January 28, 2010

St. James the Ascetic, Who Murdered Yet Overcame Despair

St. James the Ascetic (Feast Days - Gr. January 28; Slav. March 4)


As from a snare James left the flesh behind,
For by the flesh’s snares he was not caught.

Our venerable father James the Ascetic (also translated as Jacob or Iakovos), a fourth century saint, left all worldly things to settle for fifteen years in a cave near a village called Porphyrianos (now Haifa) in Palestine. There he led an ascetic's life. Zealous in prayer and in the mortification of the flesh, God granted him the gift to work miracles.

Never leaving his cave, he received many visitors, including many Samaritans whom he led to the Christian faith. Once there was a prostitute who, moved by certain jealous Samaritans, came to see the Saint dressed as a nun. She incited him to sin by pretending to be suffering from an ache in her bosom which needed a rubbing. He consented to her wishes, but in order to resist carnal temptation, he kept his left hand all the while plunged in a fire to his side. Seeing this, the woman repented of her shameful behavior, entered a convent, and made rapid progress in the virtues.

Because of the many miracles James wrought, his fame spread rapidly, drawing visitors to his hermitage. This made him desire peace and quiet. He thus moved forty miles away to a riverside cave. It eventually came to the point where he began to think he had been established in the virtues, and this made him fall into pride. This is just what the devil was waiting for to go on the attack.

At this time, a distraught nobleman who had a daughter possessed by demons offered her to the Saint for healing. The Saint prayed and immediately freed her from the demon. The girl's father, though, was afraid that the demon would disturb her again, and so he left her and her young brother in a nearby cave to the ascetic of many years. Unfortunately, James was overcome by desire and he violated the girl. He then became afraid that his abhorrent sin would be revealed, so he killed the woman and her brother and threw their dead bodies in the nearby river. Thus, he despaired completely of his salvation and made haste to return to the world. But on his way he met a holy elder who exhorted him to have confidence in the mercy of God.

Leaving the elder, James went on his way and came upon an old, desolate sepulcher. He went inside, moved the bones to a corner, and began to send up humble prayer to God. With his heart warmed by tears of repentance, the holy ascetic spent ten years in this dark tomb, unknown to mankind and venturing forth only at night to feed on some of the plants that grew nearby.

Some time later, when the land suffered from drought and lack of rain, God ordered the bishop of the city that unless James who was shut in the tomb prayed, the dry spell would not end. Then the bishop together with all the people went to the Saint, begged and finally convinced him to pray for them. As soon as he prayed there came a heavy rain. From this sign the Saint received good hope about the forgiveness of his sin, for God "desires not the death of the sinner but that he should turn from his ways and live" (Ezek. 33:11). The days passed and he added tears to his tears so that he advanced continuously in humility. In this way he commended his soul into the hands of God in peace at the age of seventy-five.

A church was later built on the site of the tomb where he found the grace of repentance, and he was greatly celebrated there annually.

The Prayer of St. James the Ascetic from Within the Sepulcher

How can I presume to gaze upon Your holy icon, O Master, with my polluted eyes? How can I begin to confess my sins? With what heart and conscience can I approach? How will I move my impious tongue and soiled lips towards Your praise? For what sins shall I ask forgiveness first? How will I open my foul mouth to ask Your forgiveness for my wickedness? O Lord, lover of mankind, have pity upon me and bestow Your mercy upon me, unworthy as I am. Cast me not into perdition, though I am ungodly and iniquitous. I, the thrice-wretched, have committed fornication and murder, thereby defiling my soul in two-fold measure! I am not worthy to walk on Your earth! I dare not lift these profane and indecent eyes of mine to You in the heavens; but I take refuge in Your infinite compassion. Have mercy on me, though I am irreverent and undeserving. Have pity and compassion on me, who am filled with passions, and leave me not to the noetic dragon who will greedily devour me with his charming delights. But, with Your almighty hand, raise me up from this unclean and insatiable abyss!