March 11 — Sophronius of Jerusalem

Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (ca. 560–638) is celebrated today on both sides of the Adriatic. Arab in origin (possibly Damascene), Sophronius started his career as a philosopher and teacher of rhetoric, and is thus known as “Sophronius the Sophist.” Once he got that out of his system, he moved to the St. Theodosius Monastery near Bethlehem, where he fell in with (St.) John Moschos, a hieromonk* and hagiographer. The two of them traveled extensively, collecting the stories and wisdom of the ascetics, which they distilled into their work The Leimonarion (“book of lemon air”) or Spiritual Meadow. Something of an invader magnet, Sophronius and Moschos left Jerusalem for Antioch when the Persians attacked, left Antioch for Alexandria when the Persians attacked, and left Alexandria for Rome when the Persians attacked. Whilst in Alexandria they battled the Monophysite heresy with John the Almsgiver (Jan 23). It was also during this time that Sophronius was delivered from an eye problem (disease or failing vision) through the prayers of Sts. Cyrus and John the Unmercinaries (Jan 31). In thanks, he wrote a panegyric (or ecomium—sources vary) about them.

John Moschos died in Rome, and Sophronius brought his friend’s body to Palestine for burial, both settling back into the St. Theodosius Monastery. He then began a brief and unsuccessful game of whack-a-heretic, traveling to Alexandria to speak out against Patriarch Cyrus when he began preaching monothelitism, and then to Constantinople to denounce Patriarch Sergius for the same offense. In 634 he was elected Patriarch of Jerusalem, and shortly thereafter he composed his Synodical Letter laying out what became the Church’s official teaching on the two wills of Christ. (This refers to Christ’s human will and his divine will, not his will leaving everything to his brother James and his will leaving everything to his Mother. That whole thing has been proven apocryphal.)

In 637 Sophronius’ invader magnetism struck again, and Caliph Umar I captured Jerusalem. The patriarch was, however, able to negotiate limited civil and religious freedoms for Christians in return for a tribute. Historically this is called the Umari Treaty, although apparently most modern scholars think the document that now bears that name was written somewhat later, for values of “somewhat” approximating 200 years. Nevertheless, Sophronius took Umar around to see the holy places of the Holy City, and invited him to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but Umar demurred, fearing that if he prayed there, it would set a precedent that would ultimately make it impossible for Christians to keep it as a Christian holy site. (Am I the only one who immediately thinks of the Dome of the Rock at this point in the narrative? Thought so.) One source says that the keys to the Church of the Sepulchre were given to the caliph at this time, and have remained with the Muslims ever since. (Did it occur to nobody to change the locks when the Muslims weren’t looking? Nobody?) Sophronius died shortly after the city fell, “disheartened” according to one source, or “of grief” according to another.

In addition to his polemical works and ecomium (or panegyric) of Cyrus and John, Sophronius also wrote lives of Mary of Egypt (Apr 1) and John the Almsgiver (Jan 23), as well as 23 anacreontic odes. These are poems written in a meter (uu/u/u//) used by the Greek poet Anacreon. (Unless the poem is in English, in which case it refers to a poem about love and wine, but as Sophronius wrote in Greek, that’s irrelevant.) Some readers will recognize Anacreon as the guy referred to in the song from which the American national anthem (“O Look Whatcha See”) took its melody: “To Anacreon in Heaven.”