February 10, 2016

Saint Zeno the Letter Carrier of Caesarea

St. Zeno of Caesarea (Feast Day - February 10)


Zeno seeks the delights of Eden alone,
Having as a delight the release from the flesh.

By Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus, Syria

Not many know of the wonderful Zeno,1 but those who do cannot adequately express admiration of him. After renouncing exceptionally plentiful wealth in his native land - it was Pontus -, he benefited, as he used to tell, from the streams of his neighbor the great Basil, watering the land of Cappadocia, and yielded fruits worthy of the watering.2 Immediately after the violent death of the emperor Valens,3 he lay aside the military girdle - he had been enrolled among those who carry swiftly the letters of the emperor. Darting from the palace into a tomb (for the mountain near Antioch contains many), he lived alone. Purifying his soul and constantly cleansing its eye, he perceived the vision of God, "placing in his heart the highways" of God, a yearning to have "wings like a dove" and desiring to "fly away and be at rest" in God. For this reason he had neither bed nor lamp nor hearth nor jar nor flask nor chest nor book nor anything else, but he used to wear old rags and likewise shoes that needed straps, since the pieces of leather had come apart.

By one alone of his acquaintances was he brought the food he needed; this was one piece of bread provided for two days. As for water, he himself brought it, drawing it at a distance. On one occasion someone saw him heavy-loaded and asked to relieve him of the labor. He at first refused, explaining that he could not bear to take water brought by someone else. On failing to persuade him, he gave him the jars, for he was carrying two in his two hands. But when he entered his outer door, he poured out and spilled the water, and hastened back to the stream, having confirmed his words by action.

I too, when I first conceived the desire to find out about him and went up the mountain, saw him holding the jars in his hands.4 I then asked where the dwelling of the wonderful Zeno was; he replied that he had no knowledge of a monk called by that name. Taking the modesty of his words as proof, I guessed it was he, and so I followed. When I got inside the door, I saw a couch made of hay and another heap strewn on the stones so that those who sat on them would not derive any discomfort. When we had held a long conversation on philosophy - I myself set questions and he solved them for us -, it was now necessary to return home, and I begged him to give me his blessing for the journey. He refused, saying it was we who lawfully performed prayer and calling himself a civilian and us soldiers - I happened at that time to be a reader of the sacred books for the people of God.5 When we adduced our youth and our immature age (for we had only just experienced a slight growth of down) and swore we would not come again if we were now forced to perform it, he was belatedly and reluctantly won over by repeated entreaty and offered up intercession to God. He made a lengthy apology for his intercession, saying he had performed it out of charity and amenability; and we heard him praying, since we were just by him. Who could adequately express admiration for an old man who had completed forty years in asceticism, preserving at such a summit of philosophy such modesty of spirit? What eulogy could one make consonant with such greatness?

Having obtained such wealth of virtue, while living in the depth of poverty, he would come each Sunday to the church of God together with the multitude - listening to the divine oracles, lending his ear to the teachers and partaking of the secret table6 - , and then would return to that novel dwelling. He had no key or bar, and left no guard, for it was inaccessible to malefactors and utterly inviolable since he possessed only that heap of hay. He would borrow one book from his friends, read it all and first return it before borrowing another one.7 Although he had no bars and used no bolts, he was, however, protected by grace from on high; and this we learnt clearly from experience itself. When a band of Isaurians captured the citadel at night, they ran down at dawn to the foot of the mountain and cruelly shot down many men and many women who practiced the ascetic life. Then this divine man, seeing the massacre of the others, obscured the vision of the Isaurians by means of prayer; passing by his door, they did not see the entrance. As he declared, calling truth to witness, he saw distinctly three youths repelling all their band, as God gave clear proof of his favor. What kind of life this divine man led and what favor he received from God, these facts suffice to demonstrate.8 But it is necessary to add to them the following.

He was greatly distressed and tormented at still having possessions and not having sold and distributed them according to the Gospel rule. The reason for this was the immature age of his brothers. The real and liquid estate was held in common, and so, while unwilling to go himself to carry out the distribution, he was afraid to sell his part of the property, lest the purchasers defraud his nephews and so expose him to slander. Turning these considerations over in his mind, he postponed the sale for a long time. But he later sold everything to one of his innumerable acquaintances and distributed most of it; and in the meantime an illness that struck him forced him to make up his mind about the rest. So he sent for the bishop of the city - it was the great Alexander, the ornament of piety, the model of virtue, the exact image of philosophy9 -, and said to him, "Come now, you whom I know to be a godly person, become an excellent steward of this money too, distributing it according to God's purpose, knowing you will render accounts to that judge. I myself dealt with the rest and gave it round as I thought best, and I intended to disburse the rest in the same manner; but since I am bid pass over from this life, I appoint you steward over it, since you are a bishop and live a life worthy of the episcopal office." He handed the money over as to a divine paymaster.

He himself did not survive for long, but departed like some Olympic victor from the place of contest, receiving praise not only from men but also from angels. I myself, after begging him as well to intercede for me with God, shall turn to another narration.


1. Zeno, like Peter, Romanos, and Macedonius, was a hermit on Mt. Silpius, and is listed as such in Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. IV.28. In his case an exact date is provided for entry into asceticism: 378. The mention of Bishop Alexander of Antioch dates his death to the middle or late 410s.

2. St. Basil was, until his death in 379, the leading ascetic writer of Asia Minor. He can scarcely have exerted a decisive influence on Zeno's choice of vocation, since he was emphatic on the preferability of the coenobitic to the eremitical life.

3. Valens died in 378. Theodoret means that Zeno was one of the agentes in rebus, a corps of civil servants with a special responsibility for the public post; but as a junior member of the service he will indeed have been employed carrying dispatches (A.H.M. Jones, The Later Empire, 578).

4. The date will be the early 410s, when the young Theodoret visited many of the holy men of the region.

5. The lectorate was often bestowed on young boys destined for the clerical state; though a lector would indeed read in church, he had often no regular duties.

6. For a hermit coming regularly to church, contrast Macedonius and Maris, who clearly did not. The special mention here gives the impression that attendance at church was unusual. Some early Syriac writing develops the theme that hermits, as temples of the Holy Spirit, offer a spiritual sacrifice equivalent to the eucharist, or that hermits, though bodily distant from the Church's worship, are spiritually present.

7. No deduction can be made as to the general educational level of hermits: Zeno was of an upper-class background. Still, his wants were modest compared to those of Jerome, who took with him into the desert of Chalcis a library and team of copyists (J. Kelly, Jerome, 49).

8. The Isaurian raids into Syria were at their height in 404-5; see Tillemont, Histoire des Empereun, V: 473-5.

Apolytikion in the Third Tone
Through asceticism, holy Father, you received the grace, of the Divine Spirit, manifesting a divine life of the graces, and you became a healer of the Savior, having been made worthy of His brilliance. Venerable Zeno, entreat Christ our God, to grant unto us the great mercy.

Kontakion in Plagal of the Second Tone
Your struggles on earth God-bearer, were received in the heavens with gladness, and you were joined with the angelic armies Venerable One, being made worthy of divine glory, interceding the Lord of all, on behalf of all those who cry out: Rejoice, O wise Zeno, the beauty of ascetics.

Rejoice, God-bearing Zeno the wise, you were a true model of virtue, for the venerable ones; Rejoice, being for those who celebrate your divine memory, a protector and mediator before our God.