Saints of Africa: November

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32

My wife asked me why I liked the stories of Orthodox saints so much. This verse from John’s Gospel is my answer in a nutshell. I have heard all sorts of talk about black Africans during the biblical and early Christian periods. I remember when whites would proudly say that if it weren’t for slavery, we wouldn’t know the love of Jesus. Absurd garbage. These days, I’m more likely to hear that African-Americans are really descendants of the Hebrew Israelites. Except for the Judaism that came to Ethiopia, also very wrong.

In the stories of the saints, I have found at least four of the 12 Apostles preaching in Africa at the same time Paul made his journeys into Greece and Italy. Many, if not most, of the Desert Fathers were native Egyptians and had some level of melanin in their skin. Of course the Greeks and Romans ruled Mediterranean Africa. But, they and the vey dark complexioned indigenous Africans were in the minority. Like many of us today, African saints of early Christianity came in every shade of the rainbow. Nubia remained a Christian stronghold until the Middle Ages, Ethiopia until the Communist took over in the late 1970’s. Even during Mansa Musa’s Mali Empire, Arabs documented Christian communities in West Africa.

The stories of the saints give me the freedom to explore and grow in the universal faith of Christianity. They give a depth of spiritual growth that is absent in the catch-phrases and taglines of modern churches. While our parishes aren’t always perfect havens of racial harmony (even for whites come to the faith), Orthodox Christianity’s ancient roots are about bringing people together to worship Jesus Christ despite our differences.

Road to Calvary Icon

November 3 Elias of Egypt (4th/5th century) Perhaps the same Abba Elias with 8 lessons in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.  He lived among the rocks near Antinoe, a city in Upper Egypt (Lower Nubia).  He was hearaled for his asceticism and healing.  Abba Elias reposed at 110  years old.

November 5 Gregory (9th century)  Patriarch of Alexandria

November 9  John the Dwarf (ca. 407)  This well loved monk was a disciple of Paisius the Great and Pambo.  Under Pambo’s direction, John watered a dry stick for 3 years until it suddenly bore leaves and fruit.  This is how he learned the benefits of obedience.  John would later be the teacher of Arsenius.  Forty-seven lessons in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers are attributed to this short spiritual giant.

November 11  Menas (304) He was an Egyptian and a Roman soldier.  As a Christian, he refused to participate in pagan idol worship and fled to the wilderness.  He declared his faith in a nearby town where the officials arrested and tortured him.  He was beheaded and burned.  It is said that Greek and other Allied soldiers fighting the Nazis at the battle of El-Alemein, Egypt saw Saint Menas fighting alongside them.

November 12  John the Merciful (620) He was the son of a Cypriot prince and lost his wife and children as a young man.  Because of his great compassion and piety, John was chosen to serve as the Patriarch of Alexandria.  While serving the Liturgy, John remembered the Lord’s commandment to settle a disagreement with a brother before taking a gift to the altar (Matthew 5:23, 24).  Knowing there was a priest who had a grievance against him, John left the Holy Gifts to go to him and beg for forgiveness.  Only when they made peace did John return to the altar and continue the service.

Nilus (ca. 450) He was an official in Constantinople with a wife, daughter, and son.  Weary of the sinful ways of the city, the wife and daughter went to a convent in Egypt while Nilus and their son, Theodulus, went to Mount Sinai.  He was known for his great asceticism and writings on spiritual living.

November 16  Apostle & Evangelist Matthew (1st century)  He was Levi the tax collector in Capernaum when Jesus told him, “Follow Me” (Matthew 9:9).  His account of the Gospel was first written in Aramaic.  After Pentecost, Matthew preached the faith among the Parthians, Medes, and Ethiopians.  He was tortured and martyred in Ethiopia.

Fulvanius (Matthew) (1st century)  As a pagan prince, he ordered the torture and death of the Apostle & Evangelist Matthew.  Seeing miracles and visions of the holy man, Fulvanius repented of his sins, and became a Christian.  Giving up his worldly life and throne, he became a priest and bishop of Ethiopia taking on the name of the one he had martyred.

November 17  150 Philosophers converted by St. Catherine and martyred in Alexandria (305) They were gathered by the Roman officials to try to convince Catherine to abandoned the Christian faith.  She out debated them and they converted, which angered the emperor.

Longinus of Egypt (4th century) Not Longinus the Centurion who was at the Lord’s Crucifixion.  This may have been the monk who was a disciple of Abba Lucius at the Enaton Monastery.  Five lessons from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers are attributed to him.

November 23  Ischyrion (5th century) a hermit in the Sketis desert and Bishop in Egypt.  This may be the Ischyrion with one lesson in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

November 24  Katherine (310) She was the daughter of a king who lived in Alexandria and was known for her great beauty and wisdom.  By visions, Katherine became a Christian and considered herself betrothed to Jesus.  Refusing to worship pagan idols, she outwitted 50 philosophers and convinced them to become Christians.  She also persuaded the emperor’s wife and his commander and 200 soldiers to accept  the faith.  All were tortured and put to death with Katherine beheaded at only 18 years old.  One of the great monasteries in Christianity is named for her on Mt. Sinai.

Emperess Augusta (Faustina),Porphyrius Stratelates, and 200 soldiers (505-313) All were martyred for declaring themselves to be Christians seeing the faith of Katherine in Alexandria.

November 25 Peter of Alexandria  (311) For a time, this Peter studied under the philosopher Origen.  He became Archbishop of Alexandria in 299.  During his leadership, 670 Christians were martyred including himself.  Peter also anathematized the priest Arius for his false doctrine of the Son being a created being of the Father and not one in essence with Him.

November 27 Pinuphrius (4th century) A contemporary of Abba John Cassian and known to be a great teacher by example among the Egyptian monks.

Nathaniel (6th century) A monk of Nitra, Egypt who is said not to have left his cell for 38 years.

November 29 Acacius (7th century) From Abba John Climacus in The Ladder Acacius was a young novice monk who was abused by an evil elder.  He endured the torture for nine years before he died.  The tormentor and another elder visited his grave and asked, “Acacius, did you die?”  “No,” came the reply from the grave, “it is impossible for the obedient to die.”  The evil elder shut himself up in his cell near the grave and spent the rest of his life in prayer and repentance.

November 30  Frumentius (370) He and his brother, Edesius, were traveling with Meropius to India from Tyre.  The ship was wrecked in a storm off the coast of Ethiopia.   The Ethiopians killed everyone on the boat except these two brothers who, in time, served in the imperial court.  Frumentius began to preach the Gospel to the Ethiopians before he and his brother left the country.  He went to Alexandria where Patriarch Athanasius sent Frumentius back to Ethiopia as the consecrated Bishop.  Ethiopia converted to the Christian faith and he reposed there in 370.

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