03 May 2009

'With the Spirit, He Learned the Mysteries'—St Anastasius of Sinai

Today, 20 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Anastasius, Abbot of Sinai. Unfortunately, it is easy to become confused about this St Anastasius, since there appear to be two other Saints Anastasius celebrated today, and a fourth celebrated tomorrow. Furthermore, while the Catholic Encyclopedia article claims that he died after 700, the Prologue—wherein he is n. 2 today—states that our Saint died in 685. Finally, the Holy Apostles Convent’s Sinai Gerontikon, from which I give his Life below, claims, ‘His death occurred during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641)’ (The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and Sinai Desert, trans. and comp. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997], p. 245). Here is the account of St Anastasius’s life as given in this source (pp. 244-5):

Saint Anastasius was raised from his early youth in great piety. At an early age he was taught to call upon Christ the true God, to believe in Him, to fear Him with unfeigned fear and, with all his heart, to love Him and worship Him with fitting adoration.

Having reached maturity, he left the world, and, taking up his cross in obedience to the evangelic commandment, he denied himself and followed Christ. He retired to a monastery and became a monk. He aspired to achieve the highest possible feats of virtue and strove to emulate them that were perfect in virtue. Therefore, he betook himself to Jerusalem and then settled at Mt Sinai which was under the famous abbot, St John of the Ladder. It is here that he practised the ascetic life, together with many holy men who were successful in the feats of monastic asceticism.

On account of his utter humility, the blessed man received from God the gift of spiritually edifying conversations. He was an eloquent narrator and recorded the lives of saints and other instructive works. He was also deemed worthy of the office of priest. Upon the repose of both St John of the Ladder and his brother George, our Anastasius became abbot of Mt Sinai.

He was called to fight against certain heretics called Acephali, that is, ‘headless’. He contended with the adherents of this heresy, which was born in Alexandria during the reign of Emperor Zeno (474-491). This heresy was opposed to the Fourth Ecumenical Synod at Chalcedon, held in 451). Anastasius wrote much against them and exposed them, covering them with shame. He not only fought and defeated these heretics in the Sinai, but in his travelss through Syria, Arabia and Egypt. He uprooted them in every place and confirmed the Church of Christ. Having served the Lord as a confessor, he was translated to the Lord, Whom he served so faithfully, in deep old age. His death occurred during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641).

St Anastasius is considered the author of several works. Here is Fr Georges Florovsky’s account of three of them (The Byzantine Fathers from the Sixth to Eighth Century, trans. Raymond Miller, et al., Vol. 9 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 30):

His main work is The Guide—Ὁδηγός. It would be better to translate this as ‘handbook’. It was composed from individual chapters and epistles in which St Anastasius investigates the individual and particular objections of the Monophysites on the basis of the Scriptures and from the testimony of the ancients. The book containing One Hundred and Fifty-Four Questions and Answers is of the same nature, although in its present form it cannot be considered his. This work is more a handbook of eristics (the art of debate) rather than one of ‘dialectics’. True, St Anastasius unmasks the spirit of petty, abstruse questioning; however, he himself looks into petty difficulties and permits perplexing questions. For the historian there are many important details in this work, especially in the explanation and application of the texts from Scripture. His references to the ancients are also very important. . . .

We must also consider the possibility that St Anastasius may indeed be the author of a work entitled The Interpretation of the Six Days [Ἑξαήμερον]. Of the twelve original books, only the last has come down to us in the original [the other eleven are only extant in a Latin trans.]. The explanation is given only allegorically (‘anagogic contemplations’). St Anastasius explains the psalms as well. It must be stressed that St Anastasius always thinks in Aristotelian categories, although he considers ‘Aristotle’s blather’ to be the source of all heresies.

Besides those writings that Fr Florovsky mentions, there is also St Anastasius’s Narrations, a collection of miracle stories and tales of holy Sinaite monks. The St Gregory Palamas Monastery in Ohio has completed a full translation of this work and posted it on their website (HT to Kevin Edgecomb; it can also be found here, at Monachos.net). Here is the first story:

1. Ten years ago a certain two of the fathers of Holy Mount Sinai went up to worship on the Holy Summit. One of them is still alive. When they arrived at a distance of about two bow-shot from (the chapel of) Saint Elias they smelled a fragrance unlike any worldly fragrance. Then the disciple thought that the one who dwelt there was offering incense. The elder, his spiritual guide who is still living said, ‘The fragrance is not of this earth.’

Therefore, approaching the church, behold they saw within it like a fiery flaming kiln with tongues of fire coming from all the doors (and windows). Then, seeing this the disciple feared the sight. But the elder reassured him saying, ‘Why are you afraid, my child. It is an angelic power and our fellow servant; don’t lose courage. They venerate our nature in heaven; not we theirs.’ Thus they fearlessly entered the church as if (going) into a kiln. They prayed and thus they ascended to the summit in the morning.

Beholding them, the guardian (of the peak) saw their faces glorified and shining like the face of Moses and he said to them, ‘Did you see anything unusual coming up?’ Wanting to conceal the matter, they said, ‘No’. Then he said to them, ‘Believe me, you saw some vision for behold your faces are radiant with the glory of the Holy Spirit.’ They bowed to him and related the matter, asking that he tell nobody.

St Nicholas (Velimirović) of Ohrid has written a lovely ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Anastasius in the Prologue entry for today:

Anastasius, the God-bearing father,
Upon himself assumed prayerful labor and fasting,
Mortification he maintained, long and persistent,
Until, with the spirit, he learned the mysteries.
Then, his honey-mouth he opened:
Christ is, says he, the rock of salvation.
Do not insanely say: He was a long time ago,
Where is He now in order to speak to me?
The Good News, his Covenant Holy,
Who is able to resist it?
It speaks to you in place of Christ Himself,
That is His All-Pure Mouth!
Again, you speak: I desire to see Him!
Look with your whole mind and heart
At Holy Communion, from wine and bread,
There, in the flesh is He; what else do you need?
Repent, O brother, repent of your sins,
A thousand deaths around you stand!
To your spiritual father, your sins confess,
After that, drink His Blood and eat His Body.
Only repent. If you begin with repentance
You will live with justice and shining hope.
Repent, O brother, repent of your sins,
A thousand deaths, around you stand!

Joseph A. Munitiz, SJ, Master of Campion Hall, Oxford, has an interesting-looking article (which I’ve not yet read through) on St Anastasius’s approach to questions about death in the 154 Questions & Answers, here, in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Also, there is a fascinating fuller description of the Hexaemeron here, in the Wikipedia article on St Anastasius. The image above is a painting of the Saint by Rembrandt—‘St Anastasius in His Cell’ (1631). If anyone can tell me what made Rembrandt paint St Anastasius, I'd love to hear it! One blogger has posted a brief appreciation of it here, but I shall post a much more in-depth one, taken from Émile Michel, Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, and His Time, Vol. 1, trans. Florence Simmonds, ed. Frederick Wedmore (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), pp. 65-6 (found on Google Books):

The year 1631 was marked by an advance still more decisive, and was one of the most prolific in Rembrandt’s busy career. In the St Anastasius in the Stockholm Museum (No. 579), which bears this date, and the signature Rembrant in microscopic characters on a manuscript, we recognise the old man who figures so repeatedly in the etchings, and who reappears a little later as one of the Philosophers in the Louvre: refined of feature, bald and prominent of brow, with small eyes and a large white beard. The saint is seated near a window, in a lofty vaulted oratory, divided by an arcade from a flagged corridor beyond; against one of the uprights of this arcade is an altar of carved stone, and on it a crucifix set in a framework of small reddish marble columns with gilded shafts and capitals. He rests his left hand on the arm of his chair, and reads devoutly from a great folio on the table. His dress is a red skull-cap and a long robe of that purple-gray tint so much in favour with the painter at this period. Its cool tones, repeated here and there in the pale sky beyond, the curtains of the arcade, and the pavement of the adjoining vestibule, are happily contrasted with the warm browns and yellows that pervade the picture. The harmony of these deliberately juxtaposed tints is very delicate. Contrary to the usual practice of novices, Rembrandt shows great reticence in his scheme of colour; he is content with what is little more than monochrome, and concentrates all his skill on chiaroscuro. The penumbra of the more strongly illuminated surfaces, and their reflections are rendered with absolute truth, and the execution, as befits the quiet tonality, is at once light and precise. The meditative attitude of the old man, the expression of his features, the light and stillness that surround him as he sits absorbed in meditation, make up a whole full of infinite sweetness and charm.


Anonymous said...

Great Post!

It might interest you to know that Loyola University has recently published (2009) a translation of St. Anastasius' 'Hexaemeron' (which can be obtained at nearly a 20% discount from Amazon.)

Info. on the book below:


The "Hexaemeron", attributed to Anastasius of Sinai (ob. post 700), is one of the most extensive mystical allegories surviving from the Byzantine era. Written in response to a request for guidance by one Theophilus, the author offers in twelve books an anagogical exegesis of the first three chapters of Genesis. Citing passages from the entire Bible, and especially from the Prophets and the Letters of Saint Paul, Anastasius warns against an exclusively literal reading of Scripture. He urges, rather, that one be open to the Spirit beyond the words: it is only then that one can receive the complete meaning and significance.

Anastasius insists that the prophet Moses, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was writing not only about the creation of the visible and transient world, but also about the New Creation through Christ. Thus Adam represents the Savior, and Eve represents the Church, his eternal bride. It is this allegory that earned Anastasius the pseudonym "The New Moses". The "Hexaemeron" is not unlike Gregory of Nyssa’s famous exegesis "De vita Mosis". But while Gregory focused on the personal soul mystically approaching the divinity of God, Anastasius describes the whole Church, as Bride of Christ, mystically approaching and joining the divinity of God. The individual soul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, becomes an inseparable part of this unity, which incorporates and transcends the many human components. The spiritual integrity and the mystical transcendence of the Church, in fact, are two motifs in the "Hexaemeron".

To support his typological reading, the author refers to the early Fathers and exegetes of the Church, especially Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Ps.-Dionysius the Areopagite, and even Origen. He condemns Origen, however, for ignoring the literal and seeing everything exclusively as symbolic. The author has little patience for heresies, which he thinks arise largely from too literal a reading of Divine Scripture. Although he alludes to Monophysitism, Monothelitism, and Monoenergism, Anastasius strives in the "Hexaemeron" to go beyond the contentious issues dividing the Church—as is appropriate for a mystical anagogy. The "Hexaemeron" reveals an early Byzantine view of the cosmos, a genuine affection for Egypt, and a strong love and devotion to Christ and the Church.

The present book is the first printed edition of the complete Greek text. It also contains a Foreword by Joseph A. Munitiz, S.J., and an English translation. It was published in the Orientalia Christiana Analecta series (278) by the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you for pointing this out. I'd love to get it! Unfortunately, even at 20% off, it's still a bit steep for me!

Anonymous said...


Christ is risen!

You are quite welcome, and I fully understand. If it pleases you, write to me at ewgoucher@yahoo.com and provide me with a shipping address.

Anonymous said...

My last name is Anastacio. Could I be related to him?