Emperor Nicephorus (Botaniates) of Constantinople reigned from 1078 until 1081. He had decided to build a cathedral that would be almost as grand as St. Sophia. When it was ready, the patriarch of Jerusalem, the patriarch of Alexandria as well as the patriarch of Constantinople were all invited to consecrate the beautiful new church built by the emperor. Announcements had been made about the consecration for several months in advance so that everyone would have time to travel to the great city of Constantinople; remember that during that time there were no cars, planes or trains.
Everyone had to travel either in carts pulled by oxen, horses or donkeys, and those from great distances had to cross the sea in boats. When Nicephorus’ cathedral was ready to be consecrated there were three patriarchs, forty metropolitans, and thousands of priests present, since this was an imperial cathedral. Thousands of carts and wagons converged on the city as the faithful came from all around. Everyone brought something for the new cathedral: rugs, barrels of wine, oil, flour, candles, etc. Each person wanted to offer something!
At that time there was a widow named Anastasia who lived in Constantinople. For fifty years she had lived faithfully, going to church regularly and praying to God. She lived on the edge of the city, right along the road on which all the carts and wagons of people had to travel to reach the new church. But Anastasia was very poor. Her house was a dilapidated shack, she had no money, no oil, no flour, nothing that she could offer to the new church. As she saw so many oxen pulling wagons of people toward the new church, she decided to give an armful of grass to the poor animals, since she did possess a small sickle and a pitchfork.
The widow was poor in material things, but very rich in faith! During the winter months she would spin flax and wool for the people of the town, and in the summer she would take her sickle and glean in the fields after the harvesters had left, then she would wrap the wheat in a rug and beat it to make a little flour for herself. Thus, little by little, she was able to provide herself with some flour for her own meager needs. That is how poor this widow, Anastasia, was!
Poor though she was, she had a very merciful heart! What went through her mind as she saw the oxen pulling such heavy loads of goods for the celebration of the new church?
-I don’t have any money, or rugs, or oil, nothing. But I can give the animals a little grass.
Still, she was afraid because she did not own land, so where would she get the grass without doing something wrong? She took a big sack and went into a field where there was a kind of wild grass growing, called “couch-grass” (a perennial grass that many consider a weed). She cut a lot of this grass, being careful not to damage the other crops that were growing, and put it into her sack, saying to herself,
– I will give the oxen some grass, even if it is not from my own land.
She took a walking stick and set off with the sack of grass toward the area near the church where many people had gathered. She found a pair of oxen who had finished eating the little bit of feed that had been set out for them; they were looking about for more food, still hungry, but there was none that they could reach.
Anastasia opened her sack of grass and put it in front of the oxen, saying,
– Lord, accept this bit of grass, and forgive me, for I have nothing to bring to the church consecration, and even this is not from my own land!
She wept as she said these words; then when the oxen had finished eating, she also went to the church for the consecration.
She was astounded at what she saw in the church: so many people and such rich adornments for the new temple! The church was prepared like a bride for a wedding with all the embellishments ready for the consecration that was to take place the following day. Anastasia went to an icon in the rear of the church, where women generally would stand; there the poor old woman, her face wrinkled with age, an old scarf on her head, the poorest of sandals on her feet and wearing a raggedy dress, knelt and prayed to the Lord, saying:
Lord, forgive me, for I have not brought any kind of offering for the church! I have nothing. The emperor is a king on earth and will be great in heaven, but I am so poor and have no money, nothing to offer. And as she prayed, her tears dropped to the ground.
Then Emperor Nicephorus, with all his entourage and servants, came into the church. His chief minister, Peter was his name, pointed to the dedication plaque – since in churches and monasteries that are historical monuments there are dedication plaques over the doors – and drew the emperor’s attention to it. The plaque was made of marble and the golden inscription read “To the glory of the all holy Trinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, this holy church was built and provided for by me, the Emperor Nicephorus.” The emperor fully approved of the way the inscription had been executed, since he was the one who had ordered it. Thus, the emperor, empress and a crowd of generals and other officials went into the church to see how it was prepared for the big event of consecration the following day. Everything was in order: beautiful frescoes on the walls, icons with golden risas, fine covers for the icon stands and curtains at the royal doors, gold-embroidered vestments, chandeliers, holy vessels for the altar, Gospel book, everything was in perfect order.
While the dignitaries were inspecting everything in the church, the elderly widow Anastasia, who had given an armful of grass to the oxen, was weeping before the icons in the rear of the church. As she prayed, the angel of the Lord changed the inscription on the dedication plaque. The inscription, even more beautifully executed now read, “To the
glory of the all holy Trinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, this holy church was built and provided for by me, the widow Anastasia.”
The people in the rear of the church saw the inscription and froze with fear. Before they had clearly read the emperor’s name on the inscription. There were people all around, no scaffolding was in the church for someone to reach the plaque and change the writing; thus, no one could explain how this change had happened. The men read the
inscription and began to talk among themselves.
– What! What does that say?
– What’s there?
– Look, it says that a widow built this church!
– But just a moment ago when the emperor came in, it had his name on it.
– What will the emperor say when he sees this?
