Holy Women – Saint Hilaria

As I proposed online a little while ago, I wish to research and write a series of posts about the many Holy Women venerated in our Orthodox Church of Alexandria, and in the wider Orthodox communion. There are a great many, but perhaps even in our own community many of them are little known. Perhaps this series of posts will help to redress the dishonour which we often show to our saintly sisters and mothers in the faith by drawing our attention and raising our awareness of their great examples of faith and perseverance.

In this post I want to consider the holy Saint Hilaria, whose anniversary is at this time. There are a number of texts concerning her life in various languages but it seems that the Coptic version contains the original account, and this is also preserved in an early Arabic translation. Some scholars have wanted to dismiss the entire story of Saint Hilaria as a fiction, but it seems to me that their objections lack any convincing weight. There is an ancient Egyptian tale concerning the sister of the wife of the Pharoah Ramses II, whose name was Bent Resh, which is translated as Daughter of Joy. It is then proposed that since Hilaria also has the sense of joyfulness, this is just a fiction based on an earlier story. This conclusion seems to be based on an unwillingness to accept such accounts of the saints’ lives more than anything else. There were certainly women, including noble women, who made their way to monasteries in various places disguised as men. If there are comparisons and common features in the lives of some of these saints it is because their circumstances were often similar, and not because their lives are simply pious fiction. If there are any connections between such lives and older, Phaoronic tales, this is also due to the fact that all true accounts of lives and fictional narratives can be categorised into only a limited number of types and forms. If someone goes on a journey, and many saints go on journeys, then it does not mean that any particular account is fictitious or copied from another. It simply means that going on a journey is one of the categories of any story.

So I am going to approach the account of the life of St Hilaria as true, even if some historical aspects are less accurate than a modern day historian might require. This hardly means that the life is not true, only that the author did not have every detail of history available to him.

This is a lengthy account, but the honour of the holy virgin Saint Hilaria, requires and inspires us to read it with attention. She was a 12-year-old girl who had the courage to commit her young life to God, and in her teenage years she was able, by the grace of God, to exceed even the monks of Scete in their life of prayer and fasting. She is an example to those of us who are entering our youth, to those of us who are women and men, to those of us who are in the laity and the ranks of the Church. Read this life of St Hilaria and seek her intercession, so that we might receive the grace she did, and offer ourselves in service to God as she did.

Holy Hilaria, pray for us.

The Emperor Zeno was an Isaurian general who had been successful in defending the interests of the Eastern empire. Isauria was in the south-east region of modern day Turkey around the Taurus mountains. The Isaurians were considered rather barbaric, but Zeno had married a noble woman of Constantinople, Arcadia, and she bore him a son, Zenos. Then, after her death, and becoming more successful, he married the daughter of the Emperor Leo I, Ariadne, who bore him a son who was given the name Leo. When Leo I died, his grandson became Emperor Leo II, but at only 6 years old his father, Zeno, became co-Emperor, and then, after a few months, when his son died, he became sole Emperor.

The story of Saint Hilaria tells us that she was one of only two daughters of the Emperor Zeno. Outside of the life of Saint Hilaria we do not read of any daughters of Zeno, but this is not entirely surprising. History is often concerned with politics and with male lines of Imperial succession. The life does not tell us of any son and heir of Zeno, and therefore it could easily be placed in the period after Zeno became Emperor, and when his own son had died, and when his wife Ariadne might well have borne him daughters.

It is said that the Emperor Zeno had two daughters and he was careful to give them the best of educations. They were taught both to read and to write, and were able to understand the Psalms. The eldest daughter was called Hilaria and she had a desire for the life of virginity and monasticism. But she could not easily turn to the monasteries closest to her in the city of Constantinople, as the monks would have been fearful of receiving her since she was the daughter of the Emperor. But such an obstacle could not stand in the way of her fulfilling the ambition she had to enter the monastic life.

At this time, she was attending the Liturgy in the cathedral with her father, and she lifted up her eyes towards heaven and poured out her desire in prayer to God, saying…

O Lord, if you consider me worthy of this pure calling, and you will make it possible for this desire to be fulfilled, let me hear something in the readings from Scripture and the homily about my ambition.

She listened carefully, and heard the words of the Apostle, from the letter to the Hebrews, where he writes…

By faith, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharoah’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.

And then she heard in the Catholic Epistle…

The wealth of this world is like grass and hay.

And in the Acts of the Apostles…

I have coveted no silver or gold or apparel, indeed, you yourselves know that these hands have ministered unto my own needs.

