12 December 2009

'Simple-hearted but Prudent in Thought'—St Acacius of Sinai


Today, 29 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Acacius of Sinai. All that is known of St Acacius is contained in the Ladder, Step 4:110 (4:111 in the Greek edition). Here is the story as translated in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., trans. Archim. Lazarus (Moore), rev. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1991), pp. 48-9:

110. I will not be silent about something which it is not right to leave in silence, lest I should inhumanly keep to myself what ought to be made known. The famous John the Sabbaite told me things worth hearing. And that he was detached and above all falsehood, and free from words and deeds of evil, you know from your experience, holy father. This man told me: ‘In my monastery in Asia (for that is where the good man came from), there was a certain elder who was extremely careless and dissolute. I say this without passing judgment on him, but simply to state the truth. He obtained, I do not know how, a disciple, a youth called Acacius, simple-hearted but prudent in thought [aploūn tina tē gnōmē, phronimon de tō logismō]. And he endured so much from this elder, that to many people it will perhaps seem incredible. For the elder tormented him daily, not only with insults and indignities, but even with blows. But his patience was not mere senseless endurance. And so, seeing him daily in wretched plight like the lowest slave, I would ask him when I met him: “What is the matter, Brother Acacius, how are you today?” And he would at once show me a black eye, or a scarred neck or head. But knowing that he was a worker, I would say to him: “Well done, well done; endure and it will be for your good.” Having spent nine years with this pitiless elder, he departed to the Lord. Five days after his burial in the cemetery of the fathers, Acacius’s master went to a certain great elder living there and said to him: “Father, Brother Acacius is dead.” As soon as the elder heard this, he said: “Believe me, elder, I do not believe it.” The other replied: “Come and see.” The elder at once rose and went to the cemetery with the master of the blessed athlete. And he called as to a living person to him who was truly alive in his falling asleep, and said: “Are you dead, Brother Acacius?” And the good doer of obedience, showing his obedience even after his death, replied to the great elder: “How is it possible, Father, for a man who is a doer of obedience to die?” Then the elder who had been Acacius’s master became terrified and fell on his face in tears. Afterwards he asked the abbot of the Lavra for a cell near the tomb, and lived in it devoutly, always saying to the fathers: “I have committed murder.”’ And it seemed to me, Father John that the one who spoke to the dead man was the great John himself. For that blessed soul told me another story as if it were about someone else, when it was really about himself, as I was afterwards able to learn for certain.

I’m afraid this Saint’s life calls for rather more editorial commentary than is usual here. John the Sabbaite seems to think that ‘to many people it will perhaps seem incredible’ that St Acacius endured these things. But to most moderns, I daresay it is not that he endured them that seems incredible (if there is any doubt that it can be done, we have in our own day the admittedly less extreme example of Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, whose story is told in Obedience is Life, by Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi [Holy Mountain: Vatopaidi Monastery, 2003]), but that he could be thought to have endured them for any reason other than a pathological one. Yet, as Orthodox we can hardly deny that this is what our Tradition affirms. How could a man have attained holiness through enduring abuse if he was a pathological victim? Indeed, I think the characterization of St Acacius as ‘prudent in thought [phronimon de tō logismō]’ is precisely an affirmation that, in spite of a natural desire to avoid suffering and pain, he freely chose to endure these things in order to conquer his will and to follow Christ.

But while we as Orthodox hold St Acacius up as an exemplar of obedience and self-mortification, I think it is important in an age of heightened consciousness of the evils of domestic violence to note that Christians who find themselves in such a relationship are not expected or obliged to take no measures to protect their physical and psychological well-being. I think it is safe to say that St Acacius’s path is for the few. Archimandrite [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos [of Etna] has written about precisely this issue (‘Obedience & the Psychology of the Fathers’, Obedience, by Archimandrite Chrysostomos, et al. [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 1984], pp. 19-20):

In following a superior whom we know to be in some ways at fault, we must not imagine ourselves automatically covered by those who, in following spiritually unworthy superiors, have attained to spiritual eminence. Why? Simply because those of whom the Desert Fathers and others write were individuals of absolutely resolute will, who had nothing but the spiritual life in mind. Their superiors were quite literally a means to an end. Today we live, even in the most spiritual circumstances, as creatures of the emotions. We are taught to develop the emotions. We are even told that indulging the emotions is healthy! We therefore relate to our spiritual superiors in emotional ways. We do not always overlook their faults and errors because these faults and errors have little to do with their spiritual guidance; sometimes we do so because we are so emotionally tied to them that we cannot look at these faults spiritually. In this way we enter into the emotional lives of our superiors, participate in their faults, and fall short of the spiritual goals to which we are called.

Of course, I speak primarily to Orthodox Christians. I’m not sure that it is either possible or necessary to defend the actions of such as St Acacius before those who are outside the Church. It does seem to me that self-will is at the root of all human conflict, and that we delude ourselves if we think we can put an end to war or injustice without denying ourselves and even being willing to undergo violence. ‘Empowerment’ and pacifism seem to me to be mutually exclusive. But ultimately, St Acacius’s desire to save his own soul and perhaps, that of his elder, can be the only real justification. I think that we can apply to St Acacius what Derwas Chitty has insightfully written concerning two monks at the monastery of Choziba in the Wadi Qelt near Jericho: he was ‘devoted to a life which would be wholly meaningless and outrageous if God were not real, nor the Christian Faith true’ (The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian & Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995], p. xv).

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Acacius from the Prologue by St Nicholas (Velimirović):

The elder summoned his novice:
‘Brother Acacius, where are you?’
The elder called once more:
‘Acacius, are you dead?’

‘No, Father, I am not dead,’
The monk humbly replied,
‘For him who faithfully obeys,
There is no death.’

The irascible elder was amazed,
Amazed, and began to weep.
The elder bitterly wept,
And repented of his wickedness.

Why does the cruel elder repent?
Truly, he has a reason.
Into the wilderness, the sinner went
To atone for his evil.

Acacius, the wondrous monk,
By obedience, saved his soul;
And his soul now rejoices,
And his name is glorified.

1 comment:

David.Robles said...

Aaron:
Thank you for this post. The story of St Acacius is very dear to me.
May we have his blessing!