12 October 2009

'His Heart Was Pierced with the Fear of God'—St Cyriacus the Anchorite

Today, 29 September on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Cyriacus the Anchorite of Palestine (449-557). A younger contemporary, disciple, or co-struggler of several of the great monastic Saints of the Holy Land, St Cyriacus was perhaps an important source for the various Lives composed by his own biographer, Cyril of Scythopolis. In the Prologue, St Nicholas (Velimirović) writes, ‘Cyriacus was a great light, a pillar of Orthodoxy, the adornment of monks, a mighty healer of the sick, and a gentle comforter of the sorrowful.’ Cyril calls him ‘the anchorite, and best of all anchorites’, and ‘Cyriacus, illuminated in soul’ (The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991], p. 245). Cyril writes, further, ‘He was a kind and approachable man, good at both prophecy and teaching, and utterly orthodox, while in body he was tall and noble and with all his limbs in perfect condition. He was truly full of grace and of the Holy Spirit’ (p. 259). To Derwas Chitty, ‘He is the most absolute, and perhaps the most attractive of all Cyril’s heroes’ (The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995], p. 131).

St Cyriacus was born in Corinth, the son of a priest and the nephew of Bishop Peter of that city. He was tonsured a Reader at a young age, and Cyril ascribes to this the development in him of the desire for the monastic life:

Abba Cyriacus, reading the holy Scriptures, as he himself told me, and spending days and nights on them, was struck with them, was struck with amazement at the variety of ways in which, generation after generation, God glorified those who strove to be well-pleasing by correct choice and set them up as luminaries in the world, disposing everything from the beginning for the salvation of the human race.

. . .

[He reflected on the figures of the Old Testament and how God glorified them.] In addition to all these wonders, Cyriacus’ mind was in a whirl as he reflected on what surpasses them, that extraordinary conception without seed, the Virgin Mother, how God the Word became man without change and by his precious Cross and Resurrection harrowed hell, and how by his triumph he made the deceitful serpent impotent, restored life to Adam who had lost it through his sins, and led him back into paradise. As he reflected on these and similar points, his heart was pierced with the fear of God, and he resolved to withdraw to the holy city and renounce the affairs of this life. (pp. 245-6)

St Cyriacus was ‘meditating on such thoughts’ when he heard our Lord’s words in the Gospel, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mt 16:24). Like another St Anthony, the pious young man (of seventeen) ‘immediately’ left and boarded a ship for Jerusalem. There, he was greeted by ‘the sainted Eustorgius’, abbot of a monastery ‘near holy Sion’ (p. 247). St Cyriacus spent the winter there, but his heart desired the strict life of the desert, and having heard of the renown of St Euthymius the Great, received a blessing to go to the latter’s great lavra. St Euthymius, beholding the young man’s devotion, clothed him ‘in the habit’, but upheld his strict rule against accepting youths and sent St Cyriacus on to St Gerasimus of the Jordan and his cœnobium. There, according to Cyril:

He spent his days in labor and toil, and his nights in prayer to God, adding to his manual work great zeal in the office of psalmody.

5. While serving in the cenobium, he mastered the life of anchorites, taking bread and water every other day and abstaining from oil, wine, and mixed drink, with the result that the great Gerasimus, observing the ascetic mode of life of the young man, was full of admiration and love for him. (p. 248)

For this reason, St Gerasimus took the devout young monk under his wing, and each Lent, would take him along for particularly strict and blessed struggle. As Derwas Chitty tells it (Chitty, p. 96):

What a party that must have been in Euthymius’ last years, from AD 470! Euthymius himself, aged over ninety, and his faithful deacon, Domitian; the future patriarchs, Martyrius and Elias; Sabas [the Sanctified]; Gerasimus from the Jordan Plain; and with Gerasimus, the lad Cyriac still in his early twenties. They would set out for Rouba on 14th January, each armed with a trowel for digging up for food those roots of melagrion, or ‘meliagrion’, which St Sophronius at least identifies in his Anacreontics with St John the Baptist’s food of ‘wild honey’—ἀκρίδες πελὲν τὸ βρῶμα μελιαγρίου τε ῥίζαι. Scattered in solitude through the week, they would assemble on Sundays to receive Communion at the hands of Euthymius. They would return in time for Palm Sunday to their monasteries, or, armed with those lovely little flowers of many colours that show themselves in the spring in the most barren places of the wilderness (for the thirsty soil is fertile when water can reach it), to Olivet and Jerusalem for the annual rehearsal of the events of that day and the week that follows.

In 473, however, the Great Euthymius fell asleep in the Lord, an event witnessed in the Spirit by St Gerasimus, who took the young Saint Cyriacus along with him for the burial of the Elder. Only two years later, St Gerasimus himself reposed ‘and was adorned with the crown of righteousness’, leaving St Cyriacus free to be received at last by St Euthymius’s successor at the lavra (Cyril, p. 248). There, he began to live the solitary life at the age of twenty-six. According to Cyril, the fathers of the lavra soon began to build a cœnobium, a work in which St Cyriacus assisted. But in 485, a dispute prompted the Saint to leave for the lavra of Souka. Here he settled for many years, and eventually served as a hieromonk as well as in the offices of treasurer and canonarch. Cyril writes:

8. He stated categorically to me, ‘In this long period of thirty-one years in which I was canonarch and treasurer the sun never saw me either eating or in a temper.’ He also said to me, ‘I would not stop beating the summoning-block for the night psalmody until I had recited the whole of the “Blameless” psalm [Ps 118, LXX].’ (p. 250)

Then, at the age of seventy-seven, St Cyriacus resigned his position ‘and retired to the utter desert of Natoupha, accompanied by a disciple’ (p. 250). The two lived on ‘squills’, which John Binns in his note suggests are probably the ‘the leaves of the desert asphodel, a bitter plant not usually used for food’ (p. 260, n. 7). Trusting in God, however, that they would be nourished by these bitter leaves and being willing to endure, when St Cyriacus and his disciple boiled them the squills immediately became sweet, ‘and they continued to eat of them for a period of four years’ (p. 250). At one point, the anchorites were brought a gift of bread, but when it ran out were forced to return to their squills.

