Book IX (continued)
(Palladius and Aphraates also further down this page)
SIMEON PRISCUS If anyone were to think of leaving Simeon out, and consigning the memory of his wisdom (philosophia) to oblivion, they could well be accused of being vindictive and envious of his merits. Such a person would be seen as unwilling to praise things worthy of praise, unwilling to promote goals worthy of being sought after. But it is not so much that I am afraid of being so accused, as from a simple desire to sing this man's praises, that I am describing the sort of life that he lived.
He lived the solitary life for a very long time in a small cave, with no human companionship, preferring to live completely alone. He communed steadfastly with the God of all. The labour of growing edible greens for his food took up a lot of his time. He was so copiously endowed with grace from on high that he was able to tame even the fiercest and boldest of wild beasts, and this power was manifested not only to the faithful but even to unbelieving Jews.
For some of that race were making a business journey in foreign parts to a fortress outside the bounds of our empire when a severe rainstorm occurred. They missed the pathway, not being able to see either before or behind, and wandered about in the desert with no sign of any village, shelter or fellow traveller. Cast out into this vast country, as if negotiating the waves of the rolling seas, they suddenly espied a place of refuge in the shape of Simeon's cave, together with Simeon himself, ill-kempt and unwashed, with a scanty cloak of goatskin hanging from his shoulders. When he saw them he greeted them (he was a kindly man), and asked them how it was they were passing by that way. They told him what had happened and asked him the way to the fortress.
"If you wait for a while," he replied, "I shall soon be able to give you some guides to take you where you want to go."
They relaxed, glad of the rest, and were sitting down, when two lions appeared, not with fierce and savage looks, but with the submissive looks of those who acknowledge the presence of a master. Simeon made signs to them, directing them to take his guests back to the path from which they had strayed.
Let no one think that this is a fairy tale, even though it is those who are commonly held to be the enemies of truth who are here bearing witness to the truth. They benefited from Simeon's act, and sang his praises everywhere. The great Jacobus himself told me that he was there when they were talking of this miracle to the blessed Maronus. Can anyone not be deservedly held to be even more faithless than the Jews, if he does not believe Jews bearing witness to Christian miracles? If those who are hostile towards us can be convinced by the rays of truth, surely those who are kindly disposed towards us, fellow citizens in the faith, may believe even enemies when they bear witness to the power of grace.
Simeon became so famous because of his miracles that many of the neighbouring barbarians were attracted towards him (the desert dwellers there gloried in being of the tribe of Ishmael). But his love of silence led him to desert his cave and travel through many pathways till he arrived at the mountain called Amanus. This is the place which was formerly known for the unreasoning worship of many gods, but he performed many miracles of all kinds, and planted the seeds of the devout and true religion which is now practised there.
It would be an immense labour to tell of everything about him, and probably beyond my powers. But I shall have mentioned one example to show the shape and character of his apostolic and prophetic miracle-working, leaving the rest to the imagination of those readers who accept the power of this man's grace.
It was summer, and harvest time, and bundles of corn were being carried into the threshing floors. And there was one man, not content with the fruits of his own labours, who coveted those of his neighbour and stole some bundles of corn in his desire to increase his own stores. But divine judgment fell immediately upon this theft, for a bolt of lightning fell upon his threshing floor and set fire to it. This miserable man then rushed off to the man of God, who had pitched his tent not far from the village, and told him of the calamity which had befallen him without mentioning the theft. But when Simeon urged him to tell the truth he confessed his crime, for the very circumstances of the case proclaimed his guilt. That divine man then decreed that he would not be punished if he made amends.
"If you," he said, "will return the bundles of corn to the man you stole it from, the fire sent from God will be put out."
And as soon as he ran back and returned the stolen sheaves to their rightful owner the fire was extinguished without the need of any water, but simply by the prayers and intercessions of that divine old man. This event not only filled the local inhabitants with awe but the whole city as well - that's Antioch I am talking about (for the farm fell under the jurisdiction of that city) - and it made them gravitate towards him, one seeking to be liberated from a rabid demon, another seeking relief from a fever, others seeking medicines for whatever it was they were being plagued with. And he allowed the rivers of his grace to flow abundantly over those who lived there. But in his unabated love for silence he decided to go to Mount Sinai.
