(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Hilarion the New, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Hilarion of Cappadocia
Iconoclasm, the doctrine calling for the removal of sacred icons, stretched from a portion of the eighth century well into the ninth in a religious imbroglio that ebbed and flowed in varying intensity from emperor to emperor, and involving clergy and laity alike until it was finally put to rest. Finding favor among emperors whose authority exceeded that of patriarchs in religious matters, it found a sustained resistance over the years by the traditionalist, except for whose stand against this heretical ideology the churches of Orthodoxy would be barren, if not less inviting. Carried to the extreme of some iconoclasts, the very figure of the crucified Christ might have disappeared.
In the long parade over the years of those who held out for retention of the sacred icons was a man now known to us as St. Hilarion, who stands out because not even imperial malevolence could intimidate him in times when defiance of royal decrees, even by men of the cloth, carried consequences reserved for felons. He refused to be swayed even by hierarchs whom he respected and who for reasons best known to themselves supported Iconoclasm, finding himself at times marooned on a strand of his own making in the sea of controversy which threatened to engulf Christianity itself.
Hilarion hailed from an upper class family of Cappodocia, a religious and cultural center of ancient times that offered many advantages to the privileged. His parents, Peter and Theodosia, numbered among their friends not only members of the royal court but Patriarch Nikephoros as well, who took a personal interest in the youthful Hilarion’s development. It was the influence of the patriarch that brought Hilarion the spiritual awareness which caused him to eschew the glamour of his social level in favor of the brotherhood of monks. At the age of twenty he entered the Monastery of Kalmaton in Constantinople, emerging ten years later as a highly revered monk who had found God’s favor with which he served his fellow man in a fashion that marked him as a churchman of piety and grace.
Installed as an archimandrite by Patriarch Nikephoros, Hilarion made his presence felt throughout the city with his compelling oratory and his ceaseless ministrations to the needy and to the ailing, many of whom found themselves cured after his laying on of hands and fervent prayer. He somehow found the time to raise his voice in protest against the iconoclasts who were experiencing a resurgence of their movement and who sought to increase the pressure on groups led by men such as Hilarion for the final elimination of icons. Too many of the faithful were being told that icons bore kinship to pagan ritual, and an alarmed Hilarion countered with fiery defense of the icons as objects of veneration and not idolatry, representing through the eye of the true believer the pillars that help sustain faith in Jesus Christ.
Hilarion was blunting the thrusts of this age-old heresy with such success that the iconoclast Emperor Leo the Armenian, after unsuccessfully trying to pressure him into silence, ordered the archimandrite to be imprisoned as though he were a common criminal. He was to languish in jail until some years later, when he was released during the reign of Michael the Stammerer. He enjoyed only a brief freedom, however, and for refusing to remain silent on this still-raging issue, he was ordered into exile by Emperor Leo, who at least spared him the dishonor of imprisonment.
Hilarion remained in exile in a monastery on a tiny island of the Bosporus where for eight long years he was left to his own devices but denied the right to speak out for his cherished icons. Friends of this pious pariah were able to convince the emperor that, once released, the archimandrite would, after years of silence, be content to live out his life in comparative compromise. Again freed, Hilarion expressed his gratitude to his friends but went about condemning the iconoclasts as vigorously as ever, as a result of which he was rudely thrust into prison.
After the death of Theophilos, Empress Theodora outlawed the iconoclasts and released Hilarion from prison, after which the great prelate served the Church of Constantinople as he had before. He died on June 6 at the age of seventy.