30 January 2020

Holy Hermit Zeno ‘the Letter-Bearer’ of Cæsarea


Saint Zeno of Cæsarea
القدّيس زينون القيصرية

The Syrian holy man commemorated on the thirtieth of January is a certain Saint Zeno, a patron of postal workers and message-bearers. A native of Pontus, he lived in Cappadocia and was the disciple to the great Saint Basil there, before he became a hermit on Mons Silpius overlooking the great Syrian city of Antioch. He is remembered with the Antiochian saints, and his Life is attested in the Religious History of Blessed Theodoret of Kyrrhos.

Saint Zeno [Gk. Ζήνων, Ar. Zaynûn زينون] was a fair, strong and nimble youth, born to a wealthy Pontian family in the middle of the fourth century. He served in the military under Emperor Valens, as a tachydrome – one of the people charged with bearing imperial edicts and rescripts over the public post. The position which Zeno occupied was one of significant respect and prestige: to be such a courier was to bear the implicit trust of the Emperor, because the messages needed to arrive swiftly, secretly and safely to where they were sent – and in antiquity, this was far from a guarantee. The persons selected to be tachydromes on the public post had to be both physically fit and morally incorruptible, worthy of the personal confidence of the Emperor.

After the death of Emperor Valens, Zeno retired from the service, did off his military honours and retired to Antioch. He took refuge in a tomb on Mons Silpius, and lived there alone. He ate only bread and water, clad himself in rags and kept no possessions for himself – not even a bed or a lamp or a book. He was given one loaf of bread every two days by a single trusted acquaintance who delivered it to the tomb. He also went himself to a well in the city to draw water and haul it up the slopes of Mons Silpius. At one time a man who saw him thus heavy-laden offered to help him carry the water jars. Saint Zeno refused at first, saying he could not bear to drink water that had been drawn and carried by someone else. But the man insisted on helping him. No sooner had they set foot inside the tomb but Zeno poured out the water and went back himself to the well to refill them.

Theodoret himself visited Zeno at one time. He saw him at the well and asked if he knew of ‘the wonderful Zeno’, a monk who lived in a tomb on the mountain. Saint Zeno modestly said he knew of no monk by that name. Theodoret suspected it was indeed he, though, and together with some friends of his followed him as he bore the water back to his cell. Zeno had prepared for Theodoret and his friends some simple bedding of straw so that they could sit comfortably, and discussed philosophy with them at length. The young friends asked Zeno for his blessing, but the holy man was most reluctant to give it. Not, Theodoret stresses, because he was stingy with anything he had, whether spiritually or physically, but because he felt himself to be unworthy: a ‘civilian’ in Church life rather than a ‘soldier’. (Theodoret was then a reader.) At last Zeno gave his blessing for he would deny them nothing, but then fervently asked the pardon of God for his presumption and audacity. Theodoret uses this story to stress Saint Zeno’s humility.

Though he was a hermit living in the mountain, he would come down from his cell every Sunday to hear the Divine Liturgy and partake in the Eucharist together with the mass of the laity. After taking the Divine Gifts he walked back up the mountain to his cell. He had no door nor lock, for he had nothing but the heaps of hay in his cell, and nothing of worth to steal in any event – and there was also the small matter of his living in a remote tomb on the side of a mountain where a thief would have to be crazy to dare to venture. Saint Zeno loved books, though he owned none himself. He was forever borrowing them from his friends, reading one fully and returning it before borrowing another.

Saint Zeno survived a massacre of holy men and women by impious Isaurian raiders in 404, and protected some within his cell, by means of prayer to God. The Isaurians had shot and killed many holy men and women who lived on Mons Silpius, but they passed by his tomb undetected. Saint Zeno sent up a prayer to God for protection of the holy men and women of the mount; and God sent three messengers to guard the doorway to Saint Zeno’s cell, who did invisible battle with the Isaurians and distracted them away from the entrance.

Saint Zeno still had material possessions which he was keeping in trust for his young kinsmen, and he deeply agonised over the fact that it remained in his possession and had not sold it off and distributed it to the poor, as Christ had taught. When he knew his end to be growing near and his kinsmen had taken their part of the inheritance themselves, he took his part and sold it to an acquaintance, and distributed as much of it as he could to the poor of Antioch. The remainder he entrusted, with prayers, to Patriarch Alexandros I of Antioch, the same who ended the schism between Saint Meletios and the followers of Paulinus. He instructed the bishop to disburse that money ‘according to God’s purpose’, giving to the bishop the same trust the tachydrome himself had been given by a worldly emperor long before.

Saint Zeno reposed in the Lord soon afterward. In the words of Theodoret, he ‘departed like some Olympic victor from the place of contest, receiving praise not only from men but also from the angels.Holy hermit Zeno, trustworthy bearer of letters and ascetic athlete, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Zeno, Tone 3:

Through asceticism, holy Father, you received the grace of the Divine Spirit,
Manifesting a divine life of the graces,
And you became a healer of the Saviour,
Having been made worthy of His brilliance.
Venerable Zeno, entreat Christ our God, to grant unto us the great mercy.


Mons Silpius, Antioch

On Syriac Christian realities


Mar Gorgis Church, Bakhdida, Iraq

One thing was particularly troubling to me as I was writing my hagiographies of our Syriac saints this month: Saint ’Abu, Mâr Ya‘qûb, Mâr ’Ishâq, Mâr ’Afrâm and Saint Frahât. Their biographies attest to places that still exist, and places that are endangered by our government’s policies.

The ancestral home of Saint ’Abu, and home to some of the most beautiful and rich thousand-year-old (but now threatened) architecture in the world, including one of the greatest libraries in history: Baghdad? Obviously still a real city. The US military, under orders from the five-and-dime Antichrist in the White House, just straight up murdered two men there in the middle of a civilian airstrip. And now, as we speak, it’s the site of a huge protest against our government’s very presence there, after the lawful government of Iraq voted for our troops to leave and our government, arrogant occupiers that we are, refused to remove them.

The only reason we’re there, of course, is because of Bush’s brutal, gratuitously unnecessary and unjust war of choice that killed upwards of 600,000 people, destroyed much of this material heritage of humanity, and was based on and fuelled by wilful and deliberate lies. Lies which were, in no small part, propagated and perpetuated by a suppliant belligerati with a certain plausible façade of internationalism: Christopher Hitchens, Václav Havel, Liu Xiaobo, Garry Kasparov, André Glucksmann and Adam Michnik. These belligerati were and are willful, compulsive liars who have still not gotten over the delusion that they are somehow persecuted martyrs for truth.

Speaking of Iraq, the city of Mosul was once known as Nineveh – the biblical city where Jonah preached! Mosul was once the thriving centre and beating heart of Syriac Christendom – home to the monastery from which Mâr ’Ishâq wrote his Ascetical Homilies. That monastery was attacked repeatedly and destroyed, and the holy abbots and monks put brutally to the sword, by the Kurds multiple times throughout the 1700s and 1800s. The Kurds destroyed the monastery’s library, including the original writings of Mâr ’Ishâq, in 1828, committed a democide of the Assyrians in Mosul in 1843, killing over ten thousand people and destroying the Christian architecture and holy iconography. The site still exists, but the monastic community itself was moved to al-Qûš soon afterward. The Assyrians were one of the groups – along with the Armenians and the Pontic Greeks – who were targeted and killed in the Ottoman-perpetrated genocides of 1915-1917.

Arbela, the centre of the Assyrian diocæse of Adiabene where Mâr Ya‘qûb, Mâr ’Afrâm and Saint Frahât lived most of their lives, is also in northern Iraq – modern-day Erbil. Adiabene covers an area which covers the northern tip of Iraq and the southeastern tip of what is now Turkey, as well as a part of Western Iran. Erbil’s built culture is far more ancient even than Baghdad’s – the Citadel alone dates back 4,300 years – and it is one possible contender for being the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement on the face of the planet.

The Assyrian Christians of northern Iraq – including Mosul and Erbil – suffered perhaps more than any other group because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They were persecuted by vengeful Sunnî militias while the American military, acting under orders from Bush’s State Department, dismantled the Republican Guard that had been protecting them, and then deliberately and maliciously neglected them when they came for protection. American evangelicals, too, mostly ignored the plight of the country’s Christians, and their situation from 2003 to 2011 was left to be ‘reported’ in American media by Garry Trudeau, the cartoonist of Doonesbury. The Assyrians of Iraq were targeted again there by the forces of Dâ‘iš, which managed to capture Mosul and most of the Plains of Nineveh. (Dâ‘iš was technically ‘founded’ in by az-Zarqâwî in 1999. But it was incubated as a proto-state precisely in the vacuum of power that followed the invasion of 2003. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was and remains a consequence of American foreign policy in Iraq under Bush and Obama, which allowed it to flourish.) The substantive displays of solidarity the Assyrian Christians got from within the country were largely from the Shî‘a majority in southern Iraq.

