St. Irene Chrysovalandou icon
Orthodox icon of Saint Irene of Cappadocia, Deaconess of Chrysovalandou.
Commemorated July 28.
This Orthodox icon shows Saint Irene who was the daughter of a wealthy family from Cappadocia, and was born in the ninth century. After the death of her husband Theophilus, the empress Theodora ruled the Byzantine Empire as regent for her young son Michael. St Theodora (February 11) helped to defeat the iconoclast heresy, and to restore the holy icons. We commemorate this Triumph of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday of Great Lent.
When Michael was twelve years of age, St Theodora sent messengers throughout the Empire to find a suitably virtuous and refined girl to be his wife. St Irene was chosen as a candidate along with her sister. While passing Mt. Olympus in Asia Minor, Irene asked to stop so she could receive the blessing of St Joannicius (November 4), who lived on the mountain. The saint, who showed himself only to the most worthy pilgrims, foresaw the arrival of St Irene, and also her future life. The holy ascetic welcomed her and told her to proceed to Constantinople, where the women monastery of Chrysovalantou had need of her.
Amazed at his clairvoyance, Irene fell to the ground and asked St Joannicius for his blessing. After blessing her and giving her spiritual counsel, he sent her on her way. When the party arrived in Constantinople, Irene's relatives met her with great ceremony. Since the steps of a man are rightly ordered by the Lord (Ps. 36/37:23), God arranged for Michael to marry another girl a few days before, so that Irene might be free to become a bride of Christ. Far from being disappointed, Irene rejoiced at this turn of events. Remembering the words of St Joannicius, Irene visited the Monastery of Chrysovalantou.
She was so impressed by the nuns and their way of life that she freed her slaves and distributed her wealth to the poor. She exchanged her fine clothing for the simple garb of a nun, and served the sisters with great humility and obedience. The abbess was impressed with the way that Irene performed the most menial and disagreeable tasks without complaint. St Irene often read the Lives of the Saints in her cell, imitating their virtues to the best of her ability. She often stood in prayer all night with her hands raised like Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 17:11-13).
St Irene spent the next few years in spiritual struggles defeating the assaults of the demons, and bringing forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). When the abbess sensed the approach of death, she told the other nuns that they should not accept anyone but Irene as the new abbess. Irene was not told of the abbess's instructions, and when she died the community sent representatives to go and seek the advice of the patriarch, St Methodius (June 14). He asked them whom they wanted as their superior. They replied that they believed he would be guided by the Holy Spirit. Without knowing of the late abbess's instructions to the nuns, he asked if there was a humble nun by the name of Irene in their monastery.
If so, he said, they should choose her. The nuns rejoiced and gave thanks to God. St Methodius elevated Irene to the rank of abbess and advised her how to guide those in her charge. Returning to the monastery, Irene prayed that God would help her to care for those under her, and redoubled her own spiritual efforts. She displayed great wisdom in leading the nuns, and received many revelations from God to assist her in carrying out her duties. She also asked for the gift of clairvoyance so that she would know what trials awaited her nuns. Thus, she was in a better position to give them the proper advice.
She never used this knowledge to embarrass others, but only to correct their confessions in a way which let them know that she possessed certain spiritual gifts. Saint Irene had many gifts including clairvoyance. She was visited by saints and angels who guided her. She could see the needs of other who came to her for spiritual help and because she knew even what they would not tell her, she could give them effective direction. St Irene performed many miracles during her life we will account for one here. On great Feasts it was her habit to keep vigil in the monastery courtyard under the starry skies. Once, a nun who was unable to sleep left her cell and went into the courtyard.
There she saw Abbess Irene levitating a few feet above the ground, completely absorbed in prayer. The astonished nun also noticed that two cypress trees had bowed their heads to the ground, as if in homage. When she finished praying, Irene blessed the trees and they returned to their upright position. Afraid that this might be a temptation from the demons, the nun returned the next night to see if she had been mistaken. Again she saw Irene levitating as she prayed, and the cypress trees bowing down.
