Chapter VIII, Aphraates (continued). Book IX
(Peter begins further down this page)
Acting on this, they bore witness without ceasing, at home and in the market place, or, as the apostle says, 'publicly and from house to house' (Acts 20.20), and just like the most outstanding Emperors, provided ammunition for their own people and discredited their adversaries. And the great Flavianus and the divine Theodorus, who were held in high honour in the second most important see, did likewise. What they did was certainly admirable and praiseworthy. Nevertheless they acted as officially appointed generals of an army, subject to army rules, whereas Aphraates in his great wisdom entered into battle of his own free will. Schooled in quietness, living in solitude, secure from the threat of hostile attack, he nevertheless saw quietness as being a valid option only when circumstances permitted, and chose not to remain in sheltered isolation when he saw how savage the war had become. So he became a leading light in the ranks of the faithful, pursuing the battle by his way of life, his oratory and his miracles, all that without coming to harm himself.
Now the Emperor (who was foolish in all sorts of ways) had come to understand that Aphraates was in the habit of going to the military training fields where the company of those who joined in the true worship of the Trinity used to meet. Someone pointed Aphraates out to him walking on the banks of the river in full view of the Emperor, who asked him what he thought he was up to.
"I am on my way to pray for the world and the Empire," he replied.
"If you profess to be living the monastic life, how is it that you have abandoned your silence and quietness to wander about freely in public?"
"Tell me, O Emperor," he said, speaking in parables in imitation of the Lord, "if I were an enclosed virgin and I saw someone setting fire to the family home, what would you advise me to do? Just watch the flames, and the burning house, and sit there with no thought for the house being burnt? If I did that I would perish in the flames as well. But if you were to say that I should make haste and fetch water, and run up and down putting out the flames, then don't reproach me, O Emperor, for doing the same sort of thing. I who profess the monastic life am compelled to act in the same way as you would advise the enclosed virgin. You reproach me for abandoning my quietness. Rather direct your reproaches at yourself for setting fire to the household of God, and not at me for trying to put the fire out. You have admitted yourself that it is right to try and save the family home from burning, but God is a truer and closer father than any father on earth. That is obvious, even to anyone who has not been fully instructed in matters divine. I have not done anything unreasonable, O Emperor, or contrary to my rule, by meeting with the followers of the true religion, and cherishing them, and providing them with heavenly food."
To these words the Emperor could not but give consent, as to a speech for the defence which was just.
Now one particular person began to declaim loudly against the divine man in public places, threatening to kill him. He was one of that tribe who are neither man nor woman, who had been deprived of the ability to achieve fatherhood, and who therefore was favoured by the Emperor as someone to whom he could speak confidentially. It was not long, however, before he paid the penalty for his malice. For when the Emperor decided to take a bath this wretch went to make sure that the bathwater was the right temperature, and in a fit of folly jumped into it, unaware that the water was very hot indeed. There was no one else about, for he had come all by himself to get the bath ready, so there he stayed, cooked and done for! Some time passed by and the Emperor sent someone after him, who reported back to him that he was nowhere to be found. Many more joined in the searching through all the bathrooms and eventually found the one in which he was lying lifeless.
There was great consternation, everybody wept. Some drained the water out of the bath, others lifted the miserable man's body out. The Emperor, and all those who were opposing the true faith, were filled with fear as a result of this, for the rumour spread through the whole city that the unfortunate man had suffered this fate because of his opposition to Aphraates. Everyone was singing the praises of the God of Aphraates. Those who were against him were demanding that at the very least the man of God should be sent into exile. But the Emperor, even though terrified, avoided those who tried to persuade him of this, for he had a great respect for the man.
Later he had occasion to experience his power from another quarter. For he had a favourite horse, a thoroughbred, a well trained horse for riding, who fell ill, much to the Emperor's grief. The horse was constipated, and those who had skill in this field were summoned to try and effect a cure. But when the illness remained unbeaten the Emperor was greatly troubled, as was also the stable boy who had charge of the horse. This boy was devout and of a firm faith, and he brought the horse to Aphraates in the middle of the day, identified himself as one of the faithful, explained what the trouble was and begged Aphraates to effect a cure by his prayers. Without delay Aphraates prayed to God and ordered water to be drawn from the well. He signed it with the saving cross and ordered that it be given to the horse who drank of it even more deeply than usual. Then he invoked the blessing of God upon some oil and anointed the horse's stomach. At the touch of his hands the illness was immediately cured. The stable boy rejoicingly took the horse back to the stable.
