(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. Sophia, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Every mother wins the “Mother of the Year” award in her own family, but if a vote were taken for the “Mother of the Thousand Years of the Byzantine Empire,” the unanimous choice would be a valiant woman named Sophia who turned a personal tragedy into a triumph of the spirit in the name of the Lord and so glorified his name in her every thought and deed that she was sainted by popular acclaim. She symbolizes motherhood in the purest sense, sanctifying the role all mothers play in the daily grind of raising a family, elevating the mothers of the world to a sacred level in the eyes of God and giving them their due recognition in the divine plan of the universe. A woman acquires a spark of divine grace in bearing a child, and thereafter in caring for it she labors not only for herself but for the property of the Almighty as well, for we are the children of God.
The noble Sophia came into the world with every advantage, including wealth of beauty and intelligence, as well as an abiding faith in Jesus Christ, and at maturity she left nothing to be desired as a model wife. When she married, she took leave of her parents to make a home of her own with the prayer that she would be blessed with children, a prayer which was answered. She became the mother of six children, all of whom she loved deeply and none of whom lacked the religious fervor of their mother.
It was in her thirty-fourth year, when her happiness knew no bounds, that her greatest joy turned to stark tragedy. A plague swept over the land and she watched helplessly as one by one her children died. When the pestilence had spent itself she had lost all of her loved ones, including her husband. In numbing grief she yearned to be stricken and join her family in death, but then her Christian faith asserted itself, reminding her that there was much she could do, not only for the Lord but in memory of her family. She returned to her empty house intent upon putting it to good use, and her life thereafter came to be a total commitment to the glory of the Savior.
She lost no time in seeking out the clergy of the community and announcing plans to dispense her wealth among the poor, keeping enough to maintain her house, which she hoped would shelter underprivileged or orphaned children. In a span of twenty years, Sophia’s house became a haven not only for little wanderers but for the dispossessed of any age as well. She actually adopted over one hundred children in this period, raising each of them as though it were her own child and sending them out into the world full of the love of Jesus Christ and quite prepared to make a useful place in society. She came to be known as the “Mother of Orphans,” marveled at by other mothers of the empire whose burdens were made lighter when they compared their cares and worries to those of the woman who had the strength and grace to make her life worthwhile after suffering a loss that would have overwhelmed the average mother.
Many stories of tenderness and sacrifice are attached to Sophia, but the one that stands out as an example of her proximity to God is the one concerning the bottomless wine pitcher, if it can be called that. Her hospitality extended to all comers, and when adults sought refuge in her house she customarily poured them a glass of rare vintage wine from a Grecian urn. After she had first filled the urn, she noticed that, no matter how much she dispensed for her guests, the wine was always at the same level when she went to use it again. At first she presumed that someone had surreptitiously refilled the urn when she was otherwise engaged, but she soon realized that it was a phenomenon that could not be explained. She mentioned it, however, to no one.
When Sophia was fifty-five years old, she revealed her secret to a parish priest, who accepted it as a miracle of the Lord and prevailed upon her to become a nun. He assured her that her proximity to God was unquestioned and that she was entitled to the serenity of a cloister, there to find the divine presence in prayer and meditation. One year after she became a nun she died, and just a few years later she was proclaimed a saint, an honor that is usually several years in the making. Her life is commemorated on June 4, and in addition to “Mother of Orphans” Sophia is remembered by Church Fathers as one who had “God’s Favor.”
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from this website.