And then from the book of Psalms she heard…

His joy is sweeter than gold, and precious stones, and honey, and honeycomb.

While the Gospel contained the words…

Whosoever does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple.

Even the homily preached by the bishop seemed to be addressed to her, when he said…

Wherefore, O man, do you desire what passes away and what you must leave behind. Know that the lusts of this world pass away. Therefore, do not trust in riches, for our riches remain here while our sins precede us to the judgment-seat of the Lord.

And so Hilaria understood that the Lord had indeed spoken to her as she had asked, and it seemed that her way was being made clear to her. She said…

God has given success to my course, and smoothed my endeavour.

Indeed, as soon as she had received the blessing she set at work to put in hand what God had placed in her heart.

The very next morning, she dressed herself as one of the eunuch servants of the Emperor, and made her way to the Harbour, bearing a staff of office and a decorated leather belt. At the Harbour, and disguised as an official of the Emperor, she was able to commandeer a ship, saying to the captain…

I must be taken to Alexandria, as I have to take orders from the Emperor.

The ship was not intending to travel in that direction, but confronted with someone dressed as an Imperial servant, and bearing a staff of office, he complied, saying…

We were not planning to sail in that direction, O servant of the Emperor, but if it is the will of the Emperor then we must obey.

And so she found herself in Alexandria, and she was only 12 years old, and a beautiful young girl, but able to pass as one of the eunuchs of the Court because of her youthful and female appearance. Her first concern was to visit the Church of St Peter the Seal of Martyrs and to pray there, asking for his help in her ambition. Then she visited the Church of St Mark, and she prayed again, asking him to smooth her way. In the Church she found a deacon, with the name of Theodore, and she said to him…

Peace to you, brother, will you come with me to the mountain of Scete, for I have a great desire to go there, and I will pay you for the trouble. I have left my country especially to make this visit.

And the deacon replied to her, saying…

O servant of the Emperor, for a long time I have also wished to go to that place, and perhaps it is God’s will. But let us eat bread first, and we can leave in the morning.

Hilaria took a coin, and gave it to the deacon, telling him to buy whatever would be needed, and the deacon went and did so. The next morning, they saddled two animals and rode to the Church of St Mina, where they stayed for the night. On the next morning they set of again and reached Scete. When they had arrived, the holy father Pambo was asked about them.

There is an official of the Emperor who has arrived here with a deacon.

Abba Pambo had them brought to him, and he welcomed them and prayed. Then he shared with them many profitable stories. After sitting with him for some time, Hilaria addressed the blessed Pambo, saying…

Above all things, I wish to be made a monk here, and where the monastic dress, and remain here always.

Abba Pambo replied, to Hilaria, believing her to be a young man of wealthy background…

My son, it is impossible for you to remain here. You are accustomed to a life of comfort and bodily rest. If you really desire to become a monk then I suggest that you go to Anyatun, because it is safe, and there you will find a community of rich people who have embraced the monastic life. You will be able to live there and find consolation. But we are far from the city, more than four days from the plain and the towns, and we do not even have clothes to wear, and you will not be able to bear our hard way of life and our little food.

The blessed Hilaria spoke boldly before the holy elder Pambo and said…

Know, my holy father, that I have come to this mountain with my whole heart, and now you are sending me away, but the Lord will make you give an account for me.

Abba Pambo was astonished at this answer, and at the spiritual insight of the boy, because he thought that Hilaria was a youth. He decided to make a place for Hilaria in the monastery, and provide accommodation for the deacon as well. But the deacon took the blessing of the old man and returned to the city.

Hilaria, the daughter of the Emperor, took the few gold coins that she had brought with her and offered it to Abba Pambo, saying…

My father, take this little sum from me and distribute it to the poor.

But the old man answered…

We have no need of it here. The work of our hands provides all that we require. But if you have something then I will give it to the deacon, and he can take it to the Patriarch in the city.

And so Hilaria gave up all that she had with her, and the leather belt, and the golden staff of office. The deacon took all of these and set off for the city. And then Hilaria turned to Abba Pambo saying…

I desire now, more than anything, that you dress me in the monastic garments and allow me to become a monk.

With this, Abba Pambo began to instruct her in the monastic life, and taught her the ascetic practices of the monastery. He gave a worn out and much repaired hood, and a rough coat made out of hair. She wanted to put them on straight away, and so the old man blessed them, and put them on her, not knowing that she was the daughter of the Emperor. He gave her a cell near his own and visited her often. She as filled with the grace of God, and he allowed her to learn the Coptic language. She was extremely ascetic, and fasted and prayed zealously. The other monks wondered how it was that these coarse clothes never seemed to harm her soft skin.

