Exile and Adversity: A Lesson From the Saints

We are not long home after a very prayerful Liturgy in Canton, at the end of which I was very pleased to be able to offer a litia in honour of St Calogero the Anchorite of Agrigento – observing in the homily how, even in adversity and the experience of being a refugee, the holy monk seized the opportunity to bring God’s love, light and grace to those who surrounded him in Sicily, his place of exile, where he died in his cave hermitage on Monte Kronio in 561, in the ninth decade of his long life.

We can say similar things of saints who acted in a like way in the emigration after the 1917-1918 Revolution: St John the Wonderworker in China, Europe and America; St Maria Skobtsova in inter-war Paris; St Seraphim (Sobolev) in Sofia. And, of course, countless other people of every level of society acted in like ways, showing a different way of Faith to the local religion that surrounded them.

God scattered the faithful to the four winds, and wherever they found themselves, temples rose up (sometimes in very humble makeshift settings), the Holy Mysteries were celebrated, encounters and conversations brought ‘outsiders’ to the threshold of the Church, which became their Church.

Out of adversity, exile and loss, came the Light of Christ, as God blessed the world by sending His faithful servants to so many nations, through their experience of revolution, social upheaval and exile.

In a parish like ours, in Cardiff, where we have just as many converts to Holy Orthodoxy as ‘native Orthodox’, we might reflect that without those who – like St Calogero – fled violence and persecution, the Light of Faith may not have touched our lives. For those of us who were taught and formed by émigrés, this is particularly true.

The Saviour teaches us that, “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

Exiles like St Calogero, and so many saints exiled from their native lands never hid the Light of Christ, but shared it with those who surrounded them, and importantly, they did not allow adversity to crush and defeat them, but persevered so that others were enlightened, comforted, and touched by the love and grace of God.

This is a sober reminder for us.

The irritations and difficulties of our lives may be transformed from sharp sand and grit to pearls, as God transfigures and raises us up through our humility, patient-endurance, long-suffering, struggling, faithfulness and even joyfulness in trials.

And, in all of these things, the Light fo Christ still needs to shine.

The saints have found God even in starvation and cold, prison, exile, illness, torture, death and every adversity. None of these things have separated them from either His Presence or His love, and at the end of his life, in pain and privation in exile, this was so powerfully demonstrated in the dying words of St John Chrysostom, as he breathed his last at Comana Pontica, on 14 September 407 during a forced journey into further exile: “Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκεν” (Glory to God for all things).

Based on this, Metropolitan Tryphon Turkestanov wrote the well-loved akathist, which returns to St John’s words for its refrain, as in exile and imprisonment in the gulag, the godly hierarch still shared the Light of Christ, and saw His love in the glories of the world around him.

As St Paul wrote in the eight chapter of his letter to the Church in Rome:

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If we can keep recognising, seeing and finding God’s love and glory, then we have something pricesless and limitless to share… and it is always with us, whatever life sends us, wherever we are, however we are feeling – in sickness and health, plenty or privation, joy or sorrow. God’s love is always there.

The dark storm clouds of life bring no terror to those in whose hearts Thy fire is burning brightly. Outside is the darkness of the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm, but in the heart, in the presence of Christ, there is light and peace, silence: Alleluia! 

(Kontakion 5 of the akathist, Glory to God for all things!)

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