Well, it’s October, and in our neighborhood that means that Halloween decorations are all over the place. Ten foot purple spiders seem to have infested the house down the street, and a few neighbors have turned their front yards into cemeteries, complete with decaying hands emerging from under the lawn.
Whether you celebrate Halloween or maybe try to celebrate a sweeter version of it, or you’ve totally sworn the whole thing off, your kids are inundated with Halloween images on the streets. Creepy Halloween themes show up on television and even in the public library, where zombie and vampire themed books cover the display tables. It can get scary.
It’s tempting to reassure kids by saying that all evil is make believe. And while surely vampires and zombies are fictional, as we Orthodox understand it, this world is made to be good, but evil does exist. The great enemy of whom King David the Psalmist speaks is alive and well. And while we never know whether he’s the one at work when something bad happens, we see enough evil and destruction in the world to know that he’s working somewhere.
There must be a good solid way to help our kids cope with the reality that evil exists. Let’s put it this way, telling our kids that bad things just aren’t going to happen is pretty flimsy, but showing them how to handle those things, gives them real confidence.
You know how kids who take martial arts know how to defend themselves, so they feel secure rather than intimidated, we need to give our kids the skills to defend themselves against scary ideas; against the spooky phantasms of Halloween and the monsters under the bed. Oh sure, skeletons aren’t really walking around town, and bats don’t really turn into vampires, but there is an element of reality to the dark underworld that is celebrated and embraced on Halloween. What do we do to help defend against that?
Well, we can turn to the holy saints. I am forever amazed at the diversity and variety of personality and experiences we find when we study the saints. The Church gives us so many role models, and they’re all different. We’re wise to show our children this diverse crowd, proving that there’s room for all kinds of people in God’s Kingdom, even for them.
As we teach our children about the lives of the saints, it’s usually best not to read directly from The Prolog. Those readings can be very dry, and sometimes they can be scary, especially in those instances where a martyr’s tortures are listed. I’d advise teachers and parents and youth workers to read the saint’s life and to think about it, and then re-tell the story in the light of whatever adventure might capture their interest or whichever virtue you’d like to emphasize.
Be mindful of your audience. Don’t give more than they can bear. Tell it an exciting way, a way that will really capture their interest. Bring the saint to life for children so that they will reach out and get to know that saint and so that they will find company and inspiration in these Christians who have gone before us and who, even today, are praying for our salvation.
So when your neighbors’ Halloween decorations give your children nightmares or when your Sunday School students start talking about creepy costumes they’re seeing, tell them about a holy saint. There are a lot of saints who have faced off with the devil and won, through the power of Christ’s holy name. Children should know how powerful that name is and that they too can call on it if need be.
My daughter, Helena, suggested that I share with you a true story, the real history of some Orthodox saints who have given her confidence when images of evil wizards were haunting her dreams. She was terrified of wicked people trying to harm her, but she found confidence and comfort in these holy saints.
This is the story of Justina and Cyprian. Before she was a saint, Justina was a young girl. She came from a nice family. Although, they weren’t Christian. But one day, young Justina learned about Christ, and she became a very devout Christian, and she vowed to give her heart to Christ; to live a celibate and holy life serving Him. She told her parents about Christ, and they were baptized too, and the whole family became Christians, inspired by Justina’s great love for Christ.
Well, it happened that Justina was very beautiful and very rich. And a young man named, Agladius, who really wanted a beautiful, rich wife, asked Justina to marry him, but Justina said, “No.” She explained that she was a Christian, and she just wanted to serve God and never get married. Agladius was enraged. He was not accustomed to being turned down, and he could not accept it.
He arranged, with a group of his friends, to lay in wait for Justina, and they attacked her on the street. But she was tough, so she fought back, and she hit them, and she screamed, and she yelled, and she made such a commotion that her neighbors began coming out of their homes, and they saved her.
Now, Agladius was beyond enraged. He went to the most powerful man he knew, a sorcerer named Cyprian. Now, Cyprian had been trained as a sorcerer from his childhood. He studied under all the best sorcerers, and he gladly served the devil, so that he could be powerful. You see, he really loved power. He wanted to be like God.
He wanted to be in control of the weather, people, and of everything. He thirsted for that power, and the more he served Satan, the more power Satan gave him. So Cyprian was evil, and he could work evil spells.
Agladius went to Cyprian, and he told him about this beautiful girl who refused to marry him, because she wanted to dedicate her life to God. And he paid Cyprian to change her mind with his evil spells. Now, Cyprian didn’t care that Justina wanted to serve God or that she didn’t love Agladius. He didn’t care that Agladius was a terrible person. He agreed, and he immediately went to work on a spell to make her change her mind.
Now, the first spell he sent her was sort of a love spell. He sent feelings of love for Agladius right into her heart, but Justina was dedicated to God, and she knew how to do spiritual battle. She fell to her knees, made the Sign of the Cross, and prayed and prayed and prayed, and the spell was broken.
