February 6, 2011

Saints Barsanuphios the Great and John the Prophet

Sts. Barsanuphios and John (Feast Day - February 6)


To Barsanuphios
From the earth the body of Barsanuphios was brought together,
And entered the earth, his mother.

To John
You are righteous, O our John,
Appointed thus, by your teacher friend.

By Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetra

Saint Barsanuphios was an Egyptian and embraced the ascetic life in his youth. One day he was passing by the hippodrome during a race which was provoking high excitement in the spectators. "See how keenly the children of the devil vie with one another!" he said to himself. "All the more reason why we children of the Kingdom should hasten to carry off the victory!" He made his way to Palestine, where he put himself under the direction of an Elder named Marcellus; then, climbing the ladder of perfection step by step, he withdrew far from mankind in order to devote himself to contemplative prayer. When Saint Barsanuphios had attained purity of heart and complete impassibility (apatheia) he went to the Monastery of Abba Seridos near Gaza (Aug. 13). He settled a short distance from the monastery in a cell to which no one had access except Abba Seridos, who once a week brought him the Holy Mysteries and his ration of three loaves and some water. The Holy Elder was often so inebriated by sweet tears and so rapt in blessed contemplations that it was a whole week before he thought of eating and drinking. In the manner of Saint Paul, he said of himself: "I know a man, the Son of God is my witness, here in this monastery, who is able to subsist without food, drink or raiment until the coming of the Lord. He lacks none of these things, for his food, his drink and his raiment is the Holy Spirit." The teachings of Barsanuphios, dictated to Seridos during his weekly visits, were addressed to his spiritual children, both monastic and lay, in answer to their letters, in which they sought his counsel on topics as various as the spiritual life, what to do in their social relations, obscure points in Scripture, the holy doctrines, or even incidents in daily life. When Barsanuphios first began dictating these letters, Seridos had no writing materials with him and was worried by the thought that he would be unable to remember such a stream of words; but, perceiving what was on his mind the Elder said to him: "Go back to your cell and write without fear, for the Spirit of God will not allow you to write a single word more or less but, under His guidance you will write everything in order."

He was established on the rock of humility and, through never-ending remembrance of God, he possessed perfect serenity of heart, whence divine love, like unto God the Father's, brimmed over and covered all those who sought his help. He encouraged, comforted and reproved them, shared their joys and sorrows, covered their faults and took them upon himself with the loving-kindness of God Himself, for it was from no lack of regard for mankind that he had gone into retirement. "I look upon the gains and the profit of all men and of every soul as my own," he wrote. "Willingly and gladly I offer myself in sacrifice for your souls" (Letter 111). Through his prayer and his teaching Saint Barsanuphios gave true life to his sons as God the Father gives life to His Son, and he promised them that on the Last Day he would present them with full confidence before the judgment seat of God and would announce in a resounding voice to the amazement of the Angels: "Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me" (Is. 8:18 and Letter 117). This godlike man showed the same assurance in forgiving in God's name the sins of those who confessed to him, even though he was not a priest. He also prophesied what would befall, and healed the illness of his disciples. Many of them recovered their health or were freed from the assaults of passions by covering themselves with his monastic cloak or by touching things he had sent as presents. But the greatest of all the charismata that he received from the Holy Spirit was discernment and spiritual instruction, whereby, through the centuries and even until now, he remains active for all those who read with piety his collected Letters of spiritual guidance.

Saint Barsanuphios conveys to his disciples the spirit of the "law of liberty" (James 1:25) which is acquired by detachment from all worldly cares, by dying to oneself and to all mankind, in order to devote oneself entirely to the remembrance of God with joy and trust. Moreover he taught them to avoid all self-assessment (apsiphiston) but to resort at all times to thanksgiving, pleading thereby with God on behalf of our weakness.

He was not ashamed to tell his disciples of the wars he had to wage before entering into complete rest but he was always very reticent as to the graces granted to him by God. Sometimes however, he would let fall a word about his visions or his ecstasies, saying for instance that he knew a man who had attained the seventh heaven, or, when he wrote: "I know a servant of God in this blessed place who can raise the dead, drive out demons, heal the incurable, stop wars, and shut and open the heavens like Elias" (Letter 90).

