A DESERT IS ONE of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Torrid by day and frigid by night, it offers none of the comforts with which we surround ourselves. And yet, it is a desert – the Judean desert, to be precise – to which St Saba the Sanctified (Dec. 5) followed Christ. In time, in the words of his friend and biographer, Cyril of Scythopolis (echoing St Athanasius), Mar Saba and his followers would turn the desert into a city peopled by monks. Their successors are there today, 1500 years later.
The story of Mar Saba begins in a Cappadocian village called Mutalaska where he was born in ad 439. When Saba was five years old, his father John, a military commander, was sent to Alexandria and Saba was entrusted to an uncle, who took charge of the family’s estate. In some accounts, this uncle was so harsh that the boy fled, first to another uncle and then, at the age of eight, to Bishop Flavian of Antioch, who placed him in his own household. It was here that Saba first experienced the monastic way of life.
After ten years, Saba was tonsured as a monk and, in 456, traveled to Jerusalem. He wanted to live with the noted hermit, St Euthymios the Great, but the saint sent him to his own elder, St Theoktistos, whose nearby monastery practiced a communal rule. When Theoktistos died in 467, St Euthymios took Saba, whom he called a “child-elder,” as his companion, allowing him to return to the monastery only for divine services on the weekends. When Euthymios himself died in 473, Saba began to live as a hermit.
After five years, Saba sought even more isolation, moving to a cave on the cliffs of the Kedron Valley, south of Jerusalem.
Saba’s life of solitude there only lasted five years; as he became known as an experienced elder, others interested in the monastic life came to join him. By 483 Saba had been forced to build a church and a number of cells on the cliffside to accommodate them. This lavra – a gathering of individual cells around a common church – was the beginning of what we call the Mar Saba Monastery.
Over the next fifty years, Saba became the center of a developing monastic presence surrounding the Holy City. Ordained a priest in 491, he was named archimandrite of all the monasteries in Palestine three years later. His prayers were recognized as instrumental in healings and other wonders which took place around him. Saba himself founded a second monastery nearby, the “New Lavra.” Before his death he had established seven monasteries in all.
Saba, a Healer of the Church
Besides effecting physical cures by his prayers, Mar Saba also strove to heal the physical and spiritual ills of the Church. Saba’s position first thrust him into the midst of a controversy in which the local Church was entangled. The Council of Chalcedon (451) had defined as Orthodox doctrine the belief that Christ was truly God and truly man: one person in two natures. Many in the Eastern Churches did not accept this teaching, supported from time to time by important imperial figures.
On the very day in 511 that Severus was enthroned as Patriarch of Antioch with imperial backing, he denounced Chalcedon and set the Antiochian Church against Rome and Constantinople. When the commander of the palace guard, Flavius Justinus, became emperor in 518, he immediately reversed his predecessor’s policy. Severus fled to Alexandria and a Chalcedonian, Paul I, was installed as patriarch.
To bolster the revival of the Chalcedonian doctrine, Mar Saba led a group of abbots from the Judaean monasteries to eastern Palestine (Samaria) in order to proclaim the emperor’s decree restoring Chalcedonian orthodoxy and ending the schism with the West. Although Severus never returned to Antioch, the controversy split the Church of Antioch in two: the (Chalcedonian) Greek patriarchate and a (non-Chalcedonian) Syriac patriarchate.
Mar Saba returned to the region in 531. In the preceding century, Emperor Zeno (474-491) had attempted to force the conversion of the Samaritans to Christianity. He only succeeded in sparking a series of rebellions against Roman rule. From 529 to 531 an especially violent uprising occurred. When it was finally put down, the Samaritans had been decimated. Many churches and monasteries had been damaged and destroyed in the process.
Mar Saba was asked by the Patriarch of Jerusalem to inspect the areas throughout Palestine damaged in the revolt. In 531 he traveled throughout Samaria and the Decapolis fulfilling this task. Mar Saba then traveled to Constantinople, asking Emperor Justinian to remit the taxes due from the people in Palestine because of what they had suffered during the Samaritan revolt. Saba promised to build a hospice at Jerusalem for pilgrims, and a fortress for the protection of hermits and monks against raiders. Shortly after his return, Saba fell ill and was not to recover, dying at the age of 91, on December 5, 532.
Saba was buried in the courtyard between two churches in the Mar Saba Monastery. In the twelfth century, during the Crusades, the relics were taken to Rome. In 1965 Pope Paul VI returned them to the monastery. They are now enshrined in its principal church.
The Monastery and Its Martyrs
Saba’s principal monastery, the Great Lavra, has been the spiritual center of the Jerusalem patriarchate since its foundation. The order of monastic services developed there, the Typikon of Mar Saba, became the basis for the liturgical life of Constantinople and all the Byzantine churches. Though much augmented and adapted since the first millennium, the ordering of Byzantine services is still called the Typikon of Mar Saba.
The monastery, which numbered 500 at its peak, was frequently assailed by invaders. The first martyrs of Mar Saba were the 44 fathers slain on May 16, 614, during the Persian invasion. As described by St Antiochus, one of the survivors, a band of Arab tribesmen fighting with the Persian army attacked the monastery in search of plunder. When they were unable to find the treasure they expected, they became angry and murdered a number of the monks, beheading some and hacking others to pieces. They are remembered in our Church on May 16.
The Arab armies had taken Jerusalem in 638. The Arab rulers imposed the jizya (tax on non-Muslims) and frequently seized properties from their subjects. Attacks on Christian sites became common. In 797 Mar Saba Monastery experienced a particularly savage assault. On March 13, a band of Arabs attacked the monastery, demanding valuables. Thirteen monks were killed and others wounded. One week later the Arabs returned with reinforcements. The remaining monks were herded into the church and tortured until they would reveal the location of their treasury. The sacristan hid the church vessels and attempted to flee but was captured and beheaded.
Several monks were able to escape and hid in a nearby cave. An Arab sentry spotted them and demanded their surrender. One monk, Patrikios, surrendered but said he was alone. He, along with other monks, was herded into a cave and a fire lit at the entrance with dung piled in it to produce poisonous gases. Eighteen additional monks perished as a result. After the Arabs left, the survivors returned to bury these martyrs. They are remembered in our Church on March 20.