The Royal Wedding
Irene was born in Cappadocia to an aristocratic family. She had a sister who would later marry Empress Theodora's brother Vardas.
Empress Theodora, who ruled the empire after the death of Theophilus as regent for her son, re-established Orthodoxy and removed the iconoclasts. On her son Michael's twelfth birthday, Empress Theodora sent messengers to find a suitably beautiful, virtuous and refined girl for Michael's wife. Coming across Irene, they offered and she accepted to wed Michael, and they (along with some of Irene's family) set off for Constantinople for the wedding.
During the journey to Constantinople they passed Mt Olympos, and Irene asked to visit Ioannikos the recluse to receive his blessing. The hermit's spiritual insight allowed him to foresee the arrival of the group, and also Irene's future, and he said, "Welcome Irene, Servant of God. Proceed to the Imperial City in joy because the convent of Chrysovalantou needs you in the community."
Irene, amazed by his prophetic power, prostrated ans begged his blessing. Ioannikos lifted her up, gave her strength with spiritual thoughts and gave his blessing, and Irene joyfully continued the journey to Constantinople. On her arrival, she was received with great ceremony by relatives, patricians, senators and poor.
But, the wedding was not to be: Michael had already been married. Irene was not upset, but rather gave thanks to God; turning down many marriage proposals from outstanding men in Byzantium, she set off for the Monastery of Chrysovalantou.
Sister of Chrysovalantou
Irene was impressed by the monastery's atmosphere and the sisterhood's way of life, so much so that she freed her slaves, gave her inherited wealth and dowry to the poor and entered the community, wearing a habit of sackcloth. With humility and obedience she served the sisterhood, cheerfully and attentively performing the most lowly and despised tasks, and never using worldly sophistries or aristocratic indignation.
The abbess of Chrysovalantou noticed that Irene was following Christ's words that "without Me, you can do nothing. Anyone who remains in Me as I remain in him will bear much fruit"; and the novice was admired by all for her obedience, humility, love and enthusiasm; her community went so far as to say that she had the spirit of a freed slave.
In her cell she read the lives of the saints, learning from St Arsenios night-long prayer. Irene asked for a blessing to embark on this, and the abbess, recognising Irene's humility, granted her request before the end of her first year of the novitiate. Irene was able to stand from morning to night with hands raised, sometimes standing for full days without movement, much to the amazement of the abbess.
Irene would do this for three years, and the evil one was unable to divert her because of Irene's success in subduing earthly thoughts and temptations through abstinence and obedience. Her food was bread and water, with occaisional supplements from herbs or vegetables; her habit was replaced only every Easter, and she would only clean it to give to the poor during Lent. Her obedience was cleaning the bathroom. Any wayward thoughts or signs of the evil one's activity were immediately confessed to the abbess, with Irene's exercises recommenced.
After this, Irene had only to cross herself as successful defense against the evil one; however, on one occasion she was so shaken with doubt that she fell to the ground, shedding tears of prayer to the Lord, His holy Mother, all the Saints and the Archangels (to whom the monastery was dedicated).
- "O Blessed Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), everlasting God, at the intercession of Your most holy Mother and in the presence of the Archangels, their armies, the celestial powers and all Your Saints, help Your servant. Deliver me from the assaults of the devil."
After many tears in many nights, she was able to overcome these doubts, and in her renewed devotion she appeared transfigured to many people whom she led to the Lord, renewing the faith of rich and poor and causing many unmarried women enter the monastery.
After some time, the abbess became weak and near the time of her repose. The sisterhood was filled with sorrow on realising this, while Irene shed many tears. On her last day, many nuns had gathered in her cell, but Irene was not there; the abbess noted this, and said to them:
- "Do not lament my departure for in my successor you have a leader who is wiser than I. Be obedient to her, this daughter of light, lamb of Christ and vessel of the Holy Spirit. Do not accept anyone but Irene."
Then, with the words "Glory to You, O Lord, in Your mercy", she reposed. Irene was not told of these disclosures for the sake of her humility, but the sisterhood prayed that the Lord's will would be done, and then sought the Patriarch's advice. Patriarch Methodios the Confessor was a leader of great courage and, through the iconoclasts, had the stigmata of Christ, and also had the gift of foresight. When the patriarch asked who should be the superior, they responded that the Patriarch should decide, guided by the Holy Spirit. Patriarch Methodios asked if there was a humble nun named Irene; and if so, that she was the choice pleasing in the sight of God. The sisterhood was filled with such joy at the workings of the Holy Spirit that Methodios rose and offered incense as thanks to the Lord, and ordained Irene deaconess. After advising her in the ways of administering and guiding the sisterhood, the Patriarch clothed her as Abbess and gave the sisterhood his blessing as farewell.