After nine years had passed, and she had not grown any sign of a beard, they called her Hilari the Eunuch. She fasted and prayed and engaged in such ascetic endeavours that she had not developed as a woman, and so had not been discovered by the monks.

After such a long passage of time, her parents had abandoned hope of seeing her again. But the will of the Lord was that he would make her known to them again in due time. Her younger sister became possessed by a demon. So her father, the Emperor, sent her to many of the monasteries and to the retreats of many of the most ascetic elders, accompanies by soldiers and two officers of the Court. But the Lord gave no relief from any of them because he intended to glorify Hilaria. So the officers of the Court went to the Emperor and advised him, saying…

May our Lord, the King, live forever. We know that in the Wadi Habib there are pure and holy monks. Send your daughter to them, and we are sure that God will heal her through their blessed prayers.

When the Emperor heard this he was very glad. He ordered two officials of the Court, with two servant-girls, and soldiers from his armies, to accompany his daughter, and he wrote a letter to the Governor of Alexandria, to direct her to the Mountain of Scete. He wrote a letter to the elders of Scete, in which he said…

Thus writes Zeno, the most unworthy in the kingdom, to whom God has given this gift that he does not deserve. To the holy, beloved, pious Fathers, who strive to liberate themselves from the world, the ascetic, self-denying monks of the holy Mountain of Scete, called the balance of hearts, Greetings.

In the first place, I bow my face down before your holiness. Then I will inform you, my Fathers, of what the Lord has done to me on account of my many sins and trespasses. God had given me two daughters. One left me and I know nothing about her; so I was in great sorrow on her account. And while I had to suffer this great sorrow, there struck me another sorrow greater than the first one: the other daughter, whom I had expected to be my consolation and a compensation for her sister, a demon took possession of her and tormented her day and night so that I am near to saying that death is preferable for her to life. My courtiers have given me advice to send her to your holiness. And now my whole hope is upon you, that God will not reject your request and that she will be saved by your prayers.

When this message reached Alexandria, the Governor, with many soldiers, went to accompany her. They reached the monastery, brought the letter of the Emperor and gave it the holy Abba Pambo. He assembled the brethren and read the letter before them. When they began to pray, the demon threw her down and continued to beat her among them, so that the emir and all who were with him wondered and said: “How can a demon do this among such holy persons?

When the holy Hilaria saw her younger sister, she recognised her and her heart was troubled on her account, her limbs ached and she wept over her. When the brethren saw her sick at heart for her sake, they were sorry. When prayer was finished Abba Pambo called one of the brethren and said to him: “Take this girl with you into your cell and do not cease to pray over her until God shall have restored her health.” He said humbly: “I have not reached that degree of perfection, and I cannot be entrusted with this girl.” Then Abba Martyrios said: “Trust her to Hilari the eunuch”.

So they trusted the girl to her sister. She began to pray over her and to weep till she had soaked the earth, to embrace her and to kiss her face, to lie with her on one bench, while she held her close. After seven days the Lord healed her. The Governor and the officers and the soldiers received the holy Eucharist with them on Sunday and then returned to Alexandria. As to the girl, God had given her grace and the villainous demon had left her; so the servants and servant-girls and the soldiers took her and returned to the city with her, rejoicing because the Lord had given success to their journey. The elders wrote a letter of explanation to the Emperor Zeno in the following words…

The unworthy inhabitants of the Mountain of Natrun write to their victorious lord Zeno, the pious. Above all we prostrate ourselves before your venerable noble majesty. May the Lord preserve your throne and confirm your kingdom so that it would be like that of David and Solomon and Hezekiah and Uzziah and may you rule your kingdom without any troubles. May you be safe in the Lord because of your care for the church of the Lord Christ, our God.

When this letter reached the king he rejoiced greatly because of his daughter’s recovery. He arranged meals for the poor and gave away a great deal of money. He said, “My daughter, what has happened to you at Scete?

She answered, “My father, they entrusted me to a holy, ascetic monk, called Hilari the eunuch. It was he who prayed over me. Then I was healed and the Lord gave me health. He was very kind to me and many times he lay with me on the mat on the bench. But, my father, I hear that monks hate women and therefore inhabit the desert, because they will absolutely not speak with them. And how is this? I don’t know?”

