Orthodox America

  St. Irene of Chrysovalantou

Commemorated July 28

   The beautiful daughter of an aristocratic family from Cappadocia, Irene was to be betrothed to the heir of the Byzantine throne, Michael, son of the saintly Empress Theodora (reigned 842-855). When, on reaching the imperial city, she learned that Michael had married another just days before, she rejoiced, for she was now free to pursue her heart's desire, choosing for her bridegroom the King of kings.

      Entering the well-ordered convent of Chrysovalantou, Irene readily parted with the accustomed privileges of her noble rank, and sought eagerly that stilt more exalted state which is attained through humility and self-abasement. She voluntarily undertook the most menial and unpleasant tasks, such as cleaning the toilets, and impressed the sisters with her submissiveness and concern for others.

      While still a novice, Irene manifested an extraordinary power of prayer. The abbess, assured that Irene was safeguarded by her humility, blessed her desire to keep all-night vigils. At times she stood motionless for a full twenty-four hours at a time, as if, while still in the flesh, partaking of the life of the fleshless ones. Such a discipline evoked the ire of the demons, but Irene deflected their attacks by immediately confessing any wayward thoughts to the abbess and attributing every success in this battle to the power of God. Thus she became a purified vessel of the Holy Spirit and led many--peasant and noble alike---to the love of Christ.

      When the abbess fell ill and sensed her imminent departure from this world, she expressed the wish that Irene become her successor. Her choice was confirmed by the clairvoyant patriarch, Methodius the Confessor, who, without knowing Irene nor having been appraised of the abbess's wish, was guided by the Holy Spirit to appoint Irene as the community's new superior. With the enthusiastic approval of the sisters, he ordained Irene as deaconness and raised her to the rank of abbess. As for Irene, in her humility she was overwhelmed by what she felt to be her inadequacy in taking on such a responsibility, and she redoubled her spiritual efforts, for which she was rewarded by yet greater wisdom and prophetic insight in the supremely difficult task of guiding souls to a blessed eternity.

      The Saint's charismatic gifts revealed themselves in many miracles. Numerous souls ensnared by the evil one were rescued through her prayers. Among them was a beautiful young novice whose former fiancÚ had employed a wizard to cast a spell over the girl, causing her to become suicidal. The abbess enjoined the community to fast and pray for a week. During that time her fellow countryman, St. Basil the Great, appeared to her in a vision and advised her what course of action to take. Later in the week, the wizard's magical aids---including figurines of the girl and her fiance were miraculously delivered into St. Irene's hands, and when these were burnt--they emitted shrieks from the fire-- the novice was delivered.

      Another case involved a young man, Nicholas, a gardener there in the convent, who was seized by a mad desire for one of the nuns. He so lost control of himself that during Divine Liturgy he attacked the priest. Sharply ordering him to desist, St. Irene fell beside the boy in fervent prayer. She then seized him and hurled him to the ground, commanding the demon to leave the boy in peace. The boy was immediately released from his mental captivity and returned to work, guarded from similar demonic attacks by a strict rule of life which the wise abbess gave him together with the advice to call frequently upon the protection of the holy angels.

       While still alive, St Irene appeared in a dream to .the Emperor, who had imprisoned one of her noble relatives, falsely accused of plotting to take the monarch's life. She boldly threatened to turn the emperor over to the King of kings for punishment if he did not straightway release the unjustly condemned man. Identifying herself as the abbess of Chrysovalantou, Irene, she struck the emperor so hard that he awoke from the pain. The emperor questioned his prisoner and, convinced of his loyalty, released him. But not before sending an artist to Chrysovalantou. He returned with a likeness of the abbess, whom the emperor recognized as being indeed the woman in his dream. Thereafter, the emperor and his wife held the Saint in great esteem and enriched her convent with their benefactions.

      While St. Irene tried to conceal her spiritual feats from human eyes, it pleased God to reveal a measure of her sanctity. One night a nun, unable to sleep, went outside into the monastery courtyard where, to her astonishment, she found the abbess engrossed in prayer, levitating several feet above the ground. When, in addition, she noticed two cypress trees standing with their tops bowed to the ground before the abbess, she was sure it must be a vision. The next day, however, the sisters noticed handkerchiefs tied to the tops of those same trees, and the nun then related what she had witnessed.

      One day there came to the convent a sailor from the island of Patmos. He had come at the bidding of a mysterious old man who had given him three apples which he was to deliver to the abbess of Chrysovalantou with these words: "Eat these and all that thy beautiful soul desires will be granted thee, for this gift cometh to thee from John in Paradise."

      Thanking God and His beloved disciples for such a wondrous gift, Irene spent a week in prayer and fasting before tasting one of these paradisical fruits. For the next forty days she partook daily of this first apple, neither eating nor drinking anything else. During this time the nuns were struck by a strong fragrance, like myrrh, which came from her mouth. After Liturgy on Holy Thursday, the holy abbess cut up the second apple and gave a piece to each of the sisters; beyond its amazing sweetness, the apple seemed to nourish their very souls. St. Irene reserved the third apple and ate it just before she died. And thus she was granted a foretaste, quite literally, of the sweetness of Paradise.

      Among her many gifts, St Irene was able to foretell to many the time of their death, in order that they might better prepare themselves. She was granted also to know the hour of her own departure, which came after a long and fruitful earthly sojourn of more than 101 years. A remarkable, unearthly fragrance filled the convent on the day of her burial and lingered over her grave for many years.

      As a final testament to her sisters, she exhorted them in the words of the holy Evangelist, Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world (I John 2:15). "Never follow the will of the flesh but only the will of God, for it is He that gave you all things, that ye may return them unto Him in that day....It is in keeping to the narrow path that one attains to the broad vistas of Paradise."

      Through the centuries after her repose, St. Irene has continued to work wonders. The Voice of Orthodoxy (October 1990), published by St. Irene's Monastery, reports that "cures from cancer, spinal meningitis and other life-threatening illnesses have been attributed to the Saint’s intercession.” May we likewise entreat her assistance that our knees be strengthened and our faltering steps straightened as we make our way along that narrow path in hopes of a blessed eternity.