Chapter V (continued) Life of Sts Epictetus and Astion , Book Ib
"You have well said that they investigate (inspicio) you as to whether you are a precious pearl," he said, "because that is what they have not got yet. They can only be considering (inspicio) the possibility of it, insofar as your soul is held by Christ to be more precious than any pearl or any other metal. For as far as I can see our Saviour has chosen you for his ministry and service. Come then, my son, renounce everything of the world, and in company with all the saints strive after those unseen things belonging to the world to come.
"Everything prized in this world is transitory and perishable, but the things which God has prepared for those who serve him remain for ever, even as he remains for ever. Gold which can be handled is not true treasure, but depends on a certain vanity of the imagination, deceiving the minds even of the righteous in this world. Similarly, silver coveted by human eyes, belies its own name, for it is processed and polished to deceive the greedy and ensnare the foolish.
"Come now, listen to me, my dearest son, and I will show you what sort of gold you should really be choosing, and the sort of silver to be desired, which our Saviour bestows on those who put their trust in him. 'I urge you to buy from me gold tried in the fire,' he says, 'that you may be enriched, and put on white garments that the shame of your nakedness may not appear' (Revelation 3.28). The gold tried in the fire is Christ our Lord, and, my son, anyone who enthrones him in the heart will be rewarded by the riches of heaven, and will be clothed in white garments, that is in Faith, Hope and Charity, by which with the help of all his angels you will be able to overcome not only this world but also the devil, whom at present you worship as lord.
"Even your own father whom you can see is not your true father, my son. The omnipotent God is your true father, and it is because he is called father that your natural father is also called father (Ephesians 3.15). The one is invisible and ineffable, the other is visible and corruptible; the incomprehensible remains unaffected by death, the corruptible is in all things subject to death. The governance of the one keeps all things in existence; the best endeavour of the other produces nothing which endures. God gave a command and you were created, he issued a decree and you were formed in your mother's womb, he gave an order and you were born, he surveyed your progress and brought you up to your present youthful age.
And although your earthly father is to be held in respect, my son, nevertheless he is not to be compared to your true father, who formed and created us in his own image and likeness, bestowed upon us intelligence, prudence, sensitive observation, and an appreciation of all things that are good. He gave us dominion over all his works, and by grace he called us out of slavery and adopted us to be his sons and brothers and friends.
"So therefore, my son, it ever behoves us to know and adore this true father who has surrounded us with such great goodness. For to our visible father, respect is to be given only in so far as he has seen to our natural needs while we were in our infancy; he has sometimes beaten us, but more often he has been careful to provide what our childish state required, for it was a case of his own flesh embracing his own flesh, his solicitude was being poured out on the fruit of his own body. Nevertheless it is for these things that he deserves respect.
"Our mother also is held to be of a different kind - not our visible mother, but our immortal mother who lasts for ever, a worthy bride for our Saviour, adorned by Angels, celebrated by the prophets, glorified by the Apostles, exalted by martyrs and confessors, lifted up in Christ and through Christ to the heavenly bridal chamber, proclaimed by humanity as our holy mother, the Church. Her voice is as the voice of the turtledove (Song of Songs 2.12), her lips distil the sweet perfumes of the apostles' teaching. Her eyes are the two luminaries of heaven, her teeth are white, like sheep coming up from the washing (ibid 4.2), twenty-four in number, indicating in a figure the books of sacred scripture. Her hands drop myrrh (ibid. 5.5), that is, justice and true faith. Her ten fingers signify the power and sacrament of the Decalogue, her breasts are the two Testaments, that is, the law of Moses and the grace of the Gospels. Her feet are like fine brass, the inner life of her womb signifies the fountain of the most sacred Baptism and the regeneration of all nations. Come then, my child of destiny, fly to the breasts of your true mother, accept her admonitions, renounce all that is of this world, that you may earn the right to enjoy what the Lord promises to give his children in the world to come.
"Listen to what our true father says: 'Leave your own land and your family, and come into that land which I shall show you' (Genesis 12.1), that is, the land of the living and the country of the Saints, a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3.8), that is, the teaching of the apostles and prophets. And when you have fulfilled all these instructions, he will give you possession of paradise, he will open up to you the heavenly sacraments, he will give you the glory of the kingdom of heaven, he will show you the immeasurable joy of the apostles, and reveal to you the choirs of martyrs and the company of the Angels and Archangels. And more importantly still, he will adopt you by grace as his son and brother."