Abbess of Chrysovalantou
When the sisterhood arrived at the monastery, they held a great celebration for the friends and spiritual children of the monastery. Irene was joyless because she felt herself to be utterly inadequate for the task, however, the sisterhood reassured her. In her cell she constantly prayed, saying:
- "Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd of Your sheep, help Your servant and this, my flock, because we have no power of our own to resist the assaults of the demons. Leave us not without Your grace"
To which she received the reply:
- "Watch and pray without ceasing for from this day you will have the responsibility of the spiritual welfare of many for whom our Lord was incarnate and shed His precious blood, souls that He has committed to your care. Take care that the 'blind do not lead the blind' so that both fall into the ditch".
In receiving this command, Irene redoubled her spiritual exercises and was given great wisdom and revelations in how to lead the flock. With this strength from God, she told her sisterhood:
- "I know, beloved sisters in Christ, that it was not logical that I, your humble, unworthy and illiterate servant, should be called to teach you, but the ways of God are mysterious. If it is by His grace that I am your superior, then I pray that you will obey me. Surely if we do not obey the laws (promised before God and His angels) of the habit we wear, we achieve nothing. For it is said: 'faith without works is dead' (St. James 2:17). Why have we left the unreal and temporal world? To disobey His commandments? If so, like the foolish virgins we also will lose the eternal kingdom. The soul cannot be divided so as to have both pride and humility, unrestricted pleasure and abstinence. Therefore let us rid our soul of worldly desire and seek only purity, humility, patience and love (prayer of St. Isaac the Syrian) lest we lose not only ourselves but others also."
The more Irene was respected for her judgment, holy way of life and miracles, the more she humbled herself. She identified with the unrepentant thief such that, at the offering of Holy Communion, she had to hide her face to prevent people seeing her tears. Sometimes Irene would remain in prayer and contemplation for as long as a week without ceasing, taking only uncooked vegetables and water for sustenance.
Wonderworker of Chrysovalantou
Gift of Foresight
One of Irene's gifts was that of foresight. Irene asked God that she might be given the gift of foresight so that she could have knowledge of the sisters' impending trials so that she would be better able to advise them. A guardian angel greeted her, saying "Hail, fruitful servant of God, the Lord has sent me that more might be saved through your guidance. I am to remain at your side and disclose the events of the future". He disappeared, but remained with her, continually revealing the hidden problems of the nuns and all others who sought her advice. Irene was able to use her gift to correct confessions, never to reprimand or humiliate. Giving thanks to God, regardless of how many would seek her advice, she increased in humility.
Prince Varda's Death
Irene's sister, wife of Prince Varda, sent her eunuch to see Irene. Irene informed him of a recent revelation that the Prince would soon die at the wish of the Emporer Michael, and that the Emporer himself would immediately lose his life and kingdom. Even though this disclosure was confidential, Prince Varda was told everything by his wife; however, due to Prince Varda's pride and faithlessness, he dismissed the idea. As the saint predicted, Prince Varda was killed in battle, closely followed by the Emporer. Irene continued to serve the Church in the reign of Basil the Macedonian, the successor to the throne.
The Magician's Wiles
A young and beautiful girl came to the monastery of Chrysovalantou and became a novice. To fight this, the evil one incited her ex-fiancé such that he sought the help of a magician in Cappadocia. The magician's spells made the novice lose her mind and threaten to drown herself. Irene lamented her neglect and received the power to defy the evil one in this struggle. Gathering her community together, she explained the situation and ordered a week-long period of fasting, daily 100 prostrations and the continual prayer for an understanding of God's will. On the third night, St Basil appeared to Irene, advising her to take the novice to the convent of Vlachernae, where the Mother of God would heal her. Taking two senior nuns with her, on arrival they fell asleep during their first all-night vigil from exhaustion.