The Assyrians, and other groups of Arab Christians, also inhabit far western Iran, southeastern Turkey and northeastern Syria, a region which is coterminous with Kurdistan. The difficulty the Assyrians face – and this is a difficulty that is made clear if one reads even the sæcular literature, like William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain – is that the Assyrians are neither Turks nor Kurds. They thus face repression from three sides of an asymmetrical armed conflict that has only escalated since 2011. Under the Turks they were subject to genocide – and they are subject to Turkish brutality again, now that we’ve left a power vacuum in northeastern Syria. As mentioned above, the Assyrians face mass killings, rape and repression from Dâ‘iš. And the Kurds have not behaved particularly well toward the Christians of the region either, as can be witnessed from the history of places like Mosul. The ‘Rojava’ experiment in northeastern Syria, however rosily it is portrayed by certain anarchist groups in the West, resulted in a precipitous loss of the Assyrians’ cultural and religious rights as the Kurds have demanded their assimilation or expulsion.

These places all have ancient heritage. Diyarbakır (once Amida) and Urfa (once Edessa), both now in Turkey, were both home to significant populations of Assyrians and Armenians – who either fled or were killed or evicted between 1900 and 1925. In Nusaybin (once Nisibis), the Assyrians hung on longer, but the Kurdish-Turkish conflict and the Syrian Civil War caused them to flee. These communities are ancient and irreplaceable. They not only represent an invaluable golden thread of Christian religious heritage; they reflect a heritage of human history going back into the infancy of civilisation itself. Holy places are places; and holy history is history.

This is a truth for which I think American Christians in particular have an insufficient appreciation. I can’t say for sure how this comes to be the case, but I have a few surmises. In a handful of high-up cases among the power élite, I think there is an awareness of the Christian heritage of the Middle East, combined with an intentional malice against both the legacy and the people, that drives the war policies and the immigration policies that exclude and destroy Middle Eastern Christians. For most Americans, however, ignorance and fantasy seem to be the key culprits. I have to wonder if – excepting a handful of places now within the borders of the state of Israel – there isn’t a certain degree of mystification at work when American evangelicals in particular refer to places in the Scriptures. A mention of Damascus in the Book of Acts doesn’t register to American ears as a real place in real time, but is a mythologised setting, a backdrop against which a certain fable can unfold. There is a certain sense in which we Americans read the Scriptures as fundamentally about us, which precludes the sort of civilisational humility which characterised, for example, early English Christianity. And that leads us to ignore the reality of the places and people around Christ in the Gospels, in such a way that it distorts the personality of Christ Himself.

In addition, living at the core of the sole world superpower, based as it is on technological dominance of man and nature rather than on any religious qualms, has a hardening effect on hearts, and a deadening effect on our ability to show compassion for crucified peoples. That seems to be the case, whether they are in an Aramaic-speaking village in Mesopotamia, or in an old neighbourhood in Wuhan, or in a detention facility on the Texas border, or on a reservation just upriver. We are not becoming stronger or greater; we are merely becoming coarser, and that is not an improvement. For the love of God – I say this not as a vain exclamation, but as a genuine and impassioned entreaty – this needs to change.

29 January 2020

Venerable Gildas the Wise, Abbot of Rhuys


Saint Gildas of Rhuys

The twenty-ninth of January is also the feast-day of another great scholarly saint of the Orthodox Church, from as far west of Rome as Saint Frahât was as far east: Saint Gildas the Historian. Saint Gildas, who lived during the sixth century, was the foremost chronicler among the Britons of the fall of Roman Britain, and its invasion by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Gildas’s The Ruin and Conquest of Britain was a remarkable work of literature in its own right: a scathing indictment of the greed and misrule by Britain’s sub-Roman lords – one of whom happens to be, unfortunately, a distant ancestor of the Coopers. But it was also one of the primary sources for the early chapters of Saint Bede’s History of the English Church and People, and despite the two of them being on opposite sides of cultural and ecclesiological divides, Bede clearly had a high regard for his predecessor’s scholarly acumen.

Gildas was born in Alt Clut in Yr Hen Ogledd, ostensibly to Caw who was lord there between 495 and 501. He had four brothers. The Angles, who were attacking the Brythonic kingdoms of the Old North, drove Caw out of his kingdom and into Wales along with his brood, including Gildas. Gildas grew up in a sæcular vocation, married and fathered three sons – one of whom became the hermit Cenydd of Gower. He did, however, study with Saint Illtud when he was young, at the College of Saint Theodosius, where his fellow-pupils and friends included Saint Dewi, Saint Peulin and Saint Samson. It’s highly unlikely that our Saint Gildas is the same Gildas that prostrated himself before a pregnant Saint Non, as Dewi and Gildas the Wise were contemporaries. Saint Illtud loved Gildas, seeing in him the gifted scholar he had longed to become, and willed to teach him all manner of sæcular science and liberal arts, as well as the theological ones. Gildas himself, however, inclined toward the study of the Scriptures, and sought after the religious life.

Gildas and Samson were the two pupils of Illtud who helped the meek Saint Peulin to scare away the seagulls from Illtud’s crops. Fearing he would be blamed for allowing his master’s crop to be despoiled, Peulin asked for Gildas’s and Samson’s aid. After praying to God, the three boys were able to approach the gulls, who became tame and flightless in their presence, and were able to be herded like sheep to be penned in a barn. When Saint Illtud saw this, he wondered at his students’ faith, and commended them for it. Then he rebuked the birds and told them not to bother his crops again; they meekly obeyed.

When Gildas left Llanilltud Fawr it was to continue his studies in Ireland. He studied there from many masters and went from monastery to monastery collecting what wisdom he could from each, as a bee collects nectar to make honey. While living in Ireland he took orders to become a priest, and spent his time evangelising, teaching, healing and ministering to the poor in Armagh. He also at this time took upon himself an ascetic rule, which he kept to the end of his life: he ate only three meals a week, and betook himself to a strenuous schedule of vigils and prayers. At length, he was recalled to ‘the northern region of the isle of Britain’ (meaning Gwynedd and Powys in Wales) to preach against the paganism and Pelagianism that were then plaguing those regions. He was wildly successful in converting the northern Welsh to Christianity, who were attracted to his teaching in large part by his asceticism.

Saint Gildas was on good terms with his elder in Ireland, Saint Brigid of Kildare. The holy woman had been impressed by the studious youth and, when he had returned to Wales, sent to ask something of him that his service for Christ in Ireland might be remembered and venerated. Saint Gildas fashioned a metal bell with his own hands, and sent it back to Saint Brigid by the same messenger she had sent to him. She received it gladly and held the relic in reverence at her cloister.

The high king of Ireland, Ainmuire mac Sétnai, had also heard of the reputation of the learnèd and holy Saint Gildas, and sent an embassy to him begging him to come to Ireland again and minister to his people, who at that time were falling away from the correct doctrines. Gildas set sail once more for Ireland; and after he had made land, on the way to Tír Conaill he met a certain man afflicted with palsy, who had to go about on a hand-cart. Saint Gildas prayed to God and then knelt down to the man, bidding him rise and walk about on his feet. At once the man’s palsy was cured, and he stood up on two healthy feet, and reached out to the saint with two healthy arms. The man began to praise the name of Saint Gildas, but this earned a rebuke from the holy man, who told him instead that it was to Jesus Christ he ought to sing praises. But the man spread the name of Gildas about him all the same, such that Gildas was forced to flee from the sight of men and disappear into the Irish wilderness.

Saint Gildas was discovered by some who had known him from his first sojourn in Ireland, and they introduced him to the High King. From Tír Conaill Saint Gildas began to preach the true doctrines of Christ, and began patiently to explicate them to those who had inclined their ears to hæresy. By patient steps he began to instil the Orthodox faith in the hearts and minds of the Irish people. Saint Gildas set up a school, where he taught not only the sons of nobles, but also the landless and kinless poor. He even used what wealth was given him in gifts, to set free those who had been subject to slavery.

Towards the end of his earthly life, Saint Gildas went on pilgrimage. He chose to go to Rome, to visit the Tombs of the Apostles. He conducted several wondrous healings on the way, and sternly instructed the men he healed, not to give praises to him but instead to Christ by Whose power they were healed. His hagiography states that when he reached Rome, the citizens thereof were afflicted by the presence of a monstrous dragon with poisonous breath, which had already claimed the lives of many Romans. Gildas felled the wyrm with only his crozier and a prayer to God. Saint Gildas also spent some time in Ravenna and performed a notable healing there, restoring the sight and speech of a blind and mute man. He also fell among thieves on his journey back home, but passed through them unharmed by immobilising them with a prayer to God. He released them after he was safely delivered, but they fled from him – thieves would not plague that area for a long time afterward.

