Chapter XXI, Jacobus (continued) Book IX
(Thalassius, Limnaeus, Johannes,Moses, Antiochus, Antonius, Zebinus and Polychronius also on this page
"A few days later as I was saying my midday office, I saw two women coming down the mountain. Contrary to my usual custom I was apprehensive about their approach, and thought I had better throw stones at them, but then I remembered the threats of that accursed demon. For I understood that this would have led to the 'slanderous reputation' he was talking about. So I shouted out in a loud voice that even if they should wrap themselves around my shoulders I would not throw stones at them but simply give myself to prayer. They just vanished when I said that; my words had put an end to that showpiece of a vision."
He told me also about something which happened at the time when that pernicious band of robbers were descending on us out of Isauria, plundering and laying waste many parts of the East. He was very frightened, not that he might be killed (for he had no great love for his body), but that he might be taken captive, led into slavery and forced to witness scenes of godless wickedness. When the devil sensed his fear (for he had often been observing him, and this had come to his attention), he imitated at night the ululation of women.
"And I seemed to hear," he said, "the noise of a great army approaching, setting the village on fire. I immediately parted my hair, half to the right and half to the left, and drew it all down to my chest, so that my neck would be more easily exposed to the sword and I would be liberated from this abominable spectacle by one swift stroke. This went on all night; I was expecting to be attacked at any minute, but when daylight came and I asked some visitors what they had heard about the Isauri, they said they had not heard anything about them for days. So then I knew that it had all been a vision from the devil".
At other times he would take on the appearance of a vigorous and sprightly youth, devastatingly beautiful, with lovely blond hair, who would come to him smiling playfully.
"I was very angry," he said, "and I rejected him and cursed him. But he just stayed there, seductively giggling and talking and inviting me to have a good time. I was even more annoyed still.
"'How is it,' I asked, 'that you can wander about through the whole world, practising these deceptions on everybody?'
"'It's not me alone' he replied. 'There are thousands of us scattered about the world, who play about with a serious intent, for by this playfulness we intend to bring the whole human race down to perdition.'
"'You,' I said, 'be off. It is Christ who commands you, he who drove the whole herd of swine into the deep' (Matthew 8.32). He heard, and vanished, unable to bear the power of the name of the Lord, nor strong enough to bear the wisdom of his servants."
There is a great deal more I could tell you, but I am unwilling to write too much about it, lest the sheer amount of it provoke unbelief in the minds of the weaker brethren. For those who know this divine man nothing that is said about him could appear incredible, because the virtue that they see in him authenticates what they have heard about him. But when it is only the written word which brings these stories to posterity, we must needs temper our story in line with the weakness of those who listen, for the ear is much more liable to incredulity than the eye.
Others were putting up a large building for him in the neighbouring village, not many miles away. And I set aside a small area in this building in honour of the victories of the glorious martyrs. When Jacobus heard about this he told me that his own body should be buried in the mountain. But I told him that for someone who took no thought for the needs of this present life he was out of order in worrying about where he should be buried. I saw that he took this to heart, and I nodded my agreement, and caused a small cell to be divided off. When I saw that the rock was broken up by hoarfrost, I asked if he would allow this cell to be made into a small dwelling. He agreed, the walls were completed and we put a roof on it.
"I don't want this to be known as Jacobus' tomb," he said. "I want this building to commemorate the victories of the glorious martyrs. Let me be put like some stranger in a separate tomb, although as one held worthy to be put near them."
He not only said this but made sure that it would be carried out. For he collected relics of a great number of prophets, apostles and martyrs, and placed them all in one shrine, so that he would remain in the company of the saints, and rise with them, and be found worthy of the contemplation of God.
That should be sufficient to show how modest he was. He who had gathered together such great riches in the midst of extreme poverty, desired to travel like a poor pilgrim in the midst of rich merchants. The labours of my beloved leader, the number of his contests, the divine graces that he received, the number of times he drank the victor's cup and was crowned with many crowns must by this be sufficiently depicted.
Some people find fault with his severe and difficult customs, and find it hard to understand why he delighted so much in solitude and silence. I shall now say a few things about that as I bring my story to an end. As I have already said, he lived in full view of everyone, surrounded by no ditch and bank, with no hut or tent for covering. There were no locked doors confronting anyone who came to him. They all had immediate access to him and could say to him whatever they wanted. Others who loved this way of searching for wisdom did have locked doors in their enjoyment of silence, but they differed in their measure of enclosure, and in how often and for how long they decided to open their doors, and how much time they wished to spend in divine contemplation. Jacobus was not like any of those.