Irene's vision continued while she slept: a pilgrim procession appeared in white and golden robes, shining with a strange and unearthly light, scattering flowers and incense on the path. Irene asked their purpose, to be told that the Mother of God was coming. The Mother of God arrived at that moment, surrounded by hosts of angels, so radiant that none could look upon her; she visited the sick, then came to Irene, who prostrated in fear. While prostrate, Irene heard the Mother of God tell St Basil of Caesarea to cure the young girl from Caesarea, saying "My Son and God has given you this power". Irene then awoke, with the message, "Return to your convent and within three days your novice will be healed". She disclosed her vision to her companions and they departed with joy, arriving in time for Friday's Vespers.
After Vespers, Irene instructed her sisterhood to lift up their eyes and hands to heaven and cry "Lord, have mercy"; after many hours and many tears, Sts Basil and Anastasia said to Irene "Stretch out your hand, accept the gift and do not trouble us any more". The gift was the magician's aids, including model idols of the nun and her ex-fiancé.
Giving thanks to God during the all-night vigil, in the morning they sent the novice to Vlachernae with hold bread and all the magician's aids. After the Divine Liturgy at Vlachernae, the priest anointed her and solemnly burnt the magician's aids. As the aids were burnt, the suffering novice was released from her bonds, and the idols made sounds like pigs anticipating slaughter. The novice, and all those present, were filled with holy fear and gave thanks to the Lord.
Destroyer of Demons
Nicholas was a young man, responsible for the vineyard of the monastery. He fell in love with one of the nuns, such that he lay awake at night listening to the suggestions of the demons to hear how he might satisfy his lust. One night he fell unconscious as a result of this. The following morning Irene heard of this, said "Blessed be God who has allowed us to be the objects of the devil's attention", and gave orders for Nicholas to be taken to the Church of St Anastasia so that Irene would not receive the credit for Nicholas' healing. However, St Anastasia appeared to Irene and told her not to lay aside the responsibility for healing her own servant.
Irene decided to confine Nicholas in a straightjacket tied to one of the pillars of the church. Once after the Great Entrance, Nicholas was consumed with fury that he broke the chains, rushed to the Holy Doors and began to bite the flesh of the priest, so much so that Irene had to leave her stall and order Nicholas to be still; an order so powerful that he was immediately calm. He tried to move back, but he could not move.
After the Liturgy Irene prostrated herself beside Nicholas and prayed to God for his health. After some time, she stood up and ordered the demon to leave Nicholas, who was seized and hurled to the ground, after which Nicholas was cured. He was sent back to work with a strict rule of life, was advised to pray for the protection of the holy angels to avoid such thing happening in the future, and left praising God.
Handkerchiefs of the Cypress Trees
On great feasts it was the custom of Irene to keep vigil in the courtyard of the monastery, giving thanks for the awesome beauty of creation. During one of these vigils one of the nuns, who was unable to sleep, left her cell and entered the courtyard. The nun was blessed to see Irene motionless, in prayer and levitated a metre off the ground, with two cypress trees bent to the ground before her. After Irene had finished, she blessed the trees and they returned to standing upright.
At first, the nun thought this to be a vision of the evil one. Afterwards, when others of the sisterhood noticed handkerchiefs at the top of those trees, the nun who saw Irene related what she saw. In response to this the whole sisterhood was so excited that Irene rebuked them, focusing on the need for concentration of their own prayer rule and ordering them not to relate any miracles until after Irene's repose.
Apples of St Basil
Irene kept the feast of St Basil especially holy because they both came from Cappadocia. After the feastday of St Basil, during the third watch of the night, she heard a voice saying, "Welcome the sailor who brings fruit to you today and eat it with joy; let your soul rejoice"; followed by a similar voice during Matins saying "go to the door and bring in the sailor who is visiting you". She invited the sailor in and greeted one another, and stayed until the end of the Liturgy. After Liturgy, Irene enquired after the sailor's journey, to which he replied;
- "I am a sailor from Patinas and I joined a boat coming to this town for business. As we were passing the coast of that island, we saw a very old man on the shore who called to us to wait for him. We could not because we were near the rocks, so with a good wind behind us we left. He then shouted all the more loudly ordering the boat to stop. This it did at once. Then he came to us walking on the waves and soon entered the boat. Then taking three apples from beneath his cloak, he gave them to me saying, 'When you go to the capital, give these to the Patriarch and tell him that the Almighty sends them to him from His beloved disciple, John.' After that he took another three and asked that these be presented to you, the Abbess of Chrysovalantou. To you he said, 'Eat these and all that your beautiful soul desires will be granted you because this gift comes to you from John in Paradise.' Having said this he blessed God, wished us well and disappeared."