Saint Gildas longed to return home, but it was not to be – God had other plans. He made his way into Brittany, and found a suitable place for a hermitage on the Île de Houat in the Gulf of Morbihan, off the southern coast of the peninsula. He lived in solitude there for some time, but he earned a reputation among the local folk such that disciples were drawn to him. He went to the mainland, to Rhuys, and built for them an oratory near the mouth of the river Blavet, out of the outcrop of rock that jutted naturally from the bank. After the oratory he built a refectory and mill, as well as a hospital for the sick and a lazar-house. Travellers who visited Gildas and his disciples’ oratory were treated to great hospitality.

Gildas set himself up as the first abbot at Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, but his thought and sole concern in doing so was for the spiritual welfare of his disciple-monks. He placed himself in humility as the servant of all there. As for his teaching, ‘in his sermons, he exhorted men to atone for sins by alms, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and those cast into prison, to bury the dead, to return evil for evil to no man, to love fasting, to be always assiduous in watchings and prayers.’ And in these things he led first by example and did not lay upon his disciples burdens he would not bear himself. In this way he passed the rest of his earthly life, and he reposed in the Lord in peace among his brothers, around the year 570.

On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, apart from a few epistolary fragments the sole surviving example of Gildas’s scholarly work, was written when Gildas was much younger, though he was almost assuredly living abroad at the time he wrote – probably in Ireland. Our knowledge of much of Britain’s history after the end of Roman rule there derives from Gildas – as well as our knowledge of the Christian Church in Britain under Roman rule. But even from this document Gildas’s profound erudition is evident enough. He alludes not only to the Holy Scriptures but also to the Æneid of Vergil and works of Platonic philosophy, as well as to patristic writings extant in both Latin and Greek. A particularly telling testament to Gildas’s reputation as a historian is this. The cautious Saint Bede, who in the History of the English Church and People ordinarily takes pains to cross-reference all the events and personages he describes between multiple sources and especially primary sources if he can, cites Gildas’s On the Ruin in large sections (particularly on the history of Christianity in Roman Britain) as his sole source, without question. On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain is preserved at the University of Cambridge.

Saint Gildas is remembered with fondness in Wales, Ireland and Brittany; the centre of his cultus is naturally enough at Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys. He has a holy well near Laniscat (as well as a menhir) and another near Magoar in the Côtes d’Armor, and yet another in Finistère in Brittany. He also had a shrine at Glastonbury Abbey, and has a church dedicated to his memory in Rosneath, Scotland. Wise and venerable abbot Gildas, meek friend of the poor and thundering chastiser of the proud and powerful, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Truly thou art surnamed ‘the Wise’, O righteous Gildas,
For in thy monastic solitude
Thou didst use thy God-given gift of words for His greater glory.
Teach us to despise nothing, that all our talents, however small
May be employed in God's service, for the salvation of our souls.


Abbaye Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, Morbihan, Brittany

Venerable Frahât, the Sage of Persia


An icon of Mâr ’Afrâm, Mâr ’Ishâq and Saint Frahât

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate a Syriac saint of Iranian heritage, Saint Frahât the Sage. A survivor of the persecutions of Šâpur II and a contemporary of Mâr ’Afrâm, Saint Frahât has occasionally been confused with Mâr Ya‘qûb on account of his having taken the baptismal name of Jacob. He is most notably credited with writing the Demonstrations, an early Syriac Christian work of apologetics which occasionally takes a polemical edge against Judaism – but which is notably influenced by the rabbinical Jewish tradition itself.

Saint Frahât [also Aphrahat, Aphraates or in modern Farsi Farhâd] was born in Assyria or Asôristân, then a province of the Persian Empire, during the reign of Bahrâm II. It is unclear what his parentage was. However, he was probably baptised as an adult, and chose his baptismal name of Jacob at the same time. Frahât was drawn early into a strict form of asceticism, and kept himself celibate – though there was no formal monastic institution at the time, it is clear that he lived in a manner consistent with monastic vows, and probably did so in a præ-cœnobitic community. Syriac Christian communities of this time had such ‘sons of the covenant’ present.

As a proto-monastic in Persia, he witnessed from the other side of the political divide the same suspicions and persecutions that harried his contemporary Mâr ’Afrâm in Nisibis. As a result, he was inexorably drawn into the rhetorical and apologetic disputations that characterised the political atmosphere. Jews were favoured in Persia, and Christians conditionally favoured in Rome. The Persian šâh mistrusted the local Syriac Christians as a potential fifth column, and subjected them to harsh persecutions. During this phase of the wars between Persia and Rome, in the disputed territories there was an active, lively and occasionally vituperative debate and contest for converts between the early Christian and rabbinic Jewish traditions. Frahât was caught right in the middle of this. As his Demonstrations indicate, even as he was most vehemently rejecting the doctrines of Judaism, he was immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Persian Sage’s heavily symbolic and figurative hermeneutics were similar in character to the Babylonian rabbinic method, and he was very clearly influenced by contemporary Jewish teachings, as well as by the philosophical interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures by Philo Judæus.

Saint Frahât was nevertheless thoroughly partizan. Perhaps a bit ironically given how close he himself was to the Jewish teachings, he would brook no rapprochement with Judaism nor any attempt to remake Christianity in a Judaïsing mould. Frahât took pains to distance the Christian teaching from rabbinic Judaism on matters such as circumcision, the Paschal feast and the keeping of the Sabbath. He also concerned himself with the spiritual strength and health of the Syriac Christian community under Šâpur’s persecution. Particularly notable is his use of apocalyptic in an attempt to comfort and encourage the suffering Christians under Šâpur’s rule. Orthodox tradition has it that he wrote in his later years from Edessa and Antioch.

The Persian Sage reposed in the Lord, probably after the temporary truce which Šâpur signed with Roman Emperor Constantius II following the siege of Singara in the year 344. His Demonstrations were written in a period spanning 337 to 345, with the last one having been written in the wake of the first round of persecutions, and possibly slightly before his death. It is unclear if he ever attained to a hierarchical status, but later attestations witness that he did indeed live the life of a holy ascetic, and that he was held in high esteem by the leaders of the Syrian Church. He is remembered by the Holy Orthodox Church on the twenty-ninth of January. Venerable Frahât, learnèd and wise expositor of the Scriptures, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

28 January 2020

Venerable Palladios the Desert-Dweller of Antioch


Saint Palladios of Antioch

Having treated the episcopal Saint Palladius, Apostle of the Scots, in my British saints series, it seems that Saint Palladios of the Syrian Desert may not be a bad place to continue. This holy Syrian hermit’s life is treated in the Religious History of the Syriac theologian Blessed Theodoret of Kyrrhos, the which text as Russian religious historian Gyorgi Fedotov relates was translated into Slavonic for use in the Prolog, and formed one of the primary sources of early East Slavic monastic spirituality.

Saint Palladios the Hermit [Gk. Παλλάδιος, Ar. Bâlâdyûs بالاديوس] lived at the same time as (the elder) Saint Simeon ‘the Stylite’. Blessed Theodoret says that Palladios’s ‘endurance, fasting, vigils and perpetual prayer I think superfluous to narrate, since in them he bore the same yoke as the godly Simeon.’

However, there is one miracle that Theodoret finds it worthwhile to dwell on. Palladios lived in a village called Imma (modern Yenişehir right on the border between Turkey and Syria). One year while Palladios lived there, there was a fair at which traders from Antioch and far beyond came to the town, producing a huge throng of men. One chapman’s wares were particularly popular, and he sold out before the fair ended, closed up shop and went home. This chapman’s success had been seen and marked by a wicked man, as had the gold he had collected. This man kept wakeful during the night, noted the road the chapman would take, and set up an ambush on the road. The chapman, setting off with a light heart and a heavy scrip, went on his road and encountered the brigand who lay in wait for him. They came to blows and the chapman was bloodily slain with a knife. The killer took his coin, and then dumped the body of the chapman near the door of the cell where Palladios lived.

It was not long before the word spread of the murder, and the excitable townsfolk and fairgoers of Imma came to Palladios’s cell and battered his door down. The howling mob descended upon the holy man and cried out for him to be taken and judged for the murder. One of the mob was, in fact, the murderer himself. Palladios was brought to where the slain man was, and lifted his hands and his eyes to heaven. He prayed aloud to God that the slanders against him would be disproven and that the truth be brought to light. He then knelt at the side of the murdered chapman and clasped his right hand. ‘Tell us, young man,’ spoke the saint, ‘who struck you this blow? Point out the perpetrator of the crime and free the innocent from this wicked calumny.

No sooner was this spoken than the murdered man opened his eyes, sat up, spoke softly to Palladios, looked around the crowd gathered there and levelled a finger straight at the man who had waylaid him on the road. The crowd lay hand on the killer, found on him the very knife that he had used to stab the chapman, and also the coin that he had grasped out for in greed. Palladios was cleared of all wrongdoing, and the apologetic people of Imma drew off from him. By this wonder of raising the dead to life the holiness of Palladios was made manifest to many.

