Thursday, February 23, 2017

Our Venerable Fathers Zebinas, Polychronios, Moses and Damian

Sts. Zebinas, Polychronios, Moses and Damian (Feast Day - February 23)

Verses

To Zebinas
Divine Zebinas arrives at divinity with his end,
For he left behind life with men.

To Polychronios, Damian and Moses
Polychronios and his two fellow ascetics,
The three together fulfilled the years of their lives.

By Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus in Syria

1. Zebinas is praised even today by those who have had the privilege of seeing him.1 He is said, on reaching extreme old age, to have practiced the same labors till his death, without being compelled by the great burden of old age to change any of those of his youth. He surpassed, they said, all the men of his time in assiduity at prayer; spending all day and night at it, he not only did not experience satiety, but he made his longing all the more fervent. He would say but a few words to those who came to see him, for he could not bear to draw his thought down from heaven; and as soon as he was free of them, he would again address supplication as if he had been separated for not even a short time from the God of the universe. When old age did not allow him to bear without pain continuous standing, he used a stick as a support for it, and leaned on this when hymning the Master and when praying.

2. Adorned with hospitality in addition to other good qualities, he told many of those who came to see him to stay till evening; but they, in dread of his all-night standing, would allege lack of leisure, and so release themselves from these labors. He was also exceedingly admired by the great Maron, who would tell all who visited him to hasten and reap the old man's blessing, naming him father and teacher and calling him the model of every virtue. He even asked to share his grave, but this was disallowed by those who seized his sacred body and carried it off to the place mentioned above.2 The inspired Zebinas died before him and received the customary rites in the village near him - it is called Cittica. They built a great shrine for his coffin, for he pours forth every kind of healing for those who draw near with faith. He now shares the same roof with martyrs who contended in Persia and are honored by us with annual festivals.3

3. His teaching was enjoyed by the great Polychronios;4 and the most godly James said that this man gave him his first hair-tunic. But I who never saw him - for he reached the end of life before my arrival - see in this famous Polychronios the philosophy of the divine Zebinas; for wax does not receive the impress of signet-rings as much as Polychronios bears the distinctive marks of Zebinas. I have clear knowledge of this from comparing what is done by the former to the stories about the latter; for it is to the same degree that he burns with longing for God and is above all things earthly. Though tied to the body, he has a soul with wings, and flies through the lower and the upper air, rises higher than the heavens and perceives continuously the vision of God. He can never bear to draw his thought down from there, but even when talking with visitors traverses what lies above.

4. I learned of his all-night vigil in standing posture from the following. Seeing him struggling at the same time with both old age and weakness and not being looked after, I persuaded him by repeated entreaty to take two companions and enjoy solace from them. When he asked for two men conspicuous in virtue who lived alone by themselves in another retreat, I persuaded these wonderful men to choose before everything else looking after the man of God. After being with him for a short time, they tried to escape, for they could not endure standing all night. When I begged the man of God to adjust the labor to the weakness of the body, he replied, 'Not only do I not compel them to share the standing with me continuously, but I also often tell them to lie down.' But they said, 'How could we lie down, who are men healthy and of middle age, when one grown old in labors remains standing and despises the weakness of the body?' So it was that I learned of the nocturnal labors of this, to me venerable, person.

5. These men have with time acquired such virtue that they pursue the same philosophy as this great man. Moses - for this is his name - has continued to the present time taking every care of his father and master and receiving an accurate impress of the virtue that flashes forth from this godly soul. Damian - this is the name of the other - repaired to a village lying not far away - its name is Niara. He found a small hut by the threshing-floor, and there he lives, pursuing the same way of life, with the result that those with an accurate knowledge of both this man and the other think on seeing him that they are beholding the soul of the great Polychronios in another body; for there is the same simplicity, mildness, modesty, gentleness of speech, sweetness in company, alertness of soul, and apprehension of God, and the same standing, labor, vigil, food, and poverty in accordance with the divine law - for apart from a little basket containing soaked lentils the cell contains nothing. Such benefit did he derive from the company of the great Polychronios.

