St. Metrios the Farmer

My first parish assignment as a priest was at Holy Trinity Church in Clayton, Wisconsin. The good people there had to put up with an inexperienced priest, and they kindly taught me many good lessons.   Many of the parishioners at that time (early 1980’s) were involved in farming and almost everyone in the parish came from a farming family even if they themselves were not farming.

It happened while I was there that I saw in an Orthodox Hagiographic Calendar on June 1 was listed St. Metrios the Farmer.  I had never heard of St. Metrios but did some research (this was still pre-Internet days) and found a couple versions of his life, which were largely similar with some variations in details.  I immediately loved his story.

So often Orthodox hagiographies are full of miracles, super-human ascetic feats and other inimitable deeds, that they often don’t speak to me.  I’m looking for someone whom I can imitate.  St. Metrios life was simple and straight forward.  It has a miracle in it, but that is a gift from God.  Metrios’ hagiography consists mostly of one deed:  he did the next right thing.  He was honest and returned money he had found to its rightful owner without seeking a reward.  That is a Christian behavior I can imitate.  The life of St. Metrios tells me, do the next right thing.  Leave the ascetic feats to the monks (though Metrios’ good deed involved a lot of self denial) and leave miracles to miracle workers.  Christ did not command us to do miracles, but He did command us to love. Love is something within my power.  It involves doing the next right thing.  Sanctity and the Kingdom of God are not beyond our reach, but rather are possible for everyone who follows Christ and allows the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.  God equips us to do the next right thing – to imitate St. Metrios the holy farmer.

The edifying tale of St. Metrios the Farmer:

In the area of Galatia and Paphlagonia, there was a farmer named Metrios. He would see his neighbor preparing his sons for Constantinople, where they would become officers and servants of the Emperor. Then Metrios beseeched God, saying: “Lord, if I am Your worthy servant, grant me a male child to lean on in my old age, and that I may glorify Your Holy Name.” Having prayed, he went to the festival that took place every year in Paphlagonia, loading his carriage with whatever he needed.

On his return, Metrios stopped in a small forest that had water in order to water his animals. There, he found a pouch that had 1500 coins. As it was sealed, he did not open it, but took it and went home. He hid the pouch in a safe spot and did not tell anyone about it.

The next year Metrios returned again to the festival of Paphlagonia, and when he had sold and bartered all of his goods, he set out for home.  He again stoped in the woods where he found the coins, and there he observed those who passed by. There then appeared someone who was looking for something, heavily distressed. The farmer asked him why he was so distressed, and he replied that he was a skilled and successful merchant and he had borrowed in good faith 500 gold coins from another man last year.  He had come to the festival and had sold a lot of goods at the festival and had accumulated 1500 gold coins, but then lost them in this forest.  Thus he had been reduced from being a fortunate and wealthy man to poverty, unable to repay his debt.

Then the farmer went and took from his carriage the pouch which he had found and showed it to the merchant.  So stunned was the merchant that he fell  to the ground in a dead feint.  The poor farmer helped the dealer recover by getting water for him, then he opened the pouch, and they counted the coins which were in fact 1500. The dealer then wanted to give the farmer 500, but he would not accept anything. Less was offered, but the poor farmer would not take even one coin. So after both thanked God, they separated.

That night, when the farmer fell asleep, he saw in his dreams an angel of the Lord, who said that for what he had done God would grant him a male child which he was to name Constantine, and that the child would bring great blessing to his house.

It happened after a certain time that the farmer’s wife gave birth to a baby boy, which when he grew up was educated in Constantinople, and Emperor Leo the Wise elevated him to be a Patrician.  Thus God rewarded the farmer  for his act of honesty.

Honesty it turns out is the path to holiness.  It is something each Christian is capable of doing.

St. Metrios, pray to God for us.

Images of Power in the Church

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, offers an interesting contrast in understanding ‘power’ in the church and how it is displayed by church leaders.  Within the book there is a parable told by Ivan Karamazov, a rationalist atheist, to his younger brother Alyosha, an innocent believer in God.  The parable is known as “The Grand Inquisitor.”  While it is set in an earlier age in Roman Catholic Spain during the time of the inquisition, one has to wonder to what extent Dostoyevsky also meant the story to be a cryptic critique of his own Russian Orthodox Church.  Certainly Dostoyevsky saw the unbridled power of the imperial Russian Church in his life time.  Dostoyevsky had been taken to the gallows as an enemy of the state, only to be pardoned at the last minute.  So he knew better than to directly criticize the state Church.  It was safe and even sanctioned, however, to lambast the Roman Church of which most Russians would have had a negative view anyway.

In “the Grand Inquisitor”, Christ has returned to earth during the Spanish Inquisition, a time in Dostoyevsky’s thinking when the Church had absolute power over everything.   Dostoyevsky first introduces Christ in the story:

“He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. . . . The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments.”  (Kindle Loc. 5031-35)

The power possessed by Christ is love and compassion, to which the people respond with the recognition of rational sheep seeing their trusted shepherd.  As the story unfolds the unnamed Jesus by His divine life-giving power lovingly raises a child from the dead.  This is the power of Christ – to defeat death, and to love all.  It isn’t a matter of merited reward, but graceful and unconditional love of God.

Dostoyevsky then introduces the Cardinal – the Grand Inquisitor – who like Jesus possesses power as can be seen by the crowd’s reaction, and yet he is the antithesis of Christ:

“… at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal’s robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the Roman Church—at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk’s cassock. At a distance behind him come his gloomy assistants and slaves and the ‘holy guard.’ He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at His feet, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick gray brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead Him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on.”   (Kindle Loc. 5044-52)

The Grand Inquisitor though vested with all the authority of the Church,  in contradistinction to Christ the Life  Giver has only the power of death.  His power is limited to this world and the signs of his power are worldly – imperial and despotic.   Those gloomy souls who side with him are even described as slaves.

The crowd does fear him and they part, moving away from him.  Yes indeed, the people submissively cower before the dark power of the Inquisitor.  He has power over them, but only in this world.  His powers are not eternal though he believes them to be so.

Majesty of Law and the Power of Government

The real power of the Church is the love of Christ, and to love others as he loved us.  The dissimilarity and incongruity in the images of power which Dostoyevsky so brilliantly puts in the text could not be more stark.   The Son of God enters the world in a lowly cave meant to be a shelter for animals and is placed in their feeding trough.  There is no palace for Him.  The King of kings rejects all the power of the world’s kingdoms when offered them by Satan.    God the Son rides humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem so that He can be recognized as king.  Christ is glorified by being hung on the cross.  Christ’s power is His humility and His love.  These are the only images of power which belong to the church and its leaders.  It is how church leadership imitates Christ.  It is not imperial vestments which make a man recognizable as an image of Christ, but rather the humble willingness to set aside all trappings of power and to gird oneself with a towel and to serve the disciples by washing their feet as did Christ the Lord.