In 542 and 543, when the Roman Empire was ravaged by a terrible plague, the Great Elder was entreated to intercede for the endangered world. He indicated at that time in a veiled way that he was one of three men "perfect in the sight of God who have surpassed human nature and have received the power to bind and to loose. They stand in the gap to prevent the entire world from being annihilated at one blow, and thanks to their prayer God will chastise with mercy" (Letter 569).

Notwithstanding so many disclosures of the grace of God, there were some lax monks who suspected that the recluse was a figment of Abba Seridos' imagination, invented to back up his authority. That was the one and only occasion on which Barsanuphios threw open the door of his cell. He received all the brethren with affability, and after washing their feet he withdrew again.

When some years had passed, Barsanuphios left his cell to the "other Elder", his faithful and perfect disciple John, of whom he said: "Concerning the life of my blessed, humble and obedient child, who is entirely one with me and who has utterly renounced his own will in everything, what is to be said? The Lord has said, 'He who has seen me has seen the Father' (John 14:9) and He has said of the disciple that 'he can know his master' (Luke 6:40)." And indeed, Saint John took the way of life of Barsanuphios as his model in everything. Reaching forth for God with his whole being, he was granted the gift of insight and of prophecy in full measure, so that he communicated with his spiritual father and shared all his thoughts without needing to see or write to him. For this reason he is known as "John the Prophet". Like Barsanuphios, he communicated with his disciples by letters which were passed on, at first by Abba Seridos and later by Saint Dortheos of Gaza (Aug. 13). John, like the Great Elder, preserved an unalterable peace founded on blessed humility and continuous tears. He taught under the overshadowing of the Great Elder with the sole purpose of adding practical details to the latter's answers and instructions, or in order to encourage faint-hearted disciples saying: "It is good for you that two are praying for you, for two have more strength than one" (Letter 783).

If, as sometimes happened, shameless people put the discernment of the Elders to the test by addressing the same question to them both, John would remain silent or would recommend them to follow whatever Barsanuphios advised, while the latter would answer, "Do as brother John has told you; the God of Barsanuphios and John is one and the same" (Letter 224).

In the eighteenth year of John's eremitic life, Abba Seridos died, leaving the direction of the community to the brethren in succession in order of seniority. Saint Barsanuphios then withdrew into absolute silence and John made known that he would complete his earthly sojourn within a week. Competing with one another in humility, none of the monks from the oldest to the most junior would accept the abbacy. In the end, a monk named Elian, who had just left the world, was appointed with universal approval on the instructions of John, confirming a prediction of Barsanuphios. Overwhelmed by the responsibility laid upon him, he begged John to remain for two weeks at least in order to teach him all the details of monastic governance. The Prophet acquiesced and remained two weeks longer in this life (Letters 576-598). At the end of the fortnight, he called all the brethren to him, embraced each one and, having sent them away in peace, he gave back his soul to God in solitude.

It is unknown when and how Saint Barsanuphios ended his earthly sojourn. He was thought to be still alive fifty years later, but when the Patriarch of Jerusalem ordered his cell to be opened, fire darted out that bid fair to consume all who had gathered there.

From The Synaxarion (vol. 3), translated by Christopher Hookway, 2001, pp. 430-434.

Read also:

Counsels of Sts. Barsanuphios the Great and John the Prophet

Apolytikion in the First Tone
Divine and tuneful harps of the Holy Spirit's myst'ries, sounding forth sweet hymns of discernment which soothe all those in sorrows: ye moved men to cast off passion's yoke and trample upon Satan's loathsome head. Wherefore, Godlike Barsanuphius and wise John, deliver us who now cry out: Glory to Him that hath given you grace. Glory to Him that hath blessed you. Glory to Him that hath saved many through your sacred words of counsel.

Kontakion in the Third Tone
O Great Barsanuphius and John, thou marvellous Prophet, all the hidden secrets of men and God's dispensation brightly shone in the clear mirrors of your most pure hearts; and with beams of grace divine, ye cast out sin's shadows from the souls of men; O Fathers, lights of discernment, entreat the Lord for us all.

The relics of St. Barsanuphios were brought in the ninth century to Oria, near Siponto in Italy.