18 December 2009

'All-Praised Founder of Cities in the Wilderness'—St Sabbas the Sanctified


Dear readers: Per the suggestion of Mr Tartski, I have decided to try giving my citations in endnotes rather than in-text as I have always done before. Please let me know what you think of this format.

Today, 5 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Sabbas the Sanctified (439-532), founder of the Great Lavra known as ‘Mar Saba’, which, ‘In spite of many vicissitudes, and not a few Bedouin devastations, . . . has continued with an unbroken history to the present day.’[1] St Sabbas’s biographer, Cyril of Scythopolis, calls him ‘This angel on earth and heavenly man Sabas, the wise and knowledgeable teacher, the advocate of orthodoxy and accuser of heresy, who proved to be a faithful and prudent steward, who multiplied the talents of God, who was clother power from on high’, and summarises his achievements, saying that ‘by the favour of God the Father, the assistance of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, [he] colonized the desert with a huge number of monks and founded in it . . . seven famous monasteries . . . .’[2] John Binns, though he is strangely critical of the Saint, writes, ‘The genius of Sabas lay in his ability to establish an environment in which the monastic life could take root and grow.’[3] I have briefly summarised the life of St Sabbas based on Cyril’s account—and added a couple of details of interest—here, so today I will simply offer the material from the Prologue:

The unknown village of Mutalaska, in the province of Cappadocia, became famous through this great light of the Orthodox Church, for St Sava was born there. He left the home of his parents, John and Sophia, at the age of eight and became a monk in a nearby monastery called ‘Flavian’s’. After ten years, he moved to the monasteries of Palestine, staying longest in the monastery of St Euthymius the Great (Jan. 20th) and Theoctistus. Euthymius, who had the gift of discernment, foretold that he would be a famous monk and leader of monks, and that he would found a monastery that would be greater than any other of that day. After St Euthymius’s death, Sava went into the desert, where he lived for five years as a hermit in a cave which an angel of God showed him. After that, when he had become a perfected monk, he began by divine providence to gather round him many desirous of the spiritual life. They very quickly grew in number, so that Sava had to build both a church and many cells. Some Armenians also came to him, and he set aside a cave for them, and they celebrated the services there in their own language. When his father died, his aged mother Sophia came to him and he made her a nun and gave her a cell away from the monastery, where she lived in asceticism till her death. This holy father endured many attacks from those close to him, from heretics and from demons. But he overcame them all in these ways: those close to him he won over by his goodness and forbearance, the heretics by an unshakeable confession of the Orthodox faith, and the demons with the sign of the Cross and the invocation of God’s aid. He had a particularly severe battle with the demons on the mountain of Castellium, where he founded the second of his seven monasteries. He and his neighbour, Theodosius the Great, are considered to be the greatest lights and pillars of Orthodoxy in the East. Kings and Patriarchs were brought to the right Faith by them, and these holy and wonderful men, strong in the power of God, served each and every man as an example of humility. St Sava entered into rest in 532 at the age of ninety-four, after a life of great labour and great reward.[4]

St Nicholas also gives us another story about St Sabbas in the ‘For Consideration’ in today’s Prologue:

A man may be great in some skill, as a statesman or a military leader, but no-one amongst men is greater than the man great in faith, hope and love. The greatness of the faith and hope in God held by St Sava the Sanctified is best shown by the following incident: One day the monastery treasurer came to Sava and said he would not be able to sound the semantron the following Saturday and Sunday to summon the brethren for the common service and meal, because there was not a trace of flour in the monastery, nor anything at all to eat or drink. For the same reason, even the Divine Liturgy was impossible. The saint replied without hesitation: ‘I shall not cancel the Liturgy because of a lack of flour. He who commanded us not to be concerned for bodily things is faithful to His word, and is able to sustain us in a time of hunger.’ And he placed all his trust in God. In this extremity, he was prepared to send some of the church vessels and vestments to be sold in the city, so that the divine services might not be foregone, nor the brothers’ customary meal. But, before Saturday dawned, some men, moved by divine Providence, brought thirty mules laden with wheat, wine and oil to the monastery. ‘What do you say now, my brother?’, Sava asked the treasurer. ‘Shall we not strike the semantron and gather the fathers?’ The treasurer was ashamed of his lack of faith, and begged the abbot’s forgiveness. Sava’s biographer called him ‘severe with demons, but mild with men’. Some monks rebelled against St Sava, and were driven from the monastery by order of Patriarch Elias [of Jerusalem]. They built themselves huts on the bed of the Tekoa river, and lived there in dire straits without the bare necessities of life. Hearing that they were starving, St Sava loaded mules with flour and took them to them himself. Seeing that they had no church, he built them one. At first the monks received him with hatred, but afterwards they returned his love with love, and repented of their former evil towards him.[5]