St Cyriacus was forced to relocate twice, however, when miracles and healings performed for the inevitable travellers brought by God’s providence spread his reputation and attracted more supplicants. He eventually settled for seven years at Sousakim, ‘a place that was pure desert and hidden away’ (p. 251), located at the confluence of two deep ‘watercourses’ said to be the ‘rivers of Etham’ which the Prophet David refers to in Psalm 73:15 (LXX). After seven years, however, St Cyriacus yielded to the entreaties of the fathers of Souka and, in 485, settled there in the cave of St Chariton (commemorated yesterday).

It appears that the Lord’s purpose in bringing St Cyriacus back to Souka was to combat some teachers of Origenism who had taken over St Sabas’s New Lavra. It was at this point that Cyril himself met the old man, having been sent to him by the abbot of St Euthymius’s lavra to ask his intercessions against the Origenists. St Cyriacus prophesied the downfall of the heretics, and furthermore, spoke against them at length in words recorded by the young Cyril:

12. . . . ‘The doctrines of pre-existence and restoration are not indifferent and without danger, but dangerous, harmful and blasphemous. . . . They deny that Christ is one of the Trinity. . . . They say that the holy Trinity did not create the world and that at the restoration all rational beings, even demons, will be able to create aeons. They say that our bodies will be raised etherial and spherical at the resurrection, and they assert that even the body of the Lord was raised in this form. They say that we shall be equal to Christ at the restoration.

13. ‘What hell blurted out these doctrines? They have not learnt them from the God who spoke through the prophets and apostles—perish the thought—but they have revived these abominable and impious doctrines from Pythagoras and Plato, from Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus. I am amazed what vain and futile labors they have expended on such harmful and laborious vanities, and how in this way they have armed their tongues against piety. Should they not rather have praised and glorified brotherly love, hospitality, virginity, care of the poor, psalmody, all-night vigils, and tears of compunction? Should they not be disciplining the body by fasts, ascending to God in prayer, making this life a rehearsal for death, rather than meditating such sophistries? But (the elder added) they did not wish to follow the humble path of Christ, but instead “they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless heart was darkened; saying they were wise, they became fools” (Rom 1:21-22). . . .’ (pp. 253-4)

Cyril notes that St Cyriacus became quite happy and friendly on learning that the young man was from St Euthymius’s monastery, ‘the same cenobium as myself’, and at that time told him ‘many of the facts about Saints Euthymius and Sabas that I have placed in the two works I have already written about them’ (p. 255).

In 546, when their leader died and the Origenists were expelled, St Cyriacus withdrew once more to his blessed retreat at Sousakim, where he lived for another eight years as a solitary. Cyril speaks of visiting him there and discovering that, like his early elder, St Gerasimus, the old man had attracted a friendly lion who guarded the Saint’s herbs from wild goats. Here Binns notes:

Sousakim has a lower rainfall than the monasteries founded by Euthymius and Sabas, being further south. The deep ravine which it overlooks provided shelter from the sun, and the careful collection of the winter rain [described by Cyril on p. 256] enabled Cyriacus to maintain a small vegetable garden. (p. 260, n. 14)

Cyril notes that two years before the death of St Cyriacus, seeing that he ‘had attained extreme old age’ at 107 (p. 258), the fathers of Souka ‘came and after much persuasion’ brought him back to St Chariton’s cave to live out his remaining years (p. 259). Having visited him often during this time, Cyril writes, ‘But despite being such an old man, he was strong and zealous, standing for the office of psalmody and serving his visitors with his own hands. He was not in the least debilitated but was able to do everything, since Christ gave him strength’ (p. 259). Eventually, however, the great Saint was ‘stricken by bodily weakness and summoned all the fathers of the laura’ (p. 259). He blessed them and reposed peacefully, ‘committing his soul to the Lord and receiving from him the crown of righteousness which he promised to those who love him (cf. 2 Tim 4:8)’ (p. 259).

St Cyriacus’s retreat at Sousakim can still be seen—Chitty describes it as a ‘stark cave with its rock-ledge for a bed, walled along its front, and with a square domed cell built without mortar at its mouth, looking down on the meeting of the two wadis’ (p. 131). The Skete of St Chariton is apparently being restored by the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, under the Russian Church Abroad.

Here is the Kontakion of the Saint, in the Eighth Tone (The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Boston: HTM, ], p. 263):

The sacred lavra doth at all times rightly honour thee * as a sure helper and support and mighty champion, * and it annually observeth thy holy mem’ry. * And since thou, O righteous Cyriacus, dost possess * boldness with the Lord, protect us from our enemies, * that we may cry to thee: * Rejoice, O thrice-blessed Father.

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