Chapter I, Jacobus (continued) Book IX (Julianus Sabas begins further down page)
But we need to move on to other matters which should be briefly mentioned. After Arius created uproar and confusion in Egypt, the great Emperor Constantine gathered all the leaders of the churches together at Nicaea. Arius was the father and instigator of curse and blasphemy against the only begotten Son and the most holy Spirit, whereas Constantine was like a Zorobabel to our flock (Zorobabel brought the universal captivity of the righteous back from exile and rebuilt the holy temple which had been razed to the ground [Ezra 3.2].) The great Jacobus was also among those who came to Nicaea, determined to stand up for revealed truth like the brave army-leader he was, for Nisibis at that time was a Roman dependency. When the gathering was over and everyone returned home, he too came back like a brave man who had won a victory, rejoicing that true devotion had prevailed.
Some time after this, that great and highly regarded Emperor departed this life acknowledged by all to be a saint [lit. with crowns of piety], and his sons inherited the rulership of the world. But Sapores, the king of the Persians, had no respect for Constantine's sons, deeming them to be nowhere near as powerful as their father, and he sent a great army of cavalry and infantry, together with a great number of elephants, to war against Nisibis.
He deployed his army to besiege the city and completely surrounded it. He brought his siege engines forward, built towers and dug ditches, barricaded the space between them with hurdles built out of branches, and ordered his soldiers to build mounds so that his towers would rival those of the city. He then placed his archers in them, ordering them to direct their fire on those manning the battlements. He ordered others to dig below and undermine the walls. But all these plans were of no effect and a waste of time, for they were all brought to naught by the prayers of Jacobus, that divine man. At last, however, Sapores came to a bold decision [lit. forbade weakness] and, confident that the numbers of his men were like a river in flood, built earthworks and constructed retaining barriers so that he was able to divert a real river of great quantity which he directed against the fortifications. It proved to be a most mighty device, for the walls were unable to withstand this attack and were struck with such force that at that point they began to crumble from beneath. A great shout went up from the besieging army, for now the city was on the point of being taken. They did not fully realise, however, the wall of defence which the citizens of that city still possessed.
For a time they deferred entering the city, unable to approach it because of the waters. They moved back some distance and thinking that their labours were almost over, they relaxed and took thought for their horses. But those who lived in the city turned to prayer, with the great Jacobus as their intercessor. Every able-bodied person worked as hard as they possibly could to rebuild, not worrying about whether the structure would be pretty and pleasing, but piling everything up at random, stones and bricks and whatever anyone could carry, to such effect that in the space of one night they had built high enough to prevent an attack by cavalry, and by infantry unless using ladders. They then all begged the man of God to show himself on the walls and hurl the weapon of cursing at the enemy. In response to their request he went up, and as he looked out over the multitude of them he begged God to send a cloud of mosquitoes and gnats upon them. Even as he spoke God responded, answering the prayer of Jacobus as he did the prayer of Moses. Men were pierced by these spears from God, horses and elephants broke their chains, bolted and scattered hither and thither, unable to bear the stings.
The wicked king realised that all his stratagems had failed; the flooding with water had achieved nothing, for the wall which had been destroyed had been rebuilt. His whole army was worn out by their labours and was under the curse of God, plagued by the snares of God. He saw the man of God walking upon the walls and thought it must have been the Emperor who had been in charge of all the work, for Jacobus seemed to be dressed in purple and crowned with a diadem. He was therefore enraged with those who had urged him into this battle, deceiving him by telling him that the Emperor would not be there. He condemned them to execution, dismissed the army and returned to his own kingdom as quickly as possible.
These miracles are in no way inferior to those which God performed through Hezekiah (2 Kings 19.35) - even greater, it seems to me, in that the city was not taken even though the walls had been undermined. But what I admire even more than that is that when he had recourse to cursing he did not call down thunder and lightning from heaven as the great Elijah did when each captain of fifty with his fifty men advanced towards him (2 Kings I.14). For Jacobus had understood what the Lord said to James and John when they wanted to do this: 'You do not know what manner of spirit you are of' (Luke 9. 55). So he did not ask for the earth to swallow them up, or that they should be consumed by fire, but just that they should be plagued by insects. Knowing the power of God he understood that discipleship had to be developed into the true way of worshipping God. Great indeed was the trust which this divine man had in God, great was the grace given him from above. His face was ever turned heavenwards, and having grown daily in the knowledge of God he at last laid down his life with great glory and departed from our midst.
Some time later, this city was handed over from its then rulers to the kingdom of Persia. Those who used to live there had to leave, but they took with them the body of their prince and defender, grieving and scarcely able to bear having to be exiled, yet singing and celebrating the power of this great conqueror. For if he had lived they would have had but a small chance of falling into the hands of the barbarians.