That evening the Emperor came to the stable at his usual time and asked him how the horse was faring. He told him he was cured, and brought the horse out in obvious good health, neighing and prancing and stretching out his fine neck.
"How did this cure come about?" the Emperor asked.
The boy hesitated to answer, for he was afraid to reveal who the doctor was, knowing that the Emperor was in dispute with him, but at last he could not avoid telling him how the cure came about.
"I am absolutely astonished," said the Emperor, "and I must confess that he really is a remarkable man."
Nevertheless he did not abate the mad tirades which he furiously issued against the Only begotten Son right up to the time when at last he was committed to the barbaric rite of cremation, a funeral rite beneath the dignity of even a slave or a beggar. But the divine Aphraates throughout all those stormy times gave constant proof of his virtue, and when peace was restored carried on exactly as he had done before. He did many other miracles besides, of which I will mention one or two.
There was a certain noblewoman, yoked in matrimony to a totally unreasonable husband, who came to that blessed man, weeping over her distressing situation. For she told him that her husband was completely engrossed in keeping company with a concubine because of magic spells which had been uttered, and that he held in contempt his legally wedded wife. She said all this standing outside the porch. This was his usual custom in dealing with women, none of whom were ever admitted inside. He took pity on the weeping woman, and aborted the effect of the incantation by his prayers, for he blessed with godly prayer a small portion of oil that she had brought with her, and told her to anoint her husband with it. After the woman had done this she drew her husband's love back to her, and he chose to sleep legally rather than illegally.
The story is also told about him during a time when locusts suddenly invaded the region and consumed everything as if by fire, standing crops, trees, meadows and groves. One of the faithful approached him who possessed a farm which provided food for himself and his wife and children and the rest of the household, and which was the subject of an imperial tax. Again, he showed compassion in a manner similar to that of the Lord; he asked for a congius of water [about six pints] to be brought to him. His petitioner brought the water and Aphraates then laid his hand on it, and prayed that God might imbue it with his divine power. After the prayer he instructed the man to sprinkle it around the boundaries of the estate. He did so, and it was as if a defensive palisade had been placed around the boundaries of his fields, sacrosanct and inviolable, for the crawling mass of locusts, flying about everywhere like an army, drew back, fearful of the blessing which had been poured out on the fields, restrained as if by a physical barrier, preventing them from going any further.
What need to say anything further about the deeds of this blessed soul? I have said quite sufficient to demonstrate the splendour of the grace that was in him.
I saw him myself and received a blessing from his holy right hand, for my mother had taken me there with her while I was still a youth at the time when he was near to death. He opened his door and showed his favour to her by giving her a blessing and a short homily, then he took me inside and bestowed on me the grace of his prayers. I still enjoy that blessing, believing as I do that he lives with the choirs of Angels, closer to the Love of God than ever before. Before, his faithfulness was kept within bounds by his mortal flesh, in order to avoid the sin of arrogance. Now, having laid aside the fight against all turbulence of spirit, like an athlete enjoying the fruits of victory, his faithfulness and freedom of conversation may be used on behalf of all who suffer. I pray therefore that I may continue to be aided by his prayers.
We understand he was a Gaul from Western Europe. But we know also that they originated from those in Asia around the Euxine Sea. From this stock blessed Peter came, indeed three times and four times blessed. For they say that he was brought up by his parents until he was seven, when he then dedicated his whole life to the struggle in the search for wisdom. He is said to have died at the age of ninety-nine.
Who can adequately praise this man who battled victoriously for ninety-two years, night and day? What tongue is sufficient to describe his glorious and virtuous deeds, in childhood, youth, middle age and extreme old age? Who can tell the extent of his sufferings? Who can count the struggles he endured over such a long time? What power of speech can do justice to the seeds he sowed and the sheaves he reaped? Who is endowed with such a brilliant mind as to be able to comprehend all the benefits and dividends accruing from such an outstanding investment? I know that the effect of his deeds is as vast as the ocean, and I fear to undertake this account of his history, lest my words fail me. So I shall walk as one on the seashore in front of the sea, describing and marvelling at what is done on the continent, but leaving the depths to him who searches the deep and hidden things. (Daniel 2.22 & 1 Corinthians 2.10)
He lived first in Galatia, but left there in order to see Palestine, where he viewed the places of the saving Passion, and worshipped there the God he served, not as though God might be circumscribed by place (for he knew that the nature of God has no limits), but simply to feast his eyes on the sights which he had long desired to see. It was not just the mental faculty with which he gazed; quite apart from sight, he enjoyed nourishment for his spirit by faith. It is natural for those courting a lover to take pleasure not only in her face but also to think with great joy about her house, her clothes, her shoes. It is with love for the bridegroom such as this that the bride sings in the Song of Songs: 'Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my beloved among the sons of men. With great desire I sat under his shade, and his fruit was sweet in my mouth' (Song of Songs 2.3). This divine man was not doing anything strange or unusual in seeking this same kind of love for the bridegroom, for he was using the same words as the bride: 'I am wounded by love' (Songs of Songs 2.5). Since he longed to gaze, as it were, under the shadow of the bridegroom, he went off to those places whence flow the waters of salvation for humankind.
