October 18, 2016

Saint Julian Sabas the Hermit of the Euphrates River

Saint Julian of Mesopotamia (Feast Day - October 18)


Having run past life as a dream, 
Julian gladly ran past it.

By Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus, Syria

1. Julian, whom the people of the country in honor surnamed 'Saba' (the word means 'Old Man' in Greek), set up his ascetic cell in the land once called Parthia but now Osrhoene. It extends westwards to the very bank of the river (its name is the Euphrates), while towards the rising sun its frontier is that of the Roman Empire. It is succeeded by Assyria, the western border of the kingdom of Persia, which later people have called Adiabene. In this province are many great and populous cities, and a great extent both of inhabited countryside and of uninhabited desert.

2. Repairing to the extremity of this desert, this man of God found a cave not made by hands, nor well and beautifully dug out, but able to provide some scanty shelter for those wanting refuge. He was glad to settle in the place, thinking it of more value than palaces shining with gold and silver. In it he resided, taking food once a week. As food he had bread made of barley and indeed of bran, as relish he had salt, as a most pleasant drink fresh water from springs,2 and this not proportioned to satiety, but limited to what was needed for the food swallowed down beforehand. As his luxury, indulgence, and elaborate banquet he had the hymnody of David and perpetual intercourse with God. As his enjoyment of this was insatiable, he refused to experience repletion; instead he was always taking his fill and always crying out, 'How sweet to my throat are your oracles, beyond honey and honeycomb to my mouth.' Again he had heard the blessed David saying, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and justified altogether, more to be desired than gold and much stone of price, and sweeter than honey and honeycomb.' He had heard him saying again, 'Take delight in the Lord and may he grant you the petitions of your heart,' and further, 'May the heart of those that seek the Lord rejoice,' and 'Gladden my heart to fear thy name,' and 'Taste and see that the Lord is good,' and 'My soul has thirsted for God, the strong, the living,' and 'My soul has cleaved after thee.' He transferred into himself the love of the one who had uttered these sayings. For this was why the great David too sang them, to teach that he could make many his partners as fellow-lovers of God; and he was not cheated of his hope but wounded with divine love both this inspired man and innumerable others. For Julian received such a firebrand of longing that he was intoxicated with desire, and while seeing nothing of earthly things dreamt only of the Beloved at night and thought only of him by day.

3. Many who learnt of this, his consummate philosophy, some living in the neighborhood, others far away (for his fame sped everywhere on wings), hastened along to beg to be received into his wrestling-school and to live the rest of their lives under him as under some gymnastic master and trainer; for not only do birds catch other birds through calling to themselves by song those of the same species and entangling them in snares laid around, but men also entrap their fellow-men, sometimes for their harm, sometimes for their salvation. And so ten men were soon gathered together, then twice and three times that number, and later they made up the number of a hundred.

4. Even when they became so many, that cave received them, for they learnt from the Old Man to belittle care for the body; they too, like their trainer, ate barley-bread seasoned with salt. Later, gathering wild vegetables, filling pots with them and mixing in a sufficient quantity of salty water provided those in need of special care with conserves. However, the damp of the place was harmful to these vegetables, for it naturally caused them to mold and decay. So when this misfortune occurred in the case of the conserves - for the cave admitted damp from all sides -, his disciples begged the Old Man to let them build a little hut adequate for the containers of the conserves. At first he would not grant their request, but some time later he complied, for he had been taught by the great Paul not to seek his own will but to accommodate himself to the lowly. He gave them the dimensions for the cell, small and limited, and went off far away from the cave to make his customary prayers to God, for he used to take a walk in the desert often of fifty stades,3 sometimes of twice this amount, and separating himself from all human company and turning into himself enjoy solitary intercourse with God and gaze as if in a mirror upon that divine and inexpressible beauty. Taking advantage of this free time, those counted worthy of his care built the hut according to dimensions that, while fitting the need, exceeded those laid down. Returning after ten days like some Moses from ineffable contemplation on the mountain, he saw that the building had become bigger than he wanted it. 'I fear, my friends,' he said, 'that by enlarging our abodes on earth we may diminish those in heaven; yet the former are temporary and of use to us briefly, while the latter are eternal and cannot come to an end.' But while he said this to instruct his choir in the more perfect way, he consented none the less, heeding the voice of the Apostle, 'I seek not my own advantage but that of the many, that they may be saved.'

