08 February 2009

A Holy Family & an Old Ascetic

As today is 26 January on the Church’s calendar, as well as being the first Sunday after 25 January, we are also commemorating our Venerable Father Xenophon, wife Mary, and sons John and Arcadius of Constantinople, as well as the Venerable Symeon ‘the Ancient’ of Sinai.

St Xenophon was a senator and ‘devout Christian’ in Constantinople in the 5th century, who sent his beloved sons, John and Arcadius, to Beirut to study law (David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness: Lives of Married Saints [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1994], p. 116). On the way, the ship on which they travelled was wrecked in a terrible storm, and the two boys, along with a family servant, were cast ashore at mutually distant locations. All three, fearing the others lost and not knowing what to do, were taken in by monasteries and ended by receiving tonsure.

When Xenophon and Mary heard that the ship carrying their sons had been lost at sea, they went to Palestine to see if they could find out anything about them whether they were alive or dead. They went to Jerusalem first to venerate the Holy Places, and there, by God’s providence, they encountered the servant. Unfortunately, however, he knew nothing of John and Arcadius.

But then one day they happened to visit the monastery where Arcadius had been tonsured. After speaking with them, the abbot soon realised that they were the parents of one of his monks. He also apparently had an inkling that the other son had survived as well. The abbot told them that their sons lived, and to meet him in a few days at the Holy Sepulchre.

Soon, the two brothers were reconciled amid tears of joy, but the abbot was afraid that to reveal who they were to the parents too suddenly would be too great a shock for Xenophon and Mary. Taking the brothers with him, the abbot met the couple for a meal, and having promised that the sons would come when they had finished, talked to them of ‘the holy lives of the ascetics in the monasteries and lavras of Palestine’.

‘Oh,’ said Xenophon, ‘How peaceful and glad of heart are all here; I think the word of the prophet is fulfilled, that the desert should bloom as a rose [Isaiah 35:1]. Right glad would I be, were my dear boys to seek such places of heavenly consolation, and lying down in these green pastures, would find rest.’

‘But if they were to do this, you would be deprived of their company,’ said the abbot.

‘That matters not,’ said Xenophon. ‘If I could but see their faces again, and know that they had set their hearts on God alone, I should be comforted.’

‘And now,’ said the abbot, ‘let one of these monks speak, and say why he has entered on the monastic life.’

Thereupon Arcadius began with a faltering voice: ‘I and my brother here present were born at Byzantium, of good Christian parents, and the name of the one was Xenophon, and the name of the other was Mary.’

Upon this the father and mother uttered a cry, and ran, and they were locked in the embrace of their children. (Ford, p. 119)

Having reconciled thus, briefly, with their beloved sons, Xenophon and Mary gave away their wealth and were likewise received into the monastic life. ‘Thus the whole family labored with one heart for one end, the salvation of their souls and the glory of God. And though separated in body, they were united in heart, and now they dwell together in the Paradise of God’ (Ford, pp. 119-20). St Nicholas (Velimirović) observes, ‘The history of these four souls is touching and it shows how the Lord wonderfully guides the fate of those who believe in Him; how He permits pain and sorrow upon them that they may, later on, be strengthened in faith, in order to lead them into still greater joy’ (Prologue). Although St Nicholas gives a brief summary of their lives in the Prologue, and there is another account in Bulgakov’s Menaion, it is really worthwhile to find and read the longer account on pp. 115-20 of David and Mary Ford’s wonderful book, Marriage as a Path to Holiness, cited above. The Fords include the Kathisma in Tone 8 from the Matins for the Saints:

Keeping vigil in the commandments of the Master, you educated your sons and wife in the same manner, O blessed Xenophon, and with them you have inherited the royal dwellings on high, leaving behind the tempest of manifold temptations. Wherefore we piously praise you all, and honor you with love, and faithfully cry out: ‘O all-blessed God-bearers, intercede with Christ God, that remission of transgressions be granted to those who with love keep festival in your holy memory.’ (Ford, p. 120)

Venerable Symeon ‘the Ancient’ (or ‘the Elder’) was a Syrian ascetic forced by the report of his miracles to move his abode a number of times. The first time was when a group of Jews had come upon his cave when lost in the Syrian wilderness. The Venerable one sent two apparently tame lions to guide them on their way, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus heard the story from a man who heard it from the Jews themselves (A History of the Monks of Syria, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985], pp. 63-4).

At any rate, St Symeon eventually ‘conceived the desire to repair to Mount Sinai’, where he prostrated himself for a full week ‘on the very spot where Moses was counted worthy to see God and beheld him as far as was possible for human nature’ (Theodoret, pp. 65, 67). According to Theodoret:

On his return he built two philosophic retreats: one on the ridge of the mountain we mentioned above [Mt Amanus], the other on the very skirts of the mountain-foot beneath. He assembled athletes of virtue in each, and was the gymnastic trainer of both groups—teaching the assaults of the adversary and enemy, promising the favor of the Umpire, urging them to be confident, filling them with spirit, and telling them to be modest towards their fellow-men, while bidding them show self-assurance towards the enemy. (p. 67)

The Venerable Symeon the Ancient fell asleep in the Lord in the year 390. According to this Life, ‘Constant prayer, inner meditation and thought about God were his constant occupation.’

I thought Theodoret’s use of forms of the word ‘philosophy’ in St Symeon’s Life (as witnessed in the above selection) to be interesting. I haven’t read the whole Religious History through, so I can’t say how frequently it occurs throughout, but I counted three such usages in St Symeon’s Life. First, in the opening paragraph Theodoret refuses to ‘consign the memory of his [St Symeon’s] philosophy to oblivion’ (p. 63). Concerning the Saint’s pilgrimage to Sinai, Theodoret writes in the 5th paragraph that ‘many excellent men who pursued the same philosophy assembled together in their desire to share the journey with him’ (p. 65). Finally, the example I quoted above occurs in the 13th paragraph. Constantine Cavarnos has pointed out that such a usage of ‘philosophy’ for monastic life is common in the writings of the Fathers (The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1989], pp. 101-2). St John Chrysostom, for example, writes, ‘But the virgin has prepared herself for a greater prize and devoted herself to the highest philosophy’ (On the Priesthood III.17, in Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1977], p. 98).

The animal stories (there is one other in St Symeon’s Life) are a good opportunity to quote an interesting passage from the Life of St Euthymius by Cyril of Scythopolis (The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991], pp. 18-9):

In addition to other charisms possessed by the godly Euthymius, he also received this one from God—the grace of living with carnivorous and poisonous animals without being harmed by them. This should be doubted by no one initiated into holy Scripture, who has precise knowledge that when God dwells in a man and rests upon him all beings are subject to him, as they were to Adam before he transgressed God’s commandment. Not only the wild animals but the very elements are subject to such a man: to my statement bear witness those who divided the sea, curbed the Jordan, made the sun stand still, turned fire into dew and performed innumerable other prodigies. According the very God who worked these miracles subjected to the inspired Euthymius also not only the visible but also the spiritual monsters, I mean the spiritual powers of wickedness; for such are the charisms bestowed by God.

A good explanation of a recurrent motif in the Lives of ascetic Saints, methinks.

No comments: