January 29, 2016

Saint Aphrahat the Persian

St. Aphrahat (Feast Day - January 29)


Though of the flesh and alive Aphrahat exists as dead,
He lives eternally, appearing lifeless and dead.

By Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus, Syria

That the nature of all men is one and that it is simple for those who wish to practice philosophy, whether they are Greeks or barbarians, is easy to learn from many other examples. Aphrahat1* on his own, however, is sufficient to show this dearly; for this man, though born and bred among the lawless Persians,2 stemming from such parents and educated in their customs, advanced to such virtue as to eclipse those who have been born of pious parents and have received a pious education from childhood. First of all, thinking nothing of his family, although it was distinguished and illustrious, he hastened to worship the Master, in imitation of his forebears the Magi; then, in disgust at the impiety of his kin, he chose a foreign country in preference to his own, and repaired to Edessa,3 a city large and well-populated and exceptionally illustrious in piety. Finding a hovel outside the city-walls and immuring himself, he tended his own soul, pulling out, like an excellent cultivator, the thorns of the passions by the roots, weeding the divine crop, and offering to the Master the seasonal fruits from the seeds of the Gospel.

From there he repaired to Antioch, which was being severely shaken by the storm of heresy.4 Settling in a philosophic retreat in front of the town and knowing just a few phrases of the Greek language, he drew vast numbers to hear the divine oracles; using a language that was semi-barbarous, he brought forth the offspring of his thought, receiving such streams from the grace of the Holy Spirit. Who of those who plume themselves on their eloquence, knit their eyebrows, speak pompously, and embark with zest on syllogistic traps, has ever surpassed the voice of this uneducated barbarian? With arguments he overcame arguments, with divine words the words of the philosophers, exclaiming with the great Paul, 'Even if unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge.' In this manner, he always persevered, in accord with the apostolic saying, in 'destroying arguments and every high thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and taking every thought captive for obedience to Christ.' One could observe hastening together councilors and officials, those with some military rank and manual laborers, in a word civilians and soldiers, the educated and the uninitiated in learning, those inured to poverty and those flourishing in wealth, those who accepted what he offered in silence and those who asked questions and inquired and provided an occasion for discourse. Despite taking on such great labor he would never consent to take a companion, and preferred doing things himself to the assistance offered him by others. Holding these conversations at the outer door, he himself opened the door to those coming in and escorted those leaving. He never accepted anything from anyone, neither bread nor prepared food nor clothing, but a single one of his friends supplied him with bread; on attaining extreme old age he also took greens after sunset.

It is related that Anthemius (who later became perfect and consul), when he had made his journey to Persia on being made ambassador, brought him a tunic woven by the Persians and said, 'Father, knowing that to every human being his own homeland is sweet and the fruits produced there most pleasant, I have brought you from your homeland this tunic, and I beg you to accept it in exchange for your blessing.' The other told him, first of all, to put it on the bench, and then, after conversation on other topics, professed to be at a loss, with his mind torn in two directions. On Anthemius asking the reason he replied: 'I have always chosen to live with a single companion, and I have imposed a rule on myself to refuse totally to live with two. For sixteen years someone has been living with me who is agreeable, and now there has arrived a compatriot of mine who wants to live with me and demands to be granted this. My mind is torn over this: I will not consent to have two at the same time; I welcome my compatriot as a compatriot, but to expel my earlier companion when he has become dear to me is something I think both distressing and unjust.' 'And with good reason, father,' replied the other; 'for it is not right to dismiss as unsuitable the one who has served you for so long a time, and to accept the one who has not yet given proof of his character simply on account of his country of origin.' At this the godly Aphrahat continued, 'In that case, my excellent friend, I will not accept this tunic: for I will not consent to have two, and the one that has served me for so long a time is pleasanter in my opinion and superior to yours.' By thus outwitting Anthemius and exhibiting a miracle of shrewdness, he induced him to utter no further word to him about the tunic. I have told this in full out of a wish to demonstrate two things at the same time: that he received the care that sufficed for his body from one garment alone, and that he was full of such wisdom as to make the person who begged him accept decide that he should not accept.5