Having enjoyed what he had longed for, he went to Antioch, where having seen the devout religion of the city he preferred it even though it was not his native land. Rather than being a citizen of his own country among his own family, he preferred those who thought like him and who were of the company of the faithful and bore the same yoke of devotion and religion. Although he decided to stay there he did not pitch a tent, or construct a shelter, or build a small house. He spent all his time there in an uncomfortable tomb. A platform here was set before him to which was attached a ladder inviting those who would to climb up it. He remained enclosed there for a long time, drinking tepid water and eating nothing but bread, and that not every day. He did not touch it one day but took it the next.
A certain madman came to him raging furiously, in the grip of a most malignant demon, whom he cured by prayer, freeing him from the demon's anger. Unwilling to leave, he begged to become Peter's servant, in exchange for his cure, and Peter let him stay and live with him. I knew Daniel (for that was his name) and remember the miracle, and I saw how he paid for his cure, and I listened to what he said about me, which was that I too would become part of this wonderful ministry. But that divine man would not agree to that, mindful of the love which my parents had for me. But he regularly fed me on my knees with grapes and bread. For my mother bade me enjoy this blessing since she too had experienced his spiritual grace.
This is how she came to know about him. She had developed a disease in one of her eyes, resistant to all medical knowledge. There was nothing in the writings of old time or of those who came later which had not been used against the disease. She had tried everything to no effect, when a friend of the family came and told her about the divine man and the miracle he had done.
"When my wife had the same illness as this," he said, "he cured her with prayer and the sign of the cross."
She went to the divine man immediately after hearing this, wearing her usual earrings and bracelets and necklets and a few more golden ornaments about her person, not to mention a multi-coloured dress of fine silk. She had not yet set out on a search for perfection, though she was well on in years, a mature woman behaving like an adolescent. When this chief of men had taken all that in, overflowing with love he brought healing to her primary problem in these words (I repeat them exactly, I shall not change one word of what this holy man said):
"Tell me, my daughter, suppose there was a painter well skilled in his art, who painted a picture according to the laws of his art and put it on view for anyone to see, and then someone came along with very rudimentary knowledge and rashly decided to paint over it without asking anyone, holding of no account a picture painted with skill, and added extra lines to the eyelashes and eyebrows, and made the skin look whiter, and put red colouring on the cheeks, wouldn't you expect the original painter to be rightfully furious because his artistry had been treated with insults and contempt, and altered unskilfully by someone who had no right to do so?
"Therefore you should believe that the universal workman, the creator and decorator of our own nature, has a right to be angry, when you accuse of poor quality that nature and wisdom which is beyond the power of human description. You would not have added red and white and black colouring unless you have thought the original was lacking in some way. By thinking to improve the body by these means you are accusing the creator of reckless negligence. You need to understand that he has the power of reacting to your own will in just proportion. For as David says, 'The Lord does all things according to his will' (Psalms 115.3 & 135.6) He it is who takes thought for everything that will be of benefit for all; he is not the author of anything leading to damnation. So then, don't deface the image of God, don't try and add things which in his wisdom he did not give you, don't imagine that this false appearance is beautiful. All it does is suggest to anyone who looks at you that modesty has gone out the door."
She was really a lovely woman in every way, and as she listened to this she was caught up in Peter's net (for he was in the habit of going fishing in the same way as he whose name he bore). She fell at his feet, and cried, and begged him to cure her eye.
"But I am only a human being with the same nature as you," he said, "carrying a great burden of sin which deprives me of any influence with God."
"I shan't leave you," she said, weeping and begging, "till you have restored me to health."
"God is our only healer," he said, "and he hears the prayers of those who believe in him. He will hear now also, not as a favour to me but as he looks upon your faith. So if your faith is sincere and true and free from all doubt, and if you earnestly desire the doctors and medicines sent by God to be effective, take now to yourself this medicine."
So saying he laid his hand upon her eye, made the sign of the cross, and the disease was cured.
