Live Like You’re Preparing to Die

A Homily for the Feast of St. Varlaam of Khutyn


In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Today, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, is the feast of the great Russian monastic saint, Varlaam of Khutyn. What can be said about him and about us?

St. Varlaam lived in the twelfth century in the great Rus’ city known as Veliky Novgorod. He spent his entire childhood and youth there. He was the son of the rich and famous citizens Mikhail and Anna, who were distinguished by a pious life, which bore good fruit. This boy who was born to them, Alexei, imbibed the words of Holy Scripture from childhood and resolved to devote his entire life to God. This caused people, including his parents, some bewilderment, because there were so many good and interesting things around, and yet he chose this path. He only liked to read sacred books, go to church, and spend all his time at home in prayer and fasting. And when asked why, Alexei would answer: “Life is but a shadow and a dream; it turns like a wheel.” For his joy was only the eternal—only eternal love for the eternal God.

How few there are of us who live this way. And what happiness it is for us that there have always been, are, and will be such people among us unto the ages of ages. What was the twelfth century like and how different was it from our present time? Just as the sanctity of Christian love was trampled on in the crazed land of Rus’, so the same thing happens now. We all call ourselves Orthodox Christians, we’re all baptized, or at least most of us, but when we start to divide power and money, everything loses meaning for us. Fraternal blood is being shed, there’s robbery everywhere, tormenting our own brothers and sisters, not just in the literal sense, but even in words. And at that time in the twelfth century, it was Veliky Novgorod that acted as the instigator and inciter of all internecine strife. You can hear a lot today, as then, from people about some freedoms, about some liberalism—how good it is—“Let’s live in the Western way.”

How many accuse us now of slavish love for God, for the authorities, that we don’t start a revolution, and so on. But it’s because Orthodox people can’t have any dreams of revolution. Because an Orthodox man honors the Law of God, where it says that he must honor the authorities he deserves. Is it possible that the Lord, remembering every gnat, every bug, should forget about poor you and give you a bad ruler? This is grumbling against God. Surely you can grumble against God in your heart with words of revolution: “Let’s have a revolution; let’s have freedom; let’s go somewhere and get something.” And we see clear examples of this even now, with what’s happening around us. We can see perfectly well what these freedoms have led to.

But in their bitterness, people continue to blame everyone and everything rather than their own freedom-loving demonic path, their desire for anarchy. The same thing happened in Veliky Novgorod in the twelfth century. And there was born such a man, Alexei, who was tonsured with the name Varlaam. For his virtuous, ascetic life, St. Varlaam was glorified by the Lord with various miracles and gifts of clairvoyance. And there are such saints living now. It seems there are no such feats, no such fasts, but there always are and were such people. You can be sure of that. It’s thanks to the prayers of these people that our Rus’ lived and will live.

One man went to see the great elder with his only son, who was sick, but his son died along the way. But he still went to see the saint to entreat his holy prayers. And when the saint prayed, the boy revived.

And there was this story from Novgorod, which is immortalized in history. Once the saint went to see Archbishop Gregory of Novgorod. And when leaving him, he said in parting: “Next time I’ll come to you on a sleigh.” But how is it possible to come by sleigh in summer, in the first weeks of the Apostles Fast? And indeed, it snowed that day, and the saint arrived by sleigh. And people murmured: “How could this happen? Why doesn’t the Lord love His loyal Christians?” And he said: “It’s according to God’s providence,” which calmed everyone down. And in fact, everyone was then convinced of the miracle and providence of God, because this frost didn’t freeze people, but only the worms that were all over the roots of the wheat they’d planted. The worms died. And the next day, it was sunny again and the grass was green. That’s how the saint turned everything to good by his asceticism, by his prayer.

There was such a case. We often are filled with condemnation because something happens one way, and another thing happens another way. In Veliky Novgorod there was such freedom that after condemning a man in public that they’d take a stone, hang it about his neck, and throw it into the Volkhov. And then one day, passing by one such unfortunate man with a stone around his neck, the saint had such zeal and asked for this man for himself. Another time he was on the road, and another man was facing the same condemnation. But he didn’t ask for this man, and the condemned man was drowned. And people started asking, “Why did you do this? There were two men condemned—one you saved and the other not.” He replied: “The first condemned man, yes, he committed this crime; yes, he was justly punished, but no one looked into his heart. And there was repentance in his heart.” And he took him, sent him to a monastery, and instructed him with many words. He saw a repentant heart. And this man changed his life there in the monastery, became a monk, and performed many good deeds.

And about the second man, whom the saint didn’t save, he said, “Why should I save him? He was unjustly condemned and died as a martyr in Christ. He calmly endured the curses that came upon him with great Christian patience, and now he’s rewarded by God with a martyr’s crown. What more can I, a weak, feeble man, do than he has done for his own soul?” For that’s the most important thing we have. Our greatest concern should be for our souls. The words of St. Seraphim of Sarov are true. That is, save yourself and thousands around you will be saved. Nothing has changed, and these are not lies.

And one more thing I’d like to say. Among the Heavenly acts of the Khutyn Spirit-bearer was the miracle of saving Moscow. This occurred in 1521 during the reign of Grand Prince Vasily III. There was another attempt to ruin Rus’. But at that time, a blind eldress from Ascension Monastery saw in a vision how the Holy Hierarchs Peter, Alexei, and Jonah were coming out of the Kremlin in procession, carrying the Muscovite and Russian sacred treasure of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The procession was met at the Kremlin gates by St. Sergius of Radonezh and St. Varlaam of Khutyn, who begged the saints to return the icon to Moscow and beg the Lord’s forgiveness for our people, who are willful, obstinate, but still bearers of the Holy Spirit. And that’s how it all happened. Then the ambassadors went out to Khan Mehmed Giray with rich gifts. And everything was fine that year. Everything was forgiven precisely by the prayers of Sts. Sergius of Radonezh and Varlaam of Khutyn.

When people would come to St. Varlaam, he would talk about three things, especially to the authorities. He would tell them, first, that they shouldn’t lord over people who are just like themselves; second, that they should rule according to the law; and third, that they won’t always be in power, and that they’ll also have to give an account before God, the Master of life. Because the judgment of God is over them as well. Before His death, He told His disciples: “Live like you’re preparing to die every day.” True faith in the Heavenly Father is perfect trust in His goodness, which, unfortunately we don’t have, due to our lack of faith.

Wisdom, love, and complete trust in the merciful Lord permeated St. Varlaam’s entire life. Remembering his life, we can recall how he lived—with great humility, endurance of sorrows, in constant, vigilant prayer. And let us remember his words: “Children, beware of all unrighteousness; don’t envy or slander; refrain from anger; don’t lend money at interest; beware of judging unrighteously; don’t swear falsely; having taken an oath, fulfill it; don’t indulge in bodily passions; and always be meek and treat everyone with love. This virtue is the beginning and root of all good.”


Hieromonk Silouan (Mezhinsky)
Translation by Jesse Dominick

Optina Monastery


Nina Leigh11/19/2023 4:27 pm
"The words of St. Seraphim of Sarov are true. That is, save yourself and thousands around you will be saved." Amen. I hear this truth, deepening in wisdom how to be a healing presence, we must first let ourselves be healed. Once healing begins, it continues when we continue in Christ, and out of the overflow in our own lives, flows living water for others who thirst for healing. Lord Have Mercy.
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