Blessed Theodoret mentions Palladios as being ‘in the same company’ as Saint ’Ibrâhîm of Harrân, but by this he seems to have meant only that the two of them were hermits of the same general age (the reign of Emperor Valens) and region. And he ends his hagiography of Saint Palladios by saying: ‘To the splendour of his life bear witness the miracles performed after his death: even today his tomb pours forth cures of every kind – the witnesses are those who through faith draw them forth in abundance there.’ Palladios assuredly works these wonders not only for the sick and the suffering in body, but also for the tormented in spirit, and also those framed and falsely accused at law. Venerable Palladios, desert hermit to whom are revealed hidden things, pray unto Christ our God who knows and is all Truth, on behalf of us sinners!

Our righteous father Mâr ’Afrâm as-Sûryâni


Saint ’Afrâm as-Suryâni

Today in the Orthodox Church is also the feast-day of Mâr ’Afrâm as-Sûryâni – Saint Ephraim the Syrian. Indisputably the single most important, and also the most sublime and inspired, hymnodist of the early Syriac tradition, Mâr ’Afrâm was also a teacher in the Church and a defender of Nicene Orthodoxy in an area of the world where hæresy and syncretic beliefs were often far more popular. His poetic and figurative interpretations of Scripture set the standard for all subsequent Syriac Scriptural hermeneutics. And of course, his well-known prayer of self-reflection and repentance is used throughout the Orthodox Church, particularly during Great Lent.

Mâr ’Afrâm was born in Nisibis – modern-day Nusaybin in southeastern Turkey, right on the border with Syria, in 306. His parents were Christians. At the time Mâr ’Afrâm lived it was an important commercial centre and had been so for a full millennium before. As a hub of trade situated between two large empires – Rome and Persia – it was at once cosmopolitan and vibrant, and vulnerable to wars and political upheavals. It was home to Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Persians, Kurds, Greeks and Romans; and its religious landscape was equally variegated. The Christian community there, to which Mâr ’Afrâm belonged, was probably quite small. Its character was probably close to the Gnostics or the more Judaïsing elements of early Christendom. At the time of ’Afrâm’s birth, the Christian community of Nisibis was still recovering from the persecutions it had suffered under Diocletian.

In ’Afrâm’s infancy, the bishop who had been appointed to the see of the Christians in Nisibis was a westerner and a Roman subject – Mâr Ya‘qûb. It was no doubt Mâr Ya‘qûb’s efforts that strengthened the Christian community in Nisibis in terms of the steadfastness of their doctrine, as ’Afrâm singles him out for praise for his paternal wisdom and the ‘tough love’ he gave to his flock. However, it was also the case that Emperor Saint Constantine at this time ended the persecutions of Christians in the Empire, affording Mâr Ya‘qûb the opportunity to safely build a church, which he did around 320. Mâr Ya‘qûb also attended the Council of Nicæa five years later at Emperor Constantine’s invitation, and is listed among the holy signatories of the Council.

Mâr Ya‘qûb was also the spiritual father of ’Afrâm, who was baptised as a youth or a young adult. Quick to recognise ’Afrâm’s raw untrained intellect and poetic talents, after his return from Nicæa Ya‘qûb ordained the neophyte ’Afrâm as a deacon and also appointed him as a malfâna ملفان or ‘teacher’ – a position which accorded him significant social respect among the community. He did not, however, preach only to the educated. His songs and verse are remarkably careful and exact in their language particularly with regard to their doctrinal import – ’Afrâm, a loyal student of Ya‘qûb, is scrupulously and vocally Nicene in his Christology. But his works are not inaccessible to the layman. He writes in a popular, folk language that even the unlettered can understand. His songs were set to the folk tunes of his day. It’s important to remember that hymnody was still at this time a fairly new art form, and Christianity was adopting and transfiguring the cultures that surrounded it. It’s worth bearing in mind that Mâr ’Afrâm was as much a folk artist – a Ralph McTell or a Woody Guthrie – as he was a creator of holy art.

Mâr ’Afrâm, serving as deacon to Mâr Ya‘qûb in 338, was present and assisting when Mâr Ya‘qûb ascended the city walls of Nisibis during the first siege of the city by the Persian šâh Šâpur II, when Persia and Rome fell to war once again: what started as a proxy war in Armenia. Mâr Ya‘qûb did not pick sides, but he prayed that his city might be delivered from the siege – and as it turned out, the siege was lifted by a plague of gnats that broke out among the Persian cavalry. Unfortunately, the Christians in Persia were treated as a potential Roman fifth column by Šâpur and his descendants. As a result, Christian populations along the Roman border with Persia began to suffer the effects of a new persecution from the east.

On the other hand, Šâpur II and his heirs in the Persian Empire had no particular problems with Jews, and were even friendly toward Jewish interests. Naturally, the political climate as long as Persia and Rome remained at war created a dramatic rift between the Christian and the rabbinical Jewish communities. Polemics on both sides tended to ramp up, as did increasingly-sophisticated apologetics and proofs. Mâr ’Afrâm was drawn into many of these polemical disputes, and many of his hymns include imprecations of Jews and refutations of the unresolved Jewish messianism in favour of Jesus as Christ.

Mâr ’Afrâm also had a good relationship, it seems, with Ya‘qûb’s successor in office as bishop, Babu. Mâr Babu was apparently also a generous patron of the poor and needy; but he was primarily called upon to be the city’s chaplain in time of war. Much of his energy was spent ransoming captives, comforting the bereaved, repairing buildings and giving moral strength to a beleaguered and often-besieged populace. Nisibis was indeed besieged again in 346, and for a third time in 350. This time Šâpur attempted to divert the Nahr Jaghjagh from its course in an attempt to flood the city, but the residents of Nisibis quickly built up an emergency rampart to keep the floodwaters out – turning them back on the besiegers. The Persian war elephants in particular were not fond of the resulting mire and once again Šâpur was forced to withdraw. Mâr ’Afrâm wrote about this siege, likening the flood to the Great Flood, and the salvation of Nisibis to the promise God made to Noah.

The reign of Constantius in Rome was unfortunately followed by that of Julian the Apostate in 361, who made a point not only of venerating the local pagan deities but also of humiliating the Christians of the Middle East whenever opportunity allowed. Mâr ’Afrâm turned his hymnographer’s pen against the idol-worshipping Roman Emperor, and exhorted the Christians of Nisibis to remain steadfast in response to the persecutions of Julian. After Julian’s death at the hands of Šâpur on the twenty-sixth of June, 363, following an ill-advised offensive against Ctesiphon, Rome was forced to seek a peace with Persia. This peace included the cession of the long-suffering Nisibis.

Mâr ’Afrâm, for all his old enemies had taken control of the city he lived in and loved, was insistent that the Persians had treated the Christians fairly when they took Nisibis. Only Julian was responsible, in his eyes, for having lost Nisibis to the Persians, and that on account of his embrace of paganism and idolatry. In fact, the Persians had only destroyed the pagan temples of the Romans as a rebuke to Julian – they left the Christians well alone. Even so, Mâr ’Afrâm and the rest of the Christian community there could not stay in Nisibis. ’Afrâm accompanied a group of Nisibean Christians first to Âmida (now Diyirbakır in Turkey), and then to Edessa, or ar-Ruhâ (now Urfa), where he settled and spent the rest of his earthly days. In Edessa as in Nisibis, Mâr ’Afrâm found a cosmopolitan city which was home to a great panoply of religious beliefs ranging from the various cults of Roman and Semitic paganism to neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Mazdaism, Judaism, Arianism, Marcionism and Orthodox Christianity.

Indeed, in order to distinguish them from the other sects in Edessa, Nicene Christians in Edessa were called ‘Palutians’, probably after Mâr Mâri, whose given name prior to his consecration was ‘Palut’. This state-of-affairs pleased Mâr ’Afrâm not at all, for it contravened the Holy Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians in the very first chapter of his first letter to them. He encouraged the Christians of Edessa to call themselves so, and to insist that they were true followers of Christ and not of any earthly self-proclaimed teacher or hæresiarch. Mâr ’Afrâm continued to write verse apologetics, with varying degrees of polemical edge, against Arianism and against Gnosticism while he remained in Edessa. Mâr ’Afrâm founded a school in Edessa as his master had in Nisibis, and continued to teach there as a malfâna. He also taught music not only to men but also to choirs of women in the Church. As a deacon of the Church and as a good student of Mâr Ya‘qûb, ’Afrâm spent much time caring for the poor and the sick in his Edessan exile. The blessed hymnodist reposed in the Lord in 373 after succumbing to an outbreak of pestilential disease, whose victims he was comforting and treating. In the Orthodox Church, Saint ’Afrâm is remembered together with Saint ’Ishâq of Nineveh on the twenty-eighth of January.

