(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. Zacharias, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Saint Zacharias of Prusa
By the turn of the nineteenth century, the oppressive yoke of the Muslim Turks had been borne by Christians for four hundred years. With no deliverance in sight, Christianity continued to flourish despite concerted efforts on the part of the relentless enemy of Jesus Christ to destroy His truth. For the Turks, the greatest feat was the conversion of a Christian to Islam. To this end they bent themselves with maniacal cunning and cruelty. A man who was to meet their opposition and emerge more Christian than ever was Zacharias, a resident of Prusa.
Zacharias, the priest of the small parish of Kaiambasi, fell a victim in 1802 to alcoholism, which was as much a disease two centuries years ago as it is today. Zacharias fell prey to this ironically through the necessity of priests to drink the remaining sacrificial wine of the Eucharist. He soon found himself drinking more and more until at last he had difficulty in remaining sober.
In a drinking bout with some of the Turks, who were constantly ready to take advantage of a weakened foe, Zacharias drank himself into a state of complete intoxication. While in an alcoholic stupor and swayed by his leering companions, he disavowed the Christian faith and mumbled an acceptance of the Muslim faith. In fiendish glee, the Turks dressed him in Arab garb, plied him with more and more wine, and led him in mock triumph through the streets – to the utter horror of the members of his parish.
The Turks could not keep Zacharias drunk forever, and they soon tired of their sport. When they left their unfortunate prey to his own devices, Zacharias soon realized his folly. He sought the comfort of his parish, but received no comfort from his parishioners. After considerable agony of both body and soul, he summoned enough strength to abstain from alcohol. In repentance he went about righting the wrong he had done, publicly declaring his mistake.
Having cleansed his soul in contrition in his parish church, and having once again donned his priestly garments, Zacharias received an audience with the Turkish magistrate. He appeared before the magistrate so that all might know his true belief, which he vowed never again to renounce no matter what the circumstances.
This action earned Zacharias not only the renewed respect of the Christian community, but also the wrath of the Turks, who then accused him of having made a mockery of their faith, a most grievous offense.It should be said that Zacharias was one of the rare saints of the early nineteenth century who had character enough to rise above human frailty, and not just because he was a priest. It is not unreasonable to assume that he could have performed even if he had not been a man of the cloth and might just as easily have been defrocked as dismissed from any job for drunkenness.
The same quality which led Zacharias to become a priest, though he nearly drowned in overdoing what began as a priestly function, was that quality which brought him to his senses. No mention is made of the pain of withdrawal from his addiction. What is overlooked is the act of extreme penance that overshadows the physical pain that went along with the mental anguish he suffered in casting off the yoke of apostasy and alcholism that would have doomed a lesser person to eternal spiritual darkness.
Finally, Zacharias found himself in the narrow confines of a prison cell, facing the vengeance of a system of justice that knew only extreme cruelty. To no avail they heaped torture after torture upon the unfortunate prisoner, only to observe him praying to the Lord for his deliverance. With full knowledge that he had received the Lord’s forgiveness for his sin and His blessing for his true faith, Zacharias met a violent death at the age of thirty-eight. He was beheaded on May 28, attaining a martyr’s crown.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.