The following homily was deliverd by Fr. Timothy Hojnicki at Vespers on the day of St. Alexander Svir at Holy Apostles Orthodox Church (OCA) in Mechanicsburg, PA.
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Tomorrow we celebrate one of my favorite saints of the Orthodox Church, St Alexander Svir. I was introduced to him when I went to Holy Cross Hermitage in West Virginia with Dcn. Seraphim a couple of years ago, and when they told me his story I just couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of him. When you look on the calendar of the saints he’s about sixth or seventh down the line so you don’t really sing about him, but he has an amazing story.
He was born in the 1400’s and at a young age he went to Valaam Monastery. He lived in that vicinity and went there and he was a really good monk. People started taking note of his asceticism and holiness and so people started to come to see him. Any good monk doesn’t want people to come and see them, they just want to be left alone to pray. So he left Valaam and went to the middle of nowhere to Svir where he established a little hermitage by himself, and there he lived in severe asceticism for many years, just happy as could be by himself doing his own thing. And then by God’s Providence there was a nobleman hunting deer in the forest who stumbled upon him, and they started to have a conversation on spiritual things. St. Alexander asked him not to make known his whereabouts, and we know how that usually goes—he went and told everybody, and so all kinds of people started to come to visit him and so his renown started to grow.
He didn’t have too many monastics there, it was just him. And a fantastic thing took place, that one day while he was praying, the Lord Himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit appeared to him. It’s a fantastic thing because, even the Synaxarion makes mention, this never happens! It’s one of the only times that we know that the Trinity appeared to somebody. They told him and they revealed themselves that we are Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and they instructed him to build a church in their honor and one of them, the Son, reached over and grabbed his arm and told him to take courage and be of good faith—everything would be taken care of. After They departed an angel appeared to him and told him where to build the church. Later on the Mother of God appeared to him and told him where to build a second church in her honor, the Protection of the Mother of God and he built that. And then she told him “You will see a great many disciples around you and even after you’re gone there will be many disciples for ages to come,” which is fulfilled to this very day—the monastery is alive and well.
But as amazing as that is, it gets even better. He died in the 1500’s. Fast forward to the Russian Revolution—one of the things that the Bolsheviks were trying to do was to liquidate any kind of relics or religious things. St. Alexander’s relics were incorrupt and not just dried out incorrupt, but supple, just like my hand. You can go online and see pictures of this. His hands and feet are exposed and they’re still soft. Some of the contemporary fathers say it was because the Lord Himself touched him that he has such an amazing preservation to his physical remains.
One of the things the Bolsheviks did was to confiscate his remains and they had these anti-religious museums and they put his body next to a rat in formaldehyde to say that relics are just like that, but then the rat started to fall apart, and so they had to whisk that away. His relics were lost and we only found out recently that when they put it in the basement of the Petrograd military hospital they did studies and experiments on his relics to find out how this incorruption could happen. They took samples of hair and skin, and one of the monks told me that there was record that when they were poking and prodding him—dead since the 1500’s mind you—his eyes would open, and they would run out screaming. They were so afraid to destroy the relics because these things were happening that they just put them aside and they were lost until Perestroika and the Church came back.
They were granted to have the relics back and they were returned to Svir in 1998. We can go there. They noticed that myrrh exudes out of his relics which heals all kinds of sickness and disease. But the monk also said that they give him the title almost of martyr, not because he suffered in his life but because of all the sufferings he went through after his death by all these pokings and proddings and tests on him. But think about this—this makes no sense to the rational human mind. But we see that God is wonderful in His saints—He can do anything He wants. And so we see this great example of holiness—what can happen with God’s interaction and a life of synergy with Almighty God. It’s amazing!
I encourage everyone to go home and Google his images—it’s fantastic! You see his hand and everything is there. And the story, knowing that his relics are that old, doesn’t make any sense. But this is the Church. This is how it works. This is how it is. And so we rejoice that today is his feast day and we can honor him, and know this member of our family and this wondrous thing that God did.