But leaving this and such matters aside, I shall relate what is of greater importance. When the accursed Julian had paid the penalty for his impiety on barbarian soil, the nurslings of piety enjoyed a brief calm once Jovian had received the helm of sovereignty; when he came to the end of his life after a very short reign, and Valens succeeded to the sovereignty of the East, hurricanes and tempests stirred up the sea around us, a dangerous swell arose and enormous waves from all sides assailed the ship.6 What made the storm yet more dangerous was the lack of pilots, for these had been forced by an emperor brave against piety alone to live beyond the frontier. Despite practicing such lawlessness, he could not satiate his impiety, but dispersed the whole assembly of the pious, eager like a wild beast to scatter the flock; because of this he drove them out not only from every church but also from the skirts of the mountain, from the banks of the river and from the military drill-ground, for they constantly switched between all these places, making additional work for the military arm. While the Scythians and other barbarians ravaged with impunity the whole of Thrace from the Danube to the Propontis, he himself with stopped ears, as the saying is, could not bear even to hear of them,7 but used his weapons against his compatriots and subjects and those illustrious in piety. The people of God, lamenting these unseasonable ills, sang the psalm of David, 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Sion.' But the rest of the song no longer applied to them; for Aphrahat, Flavian, and Diodore8 would not allow the harps of teaching to be hung up on the willows, nor permit them to say, 'How shall we sing the Lord's song in an foreign land?' Instead, on the hills and on the plains, in the city and in the suburbs, in their homes and in the squares they sang the Lord's song continually. For they had learnt from David that 'the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.' Again they had heard the same prophet saying, 'Bless the Lord, all his works, in every place of his dominion.' They had also heard the inspired Paul urging 'that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger and quarreling.' And the Master himself, speaking with the Samaritan woman, had made distinctly the following prophecy: 'Amen, I say to you, woman,' he said, 'that the hour is coming and now is, when neither in this place nor in Jerusalem but in every place will they worship the Father.' After this teaching, they persevered in bearing witness both at home and in the square, 'in public and from house to house,' according to the apostolic phrase, and, like excellent generals, in arming their own men and shooting down their opponents. That the great Flavian and the godly Diodore, as assistant shepherds at this time and honored with the second place, acted as I have related, is wondrous and worthy of praise; nevertheless, they did this as generals at the front, following the rules of generalship.

But the most wise Aphrahat leapt into these combats as a volunteer. Though he had been reared in solitude and had chosen to live on his own, sitting quietly outside the range of missiles, as the saying is, when he observed the fierceness of the war, he did not cherish his own safety, but, bidding goodbye for a time to solitude, became a champion in the army of the pious, delivering blows by means of his life, words, and miracles, but never himself receiving a blow. On one occasion the utterly senseless emperor saw him going out to the military drill-ground - for it was there that the adherents of the Trinity happened then to be assembling - and as he was walking along the bank of the river someone pointed him out to the emperor who was peering out from the palace.9 He asked him where he was setting out to so hurriedly. When he replied that he was on his way to make prayers on behalf of the world and his reign, the emperor again asked him, 'Why, when you profess the solitary life, are you walking without scruple in the public square, deserting your solitude?' The other, who was wont in imitation of the Master to reason in parables, replied, 'Tell me this, O emperor: if I had been a girl shut away in some inner room and saw a fire attack my father's house, what would you have advised me to do on seeing the flames kindled and the house on fire? Sit indoors and let the house be burnt down? In that case I myself would have become a casualty of the conflagration. If you say that I ought to have dashed to fetch water and run up and down and extinguished the flames, do not blame me, O emperor, for doing this very thing. It is what you would have recommended to the girl in the inner room that I am compelled to do, despite my profession of the solitary life. If you blame me for deserting my solitude, blame yourself for having cast these flames into the house of God and not me for being compelled to extinguish them. For you yourself have agreed that it is certainly right to bring assistance to one's father's house on fire; and it is obvious to everyone, even the utterly unitiated in divine things, that God is more truly our father than fathers on earth. Therefore we are doing nothing wide of the mark or contrary to our original commitment, O emperor, in assembling and pasturing the nurslings of piety and providing them with the divine fodder.' At these words, the emperor, out-argued by the justice of this defense, expressed approval by silence.10