There were many people who also shared his love of wisdom, and when they got to know about his travels they decided to join him. After a journey of many days they had got as far as the desert of Sodom, when they saw in the distance a man lifting up his hands high above his head. They thought at first it was a deceit of the devil, so they prayed with deep concentration of the mind. When they looked again and saw the same thing they hurried towards the place, but found a hole such as wolves make when they are seeking to construct a den to hide in, but there was no sign of any person outside it. For when the man holding up his hands had heard the sound of their footsteps he had hidden himself inside it. Simeon stopped outside and called upon him to show himself if he was really human and not a deceiving demon who had taken human shape.
"For we also," he said, "follow the monastic way of life and are seekers after silence, travelling through this desert in the hope of adoring the God of all in Mount Sinai, where he appeared to his servant Moses and delivered to him the tables of the law. Not that we think that God is circumscribed by considerations of place, for we hear him saying, 'I fill the heavens and the earth, saith the Lord, and all that the circle of the earth contains. and those who live in them in number as the locusts' (Jeremiah 23.24 & 46.23). It is just that those who earnestly love God not only desire to seek out those people whom God loves, but also those places which were favourable and pleasant for them when they came there, and in which they dwelt."
When he had finished saying this, and much else along the same lines, the person hiding in the cave came out. He was of wild appearance, with scruffy hair, lined face, dried up and wizened in every member of his body. He was dressed in unsightly garments made of palm leaves woven together. He greeted them and gave them a word of peace, and then asked them who they were, where they had come from and where they were going. The leader replied to this request by asking him in his turn who he was, and where he had come from and where he was going, and why he was living like this.
"I had the same desire as you have," he replied, "to go where you are all going. And to share this life with me I took a companion who thought as I did and had the same intention of being watchful and disciplined. And we swore an oath together that not even death should part us. But it has come to pass that he has come to the end of his earthly pilgrimage in this place. Bound by my oath I have dug out a tomb for him as far as I am able and buried his body in it. Because I have made this sepulchre for him, I have also dug out one for myself, and hope to end my days here, offering to the Lord the accustomed prayers. I feed on figs, which are brought to me by a certain brother at the behest of him who cares for all."
As he was speaking, a lion appeared in the distance. All except the old man were frightened to death, but when he noticed it he went forward and motioned to the animal to go away, but it came closer, bringing with it a bunch of dates. It then departed as it had been told to do, lay down some distance away and went to sleep. They all shared in the dates, said some prayers and psalms together, and at the end of this morning office he let them go, stupefied by the strangeness of what they had witnessed.
If there should be anyone who does not believe this story, let him call to mind the life of the renowned Elijah, and the ministry of the ravens who brought him bread in the morning and meat in the evening (1 Kings 17.6). It is, after all, a simple matter for the ruler of the universe to use any possible means of providing for the needs of his own. Likewise he preserved Jonah for three days and three nights in the belly of the whale (Jonah 1.17), caused the lions to shut their mouths before Daniel in the lions' den (Daniel 6.16), and in the same manner changed the power of the fire so that those in the midst of it were illuminated, while those outside it were burnt. (Daniel 3.21-22). But really it should not be necessary for me to bring forward arguments to prove the power of God.
Simeon eventually arrived at the mountain where Moses was found worthy to see God (or rather, saw as much of God as human nature is capable of), and they say that he knelt there determined not to rise till he had heard the voice of God giving him a blessing. After staying in this position for a week, having taken no food, he heard a voice commanding him to pick up what had been put before him and to eat it with a keen and eager mind. He reached out his hand and found three apples and ate them as he had been told. His strength returned to him, and with a joyful spirit, as you might expect, he called out to his companions, and came back to them jubilantly, as one who had heard the divine voice and eaten food given him by God.
He then constructed two places for the purpose of training people in the love of wisdom., the first at the top of the mountain (the place we have already mentioned), the other one further down at the foot of the mountain. He gathered together in each one athletes in pursuit of virtue, for whom he was trainer and coach. He taught them how to attack the enemy, and strengthened those who were struggling, bidding them be of good heart, not lazy and weak. He treated his own disciples with great discretion, but was bold of spirit towards the enemy. Thus teaching, living, doing miracles, displaying his glory in all kinds of ways, he at length came to the end of his labours in this life, and passed over to that life which is free from strife and decay, leaving behind him a glory which can never be overshadowed and a memory which remains in perpetuity. My blessed and thrice blessed mother received a blessing from him while he was still alive and has often told me many things about him.
And I pray that I may benefit from the intercessions which he is able to make for me. I know I shall have them, and that he will surely present my petitions to God, showing forth the compassion of God himself.