When she got home she washed herself in the medicine he had given her, by divesting herself of all her ornaments, and beginning to live according to the rules the doctor ordered. No more multicoloured dresses, no more fancy earrings and necklaces. And this even though she was still quite a young woman, in her twenty-third year, not even yet a mother, for it was seven years after this that I was born, her first and only son. What great fruit she gained from the great Peter's teaching! It was a double cure. She was seeking medicine for the body, but he prepared for her a wholesome condition for the soul. Such were the sort of things he said, and such was the potency of his prayer.
On another occasion she took him a certain steward, grievously vexed with a demon, in the hope that he would be able to help. The divine man prayed, and then charged the demon to tell him how it was that it had power over this creature of God. It stood there like a murderer or burglar or highway robber standing before the judge, ordered to own up to what he had done, and it felt so pressurised that quite unusually it was compelled to tell the truth.
"The master of this steward fell ill in Heliopolis," it said, "and his wife who was sitting with him in his illness, told her servant maids about the life of the monks who were following the life of wisdom (philosobantur) at Antioch, and what power they had against the demons. Now these servant maids had been made by me into insane demoniacs, but this steward, dressed up in a goatskin as a monk, was brought in to exorcise them in a monastic manner. I was standing nearby all this time, and, unable to put up with what they were saying about the monks, I resolved to test the power they were boasting about. So I left the servant maids and entered into this steward, to see whether I could be driven out by monks. And now I have learned the truth, I need no further test. For at your command I now depart."
And as it said this it fled, and the steward was liberated.
My maternal grandmother took one of her farm workers to this monk who was able to drive out evil, asking for his help.
"Where do you come from," he asked, "and who has given you power over this creature of God? "
There was no reply. Peter fell on his knees and prayed to God that he might show the power of the servants of God by bringing down a curse on this demon. He stood upright, but there was still no reply. And this went on until the ninth hour. He poured out more prayer to God even more earnestly, until at last he arose and spoke to the demon.
"It is not Peter who commands you, but Peter's God." he said. "Answer! Whose power is it that drives you?"
Notwithstanding the shamelessness of this pernicious demon, it was overawed by the gentle authority of this holy man.
"I come from Mount Amanus," it cried in a loud voice, "and when I saw this worker drawing water from the well and drinking it I resolved to make him my dwelling place."
"Depart!" said the man of God. "It is he who was crucified for the sake of the whole world who gives you this command."
It heard, and fled. Freed from its fury, the worker was restored to my grandmother.
I could tell you any amount of similar stories about this blessed soul, but I shall omit most of them for fear of the scorn it might provoke among ignorant people so wrapped. up in themselves that they simply would not believe in this man's miracles. But I shall just relate one or two more before passing on to another athlete of the Lord.
There was a certain dissolute man, a former army commander, who numbered among his household a very attractive, unmarried girl. This girl left her mother and family and joined a community of women living an ascetic life. For women also enter into battle like men, striving to become perfect in virtue. When the commander learned of her flight, he had the girl's mother imprisoned and whipped, vowing never to let her go free until she had revealed where the house of religious women was. In a furious frenzy he seized the girl and brought her back to his house, intending, wretched man, to have his will with her. But just as Sarah, Abraham's wife, kept her modesty untarnished in the face of the many great temptations of Pharaoh, (Genesis 12.17), just as the Sodomites were struck with blindness when they tried to indecently assault the angels who were guests in Lot's house (Genesis 19.11), so also was he who was making an attempt upon the girl's virtue struck with blindness. When he went into her bedroom, the Lord took care of her. She slipped past him, for he was unable to see her, and she hastily escaped back to the house of religious women. This coarse man realised that he was unable to subdue her who had chosen God for a bridegroom, and was compelled to restrain himself, and make no further attempt on her whom he had captured, but who had escaped.
But after a short time she fell ill with the grievous disease of cancer, suffering increasing pain from a swelling in her breast. When the pain got excessively severe she called on the great Peter, and she testified that when his holy voice fell upon her ears all her pain was taken away, and she was unable to feel any trace of illness. She was often able to get help from him when she visited him. From that time to this, her pains receded. But having given this testimony, and poured forth praise for her victory, she followed it by departing from this life.
Again, he snatched my mother from the hands of death, when, at my grandmother's request, he came to her when she was mortally ill after giving birth to me. I have been told that she was despaired of by the doctors, the family all weeping in expectation of the end, as she just lay there with her eyes closed, suffering with a violent fever, not recognising anybody at all. But Peter came to her, worthy of being called an apostle, with an apostle's grace.
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