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June 26, 2009

Saint David the Dendrite of Thessaloniki

Saint David the Dendrite of Thessaloniki (Feast Day - June 26)

By John Sanidopoulos


With David of old art thou now united, O new David; 
For thou didst kill the carnal passions like Goliath. 
On the twenty-sixth, David passed through the gates of life.

The earliest written chronicle of the life of Saint David comes from his contemporary, Saint John Moschos, in his Leimonarion (or Spiritual Meadow). Saint John together with his disciple and companion Saint Sophronios the Sophist travelled to Egypt in order to record the great deeds and wise sayings of the Desert Fathers from the monastic authorities of the desert of the late 6th or early 7th century. He records how he met Abba Palladios in Alexandria and tells us the following:

We went to the same Abba Palladios with this request: "Of your charity, tell us, father, where you came from, and how it came about that you embraced the monastic life". He was from Thessalonika, he said, and then he told us this: "In my home country, about three stadia beyond the city wall, there was a recluse, a native of Mesopotamia whose name was David. He was a man of outstanding virtue, merciful and continent. He spent about twenty years in his place of confinement. Now at this time, because of the barbarians, the walls of the city were patrolled at night by soldiers. One night those who were on guard-duty at that stretch of the city-walls nearest to where the elder's place of confinement was located, saw fire pouring from the windows of the recluse's cell. The soldiers thought the barbarians must have set the elder's cell on fire; but when they went out in the morning, to their amazement, they found the elder unharmed and his cell unburned. Again the following night they saw fire, the same way as before, in the elder's cell - and this went on for a long time. The occurrence became known to all the city and throughout the countryside. Many people would come and keep vigil at the wall all night long in order to see the fire, which continued to appear until the elder died. As this phenomenon did not merely appear once or twice but was often seen, I said to myself: 'If God so glorifies his servants in this world, how much more so in the world to come when He shines upon their face like the sun?' This, my children, is why I embraced the monastic life."

Abba Palladios goes on to speak of another monk from Mesopotamia known as Adolas the Recluse. Saint John writes:

The elder also told us this: that after Abba David, there came to Thessalonika another monk, also from Mesopotamia, whose name was Adolas. He confined himself in a hollow plane tree in another part of the city. He made a little window in the tree through which he could talk with people who came to see him. When the barbarians came and laid waste all the countryside, they happened to pass by that place. One of the barbarians noticed the elder looking down at them. He drew his sword and raised his arm to strike the elder, but he remained there rooted to the spot with his hand stuck up in the air. When the rest of the barbarians saw this, they were amazed and, falling down before him, they besought the elder [to restore their comrad]. The elder offered a prayer and healed him and thus he dismissed them in peace.

From what we can tell from all the historical sources, including his biography written by an anonymous author of Thessaloniki between 715-720, Saint David was probably born in Mesopotamia around the year 450 AD and died in Thessaloniki sometime between 535 and 541. We don't know why either David or Adolas traveled from Mesopotamia to Thessaloniki, but both the Synaxarion of Constantinople and the Menologion of Emperor Basil II assure us that he did come from somewhere in the "east".

In Thessaloniki David became a monk at the Monastery of Sts. Theodore and Mercurius, otherwise known as Koukouliaton (Κουκουλιατῶν) Monastery, at a young age between the years 465-470. It was known as Koukouliaton because the monks wore cloaks for which it was known and which is depicted in the icons of the Saint. In fact in January of 1944 a marble slab was found in the Jewish cemetery that depicted an icon of Saint David dating back to the 10th century in which he is wearing a cloak with the hood hanging off his shoulders.

We are told that the Monastery of Sts. Theodore and Mercurius was next to the walls of the city at the gate known as Aproiton. We are further informed that there was another monastery next to this one known as Aproiton Monastery, though it is possible it could have been another name for the same monastery. The word "Aproiton" probably indicates the austere rule of the monasteries, since it implies that the monks were not allowed to leave their monastery. This gate was probably located along the northern wall of the city to the west of the Acropolis which the Turks called during Ottoman times Eski Delik. It is believed that outside this gate along the wall was the Monastery of Sts. Theodore and Mercurius where Saint David lived a monastic life. Others say the monastery was northeast of the Acropolis in an area known as the Garden of the Sheep, but this seems implausible since the Aproiton is too far west for this to be considered. However we still are not sure where the gate known as Aproiton was actually located for sure. To complicate matters further in locating the actual place of this monastery, one biography tells us that the monastery could be seen from the sea. If this is true, then the monastery would most likely have to be within the city walls to the west of the Acropolis along the northern wall.

