Wonderworking Ascetics

WE ARE AT THE END of the Fast of the Apostles and many who have observed this Fast will be happy that it is over. We prefer feasts to fasts and look forward to any fast-free days observed during the year. There are some, however, who make every day a fast day. They regularly adjust their diet and their activities, as the rest of us may do during a Fast. They are often the ones who will one day be recognized as saints.

Some saints, in the West or in the various Eastern Churches, have suffered for their faith, some to the extent of sacrificing their lives (the martyrs).Other saints are those who have brought the Gospel to pagan tribes or nations (Equals-to-the-Apostles) or have invigorated the life of their local Churches. At the end of a Fast, however, it may be most appropriate to recall some saints and saintly people who lived their whole lives in prayer and fasting (the ascetics) or in almsgiving (the merciful) to a noteworthy degree.

Holy Ascetics

When we think of a life of prayer and fasting, we tend to think of the monastic life. Not all ascetics live in monasteries, however (Mary of Egypt was not a nun), and not all monastics are ascetics. These ascetics from several Eastern Churches are those whose ascetical lives were confirmed by the miracles attributed to them.

St Kyrillos VI (1902-1971) was a middle class Egyptian Copt: an office worker who left his job and family at the age of 25 to enter the Baramous Monastery in the Nitrian desert. He was tonsured a monk in 1928 and ordained a priest in 1931 as “Father Mina.” He began serving all-night vigils and the Divine Liturgy daily from 2 to 8 am, a practice not common in the Coptic Church at the time. Three years later he began living as a solitary, first in a cave and later in the ruins of an abandoned windmill. He lived on bread, herbs and spices and the water he brought back with him on his weekly visit to the monastery.

It was during this time that his first miraculous healing was recorded. These healings so multiplied that some people considered him a sorcerer. “Within months,” the ascetic’s biographer writes, “Father Mina’s reputation… blazed throughout Old Cairo. A myriad of healings, prophecies, visions and unusual divine happenings surround the period.” Another adds, “No other period in the recorded history of the Coptic Church witnesses so many reports of unfamiliar and extraordinary events.”

From 1941 to 1959 Father Mina lived as an urban monastic, becoming a confessor to many. In 1947 he established a church in Old Cairo in honor of his patron; the next year he built a hostel for university students at the church. For the next twelve years he formed countless disciples at the church, inspiring many university students to monasticism and church service. Finally in 1959, he was elected patriarch. As Pope Kyrillos VI, he spearheaded the total renewal of the Coptic Church.

St Charbel Makhlouf (1828-1898) was the orphaned son of a Lebanese mountain family who, as a child, would spend the day in prayer while caring for the family’s small flock. Two of his mother’s brothers were monks and the youth wanted to follow them, but his mother objected. Finally, in 1851, the young man was able to sample the monastic life at the Maronite Monastery of Our Lady in Mayfouk. He ultimately took monastic vows at St Maron’s Monastery in Annaya, where he remained. Ordained a priest in 1859, Father Charbel remained at the monastery until 1875. For the next 23 years, he lived as a solitary at the monastery’s hermitage. He suffered a stroke while serving the Liturgy and died on December 24, 1898.

St Maron’s Monastery in Annaya has received hundreds of thousands of letters from people all over the world who want to share the news of miracles, cures and wonders performed by St Charbel. One of the hardest to explain away concerns Kevin Boustany, a Canadian who suffered from an eye and cornea infection and eventually lost sight in his eye. Kevin wanted to research his condition on the Internet. When he turned the computer on, a photo of St Charbel appeared on the computer screen with the following sentence next to the photo, “I will heal you and give you back your sight”. Kevin was shocked and immediately visited his doctor who examined his eye and testified that Kevin was indeed healed.

Kevin travelled to Lebanon to visit the tomb of St Charbel at the monastery of St Maron in Annaya and to thank God and St Charbel for his healing.

Kevin’s healing is not the only example of unexplained photos of St Charbel. On May 8, 1950, the hermit’s birthday, four Maronite missionaries came on pilgrimage to his tomb. Father George Webby, a Maronite priest from Scranton, PA took a photo of the four monks and the guard on duty. When the picture was developed, there was a mysterious monk with a white beard shown standing next to the missionaries. Experts ruled out trick photography. The oldest monks, who had known Father Charbel, recognized the monk in the picture as the saint himself, just as he had looked during the last years of his life. All subsequent portraits of the Saint were based upon this photo. St Xenia of St Petersburg (c. 1719-1803) An ascetic who was not a monastic, Xenia was the wife of a Russian military officer assigned to the capital, Col. Andrei Petrov. One evening at a party, Andrei suddenly fell over dead (perhaps an aneurism had burst). After his funeral, Xenia, 26 years old at the time, left the capital for eight years, some say, to live in a hermitage.

When Xenia returned to the capital, she gave away her possessions, including her house. She kept only her husband’s uniform, which she wore, and adopted his name. For 45 years, Xenia would wander the poorest sections of the city, consoling the poor and the homeless. At night she would go out to the fields to pray.

Known for her gift of sight, Xenia came to be recognized as able to foretell the future. People welcomed her into their homes in the hope that her presence would bring them a blessing. Any donations people would give her she passed on to the homeless. After her death, Xenia was often manifested to people and they began venerating her as a saint. An elaborate chapel was built over her grave.

One such manifestation occurred in California to a young biker who was looking for spiritual peace. He visited an evangelical church and was attracted by what he heard. Told that he should conquer the passions, he found that giving up biking was too hard for him, so he left the group. He was later involved in a serious road accident in which he lost his legs. An invalid, he took up again with some old friends, who were crashing in a run-down tenement. Once in an alcohol and drug fueled stupor, he found himself lying in a dumpster – his “friends” had thrown him in for a laugh. Depressed and at the brink of despair, he saw an old bag lady approach him. Glaring at him, she commanded him, “You know where to go, so go there!” He immediately thought of the church and set out to find it.

When he reached the church, he saw that it had been transformed by domes and crosses. The church was part of a group that had been received into the Orthodox Church. He saw an iconostasis at the front of the church and on it an image of his bag lady – St Xenia had brought him back to God.