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May 15, 2018

Saint Silvanos of Tabennisi, the Former Actor Who Had the Gift of Tears

St. Silvanos of Tabennisi (Feast Day - May 15);
Rothschild Canticles (f. 3v): Silvanus watering the garden. C. 1300
Description: A bearded and hooded hermit carries a basket over his left arm
as he covers his eyes with his left hand and waters
the leafy foliage at his feet with a bowl of water.
Interpretation: The image illustrates the virtue of sobriety.
Asked by his disciple to water the gardens,
Silvanus does so with his eyes covered to avoid distractions.

From the Life of Holy Pachomios
Ch. 2

Once there was a brother called Silvanos, who had been wearing the monastic habit for twenty years. He was originally an actor. In the beginning of his renunciation he was extremely vigilant about his soul, spending all his time in fasting and frequent prayers and in all humility. But after a long time had elapsed, he began so to disregard his own salvation that he wanted to live softly and enjoy himself, and even fearlessly declaimed among the brothers improper quips from the theater.

Our holy father Pachomios called him in and in the presence of the brothers ordered him to be stripped of the monastic habit, to be given secular clothes, and to be expelled from the monastery by the brothers. He fell at Pachomios' feet and entreated him saying, "Father, if you forgive me this once, and do not expel me, you will cause me to do penance for the things in which I have showed negligence, so that you shall rejoice at the change of my soul."

The Holy Man answered him, "You know how much I have borne with you, and how much I have admonished you, even beating you many times. I am a man who does not want to stretch out his hand with this intent, and when I was obliged to do this in your case, I suffered more in my soul through sympathy than did you who were being beaten. I thought to beat you for the sake of your salvation in God, so that by this means we might be able to correct you from your error. Now if you did not change when I admonished you, and did not improve when I exhorted you, and did not fear when I beat you, how is it possible for me to forgive you any more?"

Silvanos multiplied his entreaties and promised to amend in the future. Then the Great Man asked sureties from him, that after he was forgiven he would no more continue the same behavior. And when a certain Petronios made himself a surety for him the things he had promised, the Great Man forgave him. Silvanos, having received remission, so struggled with all his soul that he became a pattern of every virtue of piety to all the brothers, small and great.

The outstanding achievement among his virtues was his absolute humility and the tears that flowed from his eyes unceasingly. When he was eating with the brothers he was unable to control his weeping, and his tears were mingled with his food. And when the brothers told him that he should not behave like that in the sight of strangers, he would affirm strongly, "I have often wanted to control my tears for this reason, and I was not able." Then the brothers said, "It is possible for him who is pricked by compunction to weep by himself and to do likewise when he is at prayer with the brothers. But when someone eats at table with the brothers, it is possible for his soul to weep continually without those visible tears. Therefore we want to know what thought keeps you so ceaselessly soaked with tears that many of us seeing you are turned from eating to satiety."

He answered those who were questioning him, "Do you not want me to weep when I see holy men waiting upon me, the very dust of whose feet I am not worthy? Ought I not to mourn for myself, when I, a man from the theater, am being waited on by such holy men? I weep, therefore, brothers, fearing to be swallowed up like Dathan and Abiram, especially because when I had come from ignorance to knowledge I did not care for my soul's salvation, so that I fell into the danger of being expelled by the brothers and I had to give sureties with awful oaths that I would no longer disregard my life. For this reason I am not ashamed to continue this behavior. I know my sins, indeed, for which, even if I could give my soul, there is no grace for me."

As he was struggling in this manner, the Great Man bore testimony about him before all the brothers, saying, "Behold, brothers, I bear testimony before God that from the time this community came into existence, among all the brothers who have been with me, there has been no one who has completely copied my example, save only one." When the brothers heard this, some of them thought that the one man of whom he spoke was Theodore, others Petronios or Hoersiesios. And when Theodore asked the Holy Man about whom he said this, the Great Man did not want to say. But as he persisted, along with the other great brothers, entreating him to let them know who it was, the Great Man answered:

"If I knew that he about whom I am going to speak would become vainglorious for being praised, I would not have commended such a man. But since I know that when he is praised he rather humbles himself and thinks scorn of himself all the more, I will, before you all, call him blessed, so that you may imitate his example. You, Theodore, and all those like you who are striving in the monastery, have bound the devil like a sparrow placing him under your feet, and daily you trample him down like dust. But if you neglect yourselves, the devil under your feet will rise up and flee, and he will again make war against you. As for the young Silvanos, who but a short time ago was about to be expelled by me from the monastery for his negligence, he has so completely subjugated the devil and slain him, that the devil will never be able to approach him, for he has utterly vanquished him by his very great humility. When you humble yourselves, you do so as men who have works of righteousness and are augmenting their virtue, relying on what you have already done. As for this man, the more he struggles, the more he declares that he is unworthy, thinking from his whole soul and mind that he is useless and contemptible. This indeed is why he is always on the verge of tears, belittling himself utterly and saying that he is unworthy even of visible things. You outdo him in your knowledge and endurance; but he has surpassed you in humility. And nothing so weakens the demon as humility coming from active power from the whole soul."

When he had struggled in this manner for eight whole years, he completed his contest, laying down his life. The servant of God testified of his departure that an endless throng of holy angels took his soul with great rejoicing and psalmody, and brought it to God as a choice sacrifice, and as a marvelous incense offering to God found among men.

From Pachomian Koinonia, Vol. 2.