Those present were afraid to tell the emperor, so they called the head minister, Peter, and showed the inscription to him. Peter read the inscription and said,
– But this is a miracle! It’s all right. I will tell the emperor!
The emperor listened to Peter. What a sight it was: the emperor and empress both had shining gold crowns on their heads and were dressed in all their royal garments, surrounded by soldiers.
– Your Majesty, come into the vestibule a moment.
The emperor came and looked at the plaque in amazement.
– But, when we came into the church, it was my inscription.
– I know that it was yours, Your Majesty. Everyone knows it was yours. But look at what is written there now!
– Oh! What a sinner I am! This is a great miracle! No one could have done this except God Himself! This is a wonderful miracle. I lost the church because I made it in my own pride. Now it has been given to a widow!
The emperor then called all his chief servants and told them: This church is not to be consecrated until we find this widow! Once she is found, we will do the consecration in her name because she is greater before God than I am.
Then he gave the order to search throughout his entire empire for the widow Anastasia. Now, it was God’s will to reveal this mystery quickly, and He did so through another widow who was about the same age as the blessed Anastasia. This woman was in the crowd, but was not aware that Anastasia was also there. In all the commotion that was going on in the rear of the church, she asked
– What is the matter?
When someone told her that they were looking for a widow by the name of Anastasia, she said:
– I know Anastasia. She lives at the edge of town.
– What! You know her! Come here to the emperor!
The old woman told the emperor where the widow Anastasia lived, and he then immediately sent servants to find her and bring her to the church. Servants, riders and horses quickly headed off to the edge of Constantinople to find Anastasia and bring her to the emperor. When they reached the place that the old woman had told them, they found some children playing.
– Do you children know where an old woman by the name of Anastasia lives?
One of the older children pointed and said,
– Anastasia lives over there, near the garden.
The men went to the house in the untilled garden. What did they find at the widow Anastasia’s door? No lock. No bolts. No latch. When someone has nothing, they are not afraid of thieves. The door was held shut by a string tied onto a nail. It was obvious that the old woman was not home. The few belongings that she had were in plain sight, but there was nothing worth stealing. She had gone to the church for the consecration. The servants said to the children,
– The old woman, Anastasia, is not home.
– No. Anastasia left with an armful of grass to the farm market, the children answered, not knowing that she had gone to the church.
The generals and other men all returned to give their report to the emperor.
– Your Majesty, we went and found the small house on the edge of town. There were some children playing and they said that Anastasia is here, in this crowd, somewhere.
Someone who knew Anastasia heard this and said that she was in the church,
– She is praying to the Savior!
– If she is in church, tell her not to be afraid, since she has never met me, said the emperor. Send some elderly women to her to tell her that at the consecration of the church the emperor is going to make a gift of a cow to all the old women.
Following the emperor’s order, they found the elderly Anastasia and brought her before the emperor who said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Anastasia. You have been found worthy of a great blessing from God! What offering did you bring this morning for the consecration of the church?’
– I did not bring anything, Your Majesty, because I am so poor! She did not consider the armful of grass that she’d given the oxen as any kind of offering.
– ‘Please, think, dear Anastasia. You must have brought a great gift because my church has been given to you!’
– I didn’t bring any gift because I have no money. I have nothing! All I have is a sickle and a pitchfork. During the winter I spin wool for people, and in the summer I use the sickle to glean after the harvesters. I manage to get a little wheat from what I glean. Aside from that, I have nothing.
– This is an imperial church and I spent a fortune from my own gold and silver to build it; but look at the inscription that says it was made by Anastasia! What did you give to this church?
– I didn’t give anything except for an armful of grass to a yoke of oxen.
– Don’t be afraid, Anastasia. The inscription was done by God, not you. God Himself wrote that this church is yours!
And there it was on the inscription, To the glory of the all holy Trinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, this holy church was built and provided for by me, the widow Anastasia. The men had to read it to her, since she was illiterate.
– You see, dear woman, you say that you did not bring any thing, but remember that you did bring an armful of grass!
– I did bring that, but it was not a real offering from me since I cut it from someone else’s field.
– Look, Anastasia, your armful of grass was more precious than all the treasures that I gave. See, the angel of the Lord has put the church in your name and it will remain yours forever. We will consecrate the church with all these patriarchs, with all the pomp and celebration as we planned, but the church will be Anastasia’s forever. The church will be consecrated with your name since the angel has written that both in heaven and here.
The poor widow was astounded and exclaimed, What a miracle!
When the blessed Anastasia from Constantinople died, the emperor buried her in the holy altar, with an inscription above her tomb, Here, in the church that God miraculously gave her, is buried the widow Anastasia. An armful of grass, given in the name of the Lord with humility and a sorrowful heart far surpasses all the wealth of the Emperor Nicephorus. That is what God desires!
St. Ephraim the Syrian says, God does not look upon the quantity of offerings that you make, but the heart with which you bring these offerings. However small your offering may be, give it with humility and a sorrowful heart that you cannot offer more. That is true almsgiving.
Source: “Elder Cleopa of Sihastria: In the tradition of St. Paisius Velichkovsky,” by Ioanichie Balan.