November 4, 2023

The Military Exploits of Saint Ioannikios the Great as a Prelude to Spiritual Warfare

By St. Justin Popovich

At that time, the wicked Leo, the son of Constantine Kopronymos, infected with the iconoclastic heresy, reigned (775-780) over the Romans. This emperor began to collect young men who were distinguished by beauty and courage into his army throughout the empire. When those soldiers went out to gather other soldiers came to the region of Bithynia, they found in a village there that Ioannikios was young, handsome, stout, healthy, and fit for the army, so they took him with them. From that time, Ioannikios began to serve as a soldier, and was feared by his enemies because of his bravery, and loved by his fellow soldiers because of his meekness and calmness; but he was dearest to God, because he diligently fulfilled His holy commandments. However, the devil, envious of such a virtuous life of Ioannikios, seduced him into the iconoclastic heresy. At that time, this heresy created a great commotion in the Church of God through the iconoclast emperors: holy icons were thrown out of the temples of God, and those who venerated them were persecuted. And Ioannikios was so infatuated with that heresy that he did not even want to hear about holy icons. But God, who desires everyone to be saved, saved him from that too in the following way.

According to God's providence, Ioannikios and his detachment would be sent to the East. On his way back from there, he passed over a part of Mount Olympus in Bithynia, where at that time a clairvoyant monk was living in asceticism. This monk, sensing that Ioannikios was passing there with his detachment and having learned from the Spirit of God everything about him, came out of his desert cell, approached Ioannikios and said to him: "Young Ioannikios, if you call yourself a Christian, then why do you despise the icon of Christ? All your virtuous deeds are in vain, if you do not have true faith."

Hearing this, Ioannikios was amazed that he who did not know him called him by name, and that a man who had never seen him did not distort his actions. It would also be clear to Ioannikios that the man speaking to him was full of the Spirit of God, and that with his clairvoyance he has come to know everything about him. For this reason Ioannikios fell on the ground in front of him, bowing to him and begging for his forgiveness. At the same time, he said that he had sinned out of ignorance, and promised that he would correct himself and pay due prayerful respect and reverence to the icon of Christ and the icons of all the Saints.

From that time on, blessed Ioannikios began to earnestly honor the holy icons, and he deeply regretted that he had despised them in his ignorance. And grieving for this, he began to punish himself with fasting and various mortifications of the body. Although living in the imperial courts, he lay on the bare ground, prayed fervently, kept vigil all night, and never ate until he was full. And when it happened, and he was at the common table with the group, he ate so much just to hide his asceticism from them.

After he spent six years in such exploits, the Bulgarians attacked the Romans with a large military force and began to ravage Thrace. The Roman emperor marched against them with his entire army, including the blessed Ioannikios. When the armies collided, a battle ensued in which the Bulgarians prevailed over the Romans. Then Ioannikios showed great courage, defeating foreign tribes like a new David; and before the face of the emperor himself, he defended his detachment from the enemy's swords, heroically repulsing the enemies and cutting them down like grass. He also rescued a famous Roman nobleman, who, while fighting with the Bulgarians, was defeated and captured by them. Ioannikios rushed towards the Bulgarians, cut one down with his sword and chased the others away, and thus freed the captured nobleman. Another time, Ioannikios, seeing a terrible Bulgarian, similar to Goliath, blocking a narrow path for the Romans and killing many, rushed at him and cut off his head. Such was the heroism of the blessed Ioannikios in the fight against visible enemies; it foretold his future struggle with invisible enemies and his victory over them. Seeing such bravery of Ioannikios, the emperor asked where he was from, whose family he was from, and what his name was, and ordered that all this be written down in his memorial, so that after the battle he would honor such a brave soldier with a high rank and other awards.

Returning with the army from the war and passing by Mount Olympus, Ioannikios reminded himself of the monk who came out of the desert before him and accused him of iconoclastic heresy, and he made a decision in his heart: to leave everything, to settle on that mountain, and as a monk to live in prayerful solitude and silence alone with God. He soon put this decision into action. When he arrived in the imperial capital, where he received a high rank and gifts from the emperor for his bravery in the war, he despised it all at once, considering it all trifles. And leaving his comrades in arms, after twenty-five years of service in the army, he went to the monks to start a new war, a war "against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12).

- From the Lives of the Saints for November. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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