At the Monastery of Sts. Theodore and Mercurius Saint David lived a life of prayer, fasting, vigils, humility, study of the sacred Scriptures and the cultivation of all the virtues. When the abbot of the monastery passed away, the monks of the monastery found David alone worthy to replace him due to his spiritual gifts. David however refused this honor, and instead decided to live his ascetic ordeals by climbing up an almond tree to the right of the main church (the katholikon of the monastery) and living up there for three years. One source tells us that this tree was in between two churches within the monastery. For three years this Saint endured the most extreme trials like the Stylite Saints (some say he endured more because the tree offered him no rest due to its constant swaying in the high winds), enduring the bitter cold of the winter and the burning heat of the summer and fully exposed to all the elements of the weather.

It should be noted that although Saint David was the first ascetic known as a "dendrite" (one who lives in trees) in Thessaloniki followed by Adolas (for whom there is no other historical source other than John Moschos), this type of asceticism was practiced in places like Syria and Mesopotamia from which both David and Adolas came from (see the life of Saint Maro the Dendrite celebrated February 4th; interesting studies concerning dendrites can be read here and here). The latest dendrite I know of was Elder Joseph the Hesychast who in the 1920's lived in Athens and would pray sitting in a tree in imitation of the Saints. Furthermore, an interesting comparison of trees was depicted in the Church of Chora in Constantinople in the fourteenth century in which Saint David is shown at the entrance to the funeral chapel, and is positioned equidistant between Christ calling Zacchaeus (who had climbed a tree in order to see Christ as he passed through Jericho) and Moses before the Burning Bush. In each, we witness an encounter with the divine in three periods – Old Testament, New Testament, Roman Empire.

When those three difficult years passed, after instruction was given to him by an angel of the Lord to live in silence in a cell and he was foretold by this same angel that he would "accomplish one other act of love" before he died, Saint David came down from the almond tree and entered a cell that had been prepared by his disciples. Saint David entered his cell in the presence of Archbishop Dorotheos of Thessaloniki (c.497-c.520) along with many pious clergy and faithful who gathered to see this momentous event when the news had spread. John Moschos informs us that this cell existed outside the walls of the city "about three stadia beyond the city wall", that is, a little more than 555 meters beyond the wall no doubt very near his monastery. From the fact that Archbishop Dorotheos was present at this event, we can ascertain that Saint David entered his cell sometime within the first two decades of the sixth century.

Living as a recluse in his cell and for his unparalleled ascetic feats, this Saint was considered as an angel of God by the people. Many people came to seek his prayers and many healings of demonic possession, diseases and suffering are reported. We can assume it was during this time that the extraordinary events reported by John Moschos took place.

One such miracle that is reported bears an amazing resemblance to the account of John Moschos. We are told a certain youth had a demon and he came to the cell of the Venerable David crying out: "Release me, O David, thou servant of the eternal God, for fire comes forth from your cell and burns me." Upon hearing this, David reached out his hand from his cell through a small window and held the youth, saying: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, commands you to go forth from His creature, O unclean spirit!" After doing the sign of the Cross over the youth, the demon was immediately released and all marvelled, glorifying God who glorifies those who please Him with God-pleasing works.

Saint David's silence was interrupted sometime after 520 when Archbishop Dorotheos died. His successor, Archbishop Aristeides, together with a multitude of clergy and faithful came to the Saint's cell pleading that he travel to Constantinople so as to entreat Emperor Justinian (527-565) regarding the establishment of Justiniana Prima as the new capital of the Prefecture of Illyricum, replacing Thessaloniki. Archbishop Aristeides was against this, since it would demote the status of Thessaloniki and divide Illyricum. Aristeides could not travel to Constantinople because he did not want to leave the city shepherdless with the impending threats of the barbarians.

From 318-379 Sirmium was capital of the Prefecture of Illyricum which encompassed Pannonia, Noricum, Crete, and the whole Balkan peninsula except Thrace. Since 379 Thessaloniki became the capital of the Prefecture of Illyricum. Justiniana Prima was built in 535 in Serbia at the place of Justinian's birth. Justinian's novel 11 announced the imminent transfer of the Illyrian prefecture to Justiniana Prima and the establishment of an archbishopric there making it the metropolis of Illyricum. Thus Eastern Illyricum was to be divided into two ecclesiastical regions under Justinian's law: the southern part belonged to the Archbishop of Thessaloniki and the northern was given autocephalous status under the Archbishop of Justiniana Prima. This was done in order to better protect the northern territories against the barbarians on the other side of the Danube.

David submitted to the pleadings of the Archbishop and the people of Thessaloniki in order to fulfill the prophesy of the angel that appeared to him while on the tree and out of obedience to the bishop and the love of the people of Thessaloniki. After many years of seclusion he emerged from his cell and saw the sun for the first time in many years. His appearance had changed as well. His hair had grown to his lower back and his beard fell all the way down to his feet. Together with his two disciples, Theodore and Demetrios, they left during the night for Constantinople.

