09 July 2009

'On a Garden Tree Like a Singing Bird'—St David of Thessaloniki

Today, 26 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy David of Thessaloniki (c. 450-540), the Dendrite. According to Kyle Smith, St David spent three years in an almond tree outside the walls of Thessaloniki before building a cell close by where he spent a further twenty years (‘Dendrites & Other Standers in the History of the Exploits of Bishop Paul of Qanetos & Priest John of Edessa’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 12.1, p. 119—available here). The earliest mention of St David is in the Leimonarion (also known as the Pratum Spirituale) of St John Moschus, a ‘delightful collection of tales dating from about the year 600’ (John Wortley, Translator’s Note, The Spiritual Meadow (Pratum Spirituale), by John Moschos, trans. John Wortley [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1992], p. ix). There, St John writes:

We went to the same Abba Palladios with this request: ‘Of your charity, tell us, father, where you came from, and how it came about that you embraced the monastic life’. He was from Thessalonica, he said, and then he told us this: ‘In my home country, about three stades beyond the city wall, there was a recluse, a native of Mespotamia whose name was David. He was a man of outstanding virtue, merciful and continent. He sspent about twenty years in his place of confinement. Now at this time, because of the barbarians, the walls of the city were patrolled at night by soldiers. One night those who were on guard-duty at that stretch of the city-walls nearest to where the elder’s place of confinement was located, saw fire pouring from the windows of the recluse’s cell. The soldiers thought the barbarians must have set the elder’s cell on fire; but when they went out in the morning, to their amazement, they found the elder unharmed and his cell unburned. Again the following night they saw fire, the same way as before, in the elder’s cell—and this went on for a long time. The occurrence became known to all the city and the countryside. Many people would come and keep vigil at the wall all night long in order to see the fire, which continued to appear once or twice but was often seen, I said to myself: ‘If God so glorifies his servants in this world, how much more so in the world to come when He shines upon their face like the sun? This, my children, is why I embraced the monastic life.’ (pp. 52-3)

For more details of St David’s life, however, we must turn elsewhere. Unfortunately, I do not currently have access to A. Vasiliev’s translation of the 8th-c. Life (‘Life of David of Thessalonica’, Traditio: Studies in Ancient Medieval History, Thought and Religion 4 [1946], pp. 115-147). But Archimandrite Nektarios (Serfes) has posted an account of St David’s life from The Orthodox Word 6.3 (32), May-June 1970, pp. 121-7, and John Sanidopoulos has also compiled an impressive post about St David at Mystagogy (Sanidopoulos has also linked to a highly informative article in Greek here, at the website of the Metropolis of Thessaloniki, but he seems to have reproduced all of the most important information in his own post). Although it mistakenly identifies the Saint’s birthplace as Thessaloniki, I will just take a couple of things from the Orthodox Word account to fill out our picture of the Saint’s Life. But I urge everyone to read it in full, as well as the wonderfully informative post at Mystagogy.

First of all, the article contains an interesting account of St David’s motivation in undertaking the podvig of the dendrite life, for we learn that it was precisely through the reading of the Lives of the Saints that he received the Holy Spirit’s inspiration:

Reading the Sacred Scriptures by day and by night, the righteous one marvelled at the virtues of the Saints, both those who were before the Law and those who were after the Law. He observed how God glorified them because they obeyed His commandments and were pleasing to Him as was meet. . . .

While reading the lives of the righteous ones who struggled after the saving Incarnation of the Saviour and who accomplished such marvellous struggles, he marvelled-especially at the life of Simeon of the Wondrous Mountain, and of the other Simeon, and of Daniel and Patapius the Stylites, who spent their lives living in the open, without shelter, tormented by the winds, rains, and snows. As he read the lives of these men, he wept and came to such compunction that he decided to undergo a similar life of affliction for as long as he, the ever-memorable one, could, so that he might find rest with the Saints after death.

One day, therefore, he became so fervent with zeal and his heart so filled with compunction, that he climbed up an almond tree that was by the left side of the church. He remained there upon a branch of the tree where he made a small bench as well as he could, and there he struggled in ascetic labors with wondrous patience, tormented by the winds, the rains and the snows, burned by the searing heat of the sun in summer, and suffering many other afflictions. O the fortitude of this much-suffering martyr, that the ever-memorable one should undergo such hardship! The other stylites had some security, for their pillars were constructed and stood fast, and what is more, when they slept or had some other need, the pillars were immobile. But this adamantine man swayed always in the branches of the tree, and never had any repose, but was tormented by the rains and the winds and suffered greatly from the snows.

Then we learn that, in response to entreaties that he come down in order to guide a group of disciples, the Saint insisted that he would only descend after three years, and even then only at the express command of the Lord—since it was from Him that he received the call to this life. So at last, we are told:

When the three years had passed, a holy angel appeared unto him saying, ‘David, the Lord has heard your supplication and grants unto you this favor for which you have asked many times, that is, that you be humble-minded and modest, and that you fear Him and worship Him with proper reverence. Come down, therefore, from the tree and live in sacred silence in your cell, blessing God until you accomplish one other act of love; then shall you find comfort of soul and rest from bodily travail.’ During the whole time that the angel spoke with him, the righteous one listened with fear and trembling. When he that appeared disappeared, the righteous one gave thanks unto God, saying, ‘Blessed is God who has had mercy on me.’