That most wise youth listened to this, fell at the old man's feet, and begged to be shown this person to whom he should give his allegiance for the years to come, and who alone possessed such great power and majesty. He asked that the servants and ministers of the holy man should not reveal any of this to his father, and spoke no more with the man of God that day.
Next day he arose at first light, and like a most industrious bee hastened to revisit that same place where on the day before he had pastured on celestial flowers. He went to the house of God's priest and greeted him.
"Hail, O apostle of Christ and minister of the New Testament", he said.
"You are welcome, young man," the holy man replied, "wearing as you do the robe of martyrdom and a crown adorned with various kinds of gems. Come, sit down beside me. What is it, my son? Has the seed of the Lord which we sowed yesterday in the ground of your heart borne fruit which up to now has been hindered from growing by the weeds of infidelity?"
"Most holy father," Astion replied, "as your beatitude knows, I am greatly beloved by my father as I am an only son, and I am very much afraid that if I become a Christian he could perhaps die of excessive shock, or else throw himself into the sea, or, God forbid, lose his reason, so that what for me could be the beginning of salvation, could mean that I was simply sending him to eternal death and the fire of hell. But I have a plan, and if you are willing to carry it out with me, enrol me today as a catechumen, make me fast for a fixed number of days, and when that is over give me the sacrament of Baptism. And when I have fulfilled all the conditions of becoming a Christian, what I am asking is that you and I together leave this city and go somewhere far off wherever the holy Spirit may lead us, lest my father's tears make me change my mind."
The programme which this most prudent youth had proposed was completed, and a few days afterwards they prayed to Christ, left the city, and took ship to the land of Scythia. Here they went to the city of the Almiridenses, where nobody knew them or where they came from.
Now when these most blessed men had embarked on this holy flight, the parents of the holy Astion began to search for him everywhere, going about here and there, making his name known in their grievous distress.
"What has happened to you my dearest son?" said his father, giving voice to his grief. "You are my only child, my beloved Astion. Has some wild beast suddenly devoured you, that I cannot find the slightest trace of you anywhere? You were the staff of my old age, and the light of my life. Where else I can search for you I know not. I have no idea where I can send my slaves after you. You were the most precious pearl of this city, you moved among your fellow citizens like the most beautiful of doves, you shone among them all like a ray of the sun, you glittered like a splendid moon over the common people, you showed great wisdom among the wise. What more? You made many people fond of you by your friendly way of talking to them."
His mother also tore her garments, and wept, beating her breast.
"Who has taken you away from me? Who has enticed you away? I cannot think what malignant omen may have snatched you from my bosom. But I would not be surprised if that God of the Christians has sent one of his own to pervert his heart and alienate him from us. And now I am woeful, miserable and lonely. I am in the grip of an infinite sadness and intolerable grief. All the labour of so many years has proved to be in vain. The crown of my life has fallen. The fruit of my womb has shrivelled and I am become as a wasted city. Up to today I was a mother and a queen, my son. Now I have neither the glory of a queen nor the joy of a mother. And you, my beloved, you were a tree and you are now cut down. You were a pearl and the Galileans have stolen you, a precious gem and you have fallen into darkness, a lamp and you have been extinguished, a pillar and you have been cast down, a royal statue and you have been overturned. And what more? You were a human being, and in a moment of time, as I suspect, you were dead. And now, my son, because of you I am almost out of my mind, I despair of life, I can hardly even remember my own name."
So cried his mother and father, and found no relief to their deep despair.
Meanwhile in the city of the Almiridenses, the holy men of God found a suitable place to live and offered to God alone their acts of prayer. But as it is written, 'a city set upon a hill cannot be hid, nor can divine grace be hidden under a bushel' (Matthew 5.15), and soon the power of heaven began to show forth through the holy Epictetus the many signs and wonders in Scythia that he had formerly done in the East. For one day a woman brought her son to him, aged about fifteen, who was leading a profitless life because he was deaf and dumb. She fell at the feet of the holy Epictetus.