Mâr ’Afrâm is well remembered in the Church as a teacher of profound and holy things – the right glory due to Christ and the veneration of the Theotokos; prayer; abstinence; almsgiving; repentance – to ordinary people, through just such hymns as our Lenten one. As a malfâna he took a sæcular art form, that of folk music, and placed it at the service of God for the edification and strengthening of the young and unlearnt Nisibeans in his care. Yet he did not neglect the prosaic aspects of the faith either; as we can see, he took up his master’s emphasis on care for the poor and suffering among his fellow-exiles, and in the end he shared in their death and thus earned the heavenly crown. Holy Mâr ’Afrâm, righteous deacon and sweet hymnodist, pray unto Christ our God that we too may see our own faults and not judge our brothers and sisters.
By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile,
And your longing for God brought forth fruits in abundance.
By the radiance of miracles you illumined the whole universe!
Our Father ’Afrâm, pray to Christ God to save our souls!


Ancient church in ar-Ruhâ

Our God-bearing father Mâr ’Ishâq an-Naynuwî


Saint ’Ishâq of Nineveh

Today, the twenty-eighth of January, is the Orthodox feast day also of Mâr ’Ishâq مار إسحاق, or Saint Isaac, the Syrian of Nineveh. Mâr ’Ishâq was at one point the Bishop of Nineveh, but resigned the office after five months in order to dwell in desert solitude in the mountains.

Mâr ’Ishâq was born in Beth Qatraye – modern-day Qatar – on the Persian Gulf, around the year 613. At the time there was a flourishing community of Christians there, though they fell into schism from the other Persian Christians around the year 648. The schism between the Christians of Beth Qatraye and the Christians of Persia ended in 676, when Catholicos Mâr Gîwargîs visited Qatar and made reconciliation with the elders of Beth Qatraye at the Synod of Dairin. As part of the agreement, Mâr Gîwargîs appointed ’Ishâq as bishop of Nineveh (now Mosul in Iraq) at this time; according to ’Ishâq’s hagiography, the consecration was held at the Monastery of Beth ‘Abe on al-Zâb al-Kabîr in what is now northern Iraq.

Mâr ’Ishâq struggled as a bishop for the people of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh have long had a reputation for hardness of heart, and this was something Mâr ’Ishâq tried to address. There is one anecdote from his brief time as bishop there that is particularly illustrative. Two men came before the holy father, the very first day after his consecration as bishop, in bitter dispute – one of them a debtor and the other his creditor. The creditor was demanding the immediate return of his loan, with interest. The creditor exclaimed to Mâr ’Ishâq: ‘If this man refuses to pay back what belongs to me, I will be obliged to take him to court.’ Mâr ’Ishâq answered him: ‘Since the Holy Gospel teaches us not to take back what has been given away, you should at the very least grant this man a day to make his repayment.’ The exasperated creditor burst out: ‘Leave aside for the moment the teachings of the Gospel!’ and Mâr ’Ishâq’s reply to this was: ‘If the Gospel is not to be present, what have I come here to do?

Personal hardheartedness like this was only half of the story, however. There were also bitter doctrinal disputes between the Persian and the Miaphysite residents of Nineveh, and Mâr ’Ishâq had little interest in refereeing such disputes. Mâr ’Ishâq abdicated his bishopric onto someone else, and went into Mount Matout, a remote refuge in the mountains of Khuzestan in Iran. Matout was apparently a mountain which many anchorites chose to struggle against their passions. There he lived a life of solitary prayer, asceticism and contemplation.

After living for some time in Khuzestan, Mâr ’Ishâq returned to Nineveh and retired to the monastery of Rabban Shabir in nearby al-Qûš. There he spent his days immersed in the studies of the Holy Scriptures, in committing to writing his purest thoughts on the nature of God and on the ascetic struggle, and – not keeping this light hidden to himself – also teaching the monks, postulants and students at Rabban Shabir the mysteries of God. So committed was he to spreading the teachings of divine love, and committing them to writing, that he spoilt his eyes in reading and transcribing. By the end of his life he was fully blind, but he continued by dictating his writings to his students, who wrote them down for him. We see a description of his ascetic habits in the Studia Syriaca:
They called him the second Didymos, for indeed, he was quiet, kind and humble, and his word was gentle. He ate only three loaves a week with some vegetables, and he did not taste any food that was cooked. He composed five volumes, that are known unto this day, filled with sweet teaching.
Mâr ’Ishâq reposed in the Lord at the age of eighty-six, around the year 700. His legacy as a saint of the Church – he is glorified both in the Eastern Orthodox Church and in the Church of the East – is assured. But although we can see from his short bishopric that he preferred not to enter into the Christological disputes of his day, nonetheless his writings were not without controversy. His hagiography mentions a particular bishop of Beth Garmai, a certain Daniel bar-Tubanitha, who disputed three points of his ascetical writings, but, according to Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev) of Volokolamsk, no extant sources inform us of the nature of Daniel’s dispute with Mâr ’Ishâq. The ‘three propositions’ of Mâr ’Ishâq which prompted such controversy in the Christian East ‘remain’, in his words, ‘an enigma’. However, already by 900, Mâr ’Ishâq’s writings were accepted as authoritative and holy in the Church of the East. When his ascetical writings were translated from Syriac into Greek about 100 years later, they were elevated among the works of the holy Church Fathers almost at once among the Byzantine church authorities, and incorporated into the apophthegmatic Synagogē of Paul Evergetinos around 1050. The holy Qatari Syrian was quickly thereafter venerated as a Father of the Church among Orthodox Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire.

For Mâr ’Ishâq, the greatest and deepest truth about God is His nature and personality as love. Such love was the Incarnation, so important to ’Ishâq’s thought, and the concomitant interruption of ‘normal’, fallen reality that it embodied. It’s important to stress that to ’Ishâq, the acknowledgement of God’s reality as love is not mere sentimentality. This is not a reality to be lightly or cavalierly acknowledged. ’Ishâq’s vision of divine love is as ineffable, pure, protean creative power, far beyond human comprehension. The inexhaustible reserves of God’s self-giving, of His forbearance, of His constant and unchanging, meek and sustaining nature are in fact a terrible reality to attempt to grasp. For example: when Mâr ’Ishâq speaks of hell, it is not as a willing and conscious torment inflicted by a wrathful God upon sinners. In Mâr ’Ishâq’s telling, the all-pervading presence and reality of God’s love is given to all souls without distinction. For the soul mired in sin, unrepentant, the presence of this creative, persistent and boundless healing power is perceived as pain – pain at the very core and foundation of one’s being.

There is in Mâr ’Ishâq’s work an eschatological expectation that approaches Origen’s and Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s vision of apokatastasis, but this expectation is (perhaps blessedly) not informed by Greek metaphysical speculations inherited from, say, Plotinus. What governs this vision is the understanding that every created being and act of God, down to the most miserable and fleeting of creatures, is in fact an act of love and partakes in the providence and care of God, and thus cannot but partake in the ends of God’s will, that the ‘world will be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who performed all these things’.

Mâr ’Ishâq takes this teaching to some uncomfortable extremes. He anathematises any who would ascribe vengeance to God, and even insinuates that such people are engaging in hæresy: ‘The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness!’ And he goes further than this. He goes so far as to say it is wrong to ascribe justice to God, for this would abrogate the consideration of God’s mercy. The only possible reaction to the love of God is one of gratitude, and at that gratitude for something given gratuitously and not earned. Only from such a posture of gratitude is it possible to acquire the merciful heart toward all things which Mâr ’Ishâq emphasises.

’Ishâq’s writings reflect a desert spirituality, however far removed from Ægypt he was both theologically and gæographically. From a posture of gratitude, the beloved of God may begin to emulate God by loving her neighbours with the same kind of selfless and all-giving dispassion. The diminution of the self – stilling and silencing the self – becomes something desirable. For that one needs to flee from her neighbours, not because she does not love them, but because their lack of silence produces a false image. True stillness can only begin from gratitude toward God’s total and all-sustaining love. The purpose of this stillness is the acquisition of humility which is a fundamental likeness to God. ’Ishâq is quite insistent that humility is not the natural state of the fallen human being (and is thus contrasted with gentleness, mildness and meekness, which are traits of the ‘natural’ fallen human being and which are not necessarily humility), it has to be relearnt. Asceticism and stillness are not ends in themselves, nor are they deserving of reward: in ’Ishâq’s accounting these disciplines and works are meant to teach humility. All subsequent spiritual progress is rooted in humility; as such humility is a subject which – as Metropolitan Hilarion says – Mâr ’Ishâq returns to time and time again.

Mâr ’Ishâq taught primarily monks and ascetics, but his teachings are not all meant to stay merely among monastic communities or eremitical cells. As Metropolitan Hilarion says: ‘Every Christian who now reads Isaac can find something appropriate to himself.’ Mâr ’Ishâq speaks of the ihidaya, the ‘solitary’ or the hermit, as the exemplar of the Christian life. But the way he uses the Syriac term is such that – without abridging the specific context of the ‘solitary’ hermit he is ideally addressing – every soul before God, regardless of vocation, is an ihidaya. (This is fitting: God being boundless and inexhaustible, even wild and terrifying, as Love, every soul is called to respond!) Every soul can prostrate herself in gratitude before God. Every soul can learn humility by taking up a fitting burden of prayer and asceticism, and giving thanks for the mercy which is shown. May our remembrance of this great and illuminated ascetic serve to kindle in us gratitude and show us the way to humility. Holy Mâr ’Ishâq, meek, gentle and humble ascetic, teacher of Christ to the ages, pray unto Him who loves all of creation, that we sinners may be saved!
He that thundered on Sinai with saving laws for man
Hath also given thy writings as guides in prayer unto monks,
O revealer of unfathomable mysteries;
For having gone up in the mount of the vision of the Lord,
Thou wast shown the many mansions.
Wherefore, O God-bearing ’Ishâq,
Entreat the Saviour for all praising thee.

