Sunday, February 14, 2016

Saint Abraham, Bishop of Carrhae


Verses

You fulfilled your calling by your identical actions,
Now Abraham dwells together with Abraham.

By Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus, Syria

Nor would it be pious to pass over the memory of the wondrous Abraham,1 using as a pretext the fact that after the solitary life he adorned the episcopal chair; for because of this he would with good reason deserve to be remembered surely all the more, in that, when compelled to change his position in life, he did not alter his mode of life, but brought with him the hardships of asceticism, and completed his course of life beset simultaneously with the labors of a monk and the cares of a bishop.

This man too was a fruit of the region of Cyrus, for it was by being born and reared there that he gathered the wealth of ascetic virtue. Those who were with him say that he tamed his body with such vigils, standing, and fasting that for a long time he remained without movement, quite unable to walk. Freed of this weakness by divine providence, he resolved to run the risks of piety as the price of divine favor, and repaired to Lebanon, where, he had heard, a large village was engulfed in the darkness of impiety.

Hiding his monastic character under the mask of a trader, he with his companions brought along sacks as if coming to buy nuts - for this was the main produce of the village. Renting a house, for which he paid the owners a small sum in advance, he kept quiet for three or four days. Then, little by little, he began in a soft voice to perform the Divine Liturgy. When they heard the singing of psalms, the public crier called out to summon everyone together. Men, children, and women assembled; they walled up the doors from outside, and heaping up a great pile of earth poured it down from the roof above. But when they saw them being suffocated and buried, and willing to do or say nothing apart from addressing prayer to God, they ceased from their frenzy, at the suggestion of their elders. Then opening the doors and pulling them out from the mass of earth, they told them to depart immediately. At this very moment, however, collectors arrived to compel them to pay their taxes; some they bound, others they maltreated. But the man of God, oblivious of what had happened to them, and imitating the Master who when nailed to the cross showed concern for those who had done it, begged these collectors to carry out their work leniently. When they demanded guarantors, he voluntarily accepted the call, and promised to pay them a hundred gold pieces in a few days.

Those who had performed so terrible a deed were overwhelmed with admiration at the man's benevolence; begging forgiveness for their outrage, they invited him to become their patron - for the village did not have a master; they themselves were both cultivators and masters.2 He went to the city (it was Emesa), and finding some of his friends negotiated a loan for the hundred gold pieces; then returning to the village he fulfilled his promise on the appointed day. On observing his zeal, they addressed their invitation to him still more zealously. When he promised his consent if they undertook to build a church, they begged him to start operations at once, and conducted the blessed man round, showing him the more appropriate sites, one recommending this one, another that. Having chosen the best one and laid the foundations, in a short time he put the roof on, and now that the building was ready bade them appoint a priest. When they said they would not choose anyone else and begged to take him as their father and shepherd, he received the grace of the priesthood. After spending three years with them and guiding them well towards the things of God, he got another of his companions appointed in his place and went back to his monastic dwelling.

Not to make the narrative long by narrating all he did - after gaining fame among them, he received the see of Carrhae, a city which was steeped in the senselessness of impiety and had given itself up to the frenzy of the demons. But after being honored by his cultivation and receiving the fire of his teaching, it has remained free of its former thorns, and abounds now in the crops of the Spirit, offering to God sheaves of ripe ears.3 The man of God did not perform this cultivation without labor; with innumerable labors and imitating the art of those entrusted with the treatment of bodies - in some cases sweetening by fomentation, in others contracting by astringent medicines, in others again applying surgery and cautery - he effected this sound state of health. His teaching and other attentions found support in the luster of his life. Illuminated by this, they hearkened to what he said and gladly welcomed what he did.