6. But I, leaving the disciple, shall return to the teacher, for it is from the spring that the stream pours forth its waters. Polychronios, having with the other passions expelled ambition from his soul and trod down the tyranny of vainglory, was always keen to hide his labors. Iron he could not bear to wear, fearing to derive some harm therefrom, from the soul becoming inflamed with pride. But telling someone to bring him a very heavy root of oak, as if needing it for some other purpose, he would at night place in on his shoulders and pray with this burden, as also during the day when he enjoyed leisure; if someone arrived and knocked on the door, he would hide it away in some place. Someone who saw it told me; and wishing to discover how great was the weight, I found I could scarcely lift it up with both hands. On seeing me, he told me to put it down; but I on the contrary begged to take it away, in order to remove the cause of his labor. But when I saw he was distressed, I yielded to his desire for victory.

7. As a result of these labors, God-given grace blossoms forth in him, and many miracles are worked by his prayers. When that terrible drought consumed men and drove them to prayer,6 a great number of priests came to see him. Among them was one from the region of Antioch, appointed to shepherd many villages. He begged the more senior of those present to persuade this man to extend his hand over a flask, but they replied that he would not consent. When prayer followed, and this, to me inspired, person was praying, the man stood behind him and held out the flask in his hands: it gushed forth, so that two or three of those present held out their hands and drew them back filled with oil.

8. Nevertheless, although emitting such rays of grace, being laden with every kind of achievement and gathering each day the wealth of philosophy, he is so modest in spirit that he embraces both feet of each of those who come to see him, while putting his forehead to the ground, whether he is a soldier, an artisan, or a peasant. I shall relate something that can demonstrate both his simplicity and his modesty. A worthy man, who had been assigned to the governorship of the province7 and repaired to Cyrus, wished to enjoy with me the sight of these great athletes. Having gone round the others, we came also to see this one whose virtue we are now relating. When I had said that the visitor with me was a governor and also an upholder of justice and lover of the pious, the inspired man extended both hands to take hold of both his feet: 'I wish,' he said, 'to address a request to you.' When the other, extremely put out, begged him to get up and promised to do whatever he might bid - for he supposed him to be appealing on behalf of one of his subjects -, the inspired man said, 'Therefore, since you have promised, and confirmed your promise with an oath, offer prayers to God earnestly on my behalf. The other, striking his forehead, begged to be released from his oath, as unworthy to offer supplication to the Master even on his own behalf. What words would suffice as worthy eulogy of a man who preserves such modesty of spirit at such a summit of philosophy?

9. His love of labor has not been confuted by the afflictions of every kind that have fallen upon him; but although beset with varied disease, he perseveres in the same labors. It was with difficulty, and after repeated recourse to many arguments, that we built this small cell, contriving a little warmth for his utterly frozen body. Many men have repeatedly offered him money in their lifetime, or bequeathed it to him when dead, but he has never accepted anything from anybody, but charges them to be the almoners of their offerings. The great James sent him a goat's hair cloak which someone had brought him, but even this he sent back,8 considering it too effective a covering and too well made - for he always uses clothes that are extremely simple and cheap. To such an extent does he count poverty more desirable than every kingdom that he does not always have essential nourishment. This I know, having often come to ask for his blessing and found nothing else but two solitary dried figs. The man's honeyed ways are thrice desired by those who see them and extremely lovely to those who hear of them. I know that no man, even of those specially fond of mocking, has ever cast a reproach upon him; instead, all praise and extol him, and when they visit him are reluctant to depart.

NOTES:

1. Zebinas was a hermit near Cittica (unidentified) in the region of Cyrus (Cyrrhus). He dearly died before Theodoret's arrival at Cyrus (423), as is confirmed by Maron's outliving him.

2. For Maron see Ch. 16, with §4 on his burial.

3. The date of these martyrs is unknown, but for Persian persecution of Christians in Theodoret's own time see his Eccl. Hist. V.39(38).

4. Polychronios, as a disciple of Zebinas and still alive, would have been an ascetic at the time of writing for at least twenty years. Note that he enjoyed a special reputation not only at Cyrus but also in the region of Antioch.

5. There is still even now a village called Niara, twelve miles southeast of Cyrus.

6. The date of this exceptional drought is unknown; it is presumably the same as the one mentioned at Ch. 26.19.

7. The province of Euphratensis, extending down the west bank of the Euphrates.

8. Cf. Aphrahat rejecting the gift of a fine tunic (Ch. 8.4).

From the History of the Monks of Syria.

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