But he did object if anyone bothered him during his times of prayer. They would usually back off if he protested to them, and he would then resume his prayers. If they persisted in bothering him more than once or twice, he would get very angry and speak to them very sharply. I remonstrated with him once about this.
"These people are naturally very upset," I said, "when you drive them away without having the benefit of your blessing. Since many of them have journeyed here for many days for that very purpose wouldn't it be better if they did not go away in an indignant frame of mind, but filled with joy in their hearts, and therefore more likely to be able to enlighten the ignorance of others, by giving them friendly accounts of this way of life?"
"I did not come to this mountain," he replied, "for the sake of anybody else except myself. I am so full of the most vicious sins, that my need for medicine is overwhelming. Therefore I lay siege to the mercy of God that he may provide me with the medicine for my vices. Wouldn't it be reprehensible and stupid of me to interrupt my course of prayer to hold converse with humans? If I were the servant of another human being, of the same nature as myself, and instead of serving him by bringing him his food and drink at the appointed time, I were to go into a long conversation with my fellow servants, would I not be rightly liable to be beaten? Or if I were to come before the magistrate to make a formal complaint about some injury I had received, and then interrupted my speech in the middle of it in order to talk with someone else who was there, wouldn't you agree that the magistrate would not put up with that, and would not give me the help I needed, but whip me out of court? It is right and proper that a servant in his master's presence and a plaintiff in the presence of the judge should behave themselves correctly. But I am coming before God the eternal Lord, the most just Judge, and King of the universe; shouldn't I behave in a similar manner, and not turn away to my fellow servants and carry on a long conversation with them, when I should be praying?"
All this that I heard I passed on to those who were annoyed with him. It seemed to me that what he had said was good and even beautiful. To make a further point, it is characteristic of someone in love to have no feelings for anyone except the person whom they love and admire, and dream about at night, and long to see again soon. So it seems to me that if someone desires to be given to contemplation, it would be very hard that he should be hindered from fulfilling his search for that most excellent beauty which is all his desire.
We have not written this as a formal eulogy, for we have tried to be as brief as possible lest we bore the reader with our prolixity. Even if somebody wishes to add more to this story and bring forward many other famous deeds to add to what has already been written, and to write them down, nevertheless I think it right to stop here. May the outcome of his godly struggles bring the reward that those struggles deserve, may the rest of his life be consonant with what has gone before, may he may be victorious at the winning post, and sustain and suffuse us with his prayers, so that we too may be strengthened and bring about many victories for those who have learned about them from us, and that we may all be victors as we pass out of this life.
THALASSIUS AND LIMNAEUS
Helimna is a village near us which formerly offered its soil to the seeds of that ungodly Marcion, but which now enjoys the agriculture of the gospel. To the North there is a hill, neither too steep or too gentle, where that admirable man, Thalassius, built a monastery. He was a man adorned with many good qualities, but excelled everyone else in simplicity of life, gentleness and self-control. I say this, not only because of what I have heard, but because I have seen it for myself. I have often visited him, and had gratifying conversation with him.
In this place he trained Limnaeus, whose praises are now sung by all. He came to this monastery while still a youth and initiated into their beautiful way of searching for wisdom. He soon realised that language could be dangerous, and opted for total silence, even while still so young; for a long time he went without speaking to anyone. After imbibing as much as possible of the divine teaching of the older man, he had become the living image of all his virtues, after which he went to Maro, whom we have already mentioned [see Chapter XVI]. He went there at the same time as the divine Jacobus. After learning a great deal from Maro, and emulating him in his life under God, he took possession of the top of another mountain hanging over a village called Targalla. Here he lives to this day, with no cottage, no tent, no hut, simply surrounded by a wall which he built out of stones. There is just one little opening in this wall, carefully blocked-up by clay, which he never clears away for visitors, although he does allow me to clear it away in order to visit him. That is why many people come from all directions if they know that I am going to visit him, hoping that they will also be able to go in with me. Usually when people come to him he speaks to them through another small opening and gives them his blessing. To many of them his blessing brings healing. He calls himself our servant, and heals diseases, expels demons and follows the apostles in performing miracles.