I have now come to the end of my account of this divine man, and so move on to another story, praying that his blessing may follow me.
Julianus lived in the region formerly known as the land of the Persians, but latterly of the Ofroeni, where he set up a little dwelling-place in which to follow the monastic life. The local people honoured him with the name Sabas, which means presbyter in Greek, or senis in Latin [or 'old man' or 'elder' in English]. On one side, to the West, his cell was bounded by the banks of the River Euphrates; on the other, towards the rising sun, lay the border of the Roman Empire. Assyria conquered the Persians, and the western border of the kingdom of the Persians was called Adiabenis by those who came after. In this country there were many great and populous cities, and a great part of the country was inhabited. But there was also a great deal of uninhabited desert.
This divine man went to the furthest parts of this solitary place and found a naturally formed cave, which although not very beautiful or commodious, nevertheless provided some barely sufficient shelter for those who came to him. He was perfectly happy to live here, reckoning it to be more magnificent than kingdoms glittering with gold and silver. He settled in there, eating only once a week, his food, bread made from barley, and that of the bran only, his only relish salt, his drink the purest water which flowed from a natural spring [lit. drink however the most pure, waters of floods by themselves natural], which he did not use to excess but only according to a predetermined measure.
But he enjoyed the unmeasured delights of an unlimited banquet in the shape of singing the psalms of David, and having constant converse with God. He made use of them constantly, he could never get enough of them, he was always full of them, he was forever crying, 'How sweet are your words to my tongue, more than honey and honeycomb to my mouth' (Psalms 119.103). And again he heard these words of the blessed David, 'The judgments of the Lord are true, justified in themselves, more to be desired than gold and many precious stones, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb' (Psalms 19.10-11). And again, 'Delight in the Lord and he will give you your heart's desire,' (ibid. 37.4). And again, 'Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord' (ibid. 105.3). And 'Let my heart rejoice that it might fear your name' (ibid.86.11). And 'Taste and see how gracious the Lord is' (ibid.34.8). And 'My soul thirsts for the living God' (ibid.42.2). And 'My soul longs after you' (ibid. 42.1) And he grafted into himself the love which inspired the writer of all these words.
This is how the great David by his songs taught him that he would build up many companions who would rival him in the love they showed for God. His hope for this was not in vain. For not this man only but countless others were thus pierced by the love of God. He was consumed by such a great fire of love, he was so intoxicated by desire, that he ceased to have any care for anything of this earth. He dreamed only of his beloved by night and sought only the sight of him by day. And many people heard about his exceptional quest for wisdom [philosophia], and came to him from far and near. As his fame spread everywhere abroad, so they ran to him begging to benefit from his training. The came to him as to a master trainer, to be a family of children who would live on after him. Just as singing birds are used in hunting to call others of the same breed in order to catch them in nets, so do human beings chase after other human beings, sometimes for the purpose of destroying them, but sometimes in order to be saved. So very soon there were ten others with him, then twice and even three times more than that. Although there were so many of them the cave accommodated them all. They learned from the old man how to care little for the comfort of the body, they dressed alike as children of the same family, sustained by barley bread and salt.
Later on they collected wild herbs and mixed them in dolia [i.e. large globular water jars] with a sufficient amount of salt brine, to be used as remedies for those who were ill. The place where these herbs were stored was extremely damp and it eventually happened that they followed their natural inclination to develop mould and rot, for the cave was very damp in every part of it. So the brothers asked the old man if he would let them build a little shelter big enough to take the vessels containing these remedies. At first he was very unwilling to accede to their request, but was eventually persuaded by St Paul not to seek his own (1 Corinthians 13.5) but to make concessions and accommodate himself to the humble. He therefore specified the measurements to which a small shelter might be built and left the cave to offer up his usual prayers to God. (For he was accustomed to go off into the desert, often for 50 stadia [= 5.7 miles approx] but sometimes for twice as far, to cut himself off from all human company, retire into himself and there to meet and converse with God and gaze upon his divine and ineffable beauty.)
As soon as they had time, the men whom the old man had considered capable of seeing to this matter began to build a little shed of a size compatible with what it was to be used for, but bigger than they had been told. And on the tenth day, like Moses coming down from the mountain and from such contemplation as cannot be expressed in words, the old man saw this building, much bigger than he had allowed.