5. He instructed them to offer, when inside, common hymnody to God, and after dawn to go out in the desert in twos: one was to offer due worship to the Master kneeling, while the other sang fifteen Davidic psalms standing; they were then to change the task round, one standing up to sing while the other stooped to the ground to worship.4 This they continued to do from early morning till late afternoon. Taking a short rest before sunset, they all gathered in the cave from all sides, some from here, some from there, and offered in unison the evening hymnody to the Master.

6. The Old Man also used to take one of the more outstanding to share in his liturgy. He was often accompanied by a man who was by race a Persian and in physique tall and remarkable, and who possessed a soul more wonderful than his physique; James was his name.6 After the death of the Old Man he was conspicuous in every virtue; he was distinguished and celebrated in not only the philosophical retreats of that region but also those of Syria, in which indeed he died, having lived, it is said, a hundred and four years. This man, sharing his walk to the desert, was following the Old Man at a distance, for the teacher would not let him come close, for fear that this would cause conversation between them and that this conversation would rob the mind of its reflection upon God. As he was following behind, he saw lying in the path a huge serpent. On seeing it, he did not dare advance; but after wishing several times to retire out of fear, he recovered again strength of mind. He then knelt down, picked up a pebble and hurled it. But he saw that the serpent remained in the same posture and could not move at all. Realizing that it was dead, he took the death of the beast to be the work of the Old Man. After finishing the walk and completing the liturgy of hymnody, when the time of rest had come, the Old Man sat down and told him to rest his body a little. At first he sat in silence, but when the Old Man began some conversation James begged him with a smile to reveal to him something of which he was ignorant. When the Old Man bade him speak, he said: 'I saw a huge serpent stretched out on the path. At first I was afraid of it, supposing it to be alive. But when I saw it was dead, I made my way rejoicing. Tell me, father, who killed it? For you were leading the way and no one else went along.' The Old Man replied, 'Do not be inquisitive about things like this that can bring no profit to those who meddle with them.' But the wonderful James insisted none the less, eager to learn the truth. The Old Man tried for a good time to hide it, but could not bear to torment his disciple for still longer: 'I will tell you what you are eager to learn,' he said, 'but I charge you to let no one else share your knowledge of what I am about to say while I am alive, for it is right to hide things like this, that often arouse arrogance and vanity. But when I depart from here and get free of such passions, I do not prohibit you from speaking and relating the power of divine grace. So know well (continued the great Julian) that as I was walking along the path that beast came against me and opened its mouth, eager to devour me. But I, invoking the name of the Lord and making the sign of the cross with my finger, cast off all fear, and immediately saw the beast fall to the ground; and hymning our common Savior I continued my journey.7 Concluding his narrative thus, he got up and took the path to the cave.

7. On another occasion, an adolescent born of a noble family and delicately nurtured begged the Old Man with more zeal than strength to share his journey to the desert, not the normal journey that everyone made each day but a very long absence that occupied often seven days and often even ten. This celebrated youth was Asterius. The inspired Old Man forbade the young man, mentioning the lack of water in the desert, but the young man persisted in begging to enjoy this favor. Overcome by his entreaty the Old Man yielded. The other followed readily at first, but when the first, second and third days passed, he was scorched by the sun's rays - for it was summer, and at the height of summer their heat, of course, is quite intense -and continuously consumed by thirst. At first he was ashamed to tell of his suffering, remembering what the teacher had said beforehand; but when overcome and oppressed by a swoon, he begged the Old Man to have pity on him. The Old Man reminded him of his remarks beforehand and told him to go back. But when the young man said he did not know the path leading to the cave and even if he did would not be able to walk since his strength was exhausted by thirst, the holy man took pity on the youth's suffering and accorded pardon to his bodily weakness. Kneeling down he besought the Master, wet the ground with fervent tears, and sought a way to save the young man. He who does the will of those who fear him and listens to their entreaty made the streams of tears, as they touched the dust, into a spring of waters; and when the young man was thereby replenished with fresh water, he immediately ordered him to depart.

