St. Irene Chrysovalantou

Our American nation was founded on the equality of all people and a firm rejection of kings, emperors, and royalty of any kind. But yet we are fascinated with the lives of kings, emperors and royal families, especially the British royal family. The 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana was a media event with some 750 million people around the world sharing the event on television. On August 10 (Julian calendar) or July 28 (Gregorian calendar) our Church honors the memory of St. Irene Chrysovalantou, a saint known and beloved by Greek people but little know among other Orthodox Christians. She lived in the 9th century in the region of Cappadocia – modern day Turkey. Like Lady Diana she was young, blonde, beautiful, well-to-do and destined to marry a king.

Her Life

The Empress Theodora ruled the Byzantine empire after the death of her husband Theophilus. It was this empress who helped restore the veneration of icons that we remember each year on the first Sunday of Lent known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. On the birthday of her son Michael, Empress Theodora sent messengers throughout the empire to find a suitably beautiful, virtuous, and refined girl to become Michael’s wife. They found a beautiful, cultured young girl from an aristocratic family named Irene. She accepted the offer to wed Michael and the group, along with some of Irene’s family, set off for Constantinople for the royal wedding.

During the journey to Constantinople they passed Mt. Olympos, and Irene asked to visit the Elder Ioannikos the hermit monk to receive his blessing. With his gift of spiritual insight St. Ioannikos knew she was arriving and said to her: “Welcome Irene, servant of God, proceed to the Imperial City in joy because the convent of Chrysovalantou needs you in the community.” Irene, amazed by his prophetic power, prostrated and begged his blessing. St. Ioannikos lifted her up, gave her strength with spiritual instruction and gave his blessing before she continued her journey to Constantinople. Irene’ arrival in the city was met with great ceremony as she was welcomed by royalty, politicians, aristocrats and common people. But the wedding was not to be: Irene’s journey took many weeks and by the time she arrived in the capital, Michael had found another bride and was already married. Irene was not distraught but saw God hand in this and gave thanks to God. Turning down many marriage proposals from other outstanding men in the empire and set off for the Monastery of Chrysovalanou.

Irene gave away her wealth to the poor and entered the community wearing a simple habit of sackcloth. With humility and obedience she served the sisterhood, cheerfully and attentively performing the most lowly and despised tasks, despite the fact that in her former life she had servants to wait on her.

In her monastic cell she often read the lives of the saints, learning how the saints would pray and keep vigil all night long. With the blessing of the abbess, Irene was able to stand in prayer from morning to night with hands raised, sometimes standing for full days without movement. During one of these nights of prayer, one of the nuns, unable to sleep, left her cell and entered the courtyard. The nun was blessed to witness Irene motionless, hands raised in prayer and floating off the ground and two cypress tress bent to the ground before her. After Irene had finished her prayer, she blessed the trees and they returned to standing upright.

Irene was once blessed to be visited by an angel who presented her with three apples from paradise, a gift to her from the Apostle John.

After some time the abbess of Chrysovalantou became weak and near death. On her last day, many nuns gathered in her cell, but Irene was not there. The abbess noted this and said to them:

Do not lament my departure for in my successor you have a leader who is wiser than I. Be obedient to her, this daughter of light, lamb of Christ and vessel of the Holy Spirit. Do not accept anyone but Irene.

Irene felt no joy in becoming the abbess because she felt herself to be inadequate for the task. In her cell she constantly prayed saying:

Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd of Your sheep, help Your servant and this, my flock, because we have no power of our own to resist the assaults of the demons. Leave us not without Your grace.

Through her continual prayer and fasting, Irene was blessed with many gifts of the Holy Spirit. She received the gift of foresight, she was able to read the hearts of her nuns to know their struggles, needs, and temptations and even to predict future events.

Irene was given knowledge of the day of her approaching death. She spent the whole week prior to that in preparation. She spent all of her days in meditation and fasting, drinking water and eating only small pieces from one of the apples she received from the angel. As soon as she ate the first fragment the monastery was filled with fragrance from the apple. After giving her final instructions and nominating the next abbess of Chrysovalantou, she raised her hands to heaven and prayed, sat up, smiled at the sight of the angels who greeted her, closed her eyes and fell asleep in the Lord. She was 102 years old.

Countless miracles surround the life of St. Irene. First of these was the fragrance at the time of her death which continued at the saint’s grave for years. Countless miracles occur at her relics, and many prayers for St. Irene’s intercessions are continually answered. On such series of miracles is for mothers who are unable to conceive: she is especially known and loved as a powerful intercessor for those trying to conceive a child.

My wife and I have a special devotion to St. Irene. In 1997 I read in a Greek Orthodox publication that many people seek St. Irene’s intercession for help in bearing a child. In my prayers I asked St. Irene’s prayers at the throne of God that we too might be blessed with a child. Within weeks, my wife Kathy was pregnant....and the date we discovered her pregnancy was....August 10....our daughter Irene was born the following April.

Imitate her faith

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God,
consider the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13)

When St. Irene was called to be the abbess of the monastery she felt utterly overwhelmed by the responsibility. How did she cope with the weight placed on her? She didn’t seek more education, she didn’t enroll in a training program for abbesses, she didn’t read a few books on management skills. The saint engaged in prayer, fasting, the worship services of the Church, the Holy Eucharist. She engaged in a battle against her sinful passions. Through this inner cleansing by fasting and warfare and by being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit through prayer and the Holy Eucharist she was able to carry out her responsibilities and performed miracles. Our Lord Jesus said: “I am the vine, you are the branches: He that stays in Me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without Me you can do nothing”. (John 15) St. Paul believed these words of Jesus because he said: I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”(Philippians 4) St. Irene also believed these words of Jesus: she struggled to remain joined to Christ the Vine and her life produced great fruit. Is there anything in your life that is too overwhelming for you to face? Any burden that is beyond your strength to carry out? Imitate St. Irene who found the grace and the help she needed by seeking the Lord Jesus every more closely.

Tropar (Tone 5)

Not a temporal kingdom on earth did you obtain,
but Christ, your most beautiful Bridegroom, granted you heavenly crowns,
and you reign as a queen with Him eternally;
for you dedicated yourself to Him with all you soul, O Irene, our righteous Mother,
the boast of Chrysovalantou, and mighty help of all the Orthodox.

- Father Edward Pehanich