25 January 2020

Venerable Marēs the Cantor of Omeros

Saint Publius shares his feast-day with another Syrian ascetic, the venerable Saint Marēs, who lived in a village called Omeros in the vicinity of Kyrrhos. He was personally known to Bishop Theodoret of Kyrrhos. He had already reposed in the Lord by the time Blessed Theodoret wrote his Religious History, but he is nonetheless commemorated with careful attention. Here is what Blessed Theodoret has to say of Mares:
There is a village called by us Omeros. Here the inspired Maris built a small hut and continued immured in it for thirty-seven years. It received much rain from the neighbouring mountain; in the winter season it even poured out streams of water. Both townsmen and countrymen are aware what harm this causes bodies; to the peasants are manifest the diseases that are produced thereby. Nevertheless, not even this induced this sacred person to change his cell, but he maintained his endurance until he had accomplished his course.

He passed the earlier part of his life in the labours of virtue, whence he preserved purity in both body and soul. This he told me plainly, informing me that his body had remained chaste, just as it had left his mother’s womb, and although he had taken part in many festivals of martyrs when young, and captivated the crowds with the beauty of his voice—for he continued for a long time to be a cantor, and was radiant in bloom of body. Nevertheless, neither his bodily beauty nor his brilliance of voice nor his mixing with the multitude injured his beauty of soul, but living like recluses he looked after his own soul, and then increased his virtue through the labours of reclusion.

I often enjoyed his company; he would tell me to unblock the door, embrace me as I entered and make extended discourses on philosophy. He was remarkable too for his simplicity, and utterly abhorred subtlety of character; and he loved poverty more than the greatest wealth. During a life of ninety years he wore clothing made of goat’s hair; bread and a little salt supplied his need for food.

Having desired for a long time to witness a celebration of the spiritual and mystical sacrifice, he asked for the offering of the divine gift to be made there. I consented gladly. Bidding the divine vessels be brought—the place was not distant—and using the hands of deacons as an altar, I offered the divine and saving sacrifice. He was filled with every spiritual joy and thought he was seeing heaven, and said that he had never experienced such delight. I myself, whom he loved so warmly, thought I would be wronging him if I did not eulogise him even after death, and that I would be wronging others if I did not put forward this excellent philosophy for imitation. And now, after begging to receive help from him, I shall bring this account to an end.
The footnotes of the account of Saint Marēs’s life explain, that the feast-days of the martyrs in the church of fourth-century Syria were celebrated as actual feasts, and had inherited some of the character of pagan rites. The classical segregations of men and women from each other were, ‘for a delightful and perilous moment’, broken down at these community feasts, and occasional excesses did occur on account of this mingling of the sexes and the presence of alcohol and good food. Thus, it is necessary to read Bishop Theodoret’s commentary on Marēs’s comportment on saints’ feast-days, and he a ‘beautiful youth’, as a real test of his chastity.

It is also necessary to remember that hermits of this sort communed very rarely. Saint Mary of Ægypt, after all, waited seventeen years to receive the Eucharist, after she became an ascetic. But here we may take Theodoret somewhat at face value. Saint Marēs’s awe and joy at receiving the particles of Christ’s flesh and blood are testament not only to his having rarely received them, but also the simplicity of soul and doyikayt of spirit (to again appropriate the highly-Yiddish political term for religious ends) with which he did so. Holy and chaste hermit Marēs, gifted with outward beauty and yet valuing only the inward, pray unto Christ our God that he may have mercy upon us sinners!

Venerable Publius the Ascetic of Zeugma


Roman fresco from Zeugma, third century AD

The twenty-fifth of January is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of another of the Antiochian ascetics of the fourth century, Saint Publius. Publius was an Eastern Roman judge or statesman of some standing before he decided to quit the world and found two monasteries near his hometown of Zeugma. This double monastery was notable in that it shared a single church which held Liturgies both in Greek and in Syriac. The holy Publius was quite far from being a chauvinist, and understood the equal need of Syriac Christians to give right glory to God in their own language and according to their own customs. It seems to me that certain modern Greeks might stand to correct themselves by learning a thing or two from the holy example of Saint Publius.

Saint Publius [Gk. Πόπλιος, Ar. Bâbilyûs بابليوس] was born to a wealthy family which lived in the province of Euphratēsía in Syria – specifically in the aforementioned city of Zeugma, which is now the town of Belkıs in ‘Antâb عنتاب on the border between Turkey and Syria. The town received this name, because it was the place on the Euphrates River where the mighty Xšâyâr Šâh I yoked his ships together for his armies to cross, during his invasion of Greece. Blessed Theodoret of Kyrrhos describes Publius as being both ‘good-looking in physique’ and even more beautiful in soul. After spending some years in the world, Publius repaired to a high place where he built himself a hermit’s hut and began selling off his entire patrimony – house, lands, herds, clothing, silver and bronze wares, all down to the last brass coin – and distributing it all to the needy.

Having thus freed himself from all worldly cares, Saint Publius attended himself to the one that remained to him: that of working constantly to follow in the humble and merciful path of his Saviour and God. Daily he sought to increase in himself the example of Christ. He took little time to rest for himself. What time he did not spend in prayer, he spent in song from the Psalter, and what time he spent in neither pursuit, he gave to furnishing forth what hospitality to guests his little shelter could provide, or to whatever needful manual tasks he had to hand about his dwelling.

Blessed Theodoret likens Saint Publius to a songbird and a siren, luring young men into a ‘trap’ of salvation through his voice and through his holy example. He gathered around him disciples, whom at first he instructed to live apart from him in separate cells. He enjoined upon his disciples a principle of strict non-possession, and would enforce this principle with great rigour. He kept and used a set of scales, and would severely admonish his disciples for gluttony if he found the disciples to be keeping bread of weight in excess of what was needful for subsistence. If he heard of their stripping the bran from the germ of the grain, he would chastise the party for dining on such sybaritic fare. He would come around to each cell at a certain unexpected hour and listen at the door. If he heard prayers and the songs of the Psalter, he would depart again without disturbing the one inside. But if he heard nothing, or if he heard the sounds of sleep, he would knock at the door heavily and reproach the sleeper for taking more for the body than was needful.

At length, some of the disciples of Saint Publius discussed among themselves and entreated the holy man that they should build a common building and create a common rule of life such as the one that Saint Basil and Saint Theodosios had established. In this way, his disciples argued, a greater uniformity of discipline could be observed, and the burden of visiting disciples in their cells would be lifted from Saint Publius himself. Saint Publius allowed himself to be prevailed upon in this matter, and had all the individual cells demolished and one central cœnobium built to house all the disciples together. Saint Publius established a common rule of life, and exhorted each of his disciples to seek to study and emulate those virtues he found in his brothers: a gentle one should copy another’s zeal; one who kept long vigils should seek to learn from a fellow’s fasting rule. Said Saint Publius:
It is by so getting what we lack from others that we shall achieve the most perfect virtue. Just as in city markets one sells bread, another vegetables, one trades in clothes while another makes shoes, and so supplying their needs from each other they live more contentedly – the one who provides a piece of clothing receives a pair of shoes in exchange, while the one who buys vegetables supplies bread – so it is right that we should supply each other with the precious components of virtue.
Saint Publius then drew about him mostly Greek-speaking disciples, and the cœnobium he established made its prayers and sang its Psalter in the Greek. And yet, Saint Publius also drew a following among the Aramaic-speaking Syrians, who came to him and asked to be instructed in his rule of common celibate living, and benefit by his wisdom. Saint Publius neither spurned them, nor sent them away, nor held himself aloof from them, but he remembered the Great Commission, and he took them in with open arms. He had built for them another cœnobium next his own, but also had a common church built, one in which both the Greek monks and the Syrian monks could worship and praise God in their own tongues. The two groups of monks would come and worship together at the beginning of the day and at the end, and offer up to God the songs of praise each in turn, in the tongue which their hearts knew best.

This rule of life and this bilingual Eucharist at the monastery of Saint Publius continued even until Theodoret’s time, when he recorded the life and acts of the holy man. After the repose of Saint Publius, a prior named Theoteknos was elected abbot among the Greeks, and among the Syrians Aphthonios was named abbot. The rules laid down by Saint Publius were transmitted to them and unto their successors, and were kept faithfully by them, producing two generations of holy men after Publius who lived to see their deeds and struggles recorded by Bishop Theodoret. Holy father Publius, wise teacher and father to many monks in two tongues, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!