St David’s descent was greeted with great reverence, and even the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Dorotheus, and the clergy of the metropolis came out to meet him. But after the Liturgy had been celebrated and all had partaken of a meal, the great ascetic retired to his new cell to take up once again his solitary prayer, though he was now accessible to his disciples and to those who came to him with their needs.

Among these, indeed, after many years, was the city of Thessaloniki itself, the status and welfare of which was threatened by a certain imperial decree dividing the prefecture and creating a second archbishop for the northern part. The successor to Dorotheus to the archiepiscopal see, Aristeides, begged the venerable man to undertake a mission to the Emperor St Justinian to intercede on behalf of the city. At first he refused, but then, according to the Orthodox Word article:

The righteous one then remembered the prophecy of the angel, and he said these words to the Metropolitan: ‘May the Lord's will be done, holy master. Yet, be it known unto you that, through your prayers and with God as my helper, the Emperor will grant me whatever I request of him; but as for David, you will not see him alive again to speak with him. For on my return to you from the palace, when I am yet one-hundred and twenty-six stadia from my poor cell, I shall depart for my Master.’

The Archbishop, however, took this as a mere excuse and exhorted him to imitate Christ in thus laying down his life for others.

Then the thrice-blessed one went forth from his cell and all worshipped [that is, venerated] him; for his countenance was a marvellous sight; the locks of his hair fell down to his belt and his beard down to his feet; his venerable face was handsome and comely, just like Abraham's and everyone who saw him marvelled. He took with him two of his disciples, Theodore and Demetrios; these men were pious and virtuous, and were like David, not only in the comeliness of the soul, but also in that of the body.

In Constantinople, St David was received as the earthly angel that he was, and even the Empress Theodora said to her husband, ‘The supremely-good God has taken compassion on us, Master, and has sent His angel unto your majesty on this day from the city of Thessalonica; and in truth, it seemed to me that I saw Abraham.’ The narrative then continues:

On the following day, when the whole Senate had gathered, the Emperor gave orders for the righteous one to be brought in. When the Saint entered, he placed live coal and incense in his hands and, together with his disciples, he censed the Emperor and the whole Senate without his hands being burned at all from the fire, even though he took more than an hour censing, until he had censed all the people. All were astonished as they beheld this wonder. Rising from his throne, the Emperor received him gladly and with much reverence, and he, in turn, received the gifts of the Metropolitan of Thessalonica from the hands of the Saint. . . . Not only did he fulfill the written requests of the Thessalonians, but with great willingness, he carried out the righteous one's other requests as well, and, in accordance with the custom, signed them in vermillion. With his own hand, he gave them to the righteous one and told him, ‘Pray for me, venerable Father.’ Afterwards, he dismissed him and sent him on his way with a great escort, even as it was meet.

Thus, the Saint departed, but, true to his word, he fell asleep in the Lord aboard ship ‘at the promontory which is called Emvolos’ when he was ‘yet one hundred and twenty-six stadia’ from his cell. He asked his disciples to bury him at the monastery, and having blessed and admonished them, St David’s soul departed amid the fragrance of incense and the chanting of a cœlestial choir. His relics were treasured at the monastery until the 13th century, when they were carted off by the Latins. Thanks to God, and through the efforts of Metropolitan Panteleimon of blessed memory, they were returned to the city of Thessaloniki in 1978, and now repose in the katholikon of the Monastery of Agia Theodora between Agia Sophia and Plateia Aristotelous in the midst of the city. There, in a chapel on the south side decorated with frescoes of the Saint’s life, I was blessed to venerate them many times.

Interestingly, the location of St David’s cell and monastery is not known for certain. While I had always believed it was at the small church now called Όσιος Δαυίδ, or Λατόμου, the article at the Metropolis website points out that the dedication of this church to St David only dates to 1921 (having previously been dedicated to the Prophet Zechariah), and ‘there is no relationship between it and the ancient monastery’.

I shall conclude with the Kontakion, in Tone 1, of the Saint:

An ever-blossoming garden, bearing fruits of virtues, thou didst appear on a garden tree like a sweet-singing bird; but all the more didst thou take into thy heart paradise, the Lord's tree of life, and having cultivated it, O divinely-wise one, by it thou dost nourish us with grace: ever pray for us, O David all-blessed.


Anonymous said...

I can't help but be reminded of Elder Iakovos when I see something on St. David of Thessaloniki.

aaronandbrighid said...

I'm afraid you're confusing St David of Thessaloniki with St David of Euboea. The monastery on the island of Euboea (towards the southern end of the Greek peninsula) that Elder Iakovos moved into was the latter St David's.

Anonymous said...

Oh I see, thanks for the clarification, Aaron.

Fr. David said...

Thank you for the wonderful info on my Patron! Until recently it was difficult to find much on him in English.
Hieromonk David

aaronandbrighid said...

Bless, Father,

You're very welcome! I can't help but feel quite close to St David, having lived in his city and visited his shrine so many times.

Kissing Your Right Hand,