One of those who count as neither men nor women but who have been deprived of in time becoming fathers, and for this reason are thought to 'please' an emperor, and derive their name from this,11 one of these repeatedly abused the man of God, even to the extent of threatening him with death; but it was not long before he paid the penalty for his insolence. The emperor chose to treat his body with a bath, and so the wretch went to the bath to see if it was well mixed; deprived of his wits, he jumped into the pool, which contained unmixed hot water, and since no one rescued him - for he had gone in alone to see if it was ready - he went on gradually being boiled to death. Since time was meanwhile stretching out, the emperor sent someone else to call him: he found no one in any of the rooms, and so reported to the emperor. After this a number of people dashed in and made a search of all the baths, and coming finally to the one in question saw that he had fallen in and lost his life. As a hubbub arose, with everyone lamenting, some drained out the hot water, while others lifted up the poor body. As a result fear fell on the emperor and on all those in arms against piety; the story echoed throughout the city of how that wretch had paid the penalty for his insolence against Aphrahat, and all continued to hymn the God of Aphrahat. This prevented the man of God being exiled, despite the pressure of his enemies; for in his terror the emperor rejected those who advised this and held the man in awe.

He learnt of the man's power from another incident as well. A certain horse of good breed and trained to be an excellent mount was particularly dear to the emperor. To the great distress of the emperor it caught a disease: its secretion of urine was blocked. Those trained in the skill were summoned to tend it; but to the distress of the emperor and the grief of the man entrusted with the care of the horses, their skill was defeated. Being pious and strong in faith, he repaired at midday to the dwelling of the great Aphrahat. After mentioning the disease and declaring his faith, he besought him to dispel the complaint by prayer. Without delaying for a moment but instantly beseeching God, he ordered water to be drawn from the well, and making on this the sign of the cross of salvation gave instructions for it to be given to the horse, which, contrary to its habit, drank it. Then consecrating oil by the invocation of the divine blessing, he anointed the horse's belly: at the touch of his hand the disease immediately departed and at once natural secretion took place. In great joy the man took the horse and ran back to the stable.12 In the evening the emperor, who was in the habit of visiting the stable at this time, came and asked how the horse was. When the man told of his good health and led the horse out, vigorous, prancing, neighing, and holding his neck up proudly, he inquired after the cause of health. After evading reply several times - for he feared to indicate the doctor, knowing the enmity of the questioner - he was finally forced to tell the truth and told of the manner of cure. The emperor was astonished and agreed that the man was remarkable. However, he was not freed of his earlier madness, but persisted in raging against the Only-begotten until he became a casualty of a fire lit by barbarians and did not even receive a burial like servants or beggars.13 The divine Aphrahat both displayed his power in this storm and at the coming of calm continued to perform similar acts; he worked innumerable other miracles, of which I shall recall one or two.

A woman of noble family, who shared the yoke of marriage with a debauched husband, came to this blessed man bewailing her misfortune. She told how her husband, in his attachment to a concubine, had been bewitched by some magical enchantment and became hostile towards the wife yoked to him in lawful wedlock. The woman told this standing in front of the outer door - for he was not accustomed to make conversation with the female sex, and never admitted any woman inside the door. On this occasion taking pity on the woman as she implored loudly, he quenched the power of the magic by prayer, and blessing by divine invocation a flask of oil she had brought told her to anoint herself with it. Following these instructions, the woman transferred to herself her husband's love, and induced him to prefer the lawful bed to the unlawful one.

