11 March 2009

A Second Sampson—St Porphyrius of Gaza

Today, 26 February according to the Church’s calendar, we commemorate our Holy Father Porphyrius (Porphyry), Bishop of Gaza (c. 347-420). St Porphyry is known to us from a moving Life written by his close disciple, Mark the Deacon, who came to Palestine from Asia Minor (it can be found, among other places, here at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, but I shall refer to the translation in The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and the Sinai Desert Throughout the Year, According to the Church Calendar, trans. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997], pp. 112-60).

St Porphyrius was born of a wealthy and noble family of Thessaloniki, but ‘there came upon him at twenty-five years of age a divine desire to leave his country and the splendor of his distinguished family and countless riches, to cleave unto the solitary life’ (p. 113). He subsequently departed for Scetis, where he was clothed in the schema, living among the elders of Egypt for five years before leaving again for the Holy Land, where he dwelt in a cave in Jordan for another five years.

Unfortunately, contracting a disease of the liver, St Porphyrius went to Jerusalem to venerate the holy places. While there he met Deacon Mark, upon whom he prevailed to travel on his behalf to Thessaloniki to settle his estate with his brothers. But when the latter returned, he found that the holy man had been healed. St Porphyrius told him of a vision he had had near the place of the Skull, Golgotha, of the Saviour and the good thief, St Dismas, upon the crosses. Our Lord told Dismas to save St Porphyrius even as the thief himself had been saved, and the good thief kissed him and offered him the wood of the Cross, charging him to ‘keep it’ (p. 116). When he came to, St Porphyrius had been completely healed. Thus, distributing his wealth among the poor and the monasteries, he hoped to live a quiet life of work and prayer. Concerning the beauty of soul of this blessed man, Deacon Mark tells us:

Thenceforth, I served the man of God more diligently (for I held him to be verily the servant of God). When I restored to him all the things that I had brought, I abode with him, serving him and enjoying his spiritual conversation. For he was truly a blameless man, very meek, pitiful, having also, if ever any man had, skill to discern the Holy Scripture and to resolve the hard questions therein [Deacon Mark emphasises this again later, pointing out ‘this power he had by the grace of the Holy Spirit’ (p. 119)]. Furthermore, neither was he lacking in outward learning, answering and stopping the mouths of unbelievers and heretics. He was a lover of the poor, honoring old men as fathers (I Tim. 5:6) and young men as brethren and little ones as his own children, behaving himself gently, and lowly in spirit and in speech, not for pretence (for there was no guile in him). He was exceedingly temperate, so that he was delivered utterly from all passions, not knowing anger, not remembering evil and not letting the sun go down upon his wrath (Eph. 4:26). Simply put, all his passions were dead, save only indignation, which he stirred up against the enemies of the Faith. (p. 116)

However, word of his outstanding virtues reached the ears of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and St Porphyrius was soon ordained to the priesthood and entrusted with the care of the Precious Cross, thus fulfilling the words he had heard in his vision at Golgotha. At this time he was forty-five years old, and although he had been honourably elevated in rank, continued to practice his former austere way of life.

Only three years after St Porphyrius was ordained as a priest, Bishop Aeneias of Gaza reposed. Gaza was distinguished at that time (the late 4th c.) for its enormous pagan majority who continually harassed and wronged the handful of Christians there (Deacon Mark mentions 280 on p. 121), and Deacon Mark frequently refers to them as ‘they of the idol-madness’. Their central shrine was the ‘Marneion’, a temple dedicated to Marnas, a Hellenised version of the ancient god Dagon who was identified by the Greeks, and thus by Deacon Mark, with ‘Cretan Zeus’. Indeed, it was the ancient temple of Dagon in Gaza that Samson destroyed by pulling the roof down upon himself in Judges 16:29-30.

So, the Christians of Gaza desiring a bishop ‘that would be able by deeds and by speech to withstand the idolaters’ (p. 118), St Porphyrius was consecrated Bishop of Gaza by a revelation of the Lord in about 395. He forthwith devoted the rest of his long life to the difficult task of Christianising that incorrigible city. I won’t describe all of the details of this struggle, which occupies the majority of Deacon Mark’s Life of St Porphyrius. But I will note a couple of important points about it.

First, as we have already seen, Deacon Mark tells us that St Porphyrius was delivered from the passion of ‘anger’, but he immediately added that ‘all his passions were dead, save only indignation, which he stirred up against the enemies of the Faith’ (p. 116). This may seem to be a contradiction, but St Diadochos of Photiki has accounted for it wonderfully in Chapter 62 of his ‘One Hundred Texts on (Spiritual) Knowledge and Discrimination’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. I, comp. St Nikodimos and St Makarios, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1983], p. 272). There we read:

The incensive power usually troubles and confuses the soul more than any other passion, yet there are times when it greatly benefits the soul. For when with inward calm we direct it against blasphemers or other sinners in order to induce them to mend their ways or at least feel some shame, we make our soul more gentle. In this way we put ourselves completely in harmony with the purposes of God’s justice and goodness.

