28 February 2009

'Perceiving the Vision of God Continuously'—Venerable Eusebius of Syria

On this day, 15 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Venerable Eusebius the Hermit, of Asikha, Syria. This account summarises his life rather effectively:

The Monk Eusebios the Hermit lived in the IV Century and asceticised on a mountain near the village of Asykha in Syria. He led a very strict life, being always under the open sky and patiently bearing the summer heat and winter cold; for clothing the monk wore skins, and nourished himself on the pods of peas and beans. Being already an infirm elder, he ate during the Great Forty-day Lent all of 15 figs. When many people began to flock to the Monk Eusebios, he went to a nearby monastery, built a small enclosure at the monastery walls and dwelt in it until his death. The Monk Eusebios lived to old age, having died at the age of ninety, sometime after the year 400.

The account by Theodoret of Cyrrhus, in his Religious History, is of course brief as well, as most of his are, and Theodoret reminds us that even if his History does not contain all of the contests of the Syrian ascetics, ‘yet even a few suffice to show the character of the whole life’ (A History of the Monks of Syria, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985], p. 190). But still, it is enlightening to see what Theodoret has added to such a bare-bones description as the one above. He begins describing the Venerable Eusebius with these words:

During a lifespan of very many years he endured labor equal to this time, accumulated virtue equal to this labor, and carried off therefrom a profit many times greater, for the Umpire surpasses the contests in the munificence of his gifts in return. Entrusting the care of himself at first to others, he followed where they led, for they too were men of God, athletes, and gymnasts of virtue. After passing time with them, and well and truly acquiring knowledge of philosophy, he embraced the solitary life. (p. 126)

It is instructive that Theodoret has noted St Eusebius’s prior preparation for the eremitical life in the school of obedience. While such training did not seem to be necessary in a few of the more exceptional cases, it is a common precept of monastic spirituality. According to St Cassian, the anchorites ‘are first instructed in the cenobia and then, perfected in their practical way of life, choose the recesses of the desert’ (Conferences XVIII.iv.2; St John Cassian, The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 1997], p. 637).

There is one other detail that is interesting to me, just a passing reference. In the second paragraph of his chapter on St Eusebius, Theodoret makes the following astonishing statement—‘Intercourse with the multitude exhausted him completely; for perceiving the vision of God continuously, he was not willing to draw his mind away from it’ (p. 127). I for one was quite astonished at the testimony that he perceived the vision of, we would say, the uncreated light ‘continously’. In such an instance, there can be nothing surprising about one’s shutting oneself up in a cell and refusing to speak with people, as St Eusebius did!

Of course, Theodoret does tell us that ‘he honored me alone with that sweet voice dear to God; and when I wanted to leave, he would keep me for a long time while he discoursed on the things of heaven’ (p. 127), and St Eusebius thus seems to have applied to a limited extent the principle that St Nicetas Stethatos gives—‘By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue—that is, by praying in the soul—you edify yourself, but your intellect is unproductive (cf. I Cor. 14:14), for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God’s Church’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], pp. 169). But one can’t help but wish the bishop had recorded some of these discourses for us!
Incidentally, the image above is not a depiction of St Eusebius. It is a 1650 painting by Aniello Francone entitled L'anacoreta, 'The Anchorite'.

1 comment:

Justin said...

very interesting post, thanks!