When the Emperor heard this from his daughter he wondered greatly and said, “This is not the practice of monks when they expel demons, this is an innovation among the monks.” He wrote a second letter to Scete in the following words…

“The victorious king Zeno dares to write to the pure, pious Fathers on the Mountain of Scete. I am indebted to you on account of your bounty and kindness and your prayers and I cannot pay what I owe, so I beg you to show me the favour of sending brother Hilarion, for I am sick at heart and I cannot undertake a sea voyage and bear this great distance because of the heavy weight of my illness. The fame of his holiness has reached us and we are confident in him, that if he comes to us we shall benefit from his prayers.”

When this royal letter had arrived and had been read out before the rest of the holy monks, the pure elder Pambo called the blessed Hilaria and said, “Prepare yourself, brother, for the Emperor has summoned you.” When the blessed Hilaria heard this, she felt very sorrowful. The monks consoled her saying, “Go in the peace of the Lord who will be with you and restore you to us safely.” Two monks and two elders travelled with her and they made their way to Constantinople.

When they arrived the Emperor was filled with joy, and he received them personally. He said.… Pray for me, so that the Lord may keep me in the loyalty of my orthodox Fathers.
When they left him he retained his daughter Hilaria and remained alone with her saying…

“Holy Father Hilarion, we need your prayers and would like to speak to you; but please do not be offended or sorrowful. The little girl has told me how she was in your blessed presence, and that thou you used to lie with her on the mat on the same bench. So I would like you to tell me the reason for your kindness towards her, whether it sprang from spiritual or from bodily love. Tell me the truth and do not be ashamed or disturbed by shame, so that I may not be guilty of this transgression.”

The virgin Hilaria thought, “I would like to conceal this, but I am afraid that the Emperor would have contempt for all monks if he thought I had acted improperly.” She said, “May the King live for ever. Let the four holy Gospels be brought here before me.” When this had been done, she said to him ”Now swear to me that you will not reveal my secret nor prevent me from returning to my monastery.” The Emperor swore by the holy Gospel and then she said, “I am Hilaria your daughter.” When he heard this he wondered and became speechless so that he could not speak for a long time.

When he had returned to his senses he went back to his daughter and embraced her as Joseph embraced Benjamin his brother, and he broke down into tears. When her mother and sister heard the news they came running, they embraced her and wept and cried, kissed her hands and her face and wanted to prevent her from returning to her monastery. But the Emperor checked them saying, “I have submitted myself to her will and I have sworn not to restrain her.” Then her mother said, “We will keep her here with us, so that she can be crowned with the royal crown.” But the King said, “I will not do so, but we will give glory to the Lord, now that we have seen her alive.” The king concealed her secret and retained the monks for three months so that he could see his daughter every day. He asked her about her flight from the palace. She told him the details, how she had disguised herself as an official of the Court, how she had reached Alexandria and how she had gone to Scete. When the Emperor heard this he was surprised at what she had done, and he gave an official order to send the monks of the Mountain of Scete three thousand measures of corn every year to provide for the Eucharist in honour of his daughter, and three hundred measures of oil. This has been continued every year until the present time.

The king said farewell to them and they set off back to their monastery. After her arrival Hilari lived there for twelve years. At the end she suffered from an illness, the pains of which she bore with great courage. Then the holy virgin called Abba Pambo and made him promise in this way. “When I have completed my life, make known, my dear Father, the whole story of my life and do not allow that this old repaired hood be taken from me, but if you shroud me for burial, then let me keep it.” So when she had finally departed this life in glory and honour, the holy Abba Pambo told them what she had ordered him. When they had buried her, the holy Abba Pambo sat down, and told the brethren all about the holiness of this pure virgin in an address to them, saying, ”I am feeble, the most unworthy of all the brethren on the Mountain of Scete. Who is there who possesses like her the endurance to live continually among so many men? Who possesses such self-restraint and is able to neglect all bodily comfort and finery and pleasure?” When the brethren heard this they praised God. And behold, the Lord gave her good fortune and grace for she departed this life on the day of the departure of the mother of Light, the virgin Mary, because she had loved the Theotokos; so the Lord gave her this sign of grace.

They wrote to her father the Emperor saying that she had died, and he began to mourn over her. But her mother consoled him saying, ”He has been called happy who has children in Sion and descendants in Jerusalem, according to what we read in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Blessed is the one who hath children in Sion’. For we can ask her to intercede for us with our Lord Jesus Christ so that He will forgive us our sins and trespasses”. These words have been written by the holy Anba Pambo. He has written and deposited them in the church of Scete for the sake of the glory and benefit of those who read them. May the Lord have mercy upon us by his prayers. Amen.

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