Furthermore, it is important to realise that St Porphyrius was not incensed toward the idolaters on account of the many wrongs they committed toward him, but chiefly because of their own errors and because of their dreadful treatment of the other Christians of Gaza. As Deacon Mark writes, ‘But others took notice of Porphyrius’ patience, how, when men spoke despitefully of him, he waxed not wroth’ (p. 124). Thus, by his patience, many were won for Christ, but ‘They of the idol-madness, the more they saw the Christians increasing in numbers, the more wroth did they become’ (p. 129).

Second, it is to be noted that St Porphyrius did not despise the idolaters themselves, but only their errors. Indeed, Mark the Deacon tells us that ‘he prayed continually night and day to the merciful God that He might turn them from the error of their ways unto His own truth’ (p. 123). His decision to send Deacon Mark to Constantinople to convince the Emperor to close the temples was motivated by ‘the unlawful things that were done daily by the idolaters’ against the Christians (p. 125), and in order to ‘convert the multitudes of Gaza’ (p. 129).

St Porphryius’s dispute with Julia the Manichaean is a good illustration of his love for his enemies. When she confessed the beliefs in which she had been attempting to indoctrinate the citizens of Gaza, we are told that some of the Christians ‘were moved to wrath’, but St Porphyrius ‘besought them not to be angered but with patience to exhort her a first and second time’. He himself told her with affection and concern, ‘Abstain, sister, from this evil belief, for it is of Satan’ (p. 153). It was only after a long dispute, during which Julia blasphemed the Lord and was seen to be ‘possessed of the devil’, that St Porphryius ‘was moved by divine zeal’ to prophesy her punishment. When she was miraculously silenced and died shortly after, ‘The saint then bade that her body should be laid out and committed unto a grave, taking pity on her human nature, for he was extremely compassionate’ (p. 154).

Finally, concerning St Porphryius’s most zealous move against the idolaters, the burning of the Marneion with the help and support of the imperial officials and the army, Deacon Mark makes it quite clear that this was not something he did out of anger or because of any personal grudge or passion. Various proposals had been made about how to deal with it, when—

At last, the holy bishop proclaimed a fast to the people, and a prayer, that the Lord might reveal to them how they should proceed. That evening they partook of Holy Communion. During the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, a child of about seven years, standing by his mother, suddenly cried out: ‘Burn ye the inner temple to the foundation, for many terrible things have been done in it, especially sacrifices of human beings. After this manner shall ye burn it: bring liquid pitch, sulphur and fat of swine, and mingle the three and anoint the brazen doors and set fire to them, and so shall the temple be burned, for otherwise it is not possible. But the outer temple leave ye with the court. Then after the burning, having purified the place, found there a holy church.’ Then he said this also: ‘I swear unto you before God, otherwise it many not be done, for neither is it I that speak, but Christ Who is within me.’ Thus did the child speak in the language of the Syrians. (p. 144)

Still, St Porphryius was not merely to accept the miracle at face value, but made a severe trial of the boy and his mother, questioning them, making a show of threatening, and even offering them money, but the boy just miraculously repeated everything he had said, but in the Greek language, which the simple boy did not know. Only thus did St Porphyrius carry out the burning of the temple of Dagon, by a clear command of God becoming a second Sampson. This site quotes from St Jerome’s Commentarium in Isaiam 17.3:

In the deserted cities of Aroer, which means ‘heath’, the flocks of the church will enjoy life. We are dwelling in the towns abandoned by the Jews, and where the idolatry has been destroyed the Gospel is being built upon. This becomes reality in our times too, as we can see by ourselves: the Serapaeum in Alexandria and the temple of Marna in Gaza have been changed into churches of the Lord, and the cities of Aroer are readied for the evangelic flock.

Deacon Mark tells us that every year throughout the episcopacy of St Porphyrius, more and more people continued to accept Christ. Although there was a final outbreak of violence by the idolaters after the burning of the Marneion and the building of the Church of Eudoxiana, this was finally quelled and the offenders punished (p. 158). Gaza was effectively a Christian city at last. ‘The most blessed Porphyrius, having established the rule of the church and all the office, lived only a few years after the consecration of the great church [on the site of the Marneion]’. . . . After commending all the Christ-loving folk unto God, he fell asleep with the saints in peace . . .’ (p. 160).

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