March 21, 2017

Life and Sayings of Holy Abba Serapion the Sindonite

St. Serapion the Sindonite (Feast Day - March 21)


Your hands always bound by fetters Serapion,
In the end you gave your spirit to the Lord.

By Bishop Palladius of Helenopolis

(Lausiac History, Ch. 37)

There was another monk, Serapion, and he was surnamed the Sindonite, for apart from a sindon (loincloth; girdle) he never wore clothes. He practiced great detachment from possessions and, being well educated, knew all the Scriptures by heart. And through his great detachment and his meditation on the Scriptures he was unable to remain calmly in the cell; not because he was distracted by material things, yet none the less he traveled up and down the world and perfected this type of asceticism. For he was born with this nature; for there are differences of natures, not of substances.

The fathers used to relate how, taking an ascetic as his accomplice, he sold himself to some Greek actors in a certain city for twenty pieces of money. And having sealed up the money he kept it on his person. Then he stayed a long while and served as slave to the actors who had bought him, until he both made them Christians and induced them to leave the stage. All the time he took nothing except bread and water, nor did his lips rest from expounding the Scriptures. After a long period, first the man was stricken with compunction, then the actress, then the whole house. But it was said that as long as they did not know him he washed the feet of them both. So both were baptized and gave up the stage, and applying themselves to an honorable and pious life they revered the man exceedingly and said to him: "Here, brother, let us free you, since you yourself have freed us from disgraceful slavery." He said to them: "Since God has wrought this, and your soul is saved, let me tell you the mystery of my conduct. I pitied your soul, being myself an ascetic, a free man, an Egyptian by race, and I sold myself for this reason, that I might save you. But since God has done this, and your soul has been saved through my humiliation, take back your money, that I may go away and help others." But they used many entreaties and assured him: "We will have you as father and master, only stay with us." But they could not persuade him. Then they said to him: "Give the money to the poor, for it has been our first payment for salvation; but come and see us, if only once a year."

In the course of his incessant wanderings he came to Greece, and during a three days' stay at Athens no one thought fit to give him bread; he carried no money, no purse, no sheep-skin coat -- nothing of the kind. So when the fourth day came he was very hungry; for hunger unwillingly endured is terrible, if it has an ally in the fact that no one believes you. And standing on an eminence in the city, where the authorities were collecting, he began to lament violently, clapping his hands, and to call out: "Men of Athens, help!"

And all ran to him, wearers of the philosopher's cloak and laborer's smock alike, and said to him: "What is the matter? Where are you from? What ails you?" Said he to them: "By race I am an Egyptian. After I left my real country I fell in with three usurers. And two left me having got their debt in full, with no accusation to make. But one does not leave me." So, inquiring minutely about the usurers in order that they might satisfy them, they asked him: "Where are they? and who are they? Who is it that troubles you? Show him to us that we may help you." Then he said to them: "From my youth covetousness and gluttony and fornication have troubled me. From two am I freed, covetousness and fornication; they trouble me no longer. But I cannot get free from gluttony. For this is the fourth day that I have not eaten, and my stomach continues troubling me and seeking its habitual debt without which I cannot live." Then certain of the philosophers, supposing it to be acting, gave him money. And having received it he put it down in a baker's shop, and having got one loaf he resumed his journey and left the city at once and never more returned to it.

Then the philosophers recognized that he was truly virtuous, and giving the baker the price of the bread they took the piece of money. But having come to the country where the Spartans live, he heard that one of the first men of the city was a Manichaean with all his house, though virtuous in other respects. To him again he sold himself as he had done at first; and within two years he induced him to forsake his heresy, and brought him to the Church and his wife also. Then they loved him no longer as a servant, but treated him as a true brother or father and glorified God.

One day he flung himself into a vessel as if he had a right to sail to Rome. The sailors, thinking that either he had paid his fare or had the price of it in cash, received him without trouble, each thinking that another had taken his luggage. But when they had sailed away and got 500 stades from Alexandria the passengers began to eat about sundown, the sailors having eaten first. They saw that he did not eat the first day, and expected it was because of the voyage; similarly on the second, third and fourth days. On the fifth day they saw him sitting quietly while all ate and said to him: "Why are you not eating, man?" He said to them: "Because I have nothing." So they inquired one of another: "Who received his luggage or his fare?" And when they found that no one had they began to attack him and say: "How did you come on without paying? From what source can you give us the fare? Or from what source can you get fed?" He said to them: "I have nothing. Pick me up and throw me where you found me." But they would not willingly have relinquished their voyage, even for 100 gold pieces, but they wanted to get to their destination. So he remained in the ship and found that they fed him until they got to Rome.

