“Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth” – a teaching by Jesus Christ in His Sermon on the Mount. These divine words describe Saint Spyridon absolutely. This is evident from the fact that his life on earth was a flowering of Christianity in all its fullness and constancy expressed through his teaching, which influenced society not just in his lifetime but during the many centuries between then and now, and will certainly continue to do so in the future. His Christian virtue of giving constitutes a lifetime’s work of eternal religious value from a moral and dogmatic point of view.
According to the writers of the books of Saints, Saint Spyridon was born in Askia, a village near Tremithous between Nicosia and Famagusta in Cyprus. The year of his birth is not known exactly but is estimated to be between A.D. 250 and 270. It seems that he was educated somewhat beyond the elementary level of those times because even though his main occupation was the cultivation of his fields and the tending of his sheep, he could also read, study and comprehend religious books. From his early days he was pious, religious and a good Christian in general. He was known in particular for his sympathy towards the poor and for his hospitality, resembling the Patriarch Abraham and Lot (see Genesis: 18, 1-8 and 19, 1). He inscribed in the depths of his heart the words of Paul the Apostle: “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Hebrews: 13, 16).
His biographers mention the following special case of hospitality when he had already become a family man. During a fasting period a traveller visited Saint Spyridon. Because of the strict fasting observed by his family he was not supposed to offer the exhausted traveller any food. The Saint told his daughter to wash the guest’s feet as was the custom in those days and to offer him food. She replied that there was no Lenten food in the house. When the Saint heard this he prayed to God and asked Him to forgive him for the infringement he was about to commit. Then he told his daughter to bring salted pork which they kept in the larder. The stranger was anxious not to break the family’s fast but Saint Spyridon insisted, not wanting the guest to go without. The Saint even ate with him, quoting the words of the Scriptures: “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled”
With this he stressed the power and value of sincere faith as far as fasting is concerned.
The study of sacred and religious books and his effortless and continuous love of God reinforced his education and his Christian faith. The incessant effort he put into strengthening his virtues and his persistency along the path to a holy Christian life not only assured him eternal life but also laid the foundation for his sainthood.
A stranger to arrogance, loquacity, falsehood, gluttony, avarice and other vices he was courteous, talkative, affable, gentle, modest and had a positive outlook as a Christian. He was continually enlightened by the real light, God’s light. He always declared his love for God and his fellow men. God’s love he saw as a mark of esteem for his Christian struggle yet also as the means for strengthening his Christianity. Obedience to the laws of the material world of nature in which we live brings orderly and positive results. In the spiritual world it is more difficult, demanding constant alertness and an unbending severity towards oneself. For this reason Saint Spyridon became distinguished, according to the popular expression, as “one in a thousand”.
The Saint’s love of work was amazing and he felt a continuous need to be occupied. With the fruits of his labour he helped orphans, widows, the poor, the disabled, strangers and others. All this he did in a humble way making himself an example of abstinence. It was characteristic of him that he prayed to God the Lover of mankind regularly and at every possible opportunity. He looked after his fields and his flock of sheep but also his fellow men. He fought in a Christian way the existing pettiness and malice of others. Not only did he honour his people but he was also able to evaluate them. For these reasons his reputation for living a virtuous life was widespread.
He never exhibited any wish to increase his personal possessions and through his meritorious life he reminds us of Jesus Christ’s Beatitudes in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew: 5, 1-12).
Through his work he aspired not only to better his own understanding of truth and love but also to improve the position of as many people as possible, showing them the way towards eternal life. In this we are reminded of the exhortation by the prophet Isaiah: “And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not” (Isaiah: 6, 9).
At this point we must recall that Saint Spyridon was living during the era when Christians were inhumanly and severely persecuted by the Romans. Yet he was not deterred and continued to fortify his Christian soul, and his renown as a follower of the “Crucified and Resurrected Saviour” grew as a result. He was stable and gentle, and his life radiated a didactic luminosity, simple as his teachings were.
The pious Saint Spyridon did not shun matrimony, but he did not permit his marriage to deflect him from his devotion to the religion of Jesus Christ. Matrimony is honoured by Jesus Christ who, as is well known, was invited to a wedding at the town of Kana where He performed a miracle (John: 2, 1-11). Saint Spyridon was married according to the sacred laws and his wife, a virtuous woman, gave birth to a daughter whom they named Irini (Peace).
The couple lived according to the ‘teachings of Jesus Christ’. The Saint’s wife died relatively young, as we are informed, and the Saint cared for his orphaned daughter. He wanted to be more devoted to the service of the Church, so with her consent he dedicated her to the Church.
From that time on the Saint’s life became more religious and he now entered the orders of the clergy. “The mind becomes winged because of the glory of the Holy Spirit,” according to the relevant hymn. He was ordained as a deacon and later as a monk in Holy orders and became the paradigm of a Christian clergyman. He earned the permanent respect of the laity and the clergy. As a priest his merit and the respect in which he was held were such that when the Episcopal throne of Tremithous became vacant they elected the diligent and modest Saint Spyridon as the new Bishop, so confirming the fact that although religion is a primeval force it is always being renewed and strengthened, uplifting man continuously towards God.
