For the better part of the more than three hundred years since the birth of the Church at Pentecost, persecutions had been inflicted upon it by the Roman state. With the coming of Constantine and the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. the civil persecutions were brought to a close, at least for a time. Yet, during those persecutions, when the Church had been abundantly watered by the blood of martyrs and confessors, instead of waning and fading into history, the small seed of Christianity had grown and spread throughout the entire Roman empire. Not all those who were called before the civil authorities were put to death for their steadfastness in the faith; many were maimed, tortured and mutilated, then set free. These individuals are known in the Church as ‘Confessors.’
Saint Spyridon, like so many other bishops, had also been subjected to such tortures and mutilation. One account states that one eye was cut out and the calf of his left leg severed. Again, Eusebius’ History of the Church affirms that such was, indeed, the practice for a time under Diocletian when ‘tired of killing, satiated …with bloodshed, they (i.e. the emperors) turned to what seemed to them kindness and humanity …It was not in good taste, they said, to pollute the city with the blood of people of their own race …Orders were then issue that eyes should be gouged out and one leg maimed.’ Not content with merely persecuting the young Church from the outside, the devil also fought then, as now, against the Faith from within. Heresies had arisen in the Church from its earliest days. Many of the false teachings faded away quickly, others were rooted out in time. But, with the coming of Constantine and peace descending on the Church from without, a cancerous heresy threatened it from among its ranks, — Arianism, which proclaimed that “there was a time when the Son was not,” thereby making Jesus Christ, the Son of God, unequal to the Father. This was the most serious of the heresies which had arisen in the Church up to that time. Its adherents were numerous and threatened to completely split the Church. It was the discord aroused by Arianism which led to the gathering of the First Ecumenical Council.
Of all the local and “great” councils which defined the Faith, the council held in Nicaea in 325, summoned by Constantine the Great, is probably the best known. It was the first to be held under conditions of political freedom for the Church. It must also have been the most impressive, for this gathering of bishops and leaders of the Church was a visible witness of the sufferings which the Church had endured under persecution. How many of the fathers, like Saint Spyridon, arrived at Nicaea maimed, bearing the wounds and fresh scars of tortures endured for the Name of Christ!
The Council was summoned by Constantine, calling bishops from throughout all Christendom to the city of Nicaea principally to settle the matter of this Arian controversy. It is told that, journeying to the Council in Nicaea, the following happened to Saint Spyridon:
The bishop’s fame had spread far beyond the small island of Cyprus, and those who sided with Arius were looking for a way to keep him from attending the Council. Even though the bishop was relatively unlearned in the formal sense of the word, the miracles worked through him were well known and the Arians feared that his deeds would influence the decisions of the more educated fathers.
When Spyridon, paused in his journey to rest for the night at an inn, the Arians came under cover of darkness and decapitated both of the horses who were to pull his carriage. When dawn came and Spyridon’s companions saw what the heretics had done, a servant ran to tell the bishop. Saint Spyridon put his hope in the Lord and told the servant to go back and put the horses’ heads back on their bodies. The servant went quickly and did what he had been told, but in his haste, he placed the head of the white horse on the body of the black horse, and the head of the black horse on the body of the white horse. At once, the horses came to life and rose to their feet. The saint gave thanks to God, got into his carriage and continued on his way to the council. All the people who saw this were amazed, for the black horse had a white head, and the white horse had a black head! Best of all, the wicked scheme of the heretics failed and the saint arrived at the Council where he proved to be a great defender and teacher of the faith.
As the Council convened, the Orthodox fathers urged Arius to confess that the Son of God is of one essence with God the Father. Those who supported Arius included several very important bishops, among whom were Eusebius of Nicomedia (not to be confused with the above mentioned Eusebius, who was bishop of Caesarea), Marius of Calcedon and Theognius of Nicaea. These men accepted the foolishness of Arius, blaspheming that the Son of God is a created being.