He not only brought healing to those who came to him; time and time again he brought healing to his own body. Quite some time ago he suffered a severe digestive disorder. Only those who have experienced this illness can fully know how severe are the griping pains they suffer, but just to observe them is also to know how they twist and turn in a frenzy, turning this way and that way, repeatedly stretching and contracting their feet, they sit down, get up again and walk about, sometimes finding that sitting in a bath gives them some relief. But why go on enumerating all these symptoms when they are quite generally known? When Limnaeus was in the throes of this illness, suffering so many intense pains, he would not accept the help of any medicine, would not make use of a bed, but lay down on a board on the bare ground, and was cured only by prayer and the sign of the cross, and in the midst of his suffering he dulled the pain by the repetition of the holy name.
Later, while walking about one night, he trod on a viper. The viper in defence fixed its teeth in his foot. Limnaeus moved his hand down towards his foot in order to massage it, and the viper bit his hand. He then tried to use his left hand to protect himself and the viper bit that as well. He had more than ten bites before the viper was satisfied and went away to seek its own den. He was in considerable pain as a result of all this, but even so he would not use any medicines, but trusted solely to the medicine of faith, the sign of the cross, prayer and the invocation of God. I can only suppose that the God of all allowed this beast to attack his sacred body so that the ability of his divine soul to bear suffering might be made manifest to all. And that of course was the remedy used by the brave and generous Job, who was more than willing to be tossed about by the greatest storms of all kinds, as long as he could demonstrate to everyone the wisdom of his master. We would not otherwise have known either the bravery of the one or the long-suffering of the other, unless a space for throwing all kinds of weapons at them had been allowed to the enemy of godliness.
I think I have said enough to show his long-suffering. But I will also add something about his clemency and kindness. For he gathered up many blind people and beggars, and built little dwelling places for them both to the East and to the West, where he bade them live and praise God. He urged his visitors to supply their food and other necessities. He however remained enclosed in the midst of them, encouraging both his visitors and the blind and the beggars in singing psalms, to make their regular praising of God to be heard. Such was his kindness to people of that sort. He and the great Jacobus both spent the same amount of time in this godly battle They completed thirty-eight years.
JOHANNES, MOSES, ANTIOCHUS, ANTONIUS
Johannes also took up this kind of life, a man famous above all for his gentleness and kindness. He occupied a rather rugged cliff, exposed to the storms coming from the North, where he has already lived for twenty-five years, buffeted by the winds of heaven. For the rest, there is no need for me to itemise his food, his clothing and his iron weights, for they are all similar to what I have already described. He was above other human beings in this, that he would not accept any comforting solace from anybody, as the following incident demonstrates. For someone kindly planted an almond seedling to provide him with his only bit of greenery, so that as it grew into a tree he could enjoy its shade and feast his eyes, but he ordered that it should be taken out to avoid having to take any pleasure in it.
Moses also embraced this way of life, living on the top of a high mountain overhanging the village of Rome.
And Antiochus, an older man, who built a small enclosure in a very remote mountain.
And Antonius, who even in old age rivalled the deeds of those much younger.
They all had the same sort of clothing and food, the same reputation, the same order of fixed prayers, labouring night and day. Neither length of service, nor old age nor natural weakness is able to diminish their powers of fortitude, which continue to flourish and keep alive their desire to keep working. This difficult life of striving for virtue is embraced by many other athletes in the mountains and fields of God. It would be difficult to number them all and describe the life of each one.
I have said sufficient to be of use to those who wish to benefit from it, and I will now turn to another kind of story, praying that I too may share in their blessings.
ZEBINAS AND POLYCHRONIUS
Even to the present day, those who have seen Zebinas count themselves fortunate. For they say that even in extreme old age he carried out the same routine right up to the end. He did not allow the heavy weight of age to take anything away from the struggles of his youth. They say that his tirelessness in prayer exceeded that of any other human being of that time. He would pray far into the night; he never could have enough of it but was always eagerly desiring more. Even when engaging with those who came to see him he was not able to force himself to drag his thoughts away fully from the things of heaven, but as soon they had gone, he would renew his prayer as if there was hardly anything which separated him from the God of all. When old age would not longer allow him to stand continuously without doing himself an injury he used a staff for support. He would lean on it, praying and praising God. Although above all he had a deep love of hospitality, he would ask many of those who came to see him to wait until evening. Many feared that they might have to wait there all night and made a pretext that they had other business to attend to and excused themselves from sharing in his labour of prayer.
The great Maro was one of his admirers, and he always suggested to those who came to see him that they should go to Zebinas for a blessing. He called him his father and teacher, and an example of every virtue. He wanted them to be buried in the same tomb, but those who snatched away his body and buried him in the place which I have described prevented that [see Chapter XVI]. He died before the divine Zebinas in a neighbouring village called Cirtica, but Zebinas accepted what happened to his body and built a great shrine over his tomb, which brought many healings of different kinds to those who visited it in faith. So now all the martyrs who strove against the Persians are together under the same roof, and are honoured with great celebrations every year.