In relating the story of St Sabbas’s blessed repose, Cyril tells us that the great Abba ‘summoned the fathers of the laura and gave them as superior a monk of Berytus by birth, called Melitas, telling him to guard inviolate the traditions handed down in his monasteries and giving them to him in writing.’[6] Derwas Chitty comments at length on this reference to a written Sabbaite rule:

His younger contemporary Benedict, who was settled at Monte Cassino by the time of Sabas’ death, has bequeathed his Rule to us. Sabas’ Life would seem to imply that he also left behind him a written Rule. It has not come down to us, though a collection of Rules for his monastery of several centuries later does survive in two MSS. On Sinai, and is of very great interest, perhaps retaining some reminiscences at least of the original Rule. Maybe it is more in keeping with the spirit of East Christian monasticism that the written Rule should not survive, while there remains the pattern of his living monastery, whose Typikon has continued through the centuries to take perhaps first place among the Typika which regulate the liturgical order of the Eastern Orthodox Church.[7] When Egypt had slipped off into heresy or schism, and the Athonite monasteries were far in the future, the Lavra of St Sabas, with the other surviving Judaean monasteries only less tenacious under the lordship of Islam, was moulding the shape of Orthodox monasticism for the centuries to come, developing its hymnody and liturgical order, and gather up its dogma, with a continued intellectual life of which St John of Damascus is only one, though the supreme, example.[8]

That this last point is so should not be surprising, for as Cyril writes:

While our all-praiseworthy father Sabas was still in the flesh, there was one confession of faith in all the monasteries of the desert, and one could see all the children of Jerusalem walking in the house of God in concord, upholding in harmony the inviolable and irrefragable character of the divine doctrines, so as to fulfil the scriptural saying, ‘Lift up your eyes round about; and behold, your children are gathered together’ (Is 60:4).[9]

The memory of such a powerful spiritual personality must have been great, and it is natural that he should have left a lasting mark on Orthodox monasticism.

Here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Sabbas from the Prologue:

Venerable Sava, chief of monks,
Spiritual commander of Christ's heroes,
Was glorified by fasting, vigils and meekness,
By prayer and faith and blessed mercy.
You taught the monks to not be concerned with bread;
You entrusted yourself to heaven, with labor and prayer.
You sought neither precedence nor rank of any kind.
Most rarely did you taste of oil and wine.
You kept all the services at the appointed time.
‘Let the service be a joy and not a heavy burden,’
St Sava told the monks,
And he showed this to all by his example.
Like a wise gardener, he enclosed the garden,
And carefully planted many young men.
The young men grew and brought forth fruit:
A regiment of monks, to the glory of Sava.
Fifteen hundred years have passed,
Yet Sava’s spiritual garden still blooms:
One thousand monks, a hundred thousand,
Have been raised up by Sava’s community up to now.
St Sava, glorious recluse,
O God-pleaser, pray for us also.

Finally, here is the Kontakion for the Saint:

Kontakion. Plagal of Fourth Tone
To thee, the Champion Leader

O blessed Sabbas, thou wast offered from thine infancy * through thy great virtue as a pure and spotless sacrifice * unto God, Who ere thy birth, verily foreknew thee; * wherefore thou wast an adornment of the righteous Saints, * an all-praised founder of cities in the wilderness. * Hence, I cry to thee: * Rejoice, O Father of great renown.[10]



[1] Derwas Chitty, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian & Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995), p. 117.

[2] Cyril of Scythopolis, The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991], p. 167.

[3] Ibid., p. xxii.

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 287-8.

[5] St Nicholas, pp. 288-9.

[6] Cyril, p. 191.

[7] St Nicholas notes, ‘Among all his other great and good works, let this be remembered above all: that he compiled the first Order of Services for use in monasteries, now known as the Jerusalem Typikon’ (St Nicholas, p. 168).

[8] Chitty, pp. 117-8.

[9] Cyril, p. 197.

[10] The Great Horologion, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), pp. 333-4.

3 comments:

+Bishop SAVAS of Troas said...

Thank you for this, Aaron. It's going right onto my FB page.

Matthew said...

I like it. My vote (such as it is) is for continued use of endnotes for citations. I think they fit with the spirit of Logismoi.

Anonymous said...

I prefer the endnotes - it makes the text easier to read, and it makes finding the source easier later, if one needs to come back to it.
Thanks.