Our liturgical life has been developed and enriched by a host of saints: men and women who have become our teachers in the spiritual life through the prayers and hymns which they composed. Not least among them is St Sophronios, seventh century Patriarch of Jerusalem (March 11). It is to him that we owe the Life of St Mary of Egypt, which we read on the fifth Thursday of the Great Fast, the Thursday of Repentance.
Born in Damascus in c. 560, Sophronios was trained in classical philosophy and was already lecturing in rhetoric by the time he was twenty. Like many classical philosophers before him, Sophronios chose to live an ascetic life in order to focus his life on the things of the mind. Unlike earlier philosophers, he was also a Christian and his asceticism inevitably led him to center his life on the things of the spirit. In search of spiritual wisdom he began visiting monasteries in Egypt, Syria and Palestine.
It was about the year 580 that Sophronios, still a layman, first met St John Moschos, a hieromonk at the monastery of Mar Saba. Sophronios quickly became disciple of the elder Moschos and they would be inseparable companions until Moschos’ death some forty years later. It was to “His Beloved in Christ, Sophronios the Sophist” that the elder dedicated his most important work, The Spiritual Meadow.
The two came to adopt what has been called “a voluntary rootless existence” as their form of asceticism.in which they would be entirely dependent on the hospitality of others. Their choice was confirmed, as it were, by the political upheavals their age would endure.
Sophronios in Egypt
A palace revolution in 602 succeeded chiefly in destabilizing the Byzantine Empire. This weakened their ability to resist the encroachments of their chief rival, the Sassanid Persian Empire (Iran today). The Persians invaded and seized Syria and Palestine, routing the Byzantine army. Devotees of the Zoroastrian religion, the Persians destroyed churches and slaughtered Christians in the territories they conquered. To the horror of the Byzantines the Sassanids seized the Holy Cross, taking it from Jerusalem back to their capital, Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia.
In 605 Sophronios and John fled to Alexandria where they entered the service of the patriarch. In his life of St John the Almsgiver, Leontius of Neopolis tells that the two Syrians ‘… were really honest counselors and the patriarch gave unquestioning ear to them as though they were his fathers.” They remained in Alexandria until the Sassanids continued their march across Palestine into Egypt.
While in Egypt St Sophronios contracted a serious inflammation of the eyes called ophthalmia, which often led to total blindness. He made a monastic profession and was tonsured by John Moschos. Then Sophronios went to visit the shrine of the Unmercenary Saints Cyrus and John and was cured. In gratitude he composed an encomium in praise of the saints recounting a number of miracles attributed to them. In English this work is generally called The Seventy Miracles of Ss. Cyrus and John.
In 616 the Persians reached Egypt and many Christians fled to the West. The patriarch took John and Sophronios with him to find refuge in Constantinople. When the patriarch died during the journey, our two saints continued on to Rome where John died in 619. Despite the Persian occupation of Palestine, Sophronios made sure that his elder’s body was returned to the monastery where he had been tonsured, St Theodosius near Bethlehem. Sophronios remained in that monastery.
Dogmatic and Other Writings
Controversies over the nature of Christ had been going on since the fifth century. Christians struggled to comprehend how the incarnate Christ could be fully God and fully man. In Egypt the majority of Egyptian monks had rejected the solution of the Council of Chalcedon (451) while the Greeks of the cities accepted it. Since John and Sophronios were working with the patriarch, they promoted the teachings of the council. As Leontius of Neapolis wrote, “setting their own wisdom against that of the mad followers of Severus and of the other unclean heretics who were scattered about the country; they delivered many villages, very many churches, and monasteries too, like good shepherds saving the sheep from the jaws of these evil beasts.”
One attempt at theological compromise was Monothelitism which taught that in Christ there was but one will. Promoted by Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople with the blessing of the emperor as a way to reunify the Church in the empire, It began to spread through Syria and Egypt in 629.
St Sophronios wrote extensively against what he saw was a betrayal of Chalcedon, but none of his writings on this issue have survived. He returned to Alexandria to persuade Patriarch Cyrus to reject this doctrine. In 633 he made a similar trip to Constantinople but was unsuccessful in convincing either patriarch to reject monothelitism, This doctrine would be condemned finally at the Third Council of Constantinople in 681.
A have survived, but his greatest contribution was in the area of liturgy. He composed an “Excursus on the Liturgy,” the Life of St Mary of Egypt and also about 950 troparia and stikhera for the Paschal season. His Prayer for the Great Blessing of Water at Theophany and his three Odes Canons for the Great Fast are used in all Byzantine Churches to this day.
The Loss of Jerusalem
The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius had never given up on reclaiming the provinces he had lost to the Persians. He routed them from Syria and Palestine in 628 and pursued them to their capital to retrieve the Holy Cross. It is the return of the Cross to Jerusalem that we celebrate every year on September 14. By then Sophronios had been elected Patriarch of Jerusalem and it is he who is depicted elevating the Cross in our icons.
Christian Jerusalem would be short lived. Muhammad had wanted to capture Palestine and Syria for Islam but he realized Heraclius was too strong for him. After his death, his friend and successor, Caliph Umar ibn-al-Khattab, took on and quickly defeated the Persians. Then an Arab army besieged Jerusalem for two years until the Christians agreed to open the gates to them. Patriarch Sophronios insisted that he would only surrender the city to the caliph himself.
Umar ibn al-Khattab came to Jerusalem and toured the city with Sophronios. While they were touring the Anastasis, the Muslim call to prayer sounded. The patriarch invited Umar to pray inside the church but he declined lest future Muslims use that as an excuse to claim it for a mosque. Sophronios acknowledges this courtesy by giving the keys of the church to him. The caliph in turn gave it to a family of Muslims from Medina and asked them to open the church and close it each day for the Christians. Their descendants still exercise this office at the Anastasis.
Within a few weeks, relations with the Arabs took a harder turn. Arab troops martyred some sixty Christian soldiers who refused to convert to Islam. A month later, in March of 638, Patriarch Sophronios reposed in Jerusalem; some accounts relate that his death was hastened by grief.