Cyprian did not give up. He tried to trick her by disguising a demon as a little old lady, who came to Justina to ask her about Christ. Cyprian knew that Justina loved to talk about Christ and to help people to come to believe in Him, so he tried to use that against her. Well, when that little old woman started saying nice things about Agladius, Justina knew that there was something strange about her. So she made the Sign of the Cross, and guess what? That old woman vanished.
You see, the Sign of the Cross is very powerful, and the demons cannot stand that burning feeling they get when people make the Sign of the Cross. It’s a very powerful weapon against demons.
Cyprian was getting angrier and angrier that Justina would not fall for his spells. He tried many things. Through every spell, Justina just prayed more and more. She was becoming holier and holier the harder he worked. She made the Sign of the Cross, and God’s grace protected her through every one of Cyprian’s evil plots.
He even, one time, tried to turn Agladius into a big black bird, who was going to fly through Justina’s window. Of course, he couldn’t fly. So this weird little demon was made invisible, and he flew under Agladius the bird, carrying him along. Well, as soon as that demon glimpsed Justina through the window, he was terrified.
He could tell that she was a great warrior for Christ. That demon vanished in terror, letting Agladius fall through the air, just barely catching the edge of the roof where he hung helpless, looking ridiculous in front of the whole neighborhood. Justina knew exactly what had happened, and she was kind enough to pray that God help Agladius down, and He did. She was very kind, even to those who tried to hurt her.
Now, Cyprian was getting very angry. People everywhere were hearing how this young girl was defeating the famous sorcerer, and he decided it had to come to an end. So, he sent down curses on Justina’s city, the city of Antioch. He made all the animals in the city get very sick, and people started begging Justina to just marry Agladius so that the sorcerer Cyprian would leave them alone.
Justina had great faith in God, so she just prayed for Him to take away the curses, and He did. He healed the animals, and He undid everything that Cyprian was trying. And the people in the city began to praise Jesus Christ for saving them. They laughed at Cyprian, whom they no longer feared, because they knew that God could easily defeat him, even through the prayers of a young girl.
Cyprian came to a realization. He had followed Satan and done his bidding, because he wanted to have the greatest power of all. Well, when he came to understand that Satan’s power was nothing compared to the power of Christ, he decided to follow the real power. He praised God and became a Christian.
Satan did not give up his sorcerer easily. He attacked him with hundreds of demons, and Cyprian prayed and prayed and defeated them in the name of Jesus Christ. Then, Cyprian took all of his magic books, and he made a great pile in front of the Church, and he burned them in front of the bishop. And he threw himself on the ground, begging to be baptized.
After his baptism, he worked so hard to purify himself; to become holy and to get to know God that he was made a priest within a year, and he eventually became a bishop. This terrifyingly evil sorcerer was totally redeemed, and he became a great Christian and a good man.
No matter how awful, bad, or even evil a person is, he can always choose to repent and to follow Christ. That’s why we must pray for our enemies, because perhaps they can find Christ and change their ways too. Cyprian became good friends with Justina, who had shown him Christ and His power, and he made her a deaconess, and put her in charge of a house full of virgins, who lived to serve Christ, altogether, in this little community.
This is a true story, and it happened almost 2,000 years ago, back when it was illegal to be a Christian. One day, someone told the authorities about Cyprian and Justina, and they were arrested and put through many tortures. They were even put into a boiling hot cauldron to be boiled alive, but that water felt like a warm bath to them, and God’s grace kept them from being harmed.
In the end, they were killed, but they were so brave, and God took such good care of them through it all that one of the guards even fell to his knees, wanting to follow Christ too. He was killed right beside them, and all three are holy martyrs in our Church.
They’re in the Kingdom of God, in Heaven, now, and we can ask for their prayers anytime. They’re wonderful saints to help us when we’re afraid of the strange, evil-looking things that surround us, because both Cyprian and Justina know that Christ is so much more powerful than any evil demon. And they both know how to fight evil with prayer.
They inspire us. They make us brave, because we know that it will work for us too. And if we ask, they will pray for us and help us in the fight. This is what we sing on St. Cyprian’s feast day, which just happens to be right now in October.
Thou wast converted from the art of sorcery, O divinely wise one, to the knowledge of God, and wast manifested to the world as a most wise physician, granting healing to those who honor thee, O Cyprian together with Justina. With her, then, entreat the Master, the Lover of mankind, that He may save our souls. Amen.
Thanks for listening. Please note that I have adapted this story of Cyprian and Justina from A Child’s Paradise of Saints by Nun Nectaria McLees and published by Christ the Savior Brotherhood in Indiana. I highly recommend this book, which contains the stories of several saints, told in a way that both excites and edifies children. May God be with all of us, now and always.