December 5, 2013

An Anglican Minister Visits St. Savvas Monastery in the 1880's

Mar Saba Monastery, 1847

Rev. James King, in Anglican Hymnology, 1885, says:

We visited Mar Saba a short time ago, while making a journey through Palestine, and found that the monastery stands nobly on a lofty cliff overhanging the valley of the Kedron, which here forms a deep chasm. It was founded in the beginning of the sixth century, and this secluded convent has therefore stood in the midst of savage desolation for fourteen centuries. Several times in the course of ages it has been plundered, and the inmates put to death by Persians, Moslems, and the Bedouin Arabs; and, therefore, for the sake of safety, the monastery is surrounded by massive walls, and further guarded by two strong towers near the entrance, which tend to give the edifice the appearance of a fortress in a commanding position. On being admitted inside the gate we found chapels, chambers, and cells innumerable, for the most part cut out of the rock, perched one above the other, and connected by rocky steps and intricate passages. The huge building seems as if it were clinging to the face of a steep precipice, so that it is difficult to distinguish man's masonry from the natural rock. Many of the monks of this tranquil convent are well-known historical persons. St. Sabas, the founder, died and was buried here in 532. The three sacred poets above mentioned [St. Stephen the Sabaite, St. John Damascene, and St. Cosmas of Jerusalem) were monks of Mar Saba, in the eighth century.

The Sabaites at present number about forty, and their rule is very severe, being under a vow never to eat animal food. They have seven religious services in twenty-four hours —five by day and two by night. Although they seem severe in their habits, they received us kindly, and we were carefully conducted by a monk through the whole monastery. We were shown their nayly-decorated chapel, the tomb of St. Sabas, the tomb of St. John of Damascus, and a cave chapel containing thousands of skulls of martyred monks. We were led to the belfry on the roof of their little sanctuary, and saw the bells which send forth their beautiful chimes, and gladden the hearts of pilgrims, who, 'weary and languid', pursue their journey through the desolate wilderness. The bells of Mar Saba recalled to mind the soothing words:

Far, far away, like bells at evening pealing,
The voice of Jesus sounds o'er land and sea,

We were then conducted to a terrace, from the dizzy height of which we looked down into the deep gorge of the Kedron, five hundred feet below. Every morning wolves and jackals assemble at the bottom of the rocks, and are fed by the monks, who cast down food to the ravenous animals. Viewed from this terrace, the scene around and below is one of stern desolation, and a sight so impressive as never to be forgotten. Mar Saba was much more endeared to us when we remembered that here Stephanos, eleven centuries ago, wrote the touching hymn:

Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
'Come to me,' saith one, 'and, coming,
'Be at rest,'