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St. Methodius I

Posted by Theology of Home on
St. Methodius I

By Denise Trull

I once attended a graduation party for one of my son’s friends. The house, though very inviting, was simple and sparse in its furnishings. The family was far from well to do, surviving as they did on the father’s teaching salary. However, they were rich in old, used books which lined the walls of one room in particular. I saw the shelves from the doorway off the living room, and bibliophile that I am, I fluttered through that doorway like a proverbial moth to the flame. It was a comfortable room -- a few introverted guests had discovered it and were sitting sipping their wine quietly on an old comfy sofa, talking one on one about philosophy and having a marvelous time of it. I did not dare interrupt.

My eyes took in the room, scanning slowly across those shelves. And then I saw it. A wall of icons painted in deep, jeweled colors. They were all arranged in a pattern with little shelves tucked here and there among them holding miniature candles which dripped wax in the most ancient and satisfying pools. From the ceiling hung small, exquisite censers, quiet now but capable of swinging back and forth on their delicate chains. I do not exaggerate when I say it was enchanting; more so for the surprise of it being in that completely simple, suburban home. The icons were old; miniatures of Our Lady, St. Joseph, St Charbel, St John Chrysostom and other eastern saints dwelling quite happily next to each other. This treasure I had happened upon, I found out later, was a prayer corner -- a customary place of honor for the saints to dwell in Eastern Catholic homes. A wall that, by tradition, should face east, where Christ would rise upon us on the last day.

My host told me the story of his icons. Each had its own tale of how it had come to be there. He knew their stories and how the saints had helped each member of his family. He lit the candles for me and set the censers swinging. Truly I felt that this was holy ground as the air about the icons became fragrant with the scent of ancient myrrh. The candles flamed to a glow on the cheek of a Madonna here or the eyes of a martyr there who had suffered deeply once but now knew victory over death. It was clearly a visible sign of the communion of saints.

The Eastern Churches hold these prayer spaces dear. Each prayer corner reflects the the spiritual lives of the family who owns them -- their particular needs and desires, and their thanksgiving for prayers answered. These beautiful spaces have existed in the Orthodox Church for many centuries. Every home and every Church had beautiful icons lining its walls to remind the people of heavenly things.

However, there were several years of the ninth century in which all this beauty was almost completely and utterly destroyed; all sacred art was banned as idolatry throughout the Eastern Churches. These were the years dominated by the iconoclast Emperors. At first, this was well intentioned as the leaders were reacting to pagan peoples newly converted to the Catholic faith -- pagans who brought their idols with them and assumed that the power came from the images and the little statues they made and not from the grace of God. The kings did not want the purity of the Christian faith to be sullied by this. But their zeal was ill advised and ill executed. They failed to make any distinctions between idolatry and the spiritual beauty of icons which reminded the faithful of heaven and fed many a spiritual life with their presence.

God was not pleased with this annihilation of art in His Churches. And when God is not pleased, there will always be saints called upon to defend His cause. This time it was the preservation of art. And so it happened. Two saints, very different in temperament and office, rose up to save the icons and the spiritual lives of countless faithful in their own time and in future times to come. Their names: Methodius and Lazarus Zographos. One a patriarch of high standing and one a simple ‘writer’ (painter) of icons.

Methodius did not start life out in the east. He hailed from far away Sicily. But Constantinople was a thriving place of learning and wealth at that time. Being an ambitious young man, and the son of an ambitious father, Methodius set his eyes on nothing less than the Emperor's court where he could distinguish himself in the law or in politics. He sailed away to seek his longed-for fortune.

The journey was long, and this proved providential for on this boat was an old and wise monk. Day after day they walked the deck together and shared long, deep conversations. To Methodius's credit he listened attentively, and the grace-filled eye of that old monk saw something stirring in this young man's heart. At the end of the voyage, Methodius walked right past the palace of the Emperor and entered a monastery.

He became a wise and holy monk of learning and wisdom and eventually became the abbot. Soon there were many worried rumors that Emperor Leo V was smashing and destroying icons all throughout the kingdom. People were being tortured for having any sort of painting in their Churches or homes. Methodius saw how dire this was. He journeyed to Rome to share this terrible news with the pope and to ask his advice. He returned to Constantinople and was promptly exiled for eight years as punishment. This truly moved me -- that Methodius was put into prison simply for his defense of beauty. On his return, he inexplicably caught the eye of the new emperor Theophilus and was somehow given a position of importance at court even though the iconoclast emperor knew Methodius was a notorious defender of art. It did not end well. Methodius did not yield his position, and the angry emperor imprisoned him several times over. The smashing of the icons mercilessly continued. Methodius prayed for God’s help from his prison cell.

Meanwhile, in another quiet town lived a humble Armenian monk and artist named Lazarus Zographos, who was quite gifted in the art of iconography as his name Zographos attests. He was acutely aware that Theophilus had gained the ominous title “smasher of icons.” But Lazarus bravely sent word to all the people near his home to bring him their icons twisted and scarred by the hands of the soldiers. St. Lazarus spent all his time restoring the beloved icons of each family who secretly came to him for help. They joyfully brought the restored paintings back to their prayer corners and found great solace there. But Lazarus was caught at last and sent to the Emperor who initially tried bribery -- great fame and money would be his if Lazarus would simply destroy all his restored paintings. Lazarus stood firm and staunchly refused.

Then Theophilus did the unthinkable. He commanded that Lazarus's hands be burned and maimed with hot irons, an unthinkable horror for an artist. Lazarus called out to God in his torture, and God heard his prayer. Back in his cell, Lazarus's hands miraculously healed quickly and fully. This was God's way of telling us that art must continue in His Church and that He would be its great champion.

Methodius and Lazarus were both to be helped in the end by the loving heart of a pious and faithful woman, Theodora, the wife of Theophilus. She secretly prayed with her icons in her chambers at the castle. She came to the aid of Lazarus and pleaded his cause before her husband with great courage and wifely insistence. Theophilus was deaf to these pleas. But Theophilus soon was to go the way of all flesh -- and died. Theodora gave Lazarus permission to return to his writing of the icons, which he humbly did up until his death shortly after this. When Theodora visited him at his monastery to ask forgiveness for the way her husband had treated him, Lazarus quickly assured her that he had already done so and God was merciful. Theodora then took her place on the throne until her little son was old enough to rule. She declared almost at once that the icons should return to all the Churches and homes of the east. She welcomed Methodius once more as patriarch and together they returned the images and statues to places of honor throughout the kingdom. This ended with a triumphal procession on March 11, 843, to the magnificent Church of Hagia Sophia, there to return and ensconce all her icons in their rightful places once again. This was the beginning of the great restoration of Catholic Orthodoxy in the east, and became a holiday in the Byzantine Church celebrated every year on the First Sunday of their Great Lent.

So, it is Methodius, Theodora, and Lazarus whom we need to thank for all our beautiful eastern icons on walls and tables, our loved images, our beloved statues, our holy cards that remind us to pray -- the rosaries we clutch to our hearts in scary or anxious moments. It is Methodius we need to thank for giving Catholic artists the freedom to enflesh their prayers in paint and stone. It is Lazarus we need to thank for standing up to the “smasher of icons” and for restoring to families their beloved prayer corners. God’s work had been accomplished. Art had been restored and shone with the light of His grace once more.

I have since made my own prayer corner in the office where I write. I have a mix there of Roman and Eastern saints all happily crowded together on my wall. And when my little censers swing and my candles glow on the beautiful images of my beloved saints, I breathe a prayer of thanksgiving to their champions, Sts.  Methodius and Lazarus, restorer of icons.

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri.  

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