"I fear," he said, "that you men may be so attached to earthly buildings that you lose the heavenly. For the earthly are but for a time and are of use to us for but a moment, whereas the heavenly are for ever and cannot come to an end." And this he said to lead his group of people into a knowledge of the more perfect way, while yet bearing in mind the voice of the apostle saying, 'I seek not after what is profitable for myself but for many, that they may be saved.' (1 Corinthians 10.33)
He also taught them how to offer heartfelt hymnody to God in common. Two of them should go off together into the desert at dawn; one of them should prostrate himself to give the Lord due adoration, the other should stand and sing fifteen of the psalms of David. This done they should change places; one of them to get up and sing, the other to prostrate himself and adore. And they should continue doing this attentively from morning till the evening. Before sunset they should rest for a little while in the cave, some here, some there, but all should then come together from wherever they are in the cave to offer the vespertide hymns to God together. The old man was accustomed to choose one of the juniors to share the duties of leading the prayers.
One of his more assiduous followers was a man of Persia, a big man with a beautiful body, but whose soul was even more beautiful still. His name was Jacobus, who continued to shine with every virtue after Julianus' death. He was famous and respected not only in Persia but also in the Syrian monasteries or schools of philosophy, where he ended his life at the age, it is said, of a hundred and four. He often accompanied Julianus, that great old man, into the desert, but was always kept at a distance. The master did not allow anyone to come too close to him lest some possible occasion of disagreement arise between them, for conversation takes the mind away from the contemplation of God.
One day as Jacobus was following on behind him he saw an enormous wild beast [draco] in the path ahead. He looked at it wondering whether he dared go on any further. At first fear urged him to avoid the beast, but then he summoned up his courage. He bent down and picked up a stone, which he threw, but found that the beast stayed still, unable to move at all. He realised that the beast was dead and wondered whether that was not the old man's doing. They continued on their routine, and when they had finished their routine of prayer and singing the old man sat down for a time of quiet, telling Jacobus also to be silent for a little while, which he did until the old man with a smile began some gentle conversation. Jacob then asked for enlightenment upon a point about which he was ignorant.
"You may ask, if you wish," the old man said.
"As I was coming along the path," said Jacobus, "I saw an enormous wild beast lying there. I was very frightened at first, thinking it was alive, but then I saw that it was dead, and I was able to keep on going in safety. Tell me, father, who killed it? You had been ahead of me, and no one else had passed by."
"Stop being inquisitive about such things. You won't be any the better off for knowing the answer."
But Jacobus is to be admired for abating not one whit in his desire to know the truth. The old man tried for quite a while to keep his counsel but in the end could not bear to keep his companion in suspense any longer.
"Well, I will tell you, if you really want to know," he said at last, "but only on one condition, that you tell nobody else as long as I am alive. For anything which might encourage pride and arrogance should always be kept secret. But after I have departed this life I shall be free from such spiritual temptations, so I would not entirely forbid you to reveal it, at least as a proof of the power of divine grace. So then you should know that this beast met me as I walked along the path, looking as if it was going to devour me, but I called upon Jesus and made the sign of the cross at him, completely free from fear. Immediately I saw the beast fall to the ground, and with a commonly used prayer of praise for the Saviour I jumped over him." And having spoken thus he returned to the cave.
On another occasion there was a nobly born young man, rather delicately brought up, whose confidence in his own willing eagerness of spirit was not matched by his physical strength, for he begged the old man to let him be his companion as he journeyed into the desert, not merely for the one-day visit that everyone did, but for the longer journey which often lasted for eight to ten days. This man was the famous Asterius. The divine old man discouraged the youth, pointing out that the desert was scorching hot and waterless, but he persisted in begging for his request to be granted.
His pleadings eventually persuaded the old man, and he did indeed follow the old man out. He was quite vigorous at first, but when the first day, the second day and then the third day had passed, he began to feel dried up by the rays of the sun, and to suffer continually from thirst. (It was summertime, and of course the flames of the sun are even stronger at the height of summer.) At first he felt ashamed to admit to suffering any discomfort, turning over in his mind what the old man had said to him beforehand. At last however he gave in, and in a state of near collapse begged the old man to have pity on him. But the old man simply reminded him of what he had already said, and told him to go back home.
"But I don't know the way back to the cave," said the youth. "And even if I did I couldn't manage it. My strength has almost vanished because of thirst."
The old man then took pity on the young man's condition, realising how weak his body was. He prostrated himself and prayed to the Lord. He watered the ground with hot tears and begged for the young man's safety. And he who answers the prayers and fulfils the desires of those who fear him took the teardrops falling on the sand and turned them into a fountain of water. The young man was revived by this flowing water and the old man urged him to keep on going. The spring is still there to this day, a witness to the Mosaic power of the old man's prayer. For just as Moses of old struck the bare rock with his rod and produced an abundant flow of water sufficient to satisfy the thirst of thousands of people (Exodus 17.6), so did this man produce a flowing fountain by watering the driest of sand with his tears, not for the sake of many thousands, but to satisfy the thirst of one single youth. Inspired by divine grace he foresaw the future perfection of this youth, who many years later, spurred on by divine grace to lead many others into the same state of grace, built a monastic school of excellence near Gendarum, the city next in size to Antioch. Here, he attracted to himself many other athletic lovers of wisdom.
