When we hear the word “missionary,” we often think of one being sent to preach in a far-away land. Certainly, Christianity has a rich history of such people being sent away from the comforts of their homeland in order to work for the salvation of others. However, there is an equally great need, especially in today’s modern Western world, to conduct such efforts at home. There are a great number of people whom we might describe as “post-Christian,” who have been raised in a “Christianesque” culture. Such people have a familiarity with the Christian faith, often attended Church when they were younger, and either reject the Gospel outright, or give lip service to Christian faith while not actually living it day-to-day.
Also, as Orthodox Christians, we believe that our Church is a unique Church, the original Church, in fact, and which has something to offer Americans. As the culture at large goes more and more toward relativism, and some Churches respond by watering down the Christian message in a misguided effort to reach such people, Orthodoxy presents a corrective, a living witness of the faith that never changes, and which has the power to save people in all generations and all walks of life. Orthodox Christianity is not just an ideology, but is something that can be known by experience. We have Holy Scripture, the lives of the saints, and the writings of Fathers to confirm our faith, but it is imperative that each and every Orthodox Christian live as a missionary in his own community, sharing the Gospel with relatives, friends, and neighbors. This involves both sharing the faith and living the faith ourselves to the utmost extent possible, so that we radiate Christ and prove that His grace is effective.
When looking for Orthodox precedents for foreign missions, we are quick to think of the Apostles to the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodios, who in the 9th century brought Christianity to the pagan Slavs living in the area now known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia. However, we may have a harder time calling to mind a saint who was engaged in domestic missionary work, or more specifically, the re-evangelization and strengthening of one’s own people, especially in modern times. Yet there were several remarkable individuals who contributed to the modern spiritual reawakening of the Orthodox faith in Greece after centuries of degradation under Ottoman rule, and the most beloved of these has to be Saint Cosmas the Aetolian.
Saint Cosmas (1714-1779) lived at a time when Orthodoxy was on the decline in what is now Greece and Albania. After the Turkish conquest of the area in the 15th century, various pressures led to conversions to Islam, and restrictions on the practice of the Orthodox faith among those who remained Christian. Education suffered, and in many areas, people ceased to have a connection to the Greek language, which had a detrimental effect on understanding the faith. By the time of Saint Cosmas, there were countless adults in the northern regions of Greece who were unbaptized and completely uncatechized.
Our saint originally sent out to become a monk on Mount Athos, and accomplished his goal, living in peace for nineteen years. Eventually, his concern for his fellow Greeks led him to request a blessing to go back into the world to help educate and enlighten them. The Patriarch of the time in fact gave him a blessing to preach everywhere he wished, and to accomplish his work as best he saw fit. He would go from village to village, and set up a Cross in the square. Various Christians would come to hear his teachings, which he presented in simple language so that most could readily understand him. Saint Cosmas established over 100 schools in his years of struggle. His work provoked jealousy among the rulers, and he was put to death on August 24, 1779. His earthly body was silenced, but his work outlived him, and not only helped thousands of Christians to improve their faith and avoid apostasy, but helped bring the Greek nation into the modern era.
Saint Cosmas burned with a love for his fellow Greeks in the 18th century, that they might know Christ and be saved. In a like manner, we burn with love for our fellow Americans, and specifically North Carolinians, that they might experience the blessed life and joy that accompanies repentance, surrender to Jesus Christ, and baptism into His Church. We travel from place to place, building up missions and teaching the people how to properly give glory to God (Orthodoxy is a Greek word meaning “right glory,” or the proper way to worship God). We are provoked by the degraded spiritual state of modern man, a state where questions which were considered solved centuries ago by revelation and experience are now openly questioned again, as man has lost touch with the sources of the Christian faith, the anchor of Western civilization, resulting in many today walking along lost, engaging in do-it-yourself spirituality and bouncing from ideology to ideology. The setbacks and struggles in our work do not cause us to quit, but instead strengthen our resolve.
This work is, in fact, not something new to American culture. Shortly after the time that Saint Cosmas struggled to enlighten the Greek nation, Methodist circuit riders began working to re-evangelize and minister to Americans, especially those in rural areas. By combining the spiritual teachings, examples, and disciplines of our Father Cosmas with the methods of these early American evangelistic pioneers, and adding in the aid of modern technologies such as the Internet, we hope to follow God’s call and spread our faith through our own homeland, the beautiful state of North Carolina (and may others reading this be inspired to work in their own communities). As we labor, may we be guided and protected through the prayers and intercessions of Saint Cosmas the Aetolian!
A Hymn to Saint Cosmas
By teaching the Divine Faith, thou hast richly adorned the Church and become a zealous emulator of the Apostles; for having been lifted up by the wings of divine love, that hast spread far and wide the message of the Gospel. O glorious Cosmas, entreat God that He grant us His great mercy.
Cavarnos, Constantine. St. Cosmas Aitolos : great missionary, awakener, illuminator, and holy martyr of Greece. 3rd edition. Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1985. (available for purchase here: http://ibmgs.org/lives.html)