December 5 – Sabbas the Sanctified

Sabbas the Sanctified (439–532) was born to parents (which was not uncommon in those days) who moved to Alexandria when he was five