"I don't know where you have come from," she said, "and I have no idea where you belong. But this only I do believe, that if you will, you can bestow the benefit of wholeness upon those who are lacking, for your clothing and your religious practices proclaim you to be a disciple of that Nazarene. We have heard about how many signs and wonders have been done in his name by those among your number. You are believed to be one of his disciples so come to the aid of our infirmity. Tell us about his miracles, his kingdom, his divine sacraments, so that we also may become his servants."
"I you wish to believe," he said in reply, "in the God I preach, and will keep in your heart from now on no trace of faithlessness, but will believe with your whole heart that he is the creator of heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water and all that is in them, he will be for you what you are seeking. He is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17.27-28).
He told her to let go of her son and push him forward, and he lifted up his eyes to heaven and prayed to the Lord.
"O almighty God, immeasurable and invisible, incomprehensible and beyond description, health of Christians, healer of the sick, the sailor's guide, harbour for those in peril, the light of the blind, the feet of the lame, the way for the wanderer, look, I pray you O Lord, on this your servant and loose the string of his tongue to the praise of your holy name, open his ears that he may hear of your divine sacraments. Make all his members whole, his soul as well as his body, as you did to that man who had been paralysed for thirty-eight years (John 5.5), to whom your august presence brought wholeness and healing, so that they might know your name who did not know you, and believe that you are the true God who live and reign with the Father and the holy Spirit unto the ages of ages."
His prayer done, he spat three times on the boy's mouth.
"My son," he then asked, "in what God ought we to believe, in idols made by human hands, or in Jesus Christ the crucified, who today has come to heal you?"
"We ought to believe in Jesus Christ, O most blessed man," he shouted with a loud voice, "who grants such gifts to humankind even in this present age."
A great number of the Almiridenses got to hear of this miracle and gave glory to God, and more than a thousand souls believed in the Lord the Saviour that day.
Not only did the holy Epictetus perform many miracles, but the most blessed Astion did likewise. Indeed they were granted numerous graces against all kinds of infirmities, but more than anything else they were given power against the demons. Astion was going to the Danube one day to draw water, when a man met him vexed by a demon. Astion stood in front of him, prayed, made the saving sign on his forehead, and on all his members. The demon was cast out at that moment.
"Your faith and purity, O Astion," cried the devil as he fled, "have drawn the power of the Saviour down against our race."
And he was nowhere to be seen again.
On another occasion Astion saw a man who had fallen from a great height and was lying half dead in his own home where his parents had taken him. When he had learnt all the details of the sudden accident which had caused them such grief, he was moved with compassion and went away to pray privately,
"O Christ our God," he prayed to our Lord, "who through the blessed apostle Paul restored to life Eutyches who fell to his death from a window (Acts 20.9), and through St Peter brought strength to the limbs of eighty-year-old Aeneas (Acts 3.2) as he lay in the gate of the temple, and who showed forth your wholeness and health even from your mother's womb, I pray now, O Lord, that you may look upon this man who by the work of the devil has fallen from such a great height, and grant him your wholeness and health. Make him to become one of the number of your flock, for you are our shepherd, our true Lord, who said in your Gospel: 'I am the good shepherd and I know my sheep, and my sheep know me. As the Father knows me, so do I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep' (John 10.14-15)".
His prayer finished he went back to the injured man.
"In the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk," he said.
And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and at once he was made whole from top to bottom, and he was able to jump and run. He and his parents then went and stood outside the dwelling of the holy man and proclaimed loudly:
"The God of Epictetus and Astion is one God, truly the only God of the Christians. Therefore I shall not depart from this place today until my parents and I are made Christians."
The priest of the Lord then took the man and all who were with him and enrolled them among the catechumens, and a few days later gave them Baptism.
The most blessed Astion was going to draw water from the river one day without his senior's orders or permission, when an evil thought suddenly entered his mind as he was going along. For three days this great man was unable to drive it out from his heart, which made him feel very depressed, and it showed clearly in his face.
"What is the matter, my son?" asked Epictetus, as he looked at Astion. "Why so sad, and consumed in gloom? This despondency which seems to have gripped you is not the sort of image a holy man is supposed to present, or even those who are doing penance for their own salvation. I rather think this is a death-dealing affliction such as killed the apostate Judas (Matthew 27.5), or Achitophel the counsellor of Absalom (2 Samuel 17.23).