Those who fought for the true faith included Alexander, who is numbered among the saints in the Church, but who, in 325, was still a priest and had been sent to Nicaea as a representative of Saint Metrophan, Patriarch of Constantinople, who could not be present due to illness; as well as Saint Athanasius who was then serving as a deacon in the Church of Alexandria. Athanasius’ theology and defense of the faith were sound, as were the statements made by Alexander, but because of the fact that these men were not bishops, their wisdom in the faith was a source of particular shame to the Arians.
The grace which worked in Saint Spyridon proved to be more powerful in clarifying matters than all the rhetorical knowledge which the others possessed. At the invitation of emperor Constantine, there were a number of Hellenic philosophers who were called “perinatitiki” present at the Nicaean Council. Among these philosophers was one who was very wise and adept, and, a supporter of Arius. His sophisticated rhetoric was like a two edged sword which cuts deeply. He boldly attempted to destroy the teaching of the Orthodox.
The blessed Spyridon requested an opportunity to address that particular philosopher. Because this bishop was a simple man who knew only Christ, and Him crucified, the holy fathers were hesitant to let him speak. They knew that he had no knowledge of Hellenistic learning and were afraid to allow him to match verbal skills with such philosophers. But Spyridon knowing the strength and power which is from above, and how feeble human knowledge is in comparison to that might, approached the philosopher, saying to him, “In the name of Jesus Christ, listen to me and hear what I have to say to you.”
The philosopher, looking at this country bishop, felt somewhat amused. Quite assured that his own rhetorical talents would make the simple cleric look like a fool, he proudly replied, “Go ahead, I am listening.”
The saint began, “God, who created heaven and earth, is One. He fashioned man from the earth and created everything that exists, both visible and invisible, by His Word and His Spirit. That Word, we affirm, is the Son of God, the true God, who showed mercy on us who had gone astray. He was born of the Virgin, lived among men, suffered the passion, died for our salvation and arose from the dead, raising the human race together with Himself. We await His coming again to judge all with righteousness and to reward each one according to his faith. We believe that He is consubstantial with the Father, dwelling together with Him and equally honored. We believe all these things without having to examine how they came to be; nor should you be so brazen as to question them, for these matters exceed the comprehension of man and far surpass all knowledge.”
Silent for a moment, the bishop then continued, “Can’t you now realize how true all of this is, O philosopher? Consider this simple and humble example: We are created and mortal beings and are not worthy to resemble the One who is divine in being and ineffable. Since we tend to believe more readily through what the eyes perceive than through what we merely hear with our ears, I want to prove something to you using this brick. It is composed of three elements which combine to make it one single being and nature.”
Saying this, Saint Spyridon made the sign of the holy Cross with his right hand while holding a brick in his left hand, and he said, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” while squeezing the brick. At once, flames rose into the air, water poured down upon the ground and clay alone remained in his hand!
Those who were eyewitnesses to this miracle were filled with fear, especially the philosopher. He remained speechless, like one who had been mute from birth, and found no words to respond to the saint in whom Divine power had been manifested, according to what is written: “The kingdom of God is not in words, but in power.” (1 Cor. 4:20)
Finally, humbled and convinced, the philosopher spoke, “I believe what you have told us.”
Saint Spyridon said to him, “Then come and receive the sign of holy faith.”
The philosopher turned to his colleagues and his students who were present and said, “Listen! As long as someone questioned me verbally, I was able to refute their statements with rhetorical skills. But my words fail against this elder who, instead of using mere words, has worked through power and miracles. My rhetoric is futile against such a might, for man cannot oppose God. If any of you feel as I do, let him then believe in Jesus Christ and follow this elder together with me. God Himself has spoken through him.”
Then the philosopher accepted the Christian faith, rejoicing that the saint had overcome his own logic. All the faithful were glad, and the Arian heretics were at a loss.
It was Saint Spyridon’s vital participation in the Council of Nicaea which led the God-inspired Church hymnographers to compose words such as these for his service:
“Your words adorned the Ghurch of Christ, and in your deeds you offered glory to the Image of God, blessed Spyridon.”
Saint Spyridon like all the saints, was not seeking his own glory; he was willing to sacrifice everything, even his very life, for God.
Translated by Mother Cassiana, Copyrighted and Published by New Varatic Press