Palladius, the subject of many a discourse, was in his time Simeon's equal. His way of life was similar, he was well known as being one of the same kind [notus et familiaris]. They say that many people came to him one after another, and that they in turn derived great benefit from him, and that they spurred one another on in inspiring a zeal for God. He lived alone in a small dwelling, not far from a fairly large village called Iemme, with quite a numerous population. I need hardly say that he practised great restraint in what he ate; he fasted and lived abstemiously, with vigils and perpetual prayer. He committed himself to the same kind of yoke as the blessed Simeon. I thought it would be well worthwhile to tell the story of a great miracle that he wrought both with his voice and his gestures, and which is still celebrated to this very day.
In Iemme there was a very busy market which attracted merchants from all directions and a numberless crowd of people. There was one merchant who decided one night to go home, taking with him the money for the things he had sold. But somebody had noticed how much money he had gathered, and in a murderous and hateful frame of mind, banished sleep from his eyes and watched vindictively to see when the merchant would set out. He decided to go just after cockcrow, as being a safe time, but the thief went on before him, and hid in an ideal place for an ambush. He suddenly jumped out and killed him with one blow. To this wicked deed he added another, for, having stolen the money, he threw the corpse down at Palladius' door.
When daylight came, the crime was discovered and all the market was talking about it. They came in a body and broke the divine Palladius' door down, demanding that he pay the penalty for the murder, and one of the people in this mob was in fact the man who had done the murder. But although surrounded by such a crowd of people, Palladius simply gazed up at the sky, and projected his mind into the heavens, praying to God that he would refute such a scandalous lie and reveal the hidden truth. After his prayer he took the hand of the recumbent corpse and said,
"Speak, man. Who has inflicted this fatal blow? Show us who has committed this dreadful deed and free the innocent from this false calumny."
This exhortation produced results. For the dead man sat up, looked round at all those present, and pointed at the murderer. A great shout arose from the crowd, astonished at this miracle which had brought the intended false accusation to naught. They grabbed hold of that wicked man, and found blood on his sword, and also the money which had been the motive for the deed. If the divine Palladius had ever been worthy of admiration before, this deed makes him even more admirable. And let this miracle be quite enough to demonstrate the confidence that the man had in God.
He was the same kind of person as the admirable Abraham who built Paratomon, for he shed the splendour of his virtues abroad into every land. The miracles performed after his death bear witness to the beauty of his life, for the cures of all kinds of diseases flow from his tomb right up until the present day. The testimonies of those who have through faith abundantly enjoyed them are innumerable. I have dedicated my power of speech to maintaining the memory of them. May his aid also be given to me.
Whether you are Greek or barbarian or any other nationality, it is obvious that human nature is one and the same everywhere, and that anyone can be turned towards a love of wisdom. A sufficient example of this is to be found in Aphraates without looking any further. For he was born and brought up in Persia, an uncivilised nation, but in spite of his parentage and the laws under which he was educated he arrived at such a peak of virtue as to overshadow even those born of devout parents and nourished in the true faith from an early age. He was the first of that contemptible family, influential and well known though they were, to imitate his ancestors the Magi by coming to worship the Lord. Sickened by the impiety of his own nation he preferred a foreign land to his own. He came to Edessa, a great city enjoying a great number of people of deep devotion. Just outside the city he built a small dwelling for a hermitage and devoted himself to the development of his spirituality, like the best of farmers weeding out the thorns of vice at their roots, cultivating the crop, and offering the ripened fruits of the Gospel to the Lord.
From there he went to Antioch, which was then in the grip of a tempestuous heresy, and learned something of the Greek language in a school of philosophy outside the city. He attended as many lectures in divinity as possible, and using a mixture of Greek and his own barbarian language he gave birth to a multitude of ingenious and brilliant orations, which flowed from his acceptance of the grace of the divine Spirit. Was there ever anyone who could better this unlearned, barbarian voice from among those who peddled their own eloquence, arrogantly disputing in a high flown and decorative language, childishly glorying in their flood of syllogisms? He met their reasonings with reasoning, and overturned the arguments of the philosophers with an eloquence divine, claiming with Paul that though 'rude in speech he was not in knowledge' (2 Corinthians 11.6). In the words of the Apostle he never ceased refuting them, 'casting down every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought into the obedience of Christ' (2 Corinthians 10.5).
