(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. Irene Chrysovalantou, whose account is found in Volume 3 of the series.)
Saint Irene Chrysovalantou
The features of the icons painted over the centuries are not necessarily exact likenesses, but if any iconographer since the ninth century were asked to produce a likeness of St. Irene of Chrysovalantou, he could let his imagination run at will and merely paint his rendition of the most beautiful girl his talent could conceive, taking care to make her eyes the heavenly blue that could match the aura of divinity made evident throughout her entire life of piety. The nun’s habit would preclude a glimpse of the golden hair that framed her extreme good looks, and a life-sized portrait would require a canvas that stretched nearly six feet in height to accommodate her statuesque figure. A model of femininity in any century, in the ninth century she was a model of devotion to the Savior to such a degree that she enjoyed as much reverence as a highly-regarded saint during her lifetime as she did after death.
Born of a noble and devout family of Cappadocia, Irene grew up to be the classical golden girl whose exquisite beauty opened doors to the highest in the land, including the palace gates of Emperor Theophilos and Empress Theodora, but she chose the even higher gates of heaven to approach, a dedication to the Savior seldom seen in such an attractive girl. For all her glamorous beauty, she remained at heart a humble servant of Jesus Christ, to whom she directed herself in spite of the distractions attendant upon one so strikingly beautiful.
It appeared that her life’s ambition to serve the Messiah was not to be fulfilled when she, together with a sister of nearly equal beauty, was summoned to Constantinople by royal emissaries who had fanned out across the country in search of a bride suitable for Prince Michael. No one in Cappadocia doubted that she would have been the chosen bride, but on the journey to Constantinople a delay en route set Irene on her holy course. Passing by holy Mount Olympos, she could not be refused the opportunity to visit the renowned hermit Ioannikios. She remained long enough to enjoy the full wisdom of the aging recluse who prophesied that she would become the bride not of a future king but a handmaiden of the King of Kings as a nun. Thus heartened she rejoined her sister and the emissaries, arriving to find that the bride for Michael had just been selected. Futhermore, her sister caught the eye of Bardas, brother of Empress Theodora, who asked for the comely sister’s hand, and suddenly Irene found herself free to do as she wished.
Irene had felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in her talks with the hermit of Olympos, and now there welled within her an even greater awareness of that spirit which was to express itself thereafter with what is called miracles of faith but which were for her the end product of an overwhelming obsession to serve Jesus Christ. In the earthbound concepts of the dutiful Christian, abstractions of philosophy and miracles of religion were manifestations of the mysticism beyond human comprehension, and they still are to this day, but to the gifted and devout Irene those aspects which most baffled the average mind were distillations of the will of God, accepted by her with a grace and humility which suggested she was as much at home in Eden as in any corner on earth.
Irene entered the nunnery of Chrysovalantou, where her novitiate of three years was marked with a display of devotion and a familiarity with the mysticism of Christianity. In her omnivorous reading of religious books, she read an account of a sturdy monk who for a period of three years prayed from sunset to sunup, and she asked for permission to emulate the man in this prayerful tour de force to prove herself to God. When she was given leave, there had to be doubt in the minds of her sisters in Christ as to whether or not she could duplicate this prodigious male feat. No such doubt entered Irene’s mind, and she not only fulfilled this pledge to God but in doing so she subsisted on scarcely more than greens and water, returning as healthy in body as she had left but with a proximity to God evidenced in the miraculous powers she had acquired in her extended selflessness. She went on to greater glory as head of the nunnery.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.