The Archbishop pleads with David to see the Emperor

When they arrived in Constantinople his fame preceded him and he was received with much reverence by the people of Byzantium and was especially well received with much respect and reverence by Empress Theodora, who had him escorted into the palace and given hospitality as if he was an angel in the flesh. Justinian was occupied with other matters when he arrived, but was awe-struck at his holy appearance when he finally saw him the next day and listened to his case before the Senate. Before David spoke however the following miracle occurred leaving everyone astonished: David took a piece of live coal with incense in his bare hands and together with his disciples censed the Emperor and the entire Senate and his hand did not burn, though he was praying and blessing for about an hour. After this David pleaded the case of Archbishop Aristeides, and Justinian submitted to his wishes so that the status of Thessaloniki remained uninterrupted. Though historians mention the fact that this division of Illyricum never actually took place, they tend to leave out the fact that this was because of the great impression Saint David had on Emperor Justinian.

St. David's miraculous censing before the Emperor and Senate

The Saint returned by ship from Constantinople to Thessaloniki. However, when he arrived at Thermes at a place called Emvolos (about 126 stadia from the Saint's cell), he gave up his spirit to the Lord after making his request known to his disciples that he be buried at his monastery. The ship continued on to the port of Thessaloniki, but a strong wind escorted them as if by divine providence and landed at the spot where Sts. Theodoulos and Agathopodus were martyred on the west side of the city. Upon hearing the news of his falling asleep, the Archbishop with a large crowd gathered to pay their last respects and by procession led him up to the Monastery of Sts. Theodore and Mercurius where his relics were enshrined in a wooden coffin according to his wishes.

About 150 years after the Saint's death, in 685-690, the abbot of the monastery Demetrios opened his tomb in order to receive a portion of his relics. In doing so however, the plaque on the tomb fell and broke into many pieces. This was seen by the abbot as a sign that it was not the wishes of Saint David for his relics to be portioned. A monk under Demetrios by the name of Sergius eventually became Archbishop of Thessaloniki. He was present when as a monk they had tried opening the tomb of the Saint. Honoring this occurrence, Sergius opened the tomb which emitted a beautiful fragrance from the incorrupt relics and took care to only remove some hair from the beard and head of the Saint in order to distribute to the faithful to increase their faith and help aid in their salvation.

The tomb of the Saint remained undisturbed until the Fourth Crusade in 1204. In 1236 it was taken by Crusaders to Pavia, Italy and from there transferred to Milan in 1967. Finally on September 16, 1978 through the efforts of Metropolitan Panteleimon of Thessaloniki, the sacred relics of Saint David were triumphantly returned to Thessaloniki and housed in the Basilica of Saint Demetrios the Great Martyr. To celebrate this feast a Service was written by the renowned hymnographer Elder Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis. Eventually the relics were transferred to the katholikon of the Monastery of Saint Theodora in the middle of Thessaloniki in a chapel surrounded by icons of the Saint's life.

The relics of Venerable David today

It should be pointed out here that the current Monastery of Hosios David in Thessaloniki has no association with the life of the Saint nor is it the site of the Monastery of Sts. Theodore and Mercurious. This is however the oldest monastery in Thessaloniki (only the katholikon currently exists) and in Roman times was known as the Monastery of the Prophet Ezekiel (some say Zachariah) though more popularly known as Latomou Monastery. The mosaics inside are the oldest in the city dating back to approximately the 5th-6th century, especially magnificent being the depiction of a beardless Christ flanked by the prophets Ezekiel and Hakkakuk along with a vision of Ezekiel of Christ surrounded by the symbols of the four Gospels (the angel, eagle, lion, and bull). This monastery was not named after Saint David until 1921 when it was returned to the Orthodox after serving as a mosque since 1430. Interestingly the faithful had the mosaic of the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel covered in mortar (some say the Turks simply white-washed it) all those centuries so that the Turks would not destroy it as was their custom. During the days of Iconoclasm it was covered in ox-skin to be protected. Its existence was lost to history after 1430 until discovered in 1921, which some believe was done in a divine manner.

For more on the Latomou Monastery as well as the sources for the life of Saint David, see here and here (Greek only). For the 8th century life of Saint David, see A. Vasiliev, ‘Life of David of Thessalonica’, Traditio: Studies in Ancient Medieval History, Thought and Religion 4 [1946], pp. 115-147.

Latomou Monastery, Thessaloniki

Mosaic depicting a vision of the Prophet Ezekiel in Latomou Monastery

Apolytikion in Plagal of the First Tone
O David, your love for God the Word gave you wings, and you lived an angelic life in a tree. You produced for us fruits of grace, and we partake of them spiritually, crying to you with faith: Pray for us to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
An Angel on earth, and stranger to all earthly things, you made a tree your dwelling like an eagle's nest, whence, O David, you soared up to Heaven, where you found that Tree which in Eden we lost of old. Remember us all, who keep your memory.