So having come to Rome he inquired who was a great ascetic in the city, man or woman. Among others he met also a certain Domninus, a disciple of Origen, whose bed healed sick persons after his death. So he met him and was benefited, for he was a man of refined manners and liberal education, and learning from him what other ascetics there were, male or female, he was told of a certain virgin who cultivated solitude and would meet no one. And having learned where she lived he went off and said to the old woman who attended her: "Tell the virgin, 'I must meet you, for God has sent me.'" So after waiting two or three days at last he met her, and said to her: "Why do you remain stationary?" She said to him: "I do not remain stationary, I am on a journey." He said to her: "Where are you journeying?" Said she to him: "To God." He said to her: "Are you alive or dead?" She said to him: "I trust in God that I am dead, for no one who lives to the flesh shall make that journey." He said to her: "Then do what I do, that you may convince me that you are dead." She said to him: "Order me possible things, and I will do them." He answered her: "All things are possible to a dead person except impiety." Then he said to her: "Go out and appear in public." She answered him: "This is the twenty-fifth year that has passed without my appearing in public. And why should I appear?" "If you are dead to the world," said he to her, "and the world to you, it is all the same to you whether you appear or appear not. So appear in public." She did so, and after she had appeared outside and gone as far as a church, he said to her in the church: "Now then, if you wish to convince me that you are dead and no longer live pleasing men, do what I do and I shall know that you are dead. Follow my example and take off all your clothes, put them on your shoulders, go through the middle of the city with me leading the way in this fashion." She said to him: "I should scandalize many by the unseemliness of the thing and they would be able to say, 'She is mad and possessed by a demon.'" He answered her: "What does it concern you if they say, 'She is mad and possessed by a demon?' For you are dead to them." Then she said to him: "If you want anything else I will do it; for I do not profess to have reached this stage." Then he said to her: "See then, no longer be proud of yourself as more pious than all others and dead to the world, for I am more dead than you and show by my act that I am dead to the world; for impassively and without shame I do this thing." Then having left her in humility and broken her pride, he departed.

There are many other marvelous acts which he did in the direction of impassivity. He died in the sixtieth year of his age, and was buried at Rome itself.*

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

1. One day Abba Serapion passed through an Egyptian village and there he saw a courtesan who stayed in her own cell. The old man said to her, 'Expect me this evening, for I should like to come and spend the night with you.' She replied, 'Very well, abba.' She got ready and made the bed. When evening came, the old man came to see her and entered her cell and said to her, 'Have you got the bed ready?' She said, 'Yes, abba.' Then he closed the door and said to her, 'Wait a bit, for we have a rule of prayer and I must fulfill that first.' So the old man began his prayers. He took the psalter and at each psalm he said a prayer for the courtesan, begging God that she might be converted and saved, and God heard him. The woman stood trembling and praying beside the old man. When he had completed the whole psalter the woman fell to the ground. Then the old man, beginning the Epistle, read a great deal from the apostle and completed his prayers. The woman was filled with compunction and understood that he had not come to see her to commit sin but to save her soul and she fell at his feet, saying, 'Abba, do me this kindness and take we where I can please God.' So the old man took her to a monastery of virgins and entrusted her to the amma and he said, 'Take this sister and do not put any yoke or commandment on her as on the other sisters, but if she wants something, give it her and allow her to walk as she wishes.' After some days the courtesan said, 'I am a sinner; I wish to eat every second day.' A little later she said, 'I have committed many sins and I wish to eat every fourth day.' A few days later she besought the amma saying, 'Since I have grieved God greatly by my sins, do me the kindness of putting me in a cell and shutting it completely and giving me a little bread and some work through the window.' The amma did so and the woman pleased God all the rest of her life.**

2. A brother said to Abba Serapion, 'Give me a word.' The old man said to him, 'What shall I say to you? You have taken the living of the widows and orphans and put it on your shelves.' For he saw them full of books.

3. Abba Serapion said, 'When the soldiers of the emperor are standing at attention, they cannot look to the right or left; it is the same for the man who stands before God and looks towards him in fear at all times; he cannot then fear anything from the enemy.'

4. A brother went to find Abba Serapion. According to his custom, the old man invited him to say a prayer. But the other, calling himself a sinner and unworthy of the monastic habit, did not obey. Next Abba Serapion wanted to wash his feet, but using the same words again, the visitor prevented him. Then Abba Serapion made him eat and he began to eat with him. Then he admonished him saying, 'My son, if you want to make progress stay in your cell and pay attention to yourself and your manual work; going out is not so profitable for you as remaining at home.' When he heard these words the visitor was offended and his expression changed so much that the old man could not but notice it. So he said to him, 'Up to now you have called yourself a sinner and accused yourself of being unworthy to live, but when I admonished you lovingly, you were extremely put out. If you want to be humble, learn to bear generously what others unfairly inflict upon you and do not harbour empty words in your heart.' Hearing this, the brother asked the old man's forgiveness and went away greatly edified.


* Dom Cuthbert Butler wrote of Palladius' account of Serapion in 1898: "I had looked upon Palladius' account of Sarapion's life and travels as extravagant and impossible, until a little time ago I met a Hindu Renunciant, a well-educated high-caste Brahmin, who on a religions mission travelled from India to Europe clad in what may be described as pyjamas and a brown dressing gown, with shoes and skull-cap, carrying no money nor anything besides the clothes he wore and an umbrella: he arrived in London with no money, no luggage, no friends, no introductions; yet he managed to effect the purpose of his journey, and said he had no doubt he would get back to India somehow. What Palladius tells of Sarapion's adventures is hardly more wonderful than this."

** Though it is said in Syrian texts Bessarion converted St. Thais, in Greek the name is Serapion, indicating that this story relates the history of St. Thais. Some believe they were later buried together in Egypt, and their relics were discovered in 1901 near Antinoe and exhibited at the Musée Guimet in Paris.