One of those drawn to him was the great Acacius, an outstanding man in my view, and justly famous. He was exceptional in his monastic life, and shone with such splendid virtues that he was held worthy to be made a bishop and given pastoral care of Berhoea. During the fifty-eight years he cared for his flock he never relaxed his monastic routine, but combined the best qualities both monastic and secular. In his monasticism he continued in the search for perfection, in his civil life he administered the affairs of a large household, thus combining things which in themselves were very different from each other.
Asterius also strove to practise this kind of virtue. He had such a great affection for the great old man Julianus that he would visit him sometimes twice a year sometimes thrice. He would come with three or four beasts of burden laden with dried figs for the community (sodalibus), and put together two measures of them which he carried on his own shoulders, enough to last the old man a year. He called himself a camel-driver, and so he was. And he carried this load not just for a mile or two, but for a seven day's journey. Once when the old man saw him struggling along, loaded up with dried figs on his shoulders he said that he should stop bringing this food to him.
"It is not right that you should undergo all this labour," Julianus said, "so that I can profit in luxury from your sweat."
"I won't unload anything at all," said Asterius, "unless you agree to take a share in this food that I have brought."
"I'll do as you ask," he said. "Only please put that burden down as soon as possible."
In this he was like the chief of the apostles who demurred at first when the Lord offered to wash his feet, loudly asserting that that would never happen (John 13.8). But then as soon as he was told that unless he agreed he would be parted from fellowship with the Lord, he begged that the Lord would wash not only his feet but also his hands and his head. Likewise, this divine man was worried that he should enjoy the fruit of someone else's labour, but recognizing the burning eagerness of his disciple's soul, he abandoned his objections in favour of accepting his ministry.
People who take pleasure in other people being blamed, and who have learned only how to laugh at all things honest, may well say that this story was not worth remembering. But I think it is a profitable story, and have included it in the account of this man's miracles not only to show how his piety was typical of all great men, but also to demonstrate what an attractive and reasonable man he was. For his great virtues were of such a kind that he considered himself to be unworthy of even the slightest honour, so he therefore rebuffed [Asterius' offering] as being quite inappropriate. But later he accepted him, to signify his support for those who do such things.
It was obvious that the more he tried to distance himself from everyone, the more his reputation attracted people who were lovers of all things wholesome and honest. So he escaped with some of his closer companions to Mt Sinai, without going into any of the towns or villages, but by journeying through the trackless desert. They carried their food with them on their shoulders, bread and salt in fact, and also a flask, a wooden ladle, and a sponge on the end of a line, so that if they came to deep well they would be able to lower the sponge, and squeeze it out into the ladle from which they drank. After many days' journeying they came at last to the long looked-for mountain, where they praised the Lord and remained for quite a long time, taking pleasure in the solitude and enjoying great peace of mind. On that rocky place where Moses, chief of prophets, was found worthy to see God (in so far as it is possible for anyone to see God), he built a church and consecrated a holy altar, which remain to this day. This done, he returned to his own place.
At this time his namesake, the wicked Emperor Julian, was threatening to destroy the Christians root and branch. He came into Persia, and those who thought as he did confidently expected to witness his return [in safety], but Julianus began to pray to God with great zeal and burning desire, which he kept up for ten days, until he heard a voice saying that that accursed and filthy pig had been removed. But he did not stop praying; he joyfully continued by turning his prayer into a song of thanksgiving to the gentle Saviour of his own people who were opposed to this powerful enemy. He had long been gentle and forbearing towards this wicked man, but at last his gentleness and tolerance of his crimes turned to anger, and brought down upon him the punishment he deserved.
When he had finished his prayer he returned to his companions, and it was obvious to them that he was in a tranquil and happy frame of mind, for the cheerfulness of his heart showed in the happiness of his face. They who knew him so well were astonished at this unwonted sight, for whereas he was usually solemn of countenance now he was seen to be smiling. They asked him what he was so happy about and he replied, "The present time, my brothers, is one of joy, for the wicked has been cast down, as Isaiah says (Isaiah 24.21), and the aggression he began has met with its just reward. He who defied the God who made and preserved him has been justly destroyed by the power of him who is the source of power. So I am gladdened to see the churches rejoicing which he had oppressed, and to know that the demons now infest him who used to seek their help, and no help now can he find." This was how he foresaw the fall of the wicked.
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