In his capacity as clergyman and indeed as bishop the Saint travelled towards the “strait gate” of virtue (Matthew: 7, 13). Diligently he followed the difficult road of a bishop with a genuine sense of Christian vision and good works.
In him self-interest and pettiness of spirit were unknown. His constantly vigorous activity towards the path of virtue led him to serenity. And for the energetic Saint serenity meant motivating the Christians in his care towards the highest ideals of Christianity.
For these reasons he was rewarded by God who is always Just, with sumptuous gifts which foretold his eternal glory. With the grace of God the Lover of mankind he performed various miracles and for this reason he became known as a worker of miracles.
Saint Spyridon became a bishop before A.D. 325. During that year he took part in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in Bithynia.
Before that, during the persecution by Maximinus, it is reported that Saint Spyridon was arrested and then set free on the order of Mediolanus (Milan) which recognised Christianity as a religion (A.D. 313). The Western Church mentions him as a victim not only of Maximinus but earlier of Galerius, who instigated the persecutions by Diocletian (A.D. 303).
Western biographers record that before Saint Spyridon entered the clergy, around A.D. 305, he was arrested and kept in the mines for several years. There he was tortured, his right eye damaged and his right arm severed. The arm was preserved and taken to a church in Rome, explaining the fact that they commemorate the Saint there in full ceremony. Not all the foregoing, however, is confirmed historically, any more than certain other events in Saint Spyridon’s life. It is clear that there is nothing wrong with the Saint’s eyes. By contrast the right arm was missing, and on 10th December 1984 this Relic was flown to Corfu from Rome attended by the most Reverend Timotheos, Metropolitan of Corfu, following the efforts made by his predecessor the late Polykarpos.
Whatever the precise facts may be in respect of Saint Spyridon’s sufferings, they strengthened his Christian faith and he was invited in his capacity as Bishop of Tremithous to be a member of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, which had been convened to challenge the Arian heresy.
From 321 Arius propounded as dogma his belief that God the Father existed before time began pre-dating Christ the Son. It is said that the Arian heresy originated in an attempt by the Orthodox Church to answer the objections raised by the Neo-Platonists, whose teachings compromised the concept of God as an Entity with the indivisible Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by asserting that they were three separate entities. Arius maintained that Jesus Christ was not part of the pre-existent Father and Holy Spirit, but a being created by God.
The Council commenced its proceedings on 20th May A.D. 325. In addition to the 318 Holy Fathers of the Church who attended in response to the Royal order issued by Constantine the Great, there were also distinguished philosophers. Amongst them was the well known orator Evlogios, a great supporter of the Arian heresy.
Arius put his case and defended it against the arguments of the prelates. This irritated Saint Spyridon who, inspired by his love for the truth of accepted dogma and with the help of God who said: “for with God all things are possible” (Mark: 10, 27), confronted Evlogios with Christian composure. Some of the Orthodox members present advised him not to get engaged in lengthy conversation. The Saint, however, sure of his religious views, talked with Evlogios and succeeded in converting him to the piety of the Orthodox belief.
For Saint Spyridon there was no doubt in the matter: heresy never leads to Heaven because it subverts the correct belief about the nature of the Holy Trinity.
The Saint then took a clay tile in his left hand, and fire sprang from it rising high in the air and water flowed from it pouring to the ground, and all the while the clay remained in his blessed hand.
He then explained that just as the three elements of fire, water and clay constitute the single entity of the tile, so in the purpose of God coexist the three faces of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“One is the living God, creator of Heaven, Earth and all other things. He through the Word and the Holy Spirit created the Heavenly forces and everything seen or unseen. Through Him Heaven and Earth were created…” Thus spoke the Saint to Evlogios, according to the account by the well loved Metropolitan of Corfu, Methodios, in his book published in Corfu “Sung Church Service and the life of Saint Spyridon”.
At last the Arians were persuaded, and the Council enacted the first seven clauses of the creed. The Council ended with a victory for Orthodoxy, defended by Saint Spyridon who with his miracle of the clay tile had set the seal on their victory. The Church celebrates him chanting the following hymn:
“You were shown to be the champion and miracle worker at the first Council.” As the Scriptures say: “His praise is announced by the Church” (Sof. Syrah: 39, 10).
Unfortunately the heresies did not end there. It was therefore considered necessary in the days of the successors of Constantine the Great to hold a new council at Sardica (Sofia) in modern-day Bulgaria (the Bulgarians came much later to the Balkans) between A.D. 342-347 or 343-344. One report has it that Saint Spyridon took part at this Council as well, but Saint Athanasios the Great recorded that Saint Spyridon was not present – perhaps because of old age – but that he signed the official minutes of the Council. This Council was not Ecumenical but an off-shoot of the First Ecumenical Council. It ratified the creed and regulated internal affairs of the Church.