Joy of All Who Sorrow

Lives of the Saints: 5 th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST – 9 July 2023

In the calendar of Saints for today we find two saints who are linked. St David of Thessalonika, is sometimes called St David the Dendrite. He was born in Northern Mesopotamia in about the year 450, but little is known of his background. As a young man, he travelled to Thessalonika and became a monk in the Monastery of Sts Theodore and Mercurius. After a time, he sought to follow the example of the Stylites but, lacking a column, he climbed into an almond tree and, as an ascetic podvig, remained there for three years enduring the heat of summer, the cold in winter and a total lack of comfort. David came down after an angel had revealed to him that his prayers had been heard. In the presence of Archbishop Dorotheos, he entered a cell prepared for him by his fellow monks and continued his prayerful and ascetic life. Many regarded David as an angel in the flesh. Numerous pious pilgrims came to the holy man’s cell seeking his prayers for all manner of diseases and demonic possession, and returned home glorifying God for the help they had received.

After Archbishop Dorotheos died in the year 520, he was succeeded by Archbishop Aristeides. After this time, a plan was announced to establish a new capital for the Prefecture of Illyricum, replacing Thessalonika. The archbishop saw this demotion as a danger because if could weaken the city in the face of barbarian threats. Thus he pleaded with David, knowing of Emperor Justinian’s respect the holy man, that he would travel to Constantinople to intercede with the emperor to ensure the defence of Thessalonika. David had been a recluse for many years. His hair and beard had grown very long. The angel who had appeared to him, when he was in the tree, had predicted that David would perform a major task for the city. Remembering this, and in obedience to his superior, David travelled to Constantinople with two disciples, Theodore and Demetrios. The holy man was received with great respect and he pleaded his case before the Emperor and Senate. Justinian was moved to grant the request to maintain the status of Thessalonika and fully defend the city.

Returning home by ship, the elderly saint reposed in the Lord, after making known his wish to be buried at his monastery. This happened in about the year 540. Some 150 years later, Abbot Demetrios opened the saint’s tomb in order to take out a portion of the relics. In attempting this, a plaque on the tomb fell and broke into many pieces. This was taken as sign of St David’s displeasure and so his relics were kept whole and undisturbed. In the 13th Century, after the infamous 4th Crusade, Crusaders removed the relics to Pavia in Italy. There they remained until 1978, when they were returned to Thessalonika.

Now we come to St Dionysii of Suzdal, who was born in the early part of the 14th Century, and baptised David with St David the Dendrite as his name saint. Little seems to be recorded about his family origins but he was tonsured as a monk in the Kiev Caves Monastery and given the monastic name Dionysii. Seeking monastic solitude, he eventually took up residence in a cave not far from Nizhni-Novgorod. Others seeking the ascetic life were attracted to the vicinity. In 1335, the holy staretz founded a monastery in honour of the Ascension of the Lord. This monastery became very influential and in 1352 Abbot Dionysii sent twelve of his brethren to preach in the surrounding towns and villages, as God would inspire them. As a result, further monastic communities were established for men and women. In 1371, the forty-year-old widow of Prince Andrew Constantinovich was tonsured as a nun.

In 1374, Father Dionysii was raised to the episcopate. These were troubled times for the Russian people who were struggling against the Mongol-Tatar Yoke. Indeed it is recorded that on one occasion the Tatar military commander fired an arrow at the bishop but the Lord protected him and the arrow only struck his mantle. In 1379, the grand prince called the bishops to Moscow. He wanted his preferred candidate, the ill-reputed archimandrite Mityaya to become Metropolitan. Bishop Dionysii opposed this on the grounds of the archimandrite’s complicity with the heretical Strigolniki (see footnote), and travelled to Constantinople to register his protest against the appointment. It will be remembered that this is some two hundred years before the Russian Church achieved full autocephalous and patriarchal status. Dionysii made such an impression on Patriarch Nilus that he was raised to the dignity of archbishop, whence he returned to Novgorod and Pskov to tackle the heresy of the Strigolniki.

The holy archbishop travelled to Constantinople again in 1383 for further discussions with Patriarch Nilus about the governance of the Russian Church. On returning to Kiev, the archbishop was apprehended on the orders of Prince Vladimir Olgerdovich and thrown into prison where he died. He was buried in the Kiev Cave of the Great Anthony. Despite the fact that he died on 15 October, St Dionysii is commemorated in the Calendar of Saints on the same day as St David of Thessalonika, his baptismal name-saint. Thus, both these great luminaries are remembered and honoured today.

Footnote: The Strigolniki were a protest movement that appears to have had a protestant-type hostility to monasticism and various other aspects of the Church’s sacramental life. It is suggested that there might have been Cathar or Bogomil influence, yet their issues seemed to be more about ecclesiology rather than theology. There may well have been differing motives among them since this was probably more of a grassroots protest, possibly including elements of ikonoclasm, rather than an organised philosophy. It had arisen in the middle of the 14th Century but had disappeared by the end of the 15th Century.