July 13, 2018

Two Saints Known as Saint Stephen the Sabaite

It must first be stated that there are two Saints known as Stephen the Sabaite, who lived at approximately the same time. One is celebrated on July 13th, who lived for half a century from the age of ten at the Lavra of Saint Savvas in the Holy Land, and the other is celebrated on October 28th, who is primarily known for being the nephew of Saint John of Damascus and was a hymnographer. These two Saints are very often confused as being one person, until the Life of Saint Stephen the Sabaite by his disciple Leontios was recently discovered, which distinguishes this Stephen from the Stephen who was the nephew of Saint John of Damascus and a hymnographer. Therefore the first should be distinguished as "the Ascetic", while the latter should be known as "the Melodist" or "the Poet" or "the Hymnographer". Interestingly, Stephen the Melodist composed a Canon in honor of Stephen the Ascetic; in this canon the ascetic qualities and stays in the desert of Stephen the Ascetic are celebrated.

The Saint Stephen celebrated on July 13th was born around 725 and reposed between 792 and 796. He was from Julis, a district of Gaza. At the age of ten, when he was orphaned of his parents, he entered the same monastic community as his uncle, who is known as Zacharias. By his mid-twenties, he felt so drawn to a life of seclusion and contemplation, he asked the abbot of the community for permission to live as a hermit. Due to the great skill in giving spiritual direction he already showed at that young age, the abbot gave him limited permission. The condition was that he make himself available to others on weekends. On the door of his cell was written: "Fathers, forgive me, but please do not disturb me, except Saturday and Sunday."

Having cleansed himself of his passions and acquired the virtues, he was found worthy not only of the holy priesthood, but also the grace to perform miracles. By his prayers he healed a demon possessed girl, and wild beasts were tame before him which he fed from his own hands. His compassion for the lowly black worms that crawled through his hermitage prompted him to gather them into a spot where they would be safe from being trampled upon. Once his disciple was parched from thirst, so he struck the ground with his rod, and water gushed forth. Another time, while celebrating the Divine Liturgy, as Stephen elevated the Eucharist and recited the words, "Holy things to the holy," the monastic cell in which he was celebrating the liturgy was filled with a brilliant light that emanated from the celebrant himself.

The Saint Stephen celebrated on October 28th was the son of Theodore Mansur, the brother of John of Damascus and Kosmas the Melodist, and he was from Damascus. When his father was exiled from Damascus, he entered the Lavra of Saint Savvas where his uncles lived the ascetic life.

Towards the end of his life, Stephen reported that various cities of the Holy Land were laid waste to and depopulated by the Saracens (another name for the Muslim Caliphate under the rule of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties). On this occasion many monks of the Lavra of Saint Savvas met their deaths. Saint Savvas was a witness of this massacre, and he wrote the account in what is known as the Passion of the Twenty Sabaite Martyrs. The event is commemorated by the Church on March 20th.

Stephen the Ascetic died around three years before the attack on the Lavra. The poet Stephen was not part of the same generation as the ascetic, he was younger than him. He was a monk of the Lavra in 797, when he witnessed the attack on the Lavra by the Saracens, and was still a monk when he composed the Passion of the Martyrs, shortly after the event, at the time when one of the victims of the attack, the monk Thomas, a doctor, had become abbot of the Lavra of Chariton; he was still a monk of the Lavra when Leontios wrote the Life of his master, Stephen the Sabaite the ascetic, under the patriarchate of Thomas, the monk doctor, then a patriarch, and whose dates are sadly not known, but who was certainly patriarch in 807. This second Stephen was probably also a doctor himself, considering the clinical precision of his description of the suffocation of the monks, when they were suffocated with smoke by the ‘Barbarians’, and of the trepanations conducted by the monk Thomas. Stephen the Melodist was also the author of the Passion of Saint Romanos the New, who died at Raqqa between 780 and 787. This Stephen is said to have reposed around 807.

He and Andrew the Blind were among the first to compose hymns (idiomela) in the Triodion, chanted during the period between the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee and Palm Sunday. These idiomela are stichera of which two were written for each weekday of Great Lent. One is chanted at the aposticha of Vespers and one at the aposticha of Matins, each being chanted twice. The idiomela are exceptionally rich in doctrinal content, summing up the whole theology of the Great Fast. He also wrote a Canon to Saint John of Damascus, though he nowhere mentions that it was his uncle.