Magistrates could be seen coming to him, military men, people learning a way of life from him, and - let me say it once for all - civilians and soldiers, learned and illiterate, rich and poor, some who accepted in silence what was offered them and some who asked pertinent questions and talked a lot. And although he took such labour upon himself he would not allow anyone else to come and live with him; he preferred doing all his own work to accepting assistance and service from others. People gathered together wanting to speak with him, and when they appeared at his door he opened up to them himself, and as they were leaving he saw them out and bade them farewell. He took no payment from anyone, no bread, no sweets, no clothing; all his personal needs were seen to by one person only whom he knew very well. Even in extreme old age he was accustomed to eating nothing till after sunset, and then vegetables only.
There is a story that Anthemius, who later became prefect and consul, had been to Persia when serving as a legate, and brought to Aphraates a tunic woven in Persia.
"I know how dear each person's native land is," he said, "and how much they appreciate anything that has been produced there, so I have brought this tunic for you from your native land. I beg you will accept it and give me your blessing."
He bade Anthemius to put the tunic down on one of the benches, and took part in several different conversations before replying.
"I am rather troubled in spirit," he said, "and find myself in two minds."
"Why is that?" asked Anthemius.
"I have always settled for having one person only to live with me," he said. "I made this rule for myself and won't have two people with me. After having had one person with me who suited me very well, a fellow countryman came to me asking me to let him live with me. This bothered me. I couldn't put up with two. I was delighted to see my fellow countryman, as a fellow countryman, but I thought it would be seriously wrong to get rid of the man I already had and who suited me very well."
"Quite right, father," said Anthemius. "You could not possibly drive out someone who had served you for such a long time, even if he had not been well-suited, and take in someone whose character you had not tested, simply because he was of the same nationality as yourself."
"In the same way," said Aphraates, "much as I appreciate your kindness, I cannot accept your tunic. I could not abide having two of them, and I am delighted that your opinion is the same as mine, that the one who has served me for such a long time is the better."
With these mollifying words he escaped the attentions of Anthemius, showing a miraculously shrewd cleverness in doing so, and made sure that no one would argue with him about that tunic.
I have told this story to highlight two points at once. Firstly that he would have one person only to see to his personal needs, and secondly to illustrate his ingenuity in getting the would-be donor of the gift to provide from his own mouth the reason for refusing it. But I shall tell you an even greater thing than this and other things of that sort.
After Julian, the enemy of God, had paid the penalty for his wickedness in the lands of the barbarians, there was peace for a while among the ranks of the pious while Jovinianus was Emperor of Rome, but he only reigned for a short while. After he came to the end of his life [AD 364], he was succeeded by Valens, at a time when terrible hurricanes and storms were ravaging the Mediterranean, causing extremely high seas and many shipwrecks. The dismissal of many of those in positions of authority, however, caused an even greater storm. For the Emperor sent into exile anyone who defied him by practising the one and only true religion. His wickedness and irreverence knew no bounds. He expelled and scattered abroad the company of the faithful like a gigantic wild animal attacking and scattering the flock. He not only drove them out from all the churches but from the mountainsides and riverbanks and the military training fields. He altered the character of those places forever where with his iron hand he happened to direct his wrath. The people all rested secure in Scythia and other barbarian places, and in Thrace from the Danube to Propontis. He would give them a hearing with his ears twitching, as the saying goes, but against his own kith and kin, celebrated for their religious devotion, he brought arms to bear.
The people of God wept for the misfortunes fallen upon them, singing the song of David: 'By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered thee, O Sion' (Psalms 137.1). But they did not find the next verse of the psalms suitable for them ['We hanged our harps upon the willows thereof'], for Aphraates, Flavianus and Diodorus refused to hang up the harp of their teaching on the willow trees, and would not sing: 'How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' (Psalms 137.4). On the mountains and on the plains, in the city and in the suburbs, indoors and out of doors, they sang the Lord's song with all their heart. They learned from David what to sing: 'The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, the circle of the world and all that live therein' (Psalms 24.1). And again from the same Prophet: 'Bless the Lord, all you works of his, in every place of his dominion' (Psalms 103.22). They heard also the divine Paul bidding the men 'to pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands free from anger and controversy' (1 Timothy 2.8). Furthermore, the Lord himself in speaking with the Samaritan woman made it clearer still: 'Amen, I say to you, woman, that the hour is coming, and now is, that not in this place, not even in Jerusalem, but throughout the whole world they shall worship the Father' (John 4.21)
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