The nun tied handkerchiefs to the tops of the two trees before they went back to their places. When the other sisters saw the handkerchiefs atop the trees, they began to wonder who had put them there. Then the nun who had witnessed these strange events revealed to the others what she had seen. When St Irene learned that the nun had witnessed the miracle and told the others, she was very upset. She warned them not to speak of it to anyone until after her death. Irene kept the feast of St. Basil especially holy because they both came from Cappadocia.
After the feast day of St. Basil, during the third watch of the night, she heard a voice saying, "Welcome the sailor who brings fruit to you today and eat it with joy; let your soul rejoice;" followed by a similar voice during Matins saying, "Go to the door and bring in the sailor who is visiting you." She invited the sailor in and greeted one another, and stayed until the end of the Liturgy. After Liturgy, Irene enquired after the sailor's journey, to which he replied, "I am a sailor from Patinas and I joined a boat coming to this town for business.
As we were passing the coast of that island, we saw a very old man on the shore who called to us to wait for him. We could not because we were near the rocks, so with a good wind behind us we left. He then shouted all the more loudly ordering the boat to stop. This it did at once. Then he came to us walking on the waves and soon entered the boat. Then taking three apples from beneath his cloak, he gave them to me saying, 'When you go to the capital, give these to the patriarch and tell him that the Almighty sends them to him from His beloved disciple, John.' After that he took another three and asked that these be presented to you, the abbess of Chrysovalantou.
To you he said, 'Eat these and all that your beautiful soul desires will be granted you because this gift comes to you from John in Paradise.' Having said this he blessed God, wished us well, and disappeared." Irene offered a prayer of thanksgiving, with tears of joy, for St. John the Theologian, the Apostle, Evangelist, and beloved disciple of Christ. The sailor asked for a blessing and left the monastery. Irene fasted for a week, thanking God for the apples. After this, she ate small pieces of the first apple daily, without any other form of sustenance, for forty days; when she ate, she smelt as if she was exuding myrrh; during this time, the remaining apples became more beautiful and aromatic.
On Holy Thursday, she directed her sisterhood to receive Communion; after the Liturgy, the second apple was divided between them; when eaten, so sweet was the taste that the sisters felt as if their souls were being fed. The third apple was kept until Irene would know what to do with it. On Holy Friday, during the singing of the hymns of the Passion, Irene had a vision of countless radiant angelic beings entering the church: some with stringed instruments, singing beautiful hymns to God; others with goblets of myrrh, to be poured onto the altar, which filled the monastery with a wonderful fragrance. Among these beings was a particularly majestic man, a face radiant like the sun, who was treated with devotion.
He approached the altar and, taking the shroud offered to him by the other beings, covered the now-fragrant altar. The angel who stood by the altar, with great sadness, cried out to the majestic one, "Until when, O Lord?" to which a voice replied, "Until the second Solomon, when the heights will be united with the depths and all will be one. Then the Lord will be exalted and the memory of Irene will be glorified." Irene took this as confirmation of her teaching that no one, whether herself or another of the sisters, could be glorified until they achieved the Kingdom in death. Irene gathered the community, reiterating the necessity of running from worldly honor to achieve and behold the glory of God.
On July 28, St Irene called the nuns together in order to bid them farewell. She also told them to select Sister Mary as her successor, for she would keep them on the narrow way which leads to life (Matthew 7:14). After entreating God to protect her flock from the power of the devil, she smiled when she saw the angels who had been sent to receive her soul. Then she closed her eyes and surrendered her soul to God. At the all-night vigil, there were so many people rich and poor that the monastery gates had to be closed by force.
The next day, at the funeral, the even larger congregation was amazed at the beauty of Irene, who was over 102 years old. Throughout the funeral and burial there was an unexplainable and indescribable fragrance filling the monastery. In some parishes it is customary to bless apples on the feast of St Irene Chrysovalantou.
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