"Three days ago," replied Astion, "when your reverence was talking about the heavenly mysteries to those people, I shamelessly went to draw water from the river without your knowledge. As I was going along a particularly sordid and disgusting thought was put into my mind, by the devil, I suppose. And for the last three days, however much I pray with tears and use the Scriptures to try and get rid of it, I have in no way been able to succeed."
Epictetus' terrible anger against the demon immediately showed in his face.
"And why, without my permission, did you go out the door of the cell and go to the river without the prayers of the priest of Christ? You surely must be aware that the permission given by the superior to the junior is the girdle of faith, the one impregnable wall of defence against the devil. Come now, join with me in prayer and prostrate ourselves before the Lord."
After both of them had prayed long and earnestly for the mercy of the Saviour, the blessed Astion prayed by himself, and then saw a little black boy with a fiery torch escaping from his bosom.
"Your confession, Astion," it said, "has grievously constricted my powers today. One prayer of yours has made me defenceless and desolate in every way. So, from here I shall go to the heart of Sir Latronianus and stir him up against you. He will bring all kinds of punishments against you, on the grounds that you have come into this province like robbers and evildoers, turning many away from the worship of the gods by your poison, and bringing them to your God."
Having said this, the demon was no longer to be seen.
The holy servants of God continued in their spiritual exercises, single-mindedly singing psalms and praying to our Saviour Jesus Christ, and by divine grace doing many miracles not only among the people but also among their animals. Suddenly Sir Latronianus visited the Almiridensian region and for three days carried out a public inspection of all the imperial offices there. On the fourth day somebody told him about the doings of those most blessed men, saying that they were evildoers, enchanters (magi), enticing many people away from sacrificing to the gods. He immediately ordered some of the officials of public order to go after sunset to the dwelling of the holy men, seize them, and bring them in chains to the prison. When the most blessed men were arrested they sang psalms all the way to the prison: 'God is our help and strength, a very present help in time of trouble' (Psalms 46.1), and 'The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge' (ibid. 46.11). And again, 'Many are the troubles of the righteous and godly, but the Lord delivers them out of them all. He takes care of every bone, and not one of them shall be broken' (ibid. 34.19-20).
When they had actually been put into the prison, they continued all night singing psalms and praying in their accustomed way. When they had finished the office of vigils, Epictetus had a few words with Astion.
"Tomorrow, my beloved son," he said, "if the judge questions us as to our family, our names, what province we belong to or where we have come from, let us say hardly anything. Don't tell him our names or family, our native land or where we come from. Just tell him we are Christians, and that answers all questions about our name, our family and our native land. We are nothing but worshippers of the true God. If after this he orders us to be tortured, let us not say anything under torture except 'Lord Jesus, may your will always be done in us'".
Next day, early in the morning, Sir Latronianus ordered the courtroom to be got ready in the centre of the town, and got the town crier to summon the people as loudly as he could to come and see a disgraceful and horrid sight. And at the third hour Latronianus came forth like a raging beast. As the people eagerly watched, he ordered the holy men to be brought out for all to see. They were put on show in front of him, but as soon as he looked at them he was overcome by uncontrollable trembling. He could not bear to gaze at the holy men, for their faces shone like the sun, so great was the grace which filled them.
Epictetus at this time was aged about sixty, of noble stature, with a flowing beard and a head of splendid silver hair. The most blessed monk, Astion, also exhibited the same sort of noble stature, overwhelmingly handsome and graceful. He was about thirty-five years of age. For the next hour Sir Latronianus questioned them.
"What is your first language? what is your family? What province were you born in? Explain yourselves so that all these people can hear."
"We are Christians," they replied, "born of Christian parents. Our native land is Christianity."
"I want to hear you tell me your names. I know you are a follower of that cursed, perfidious person, and so does every one here."
"We are Christians. We acknowledge and adore Jesus Christ our Lord, by whose power all things exist, and we abominate all your idols, as Scripture says: 'Those who make them are like unto them and so are all who put their trust in them'" (Psalms 115.8).
This infuriated him and he ordered them to be stripped and beaten. And when these martyrs of Christ were being abused, they lifted up their eyes to heaven and said; "Lord Jesus, our master, may your will be done in us."
They were beaten severely for a long time, but the cruelty of Latronianus was able to make no impression on these worshippers of God.
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