Archaeological site at Zeugma on the Euphrates

Venerable Dwynwen, Anchoress of Ynys Llanddwyn


Saint Dwynwen of Llanddwyn

The twenty-fifth of January is the feast-day of Saint Dwynwen. In Wales it is kept as a local day for lovers and sweethearts to demonstrate affection for each other. The carving of intricate ‘love spoons’ and the composition of poetry traditionally accompany Saint Dwynwen’s feast in Wales. Saint Dwynwen’s own tale is not particularly romantic after the common conception, but her care and affection for families and non-celibate lovers is clear even in her hagiography.

Saint Dwynwen [also Dwyn, Donwenna, or in Cornish Adwen] is one of the many holy children of Brychan Brycheiniog, born about 485 in Brecknock. Very much like her older half-sister Gwladys, she was remarkably beautiful and desirable to men. Dwynwen was apparently torn for some time during her youth between pursuing an anchoress’s celibate vocation consecrated to God, and pursuing a favoured suitor named Maelon Dafodrill. Maelon made an offer of marriage to her, but this offer was rejected – Brychan Brycheiniog had promised his daughter to another suitor, a neighbouring prince whom she did not love.

Maelon went directly to Dwynwen and asked her to elope with him, and she also refused. He then made plans to do as Gwynllyw did to Gwladys, and bear Dwynwen off by force. Before this happened, an angel came to Dwynwen in a dream and gave her a tisane, which she was to drink before Maelon arrived. As soon as she awoke she drank the concoction, and no sooner had she done so but she felt as if she were cured from a disease. In the same moment, her too-ardent suitor Maelon was frozen solid into a block of ice. When Dwynwen was made aware of what had happened to Maelon, she began to pray to God. She asked of God three things: that Maelon’s life should be spared; that all true-hearted lovers who asked for her prayers be united lawfully, or else freed of their passion; and that she should remain unmarried as long as she lived. As she prayed, God heard her prayer, and Maelon was thawed at once.

Saint Dwynwen left her father’s house in Brycheiniog, and went to Ynys Môn in Gwynedd. Legend has it that she took up an anchorage there, but departed from that island to Ynys Llanddwyn when Maelgwn Gwynedd began pestering her and threatening her honour in a much less gentlemanly way than Maelon had.

Saint Dwynwen lived for sixty years in seclusion on Ynys Llanddwyn, praying unceasingly and keeping strict ascetic discipline in her hermitage. She is supposed to have built an oratory there by her own labours, and brought stones from the mainland – by herself, unaided – for the purpose. Never underestimate a determined Welsh lass! She may have attracted monastic disciples, but there is little archæological evidence to confirm the presence of a cloister. She also made careful study of the properties of local worts and roots and minerals, and used these to create medicines to help and heal the local residents of Gwynedd – a bit like Li Shizhen 李时珍. She also had a fondness for and understanding of domestic animals, and farmers would often take their livestock to her to be cured of the ailments they had. In her presence even the most difficult of beasts of burden would be calm and tame, and submit to her effective remedies. She reposed in the Lord in old age on the twenty-fifth of January, 565.

Saint Dwynwen’s affaire de cœur with Maelon may or may not have a basis in fact. However, she did indeed become a patron for married couples and young sweethearts fairly early on, in much the same way Saint Gwenolau did in Brittany – though Gwenolau was invoked more for the conception of children. Saint Dwynwen’s holy well on Ynys Môn was traditionally said to have a pair of eels in it, who could be asked in an oracular fashion by young maidens whether the fellow who happened to be pursuing her had good intentions or not. The maiden would throw her handkerchief in the well, and the movement of the eels after would determine if their lover was faithful. This practice was sharply and violently discouraged after the Reformation, with the unintended result that Welsh and Cornish women would go to Saint Eilian’s well instead.

At its height, the popularity of Saint Dwynwen’s well among pilgrims rivalled that of the shrine of Dewi Sant and the holy well of Saint Gwenffrewi. In keeping with her veterinary reputation, farmers would also bring their animals to her shrine and ask Saint Dwynwen’s intercessions for them, and her shrine effected wondrous cures this way. Holy mother Dwynwen, patron of all true-hearted lovers, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
As a young Christian girl in Wales,
You renounced earthly marriage
In order to consecrate yourself wholly to the Lord.
Then you retreated to the island of Llanddwyn
Where you lived in solitude with God.
Saint Dwynwen, pray to the Lord to save us!

Ruins of St Dwynwen’s Church, Ynys Llanddwyn

24 January 2020

Righteous Cadog Ddoeth of Llancarfan, King and Abbot


Saint Cadog of Llancarfan

Today is the feast-day of the sixth-century Saint Cadog, one of the most-celebrated of the Welsh hermits in the Age of Saints. Saint Cadog is not only the founder of Llancarfan Monastery, but also the progenitor of an entire tradition of Welsh holy fathers and mothers. He is also the namesake of Edith Pargeter’s fictional mediæval West Country Benedictine sleuth, Brother Cadfael (of whom I’m a rather devoted fan).

Saint Cadog [also Cattwg, Cado, Cattock and Catocus] was born to the king of Gwynllŵg, Saint Gwynllyw, and his wife, Saint Gwladys, who was in turn one of the many holy daughters of Saint Brychan of Brecknock. Even before his birth he seemed to be marked out for holiness: the four posts of whichever house where his mother rested while pregnant with him glowed with a heavenly fire, and the tables where she sat were filled always with milk and honey even when the larders were emptied.

He was born at his father’s court in Fochriw in 497, after his father had wooed Gwladys by an act of bridenapping. Gwynllyw, who was a rather ferocious British warlord, celebrated his son’s birth by taking his war band and going on a raid. During this raid, he stole the milk-cow and calf of a certain nearby hermit, Saint Tathyw, who followed the king all the way back to his court demanding recompense. Gwynllyw was prevailed upon by his wife to return Saint Tathyw’s cow to him. Tathyw then baptised their son in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, christening him Cadfael.

The king and queen asked of Saint Tathyw one thing more, and that was to educate their son in the way of the Lord. This he did at his hermitage in Caerwent. While he was a student of Saint Tathyw, Cadog was sent at one time to fetch a brand of fire for his master’s hearth, which had gone out. He asked of a nearby field worker named Tidus to give him a brand, but Tidus scolded the boy, and pointed to a hearth where live coals lay glowing. He said that if his master needed fire so badly, he could carry the coals in his cotte to him. This Cadog did at no hurt to himself – a wonder which would find echoes in the lives of Saint Asaph and Saint Malo. Saint Tathyw, seeing this wonder, understood that he was teaching a holy prodigy, and instructed him to seek out a place to build his own monastery.

Cadog left into the kingdom of Penychen to found a hermitage of his own. While looking for a suitable place to build, he apparently trespassed onto the lands of a wealthy landowner who kept swine, where he became weary and rested underneath an apple tree. The swine were frightened by Cadog’s presence, and they fled back to their master, who went and sought out Cadog. The wealthy landowner presumed this vagrant clad in rags who had wandered onto his lands was a thief, and he took up a spear and attempted to kill Cadog. But no sooner had he levelled the weapon at the youth but God struck him blind in both his eyes, and struck lame the arm that held the spear. The landlord, who sank to the ground, called out piteously upon God and upon His servant to have mercy on him and restore his sight, but Cadog said that he would do no such thing until he went and told what had happened to him to his master, Pawl King of Penychen – who also happened to be Cadog’s uncle.

The landlord went on the road, stumbling blindly as he went, until he came to Nant Pawl and asked admission to the court. He spoke to no one until he stood before the king, and then he told of how he had tried to strike down Cadog, but suddenly himself was smitten with divine retribution. After he spoke, his sight was restored as scales fell from his eyes, and the flesh of his withered right arm became whole, healthy and useful again. Pawl King wondered at this, went with his twelve retainers to the landlord’s land, and saw Cadog sitting there under the apple tree, still at rest.

Pawl King and his retainers prostrated themselves before his holy nephew, and offered him the rule of the kingdom. However, Cadog had no interest in ruling a kingdom. Instead he sought only a habitation, remote from human activity, which he and some of his monastic companions could live in. This Pawl willingly granted to him. The land Pawl gave to Cadog would eventually become Llancarfan. Tradition has it that Cadog followed the path of a wild boar who came out of the brambles on that land, and wherever it stopped is where he would clear, drain and build. At each place where the boar stopped in its path, Llancarfan’s monastery, refectory and dormitory were built. In the first year, Saint Cadog was able to reap grain only from one acre of cleared field – named Erw Wyn (‘The White [or Wheat] Acre’), but this blessed crop was enough to sustain him and all of his followers and visitors that whole year.

