Little great saints
When Saint Paraschiva arrived and took residence in the icon corner, she brought along four friends on the very same icon, smaller and framing her. Saint Filofteia, I have already written about, but the other three were completely unknown to me, so I started to get to know them. Great was my surprise to find that although there are many icons depicting them and they are much loved especially in Romania, two of the three have no feast day in the Romanian orthodox calendar. The more I learnt about them, the more drawn I was to them. They are so little known beyond their homeland and yet so inspiring in their striving for God, that I felt they needed a place in the Stavronian.
The first of the three, seen in the middle of the icon is Saint Teofana Basarab. By her baptism name Theodora, she was born around 1310, daughter of Basarab I of Wallachia (southern modern-day Romania). She was given in marriage for political reasons to Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria, heir to the Bulgarian throne and took up residence with her husband in Lovech in Bulgaria. Lovech became under the influence of Theodora an important cultural centre, where byzantine manuscripts as well as manuscripts from Mt Athos were copied and translated. Theodora had four children, whom she raised in the faith. She was much loved by all for her gentleness, humility and virtue. Her husband became Tsar in 1330 and the new Tsaritza continued her tireless cultural and spiritual endeavours in Tarnovo, the capital. In 1347, Ivan Alexander tired of his wife and repudiated her. In order to avoid political conflict, she did not return to her father’s court, but retired to a monastery near Tarnovo and became a nun, taking the name of Teofana. Here she lived in humility and asceticism, accepting meekly all her misfortunes. The Tsar married his Jewish mistress and baptised her Orthodox, giving her his first wife’s name, Theodora. The new wife poisoned one of Teofana’s three sons, who passed away. Mother Teofana continued in her life of holiness in the monastery until her eldest son became Tsar of half of Bulgaria and then joined him at Vidin, the new Capital, where together with her daughter in law, she set an example of virtuous life and encouraged monasticism, founded a centre for compiling and popularising lives of saints, copying and translating spiritual works. The date of her death is unsure, but the holiness of her life was so great, that the Bulgarian church canonized her as early as 1371. Her feast day in the Bulgarian Orthodox calendar is the 28th October.
On the right of the tsaritza, mother, wife and nun, we can see Saint Theodora of Sihla carrying a cross, a saint who has found a place in the Romanian Orthodox synaxarion. Saint Teodora of Sihla, commemorated on the 7th August, was born around 1650 in an area of incredible natural beauty of mountains and forests in northern Romania. Her desire to serve the Lord took shape early on in her life, after the death of her only sister, but her parents did not agree that she should enter a monastery and gave her in marriage to a holy young man in the vicinity. Since the marriage was not blessed with children, both husband and wife decided to enter monasteries. They both received monastic tonsure in the same skete in Poiana Marului. In a few short years, Saint Theodora advanced greatly in obedience, prayer and asceticism. When the Turks invaded the Buzau valley, Theodora and her spiritual mother fled to the mountains. They lived for several years in fasting, vigil and prayer, enduring cold, hunger and many temptations from the evil one. When her spiritual mother passed away, the saint went to venerate the wonder working icon of the Theotokos in Neamt and was guided to seek spiritual advice from Hieromonk Barsanuphios of the Sihastria skete, who advised her to go and live alone in the wilderness for a year. “If, by the grace of Christ, you are able to endure the difficulties and trials of the wilderness, then remain there until you die. If you cannot endure, however, then go to a women’s monastery, and struggle there in humility for the salvation of your soul.” Together with her new spiritual father, Paul she went in search of a dwelling and moved in a cave on mount Sihla. Here she lived in complete solitude only seeing her spiritual father, who came to bring her the Holy Mysteries. She grew in asceticism and she would keep vigils all night long with her arms lifted up to Heaven and fed on herbs and drank water from a small channel cut into the cliff, known to this day as St. Theodora’s spring. As the Turks attacked villages and monasteries around Neamt and people started fleeing to the mountains, the saint gave up her cell and retired to an even remoter cave. Discovered by the Turks, the saint was miraculously rescued by the Lord and continued her spiritual struggles completely forgotten by the world into old age. Like Mary of Egypt, her clothes became rags and like the prophet Elijah, she was fed by the birds, often depicted on her icon. The monks of the Sihastria skete saw birds come to pick up bread and fly off with it in their beak in the same direction. Guessing that some ascetic might live in the vicinity and guided by the Holy Spirit, the Hegumen and two monks went in search through the wood. They saw a great light and as they approached, they found Saint Theodora levitating and shining with great light praying. The Saint had been praying for the Lord to send her a confessor and the Holy Mysteries. The next morning, two monks went to find the saint and Father Anthony heard her confession and gave her the Holy mysteries, after which St Theodora passed away saying “Glory to God for all things!” The monks buried her in her cave and her relics remained incorrupt. News of her death spread and people came to venerate her tomb. Her former husband, Hieromonk Eleutherios came to the cave and made a cell for himself in the vicinity, below the cliffs of Sihla, where he remained for the following 10 years until his repose. Saint Theodora’s relics were moved to the Kiev Caves monastery in the 19th century. The inscription on Saint Theodora’s scroll reads: “Life is blessed for those in the wilderness as they fly upon the wings of Divine love” (Sunday Matins).
The third saint of the icon is Saint Mavra of Ceahlau, who does not have a feast day in the synaxarion but who is much loved. She lived in the same area as St. Theodora on the Ceahlau mountain in northern Romania. Born sometime in the middle of the XVIIIth century, a record of her life is found in the writings of Fr. Ioanichie Balan. Raised by God fearing parents, Mavra (Mary at baptism) ached with love for God. She entered the monastery at 20 years old at the skete Silvestru. In a short time, Mavra became renowned for her humility, obedience, gentleness and unceasing prayer. Lover of silence, she built herself a little hut outside the monastery where she lived in solitude, joining the community only in the daytime and keeping vigil in her hut at night. She slept only for a few hours sitting up on a chair, ate very little dry bred and vegetables once a day and did hundred of metanias every day. As time went by, she withdrew deeper into the mountain in a clearing called to this day The Nuns’ clearing (Poiana maicilor). Here, she struggled with temptations and endured the bitter mountain cold, wind and snow. The nuns in the skete followed her to ask for spiritual guidance and built their own small cells around the clearing to be near her and join her in her vigils. Such was her gentleness and holiness, that all animals of the forest loved her and were tamed by her. Wherever she went, a deer followed her. She passed to the Lord surrounded by her spiritual daughters and was buried in an unknown place in The Nuns’ clearing.
The question that sprang to mind was how come these three saints are often depicted together when they are so different: one was an princess and queen, promoter of culture, long suffering wife and mother, the other two simple women, of whom only one had known wedlock, leading austere and ascetic lives. They are united, beyond their Romanian origins, by their great love of God, by willingness to take up His Cross and above all, by humility.
By Alexandra McC.