The Monk Martyr Who Refuted the Heresy of Iconoclasm

Saint Stephen the New, Monk-Martyr of Eternal Memory

Saint Stephen the New

The Orthodox Church honours him as a model of piety and loyalty to the faith, and a brave defender of the truth of Christianity. He was instrumental in refuting the false teachings of the heresy of iconoclasm that remained prominent in Byzantine for multiple decades. Its proponents were opposed to the veneration of the icons. Over time, many members of the clergy became adherents of iconoclasm, including some church hierarchs. Worse still, iconoclastic teachings earned sympathy and support among the emperors. Opponents were persecuted, and many went into exile or hiding in remote monasteries.

Among them, were the pious parents of Saint Stephen's pious parents, who had dedicated their son to God. When Stephen turned sixteen they gave him into the obedience of a hermit monk who resided in a cave on a high mountain. Saint Stephen had stayed with the monk for fifteen years when he knew about the death of his father and the tonsure of his mother and sister. Soon, his spiritual father also died, leaving the saint to ascetise on his own.

Through years of prayer, obedience and asceticism, he acquired great piety, righteousness and wisdom. He never sought to instruct and lead others, but he always attracted large numbers of followers among monks. They gathered around him to form monasteries and made him their Hegumen. Eventually, the saint retreated to live in hermitage, but again disciples came to ascetise with him. His monasteries became the mainstay of icon veneration, giving the true believers the spirit to oppose the iconoclasts.

Meanwhile, the persecution of the opponents of iconoclasm strengthened under Emperor Leo. The emperor called an ecumenical council to condemn icon veneration. However, none of the top hierarchs attended it except the Archbishop of Constantinople. Many had heard the news about the great feats of Saint Stephen, who venerated icons and performed multiple miracles associated with them. Increasingly, the great fame of the saint, his high standing among the monks and other believers was becoming a challenge to the iconoclasts and their influential adherents. They were determined to bring him to their side or destroy him.

triumph of orthodoxy

Icon "Triumph of Orthodoxy"

They used flattery, then threats, but to no avail. The saint was falsely accused of committing adultery with a nun. His powerful accusers subjected her to cruel torture to extract a confession. When that did not work, the emperor ordered his imprisonment. There, scores of iconoclastic priests visited him to convert him to iconoclastic views, but he always found effective counter-arguments to refute their position and keep to the true faith.

Then the emperor had the saint exiled to an island, where he dwelled in a cave and gathered multiple disciples who joined into a monastic community. Leaving the brothers to run it, he repeated the feat of living on a pillar, where he worked many miracles by his prayers, strengthening the spirits of the true believers. Then the emperor sent him to prison on another island, where hundreds of true believers were held. Together, they formed a monastery, where all the services were according to the Typicons. Crowds began to gather outside the prison walls requesting prayers from Saint Stephen. When the emperor learned about the monastery inside the prison walls, he sent assassins to kill him. But seeing the divine light shining from him, they repented, fell to their knees and asked Saint Stephen for forgiveness.

The Emperor transferred him to the island of Pharos and put him to trial. To prove the iconoclasts wrong, he asked the judges to imagine the fate of someone who would show disrespect to an image of the emperor (an offence punishable by death at his age). He then said that anyone who dishonoured the image of God and His saints would suffer an even harsher punishment, whereupon he threw a coin with the image of the emperor on the ground and trampled on it. The emperor sent his soldiers falsely telling them that the saint had been plotting against the emperor. Saint Stephen met them at the door of his cell, and the furious soldiers dragged him across the city, cut him into pieces and threw his body into a pit.

Commemorating his defence of the holy images and brave opposition to iconoclasm, he is depicted with an icon or a diptych of icons, typically of the Saviour and the Holy Theotokos. The famous Russian icon "Triumph of Orthodoxy" depicts him among the witnesses to the triumph.

December 11, 2021
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