Irene offered a prayer of thanksgiving, with tears of joy, for St John the Theologian, Apostle, Evangelist and beloved disciple of Christ. The sailor asked for a blessing and left the monastery. Irene fasted for a week, thanking God for the apples. After this, she ate small pieces of the first apple daily, without any other form of sustenance, for forty days; when she ate, she smelt as if she was exuding myrrh; during this time, the remaining apples became more beautiful and aromatic. On Holy Thursday, she directed her Sisterhood to receive Communion; after the Liturgy, the second apple was divided between them; when eaten, so sweet was the taste that the sisters felt as if their souls were being fed. The third apple was kept until Irene would know what to do with it.
On Holy Friday, during the singing of the hymns of the Passion, Irene had a vision of countless radiant angelic beings entering the church: some with stringed instruments, singing beautiful hymns to God; others with goblets of myrrh, to be poured onto the altar, which filled the monastery with a wonderful fragrance. Among these beings was a particularly majestic man, a face radiant like the sun, who was treated with devotion. He approached the altar and, taking the shroud offered to him by the other beings, covered the now-fragrant alter.
The angel who stood by the altar, with great sadness, cried out to the majestic one, "Until when, O Lord?", to which a voice replied, "Until the second Solomon, when the heights will be united with the depths and all will be one. Then the Lord will be exalted and the memory of Irene will be glorified"; Irene took this as confirmation of her teaching that no one, whether herself of another of the sisters, could be glorified until they achieved the Kingdom in death. Irene gathered the community, reiterating the necessity of running from worldly honour to achieve and behold the glory of God.
The Emperor's Vision
Irene had a noble relative that was unjustly convicted of conspiracy to kill the Emperor, who sentenced the noble relative to drowning at sea. Friends and relatives of the convicted ran to Irene for intervention. She comforted them and told them to return home and to have faith in God. She then went to her cell to intercede for the unjustly condemned man.
God allowed for Irene to appear before the Emperor in a dream. Irene threatened the Emperor, saying "O King, get up immediately and release the prisoner condemned through jealousy. If you do not listen to me I will request the King of Kings to cause your death and the deliverance of your worthless body to wild animals". The Emperor, angered, asked who threatened him; she responded "I am the abbess of Chrysovalantou", "Irene is my name", and hit him so hard that he awoke and she disappeared. The Emperor demanded from the guards an explanation as to how the woman had escaped. The guards pleaded their ignorance, and he realised that he had received a vision.
The next day, the condemned was questioned and proved his loyalty to the Emperor's satisfaction. The Emperor asked him if he knew of an Irene of Chrysovalantou. "Of course" was his response. "She is a relative of mine, a most virtuous and God-fearing abbess, so humble that she never leaves her monastery and only rarely receives visitors.
The Emperor sent his nobles, along with an artist, to go to Chrysovalantou monastery, so that the artist could paint a portrait of Irene after he had left the monastery; all this was revealed to Irene. After matins she returned to the church with the sisterhood, telling them to bring the visitors to her immediately. When they arrived to her, she became so radiant that they fell to the floor, unable to behold such a presence. Irene immediately told them, "Do not be afraid. I am also a fallible creature. But why does your skeptical master put you to all this trouble? Tell him to do as I said and release the prisoner or else all that I prophesied will befall him." The nobles agreed to report this to the Emperor, but asked to stay with her, ostensibly to hear more words from her, but also for the artist to be able to paint her likeness.
The artist painted a portrait, but when it was shown to the Emperor the whole company was overwhelmed by a great light. Blinded, the Emperor said the beginning of Psalm 50, and to his amazement, his blindness passed. He looked at the portrait and realised that it was the same person he had seen in the vision. The prisoner was released with full honours, and a message of thanks was sent to Irene for intervening. He asked for her presence to bless himself and the Empress, but she responded "Thanks be to God who desires not the death of a sinner but his repentance. Do not thank me, glorify Him", and "It is neither right for your Majesties to enter the convent nor for me to visit you. You do not need the blessing of a sinful woman when you have the Holy Patriarch and spiritual directors of the great monasteries to advise you. Do as they say and you will rule this empire with wisdom. Please attend to what I say and may the right hand of God watch over you".