It is related how, on an occasion when locusts suddenly attacked the land and like a fire consumed crops, plants, marshlands, woods, and meadows, a pious man came to him begging him to help one who had but a single farm from which to support himself, wife, children, and household, and in addition pay the imperial taxes.14 Again imitating the Master's love for men, he ordered a gallon of water to be brought to him. When the petitioner had brought the gallon, he placed his hand over it and besought God to fill the water with divine power; then on finishing the prayer he told the man to sprinkle the water round the boundaries of his property. The man took it and did as instructed, and it served as an invincible and inviolable defence for those fields, for the locusts, while crawling or flying like armies up to this boundary, retreated backwards in fear at the blessing placed upon it, restrained as it were by a curb and prevented from advancing forwards.15

What need is there to set out all the works performed by this blessed soul? These suffice to indicate the splendor of the grace that dwelt in him. I myself saw him and reaped the blessing of that holy hand when still an adolescent and accompanying my mother on a journey to the man. Half-opening the door to her, according to his wont, he honored her with conversation and blessing; but me he received within and gave me a share in the wealth of his prayer. May I enjoy it even now, since I believe him to be alive, to belong to the choir of the angels, and to possess familiar access to God even more than before; for at that time it was measured out according to the mortality of the body, lest greater access might be the occasion of presumption; but now that he has shed the burden of the passions, he enjoys as a victorious athlete familiar access to the Umpire. Because of this I pray to gain his intercession as well.

* St. Aphrahat the Persian commemorated here should not be confused with the early fourth century Christian author known as Aphrahat the Sage.


1. Aphrahat was a hermit of Persian origin, who after a period at Edessa moved to Antioch, where he distinguished himself by his resolute opposition to Arianism. His arrival at Antioch can be dated to 361. He lived long enough to know Theodoret as an adolescent but not apparently as a young man: this dates his death to between 407 and 413.

2. Christianity was in fact well rooted in Persia by this time: see l.4, and Eusebius, Life of Constantine IV.13. It was doubtless Theodoret rather than Aphrahat who could not conceive proper Christianity outside the borders of the Chrstian empire.

3. Edessa, already entirely Christian by the time of Eusebius of Caesarea (Eccl. Hist. 11.1.7), was the greatest center of Syriac Christianity, and had a native tradition of asceticism.

4· The reference, if exact, must be to Constantius II's measures against the Nicene party at Antioch, which date to 361; see Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. ll.31(27).

5. On Anthemius, see Prosopograpby of the Later Roman Empire, II: 93-5, which gives 383 as a possible date for his Persian mission. Festugiere proposes a date between 375 and 378.

6. Julian the Apostate died during his Persian expedition in 363; his successor Jovian died in 364, to be succeeded as eastern emperor by Valens. Valens' persecution of the Nicene party extended from 365 till 377.

7. The Gothic ravaging of Thrace in question here cannot be that of 377, as supposed by Festugiere and Canivet, since this coincided with the end, not the beginnmg, of Valens's persecution. The reference is rather to the less famous ravaging of Thrace of 364-6, which coincided with the start of the persecution in 365.

8. For Flavian and Diodore, they led the Nicene party at Antioch during the lengthy exiles of bishop Meletius.

9· The imperial palace at Antioch lay at the north-west corner of the city, with the military drill-ground just beyond it; see Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. IV.26(23), where the story told here is repeated with greater topographical precision. The date must be the period of Meletius's third exile (371-7), since during his second exile (365-7) Valens was not at Antioch.

10. To Aphrahat's boldness in rebuking Valens, cp. Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. IV.34(31): Isaac of Constantinople prophesied to Valens' face in 378 that he and his army would be destroyed by the Goths unless he ended his campaign against the Nicenes (which, in fact, he had just done). After the event, many monks and laymen claimed to have rebuked Valens. This must cast doubt on the historicity of the story told here, even though Aphrahat was a consistent Nicene and a realistic setting is provided.

11. Theodoret artificially connects eunouchos (eunuch) with eunoiin (to please).

12. Valens perished at the disastrous defeat of the Roman army at the hands of the Goths on 9 August 378 near Adrianople. On the exact manner of his death, see the contemporary treatment in Ammianus Marcellinus XXXI.13-12-16; one account related that he was burnt to death in a cottage in which he had taken refuge. The 'strange manner' of Valens' death (see Eunapms, Lives of the Philosophers, 480) was made much of by both his Christian and his pagan enemies.

13. Women were regularly excluded from monastic enclosures.

14. This peasant is not a serf, but a small freeholder. For the survival of this class in the region of Antioch in this period, see W. Liebeschuetz, Antioch, 67-69·

15. Theodoret's adolescence began around 407, which dates this story.

From A History of the Monks of Syria.