All the time of his episcopacy, bread was for him superfluous, water superfluous, a bed useless, and use of fire superfluous. At night he chanted forty psalms antiphonally, doubling the length of the prayers that occur in between; the rest of the night he sat on a chair, allowing a brief rest to his eyelids. That "man will not live on bread alone" had been said by Moses the lawgiver, and the Master recalled this utterance when he rejected the invitation of the devil; but that living without water is among the things possible, we have nowhere been taught in the divine Scripture - even the great Elijah first satisfied this need from the brook, and then on going to the widow of Zarephath first told her to bring him water and then likewise asked for bread. But this wonderful man throughout the time of his episcopacy took neither bread nor pulses nor greens cooked by fire and not even water, which is considered by those reputed clever about these things to be the first of the elements in utility; but it was lettuce, chicory, celery, and all plants of the kind that he made his food and drink, rendering superfluous the skills of baking and cooking. In the fruit-season fruit supplemented his needs. His food he took after the evening liturgy.


While wearing down his body with such labors, he was inexhaustible in the services he rendered others. For strangers who came a bed was ready, glistening and select rolls were offered, wine of a fine bouquet, fish and vegetables and all the other things that go with them; he himself at midday sat with the diners, offering to each portions of the fare provided, giving goblets to all and bidding them drink, in imitation of his great namesake - I mean the Patriarch, who served his guests but did not dine with them.

Spending the whole day on the lawsuits of those in dispute, some he would persuade to be reconciled with each other, while to those who would not obey his gentle teaching he applied compulsion. No wrongdoer went away victorious over justice through audacity; to the wronged party he always accorded the just man's portion, making him invincible and stronger than the one who wanted to wrong him. He was like an excellent physician who always prevents the excess of the humors and contrives the equilibrium of the elements.

Even the emperor desired to see him,4 for fame has wings and easily publishes everything, good and bad. He summoned him, and when he arrived embraced him, and considered his rustic goat's hair cloak more honorable than his own purple robe. The choir of the empresses clasped his hands and knees; and they made supplication to a man who did not even understand Greek.

And so for emperors and all men philosophy is a thing worthy of respect; and when they die its lovers and adherents win still greater renown. This can be learnt from all sorts of examples, but not least from the case of this inspired man. For when he died and the emperor learnt of it, he wanted to bury him in one of the sacred shrines, but realizing that it would be right to restore to the sheep the body of the shepherd, he himself escorted it at the front of the procession, followed by the choir of empresses, all the governors and governed, soldiers and civilians.5 With the same zeal the city of Antioch received him, and the cities after it, until he reached the great river. Along the bank of the Euphrates there hastened townspeople and foreigners. Everyone both of the country and of the adjoining region pressed forward to enjoy his blessing; many rod-bearers accompanied the bier, to deter through fear of blows those who tried to strip the body of its clothing or who wanted to take pieces therefrom. One could hear some singing psalms, others dirges; one woman with sighs called him patron, another foster-father, another shepherd and teacher; one man in tears named him father, another helper and protector. With such eulogy and lament did they entrust to the tomb this holy and sacred body.

I myself, out of admiration at the way he did not alter his mode of life when changing his position in life, and did not as bishop love a relaxed regime but increased his ascetic labors, have listed him in the history of the monks, and have not separated him from the company he loved, in my desire to receive blessing from this source as well.

NOTES

1. Abraham was an ascetic, originally of Cyrus (Cyrrhus), famous for his missionary work. He was active as far afield as Phoenicia, and was finally made bishop of the largely pagan city of Carrhae in Mesopotamia. He died at Constantinople, during a v1sit to the imperial family. This visit is to be dated to the 420s: the reference to 'empresses' implies a terminus post quem of 421, when Theodosius II married Eudocia.

2. Peasants, whether freeholders or tenants, badly needed patrons to protect them against oppression by landowners or officials. This is the theme of Libanius, Oration XLVII, "De patrociniu". Holy men could be active in this work. They were popular patrons, both because of their influence and because they were disinterested: lay patrons had to be materially rewarded and sometimes reduced their clients to virtual serfs.

3. But we learn from Procopius, History of the Wars 111.13.7, that Carrhae was still largely pagan as late as the sixth century.

4. The emperor is Theodosius II (408-450), the empresses his sister Pulcheria and wife Eudocia. For Pulcheria's exceptional piety, and her veneration for holy men and relics, see K. Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 91-146.

5. Evidently, the imperial family would simply have attended the initial ceremony at Constantinople.

From The History of the Monks of Syria.

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