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Despair and Saint Ephraim

15th Sunday after Pentecost / Hieromartyr Babylas and Company; Prophet Moses; St. Ioasaph of Belgorod / II Cor. 4.6-15; Matthew 22.35-46

F/S/HS Brothers and sisters, loss of heart, succumbing to despair or despondency, is a scary and terrible thing.  For those who have experienced it, you know the perilous state that such loss can throw you into.

Today, more and more, I am encountering persons who feel this loss, especially amongst the ages of approximately 18 through your early thirties.  Depression and anxiety, suicide and substance abuse are afflicting Millennials and Gen Z young adults at alarming rates, with youth and young adults reporting that they feel increasingly isolated and lonely.  This at a time where the internet and social media has connected persons in ways unlike ever before.  As one young Orthodox woman recently shared with me, I spend a lot of time socializing but not in the real worldSocial media allows me to curate various images of myself, so much so that I don’t know who I am any more.  Fr. Daniel, I and so many of my peers, we need a lot of help.

This young woman reminded me of the words of Fr. Kyrill Pavlov of blessed memory, who described despondency and despair as ceasing our connection with the world around us and not having communion with the Source of our lives: God

Into this ethos of the loss of our deepest selves in God, and its accompanying despair, I want to introduce a most powerful medicine and balm, namely the intercessions of a saint that until recently I’ve known very little about.  His name is St. Ephraim, wonderworker of Nea Makri.  Nea Makri is a community in East Attica, Greece, not far from Athens.

The miracles attributed to St. Ephraim, and especially his visitations to young people who are struggling with loneliness and despair, are staggering in their beauty and in their numbers.  Account after account narrates St. Ephraim’s loving intercessions in the lives of so many young persons, sometimes because they cry out to him in suffering prayer, and other times because he comes to their aid unsolicited, that person not even knowing who he is until further investigation.

St. Ephraim was born this same month of September, on Sept. 14, 1384, in what is now modern-day Greece.  Yet he was canonized only a few years ago, in 2011.  We know of him because of one remarkable woman, the Abbess Makaria Desypri, who, on January 3, 1950, discovered his fragrant relics and shortly thereafter was repeatedly visited by St. Ephraim, who, during those visits, revealed his story to her. 

I highly commend reading his story, and about the life of Mother Makaria, in two different places.  The first is in the children’s book A Holy Book For Children: The Lives Of Saint Ephraim And Saint Makaria; though a warning to parents that the book contains quite graphic descriptions of the tortures endured by St. Ephraim.  And the second place is the introduction to the Canon of New Martyr Ephraim, Wonderworker of Nea Makri, subtitled Heavenly Intercessor For Our Troubled Youth.

St. Ephraim lost his father at a very early age.  He lived during a period of the most defiled practice known as paidomazoma, which translates as the mass kidnapping of children, also known as the blood tax, a practice used by the Ottoman Turks who unannounced sent their soldiers to collect (especially Christian) boys ages 8 to 20, to steal them from their families and conscript them into their armies. 

Knowing that her very pious son would be kidnapped by the Turks, Ephraim’s mother sent her son away to the Holy Annunciation Monastery on Mount Amomon, near the town of Nea Makri outside of Athens.  Their Ephraim lived for the next 27 years purifying his soul through prayer and ascetic labors, and cultivating a deep love and reverence for the mother of God.  Eventually he was elevated to the status of a priest, his greatest joy to prepare and serve the Holy Eucharist to his fellow brethren and pilgrims who visited the monastery. 

Tragedy befell Ephraim on his birthday, on Sept. 14, 1425—also the feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross—when, after being in prayer up in the mountains above the monastery, returned and found that all of his brethren had been slaughtered by the Turks.  I have lost my children today, my brothers, he cried out.  How much this separation hurts.  This immaculate mountain is poorer from now on.  With loud wails he hugged the myrrh-gushing bodies of his fellow monks, and then buried them. 

After surviving as a hermit at the monastery for another year, the Turks once again returned to ransack the monastery.  Ephraim refused to flee and willingly gave himself to their evil machinations.  For the next eight months he was tortured in an effort to get him to renounce his Christian faith.  Not only did Ephraim endure his afflictions with joy, but he prayed endlessly and with love for the souls of his torturers, that God would have mercy on them and forgive them. 

Thus is Ephraim the embodiment of this morning’s Gospel, where Jesus names the greatest commandment as that whereby a person loves the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind….  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  And Ephraim is the embodiment of this morning’s Epistle reading, where Paul speaks of being hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed … persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in the body … knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raises us up with Jesus.

Spikes were driven through Ephraim’s body.  A flaming stick was plunged into his stomach, at which time he finally gave up his spirit.  His martyred body was cast aside, to be buried by peasants who knew of his holiness.

500 years later a baby girl, Margarita Desipri, the eventual Abbess Makaria, is born in the village of Falatado.  At 34 years of age, now a nun, she responded to an inner calling to rebuild the Holy Annunciation Monastery, not knowing that 500 years earlier a humble monk had been martyred and buried there on its grounds; though, she reports, she did have a very real sense that the blood of pious Christians had been spilled on these very grounds.

In a dream or vision one night, Makaria was alerted to a place where she should dig.  Upon reaching a depth of six feet, the workers unearthed a skull that emitted a beautiful fragrance.  They dug deeper and found the remaining bones.

That night during vespers a mysterious man, in spirit form, came to Makaria and asked her if she would please take care of him.  He was tall, dark skinned, dark curly hair and beard, and was wearing a black monastic cap and cassock.  That next day she placed his bones on the monastery’s altar.  He came to her again the following night, thanking her.  My name is Ephraim, he said, and then revealed his entire life story to her. 

During one of their many ensuing conversations, Makaria told Ephraim: My Saint, go wherever you like, to whomever you like, whenever you like and say whatever you like.  I won’t say anything to anybody.  Ephriam so wanted to be obedient to his beloved Makaria.

Thus he started going all over the world and helping those who were afflicted with various sorrows, especially young people; much in the same way that St. John Maximovich goes all over the world and appears to people, bringing consolation to them and sometimes healing them.  Come to my house, on the mountain of Amomon, and you will be cured, he told a seriously ill young woman from America while visiting her in a vision.  And so this young woman came; and so she was healed.  One of hundreds of similar stories.

And so too did Makaria come to be known as Mother Makaria; to everyone she was known as the Mother of the hurt, or the Mother of the afflicted.  Every word of hers, every move, and especially her tender gaze, was so full of love, and would strengthen people who visited her monastery to venerate the relics of Ephraim.  She was the embodiment of the virtue of philanthropia—love for her fellow human beings. 

Soon 70-some children, all orphans, came under Mother Makaria’s care.  There at the monastery they were provided food, shelter, clothing, love, and a new home.  Forever after the monastery came to be called The House of Love.  When Mother Makaria herself reposed on April 23, 1999, her holy body to this day remains aromatic with a loving scent, and her grave, for those who visit and venerate it, works miracles.

Dear sisters and brothers, hear these wonderful closing words from the Introduction to the Canon of St. Ephraim: Today, many come to the Holy Annunciation Monastery in Nea Makri to venerate [St. Ephraim].  Many seek his intercessory prayers.  Many have been healed of all kinds of illnesses and infirmities.  Many youth have been saved from suicide.  Filled with boundless love, the saint is quick to answer those who call upon him.  He restores them in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6.12), with love and joy.  F/S/HS