8. The spring has lasted even till now, witnessing to the prayer (like that of Moses) of the inspired Old Man: just as Moses once of old by striking with his rod that infertile rock caused a flood of fertile river-water, in order to satisfy the thirst of those many thousands, so this man of God by watering with his tears that most arid sand drew forth streams of spring-water, to cure the thirst not of many myriads but of a single adolescent.

9. Illuminated in his soul by divine grace, he foresaw quite clearly the perfection that the young man would possess. And he, a long time later, called by divine grace to be the trainer of many others in the same virtue, fixed his ascetic wrestling-school in the district round Gindarus, a very large village placed in subjection to Antioch.8 Apart from drawing to himself many other athletes of philosophy, he also drew the great Acacius - I mean the famous, the celebrated one, preeminent in the monastic life, who emitted bright beams of virtue and was counted worthy of the episcopal office and assigned to be the shepherd of Beroea.9 Entrusted for fifty-eight years with tending this flock, he did not abandon the form of ascetic life, but mixed ascetic and civic virtue. Taking the strictness of the one and the accommodation of the other, he conjoined into one two things that stand apart.

10. Of this virtue the hunter and trainer was that Asterius, who remained so fervent a lover of the great Old Man that he made the journey to him often twice a year, often even three times. On his way there he was wont to bring dried figs to the brethren, placing the load on three or four beasts of burden. Gathering two measures, as sufficient for the Old Man for the whole year, he placed this load on his own shoulders, both calling and making himself his teacher's beast of burden, and carrying this load he walked along, completing not ten or twenty stades but a trek of seven days.

11. On one occasion, the Old Man, seeing him carry the load of figs on his shoulders, said in displeasure that he would not make these his food, since it was not right that the other should undergo such toil and he luxuriate in his exertion. When Asterius swore that he would not relieve his shoulders of the load unless the Old Man agreed to eat the food he had brought, the aged man said, 'I shall do what you bid; only put down the sack at once.' In this he was imitating the first of the Apostles, who, when the Lord wished to wash his feet, at first refused, insisting firmly that this should never happen. But when he heard that he would be cut off from fellowship with the Master if he did not consent to this, he begged for his hands as well as his feet to be washed and also his head. So too the great John, when ordered to baptize the Savior, at first acknowledged his own servitude and indicated the Master; but later he performed what was ordered, not acting in presumption but obeying the Master. So too this divine man was distressed that while another labored he himself should enjoy the fruit, but when he saw the fervent eagerness of his servant, he chose the man's service in preference to his own choice.

12. One of those who like carping and have learnt only to mock what is fine would say, possibly, that this story is not worthy of mention. But I have added it to the man's miraculous works not only out of a wish to display the reverence paid him by great men, but also because I think it advantageous to show the sweetness and modesty of his character. Although his virtue was so great in both kind and degree, he did not suppose himself worthy of any honor but refused it as in no way befitting him, and yet again allowed it, as beneficial to those who rendered it.

13. To escape being honored - for he became conspicuous to all and drew to himself through fame the lovers of the good - he finally set out for Mount Sinai with a few of those closer to him, entering no city or village but making passable the impassable desert. They carried on their shoulders the necessary food - I mean bread and salt - and also a cup made from wood and a sponge tied to a piece of string, in order (if ever they found the water too deep) to draw it up with the sponge, squeeze it into the cup, and so drink it. Accordingly, after completing a journey of many days, they reached the mountain they longed for, and having worshiped their own Master passed much time there, thinking the deserted character of the place and tranquility of soul supreme delight. On this rock, under which Moses the leader of the prophets hid when he was counted worthy to see God, in so far as it is possible to see him, Julian built a church and consecrated an altar of God, which has remained to this day, and so returned to his own wrestling-school.10