The great Polychronius sat at the feet of Zebinas. Even the most divine Jacobus said that he had been given a hair shirt by Zebinas. I never saw him myself, for he died before I was born, but in the marvellous way that Polychronius lived I could see that Zebinas lived again, not that he was like a wax tablet taking the impression and character of whatever shape the writer makes upon it, but I pass on what I saw myself and what was said about him by those who were with him. For he was consumed by the same desire for God, rising far above earthly things. His mind was untrammelled by his body, carried upwards through the air and the aether, higher than the heavens. He was perpetually caught up in the contemplation of God, and it was impossible for him to drag his mind away from that. Even when talking with those who came to see him, his mind was fixed on things above.
He stood keeping vigil all night through, and this is how I learnt about it. For when I saw that he was suffering from old age and bodily weakness, and taking no care of his body, I began more and more to urge him to agree to take two companions to live with him and look after him. And he did ask for two men of obvious virtue to come from another monastery. And I persuaded these admirable men to put the care of the divine man before everything else. They had not lived with him for very long before they wanted to leave, because they could not cope with staying up all night. I remonstrated with the divine man that he should temper his labours to the weakness of his body.
"I did not compel them," he replied, "to stand resolutely with me all night, but I repeatedly urged them to go to bed. But they asked how could they possibly go to bed, being in good health and the prime of life as they were, when they saw someone else despising his bodily weakness adopting such a laborious stance."
Thus I learnt about the nocturnal labours of that venerable chief among men. And in due course those companions also developed so greatly in virtue that they too adopted the same way of life as the great man.
And Moses, too (that was the name of one of them) remains to this present day, loyal to Polychronius his father and teacher, giving clear and perfect expression to the virtues which shone forth from that sacred soul.
Damianus (the name of the other one) went to a village not far away called Niara and found a little dwelling where he lives now, carrying on with the same sort of life. Those who have known them both say that as they look at Damianus it is like looking at the blessed Polychronius clothed in another body. They both had the same simplicity, gentleness and self-control, the same placid way of talking, the same sweetness in conversation, the same vigilance of spirit and knowledge of God, the same ordering of work and vigils and food, and the same divine law of poverty and owning nothing. Apart from one bowl containing lentils steeped in water there was nothing else inside his dwelling. He owed such a great debt to the customs of the great Polychronius.
However, let me leave the disciple and return to the teacher; it is from the source that the flowing streams arise. Along with the other vices he cast out from his soul the desire for admiration, and trod underfoot the tyranny of empty fame by trying to conceal the full extent of his labours. So he rejected the idea of wearing iron weights lest he incur some spiritual damage if it led to his soul becoming inflamed by arrogance. But he asked for a heavy oak tree root to be brought to him as if he wanted it for some other purpose, and then placed it on his shoulders at night time when he prayed. If anyone came and knocked on his door he hid it. Someone who saw this told me about it and in trying to see how heavy it was I found that I could scarcely lift it up with both hands. He caught me doing so and told me to put it down, but I asked him to let me take it away, hoping to lighten his load. But when I saw that he carried it quite easily I yielded to his desire for the victory.
Grace divine flowed from his labours, and many miracles from his prayers. When a grievous drought was afflicting the human race and calling forth many prayers, a number of priests came to see him. Among them was one who was in charge of the food supply for all the villages of the Antiochene region. He asked the seniors present to persuade Polychronius to lay hands on the vessel he used for oil. They replied that he would not do that, but he kept on asking and begged Polychronius himself, who at last did spread out his hands over the oil vessel. It immediately began to overflow with oil, so that two or three others of those present held out their hands, and their vessels were filled likewise.
But although he radiated divine grace, and was full of wonderful acts of kindness, and deeds done with power, daily scattering about him the fruits of his search for wisdom, he still remained modest and discreet. He embraced the feet of each one who came to him, bowing his forehead down to the ground, whether they were solders, workmen or farmers.
I will tell you something else to illustrate his simplicity and discretion. When a certain good man belonging to the prefect class came to Cyrus he asked me to show him some of these great athletes. I took him to several people and then to Polychronius. I told him that the man with me was a prefect, and one who loved justice and fairness, whereupon the divine man stretched out his hands and embraced both his feet.
"Will you grant me a petition I would like to make to you?" he asked.
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