Llancarfan flourished under Abbot Cadog’s rule. Despite draining and clearing the marshy land around Llancarfan being slow and painstaking work, Cadog and his pupils succeeded with the help of God and the wild creatures with whom Cadog had a good rapport. At its height, Llancarfan would house up to a thousand monks and pupils, and it would support a goodly number of smaller cells and outlying daughter monasteries. All the same, soon enough Saint Cadog was taken with a desire to visit Ireland. This may have been out of love for his first master, the Irishman Saint Tathyw, or it may have been out of a holy desire to learn more of the knowledge of God that was to be had in the western isle. His monks were sad to see him depart, but he left a trustworthy prior in charge at Llancarfan and sailed westward for Ireland without incident.

He studied at the abbey of Saint Mo Chutu in Lismore, where he made a deep and thorough study of all the seven liberal arts. In these he gained so much knowledge that he was given his cognomen of Ddoeth, or ‘the Wise’. While in Ireland he made the acquaintance of Saint Fionnán of Clonard, who became one of Abbot Cadog’s very close friends.

When Saint Cadog returned from Ireland, he went firstly back to his parents and later to the residence of his grandfather, Saint Brychan. As his father’s hagiography makes clear, he took no pleasure in the life of the court at Fochriw. He was incensed by the lavish feasts that his parents partook of while poor men went hungry at the doorstep. And he had no patience for the hunts or the fine clothes that the other young men of the court delighted in. He admonished his parents, Saints Gwynllyw and Gwladys, and exhorted them to change their way of life – and this eventually had a profound effect on them, as seen in their hagiography.

When he returned to Brycheiniog, Saint Cadog and his companions set up a home in Llanspyddid, where Cadog was tutored in Latin by an Italian fellow named Bachan. At that time there was a famine in Brycheiniog, and Cadog and his companions found themselves without means to feed themselves. After praying to God one day, Cadog found a little mouse playing about on his desk with a grain of wheat in its mouth. It placed the grain on his tablet, and ran off again. Seven times it came back, each time bearing a grain of wheat. Marvelling at this wonder, Cadog found a long, fine thread and wound it around the paw of the willing mouse, holding the other end to see where it would lead him. The mouse led him to an old granary which had been partially submerged in the marshy ground, but all the grain within had been preserved from corruption. There was more than enough for Cadog and his companions to use, and giving thanks to God, taking what he needed and no more, he gave away the whole of the granary to the people of Brycheiniog, with the poorest receiving the best amount, who were thus delivered from the famine.

At length Saint Cadog left his oratory at Llanspyddid to his teacher Bachan, and returned to Llancarfan. He found that the monastery had suffered violence, its monks had been scattered and its walls had been deserted and overgrown. Mourning, he and his followers set back to work on restoring it. Now, the reason that it acquired this name of ‘Llancarfan’ (‘Churchyard of the Deer’) is that when the time came to begin this work, it proved too much for Cadog and his few followers. Two wild harts appeared to Cadog’s followers, who in their presence became tame and allowed themselves to be yoked and bridled. They helped him clear the land and haul the lumber that would be used to rebuild Llancarfan. The hagiography tells of how Saint Cadog gave Saint Fionnán leave to do reading while the workmen worked, but after being scolded by the prior, the cellarer and the sexton, he was sent to bid the stags draw timber. Saint Cadog was not well pleased with this, and berated the three monks who had sent his pupil to do their work. Meanwhile, a heavy rain began to fall. Saint Fionnán, remembering that he had left the book he’d been studying from out in the open under the sky, began to weep for fear his book would be spoilt beyond repair. But going back out after the rain, Fionnán found and marvelled that it had not been touched by the water and was whole and sound as he’d left it.

Cadog’s holiness became renowned far and wide. Dewi Sant even said, to an angel of God before the convocation of the Synod of Brefi, that he was not worthy of being compared to Saint Cadog. Cadog himself again undertook a journey – this time a pilgrimage to the islands of Greece, to the Holy Land and to Rome. During his journey he had no trouble conversing, for the Lord gave him a knowledge of all the languages he would need – not only Latin but also Greek and Syriac. While in Grimbul, the wife of a certain king came to him and asked him to pray for her, for she had trouble conceiving a child. Saint Cadog did so, and the queen went back to her husband that night and conceived by him a boy. On his return from the Holy Land after a sojourn of three years, the queen presented to him the lad she had borne, whose name she called Elli. Saint Cadog tutored young Elli in the ways of God before he was compelled to return home. Elli would later become the second abbot of Llancarfan. Saint Cadog also claimed three stones from holy places in Jerusalem, which went back with him to Llancarfan and served as altarpieces. The Synod of Brefi was called in Saint Cadog’s absence on this pilgrimage. To put it lightly, he was not amused. He nevertheless forgave Saint Dewi and mended his relationship with him afterwards.

Llancarfan was made quite wealthy both by gifts from wealthy donors and by the resourcefulness and work of its own monks. Saint Cadog was lavishly generous with the wealth of Llancarfan, particularly to the poor and needy. And yet Llancarfan suffered its share of robbers. One band of robbers, claiming loyalty to Sawel Ben Uchel – the father of the aforementioned Saint Asaph – raided Llancarfan and stole all the food while Cadog was out serving the poor. Saint Cadog discovered them, cut their hair as they slept, and when they woke gave chase to them. They all wound up being swallowed in a bog. In another instance, Llancarfan was visited by a certain Illtud Farchog and a band of his men from Penychen, who came demanding food. Cadog gave chase to these men, too, and they were swallowed in a bog – all but Illtud himself, whom Cadog castigated in God’s name and encouraged to mend his ways. Saint Cadog butted heads in this way with several worldly princes, including Maelgwn Gwynedd, Rhun Hir ap Maelgwn (both distant forebears of yours truly), and Rhain Dremrudd ap Brychan. Saint Cadog always came out the better in these contests, usually impressing the prince in question with his holy way of life or with his worldly erudition, or else intervening on the prince’s behalf in the wake of a battle or a reversal.

During Lent, Saint Cadog was accustomed to withdrawing from the company of men and living in silent solitude on the isle of Flatholm in the Bristol Channel. His learned friend Saint Gildas the Historian also spent Lent on an isle nearby, that of Steepholm. The two would sometimes meet on one or other of their islands to pray together. Saint Gildas owned a bell, which Saint Cadog admired deeply and wished to buy from him, but Gildas would not sell the bell for any price. Instead he dedicated it on the altar at Rome, where the Pope instructed Gildas to give the bell as a gift to his friend who desired it and would do good with it. This bell which Gildas wrought was a holy relic at Llancarfan, of which it was said it pealed twice in human speech and would do so again a third time. Gildas also wrote and illuminated for his friend a beautiful liturgical text, called the Gospel of Gildas, which he presented to Saint Cadog, and was a much-beloved relic at Llancarfan, on which the locals would swear solemn oaths.

Saint Cadog spent time preaching in Scotland and also made a return journey to Ireland in 564. He entrusted his abbey to Saint Elli, and then took himself to a certain abbey named Beneventum in his hagiography – probably Bannaventa in Calchfynedd, now Weedon Bec in Northampton. He lived there as a beloved abbot and ruled with a gentle hand over many monks. Cadog lived to the age of eighty-two years, but he was martyred in Beneventum on the twenty-fourth of January, 580, by heathen Saxon invaders who ran him through with spears. For many years afterward the Saxons would not let the Welsh claim their beloved saint’s relics, but they were eventually transferred back to Llancarfan.

Saint Cadog is remembered with fondness by all the Welsh, but particularly in Llancarfan which is the centre of his cultus. At least fifteen churches in Wales are dedicated to Saint Cadog – mostly in Dyfed. He is attested in Scotland in the toponym of Kilmadock in Perth, the site of a monastery which he was supposed to have ruled for seven years. He has a holy well in Padstow, Cornwall – where he poured out water he had brought back from the Jordan during his time in the Holy Land. He is also remembered at Llanspyddid in Brecon where he had built his oratory. He is also honoured in Brittany: Île de Saint-Cado is named in his memory, and he has several church dedications around that island, in Belz, Morbihan and other places in Finistère. He is remembered there particularly as a patron of the deaf, and of children afflicted with scrofula. Holy father Cadog, learnèd abbot, pilgrim and friend of the poor, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
Having been raised to piety, O Hierarch Cadoc,
Thou didst dedicate thy life to God,
Serving Him in the monastic state.
As with joyful heart thou didst fulfill thy daily obedience,
Caring for the earthly needs of countless paupers,
Look now upon our spiritual poverty
And beseech Christ our God
That He will grant us great mercy!

St Cadoc’s Church, Llancarfan, Wales

In addition to being the feast-day of Saint Cadog of Wales, it is also the Lunar New Year – the first day of the Year of the White Metal Rat. Seems fitting that we should celebrate the incoming Year of the Rat with a saint, one of whose symbols in Western devotional art is the helpful little mouse whose discovery of the granary helped him survive the famine at Llanspyddid. I wish all of my gentle readers a hearty ‘財源广進,鼠运亨通!’