14. On learning of the threats of the emperor who shared his name but not his piety (for he threatened the pious with total destruction as he set out on his expedition against the Persians, and those who shared his convictions gaped after his deprecable return), he thereupon addressed urgent prayer to God and extended it till the tenth day, when he heard a voice saying that the foul and noisome swine had been destroyed.11 Although his prayer had not yet come to its end, he immediately ended it, and changed petition into hymnody, sending up a hymn of thanksgiving to the One who is savior of his own and both a patient and powerful enemy of aliens; for he showed long-suffering to the impious man for as long as possible, but when his long-suffering merely trained the wretch for greater madness, he inflicted punishment opportunely. When James had finished his prayer and turned to his brethren, he was manifestly buoyant in his thoughts, for he showed a face beaming with delight. Those who were with him marveled at the novelty of the sight - for though he always appeared stern, on this occasion he was seen to smile - and enquired after the cause. 'The present occasion, my friends,' he replied, 'is one for gladness and delight; for the impious man has ceased (to use the expression of Isaiah), and paid a penalty worthy of his presumption. Having rebelled against the God who is Creator and Savior, he has justly been slain at the hand of a subject. This is why I am rejoicing, as I see the churches he made war upon exulting, and observe that the miscreant has received no assistance from the demons he honored.' Such was the foreknowledge he enjoyed at the slaying of this impious man.

15. When Valens, who received the reins of the Roman Empire after him,12 discarded the truth of the evangelical doctrines and embraced the deceitful imposture of Arius, then still greater was the storm stirred up against the Church, with the helmsmen everywhere expelled and certain wreckers and enemies brought in instead. In order not to recount the whole of that tragedy at present, I shall now leave aside the rest and recall one single event that will display distinctly the grace of the divine Spirit that blossomed forth in this Old Man. From Antioch had been expelled the great Meletius, who had been entrusted with shepherding this city by the God of the universe;l3 also expelled from the churches of God were all those enrolled in the sacred clergy who maintained the one divine substance of the Trinity, together with the laity of the same conviction. Now they would proceed to the foot of the mountain and hold the sacred assemblies there; now they would make the bank of the river the place of prayer, and at other times the military drill-ground which lies in front of the North Gate, for the enemy did not allow the pious to settle in one place.

16. The nurslings of falsehood sowed and circulated a rumor in this city to the effect that the great Julian - I mean this Old Man - embraced the fellowship of the doctrines they professed. The pious were particularly tormented by the fear this rumor might trick the more simple and naive and entrap them in the nets of the heretics. But those inspired and blessed men Flavian and Diodore, who had merited the priesthood and were in charge of the pious laity, and also Aphrahat, whose life I shall, with God's help, lay before you on its own, persuaded the great Acacius, whom I have already mentioned, to take as companion for the journey the famous Asterius, who had been both Acacius's own teacher and the disciple of this holy old man, and to hasten to that universal ornament of piety and prop of the evangelical teaching, and persuade him to leave his life in the desert and come to the help of the countless number being ruined by deception, and to quench the flame of Arius by the dew of his coming.14 The divine Acacius made haste. Taking the great Asterius as he had been bidden, he came to the great star of the Church, and made his greeting. 'Tell me, father,' he said, 'why is it with pleasure that you put up with all this toil?' He replied: 'Serving God is for me of more value than body and soul and existence and the whole of life, and I try to offer him, as far as I am able, a ministry pure of stain, and to please him in every way.' 'I can show you,' said Acacius, 'a way in which you will serve him more than now, and I shall tell it not by the use of mere reason but having learnt it from his own teaching. He once asked Peter if he loved him more than the others, and on learning what he knew even before Peter's utterance, "You know, Lord, that I love you," he showed him what to do in order to serve him more: "If you love me," he said, "shepherd my sheep and feed my lambs." This, father, is what you too should do. The flocks are in danger of being destroyed by wolves, but the one you love loves them exceedingly, and it is characteristic of the affectionate to perform those actions that delight those for whom they have affection. Otherwise, there is no small danger that those many and great exertions would be wasted, if you bore to allow by your silence the truth to be hard pressed in war, those devoted to it to be ensnared, and your own name to be the bait for those caught, for the champions of Arius's abomination brag that you share in their impiety.'

17. As soon as the Old Man heard this, he bade goodbye to his solitude for a time and, unalarmed at the unpleasantness of civil tumult, hastened to Antioch. Having completed two or three days' journey through the desert, he reached a certain place as evening overtook him. A woman of the wealthy class, hearing of the arrival of this sacred choir, ran to reap their blessing, and prostrating at their feet begged them to stay at her house; the Old Man consented, although he had been segregated from the sight of women for more than forty years. While this wonderful woman was busy serving these sacred men, a seven year old child, who alone had as mother the woman emulating the hospitality of Sarah, in the dark of the evening fell into the well. Naturally enough, this caused a commotion. The mother, on hearing it, told everyone to keep quiet and, putting a cover on the well, kept at her serving. When the table had been laid out for the men of God, the godly Old Man ordered the child of the woman to be summoned to receive his blessing. When the wonderful woman declared he was oppressed by sickness, he persisted in charging him to be brought. When the woman revealed her misfortune, the Old Man left the table, ran to the well and ordered the cover to be removed and light to be brought. He saw the child sitting on the surface of the water, striking the water playfully with his hand and thinking his supposed death a mere children's game. Tying someone with cords and letting him down, they drew up the child, who ran at once to the feet of the Old Man, saying he had seen him carrying him on the water and stopping him drowning. Such was the reward for hospitality that the wonderful woman received from the blessed Old Man.

18. To omit the other occurrences during the journey, they arrived at Antioch, and everyone flocked together from every side, longing to see the man of God and eager, each one of them, to receive some cure for his disease. He settled in the caves at the foot of the mountain, where the divine apostle, the blessed Paul, is said to have settled and been concealed.16 But immediately, so that everyone should learn that he was a human being, he had a violent attack of fever. The great Acacius, seeing the assembled crowd, was vexed at this occurrence of sickness, for he thought that those assembled would be dumbfounded if men expecting to find healing at his hands should learn of the disease. 'Do not despair,' replied the Old Man, 'if health is a thing needed, God will grant it instantly.' Immediately after these words he had recourse to prayer: touching the ground with his knees and forehead as usual, he begged to recover health, if this would result in some advantage for those assembled. He had not yet finished his prayer when profuse sweat suddenly broke out and quenched the fire of the fever.

19. After freeing many from all kinds of disease, he proceeded from there to the assembly of the pious. As he passed through the gates of the palace, a beggar who used his buttocks in place of his feet and crawled on the ground, on stretching out his hand and touching the goat's hair cloak, drove out his affliction by faith, and leaping up displayed how he had run before his sickness, doing the same as the lame man whom Peter and John raised up. At this occurrence, all the people of the town assembled, and the military drill-ground became filled with those flocking together; shamefaced were the calumniators and concocters of the lie, totally cheered and delighted the nurslings of piety.

20. From there those in need of healing drew the star of piety into their houses. And a certain man who had been appointed to very great authority and entrusted to control the rudder of the east17 sent and begged him to come and free him from the sickness that oppressed him. Without delay he attended on him, and praying to the common Master destroyed his affliction with a word, and bade him avow thanks to God.

21. After these and similar achievements he decided to return finally to his ascetic cell. Making his journey through Cyrrhus - this city is two stages from Antioch -, he lodged at the shrine of the victorious martyr Dionysius. The leaders of piety there came together and begged him to help them as they expected sure destruction; for Asterius, they said, who had been reared in sophistic falsity and then made his way into the church of the heretics, where he received the episcopal ministry,18 was craftily advocating falsehood and using artifice against the truth. 'And we fear,' they said, 'that covering over his falsehood with a smooth tongue as if with a decoy and spreading out the web of his syllogisms like nets, he may catch many of the inveterate simpletons, for it was for this that he was called in by our opponents.' 'Have confidence,' replied the Old Man, 'and together with us make supplication to God, joining fasting and mortification to prayer.' They entreated God accordingly; and one day before the festival on which the advocate of falsehood and enemy of the truth was going to make an address, he received a blow inflicted by God, and after only one day's illness was deleted from the list of the living, hearing in all likelihood this utterance: 'Fool! this night your soul is required of you; the evil nets and snares you prepared will be for you and not another.'

22. He suffered the same as Balaam, who likewise was called in against God's people; he paid the penalty for giving Balak unholy advice against them by being slain by the hand of an Israelite; and so this man, when he contrived designs against the people of God, was deprived of his life by the people of God. And it was through the prayer of this man that Cyrrhus enjoyed this salvation. The story was transmitted to me by the holy bishop, the great Acacius, who knew accurately everything about him. So he left here and rejoined his disciples; and after living no little time with them,19 he migrated with real eagerness to the life without old age or sorrow, having practiced impassibility in a mortal nature and awaiting the immortality of the body. At this point I shall end the account of this narrative and proceed to another one, begging those saints introduced in the narrative to procure for me through their intercession favor from above.


1. Julian Saba was a famous holy man in the desert of Osrhoene. A series of Syriac hymns on his life, written shortly after his death and included among the works of Ephraim, broadly confirms Theodoret's account. He died in 367, having been an ascetic for fifty years. Since his community preceded that of Gindarus, it must have been founded as early as c.320.

2. A diet of bread, salt, and water was a traditional ascetic diet in Syria and elsewhere (cf. Athanasius, Life of Anthony 7).

3. Fifty stades is six miles.

4. On the monastic realization of 'prayer without ceasing,' see 1 Th. 5:17), which could be taken more or less literally.

5. Here 'hymnody' means 'psalmody'.

6. James, after Julian's death, moved to the monastery of Teleda near Antioch.

7. For a demon in the form of a dragon being routed by the sign of the cross, see Life of Anthony 23.

8. Gindarus was thirty miles east of Antioch on the main route from Mesopotamia. Since it was at the monastery here that Acacius (b. 321) was 'trained in the monastic life from boyhood' (Sozomen, VII.28), it must have been founded in c.330.

9· Acacius was born in 321, entered the monastery at Gindarus in boyhood, gained a reputation at Antioch for keen orthodoxy, and in 378/9 was made bishop of Beroea (Aleppo), where he lived on, amazingly, till 436/7. He was known by Theodoret personally, and was the chief source for his accounts of Julian and of Eusebius of Teleda. He features repeatedly in Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. (IV.24; V .4,8,23,27), and may well have been a key influence in Theodoret's development as ascetical bishop, polemicist and historian.

10. This pilgrimage to Mount Sinai, and the building of a chapel, are also mentioned in the Syriac Hymns on Julian XIV.10, XIX.13.

11. The emperor Julian died during his Persian expedition in June 363. This story of Julian's telepathy is repeated in Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. 111.24(19) still more graphically. Prescience on the same occasion is attributed to Didymus the Blind in Palladius, Lausiac History 4.

12. The brief reign of Jovian (363-4) is omitted.

13. Meletius, bishop of Antioch (360-381), spent most of his episcopate in exile. In question here is his second exile, 365-367.

14. Of the activities of Flavian and Diodore, Theodoret gives a fuller account in Eccl. Hist. IV.2.f(22).

15. Julian's visit to Antioch dates to 365; Theodoret, Eccl. Hist. IV.27(24) compares it to Anthony's visit to Alexandria in 354, which had the same motive, viz. to scotch Arian claims that he was on their side (Life 69).

16. Other sources are ignorant of this cave on Mount Silpius, which is not to be confused with the more famous 'Grotto of Saint Peter'.

17. The Comes Orientis, with authority over both Syria and Egypt. The identity of the Comes in 365 is uncertain.

18. This Asterius invites confusion with the better-known Asterius the Sophist who was also an Arian propagandist (see Quasten, Patrology, III: 194-7), but the latter had died more than twenty years previously.

19. In fact, as we learn from the sixth century Chronicle of Edessa, Julian died in 367, soon after his return to Osrhoene.

From The History of the Monks of Syria.