St. Athanasia the Wonderworker
St. Athanasia was the abbess of a convent on the island of Ægina. She was born into a pious Christian family. At the age of seven, she had already learned the Psalter, which she read constantly. At one point, Athanasia saw a shining star descending from the sky which entirely illumined her. From that time, her soul was enlightened and she decided to go join a convent. However, when Athanasia turned sixteen, her parents told her to marry. The girl submitted to their request, but spent only sixteen days with her husband. He went off to war and was killed in battle.
Having been widowed, Athanasia decided to fulfill her long-standing desire to join a convent. However, an edict came from Emperor Michael the Stammerer directing young widows to enter into marriage with warriors. Athanasia was required to marry again, but she performed housework, helped the sick and needy, and received strangers. On Sundays, she would invite relatives and acquaintances to her home and read the sacred scriptures. Under her influence, her husband retired to a monastery and gave his wife permission to be tonsured.
Athanasia distributed her property, accepted monasticism and withdrew together with several reverent women to a solitary place. After some time, the sisters asked Athanasia to become the abbess of their small community. She looked upon her abbacy as a special ministry to God and the sisters, and gave an example of meekness and humility. She corrected all the faults of the sisters with love and without anger.
Although Athanasia bore the title of abbess, she considered herself the last among the sisters and would always remember the Savior’s commandment: “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matthew 20:27). She never permitted the sisters to serve her, even if only to pour water on her hands.
Athanasia wore a hair shirt, while she wore clothing of coarse sheep’s wool on top. She slept little and prayed throughout the night. By day, she worked with the sisters. She had only a piece of bread and water in the evening. She permitted herself oil, cheese and fish only on the Nativity of Christ and Holy Pascha. During the fasts, she ate only raw greens once every two days. Athanasia spent four years in this monastery.
On the island of Ægina also lived a monk-elder, Venerable Matthew, who had formerly been an abbot. He took upon himself a great ascesis – each night he would read the Psalter. When he did sleep, he would be sitting up only for a very short time. During the singing of the psalms, the reading of prayers and the offering of Communion, Matthew could not refrain from crying. He wore only a rough hair shirt and, by great abstinence and struggles, completely withered his flesh. He had a special love for St. John the Theologian. Once, during the Divine Liturgy, he was counted worthy of seeing the Apostle standing on the Holy Table. With his mantia, Matthew healed a paralytic; by the sign of the Cross, he healed a man’s face that had been distorted by the devil; he expelled demons and worked many other miracles. Matthew blessed St. Athanasia to take her sisters to an even more solitary place. On the same island, she established a monastery on a desert mountain close to the ancient church of the Protomartyr Stephen.
St. Athanasia was counted worthy of the gift of healing from God. After she had healed a man who was blind, great numbers of people began to travel to see her in order to receive healing from illnesses of soul and body. With the abundant offerings of those who came to the monastery, she built three churches – in the name of the Most Holy Theotokos, in the name of the Holy Prophet John the Forerunner, and in the name of Hierarch Nicholas the Wonderworker.
Her fame, which became widespread, weighed heavily upon Athanasia, and she took two sisters close to her in spirit (Maria and Eupraxia), and secretly departed for Constantinople. There, as a simple nun, Athanasia entered one of the monasteries, where she lived for seven years.
However, her holy life again attracted attention. The sisters of the Ægina monastery learned where their abbess had gone, and they went to her, begging her to return. Submitting to God’s Providence, Athanasia returned to the monastery founded by her. Soon after that, she was counted worthy of seeing two radiant men, who gave her a parchment with the words: “Here is thy freedom; take it and be glad.”
For twelve days before her death, Athanasia remained in unceasing prayer. On the eve of the feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, she gathered the sisters and said that she had been able to read the Psalter only to the Nineteenth Psalm. Athanasia asked them to finish reading the Psalter to the end for her in church. The sisters went to church and there fulfilled her request, and afterwards they came to bid farewell to her. She blessed them and asked them to conduct the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos solemnly and joyfully and to arrange a meal for the beggars and paupers, and to commit her body to burial after the Divine Liturgy. With these words, St. Athanasia departed to the Lord in 860.
At the Divine Liturgy on the fortieth day, two pious sisters were counted worthy of seeing how St. Athanasia appeared before the royal gates. Two radiant men adorned her head with a crown of crosses, handing her a brilliant staff and leading her through the royal gates into the altar.
Before her death, St. Athanasia had left instructions that the poor be fed in her memory until the fortieth day. The sisters, however, did not fulfill her wishes and set up a memorial trapeza for only nine days. Athanasia appeared to some of the sisters and said: “It was wrong that you did not fulfill my testament – the forty-day commemoration in church of those who have fallen asleep and the feeding of the poor greatly helps sinful souls, while heavenly mercy is sent down from righteous souls to those who carry out the commemoration.” Having appeared, she drove her staff into the ground and became invisible. The next day, the staff that had been left behind sprouted and became a living sapling.
A year after the death of Athanasia, a possessed woman was brought to her grave. When they dug up the earth, they sensed a fragrance and took out the coffin. Having touched it, the possessed woman was healed at once. They then opened the lid of the coffin and saw the incorrupt body of St. Athanasia, which streamed myrrh. Athanasia had literally fallen asleep, and her face shone with beauty. They transferred her body to a new coffin. The nuns took the hair shirt from her holy relics, wishing to clothe her in silk garments. But St. Athanasia’s hands were clasped so tightly to her breast that the nuns could not clothe her. Thus, the saint, even after death, manifested her love for poverty. One of the sisters, having bent her knees, began to pray to St. Athanasia, saying: “O our lady, as thou didst unquestioningly obey us while thou didst live with us, so even now be well pleased to obey us and be clothed in these garments, our humble gift offered unto thee.” St. Athanasia, literally alive, raised herself up and extended her hands to the clothing. Her holy relics, which were placed in a specially made reliquary, became a source of grace-filled healings.
By permission of the Orthodox Church in America (www.oca.org)