemed like no time at all, David was the teacher of many disciples whom he cared for and taught the way of life more abundant and free. He taught them the power of prayer in sure confidence that his prayers upon the mountain near Tbilisi had been answered on God’s time instead of his own. He built a monastery in the forest and called those who had been converted to take up monastic lives of service and prayer. God had done great things through David because David had been willing to trust when everything seemed questionable.David had wondered and questioned but he had persevered in his trust even in the darkest times. Even after David had passed on, the work God had started through David continued.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: June 7 – Bessarion of Egypt, Wonderworker, Monastic, Sinner

The priest was surprised to see a certain man in attendance at worship. Everybody knew that the man was a notorious sinner whose sins and brokenness were hidden from nobody. The man didn’t make any effort either to change his ways or do as others did and cover over his sins with a thin facade of sweet words and superficial works. His presence made the priest nervous because he knew that other clerics would be prone to judge him if he didn’t demonstrate a certain measure of discipline. He would be labeled lax and permissive if it wasn’t evident that he cared about the sins of his flock enough to teach, guide, and discipline them. Added to that was the presence of Bessarion of Egypt in the congregation that day. The priest had heard the many fantastic stories about Bessarion and feared that Bessarion would be sorely disappointed in him if he didn’t do something. After all, Bessarion was known to fast extensively and pray constantly. He was known to work wonders both in the wilderness and the cities of Egypt. He was a spiritual master that received but did not demand the admiration of the Christians–especially the clergy–in Egypt. So, the priest was anxious and knew he had to make a decision.

Bessarion had traveled to Jerusalem as a youth to see for himself the sights and wonders of the holy land. He learned the ways of the monastics from the monastics themselves and spent some time studying under Gerasimus. As a youth he was worried that he would be take the grace that God had given him for granted. So, he endeavored never to allow the memory of his baptism to slip far from his thoughts. He returned to Egypt and apprenticed himself to Isidore of Pelusium. To tame his tongue, he often went long stretches of time under a vow of silence. To teach himself to hunger and thirst for righteousness, he fasted regularly and, occasionally, for many days. To teach himself of his regular need for refreshment of soul that only came from God, he willingly went without sleep on more than one occasion. In other words, he was serious about his development into a disciple of Jesus Christ and strove to put his body and mind under submission to his Lord. Because of his great closeness to God, he was given many spiritual gifts to manifest God’s glory. When asked, he would exorcise demons from those afflicted by spiritual oppression but would only do so in private because of his own desire to avoid taking any of the credit for the great thing God did through him.

Bessarion looked on with interest as the priest seemed so evidently anxious and distressed. Bessarion noticed that the priest’s eyes kept returning to a man who sat nearby as the time of prayer and worship quickly approached. Knowing that there were other clergy in attendance, Bessarion deduced that this man’s presence disturbed the officiating priest. Then, the priest did something surprising even to Bessarion. From before the congregation, the priest told the well known sinner that he should leave because his sin was unwelcome. The priest must have thought that this was a clear move that demonstrated holiness and exceptional standards but he must also have been surprised when Bessarion stood up and excused himself, as well. All eyes turned to watch Bessarion make his way toward the exit–even the eyes of the outcast man. The priest was surprised and asked Bessarion why he was leaving. Bessarion shrugged and responded, “You were asking sinners to leave. I’m a sinner, too.” With those words, he opened the door and left the service to be with the outcast sinner and find both Jesus and the Church once again.

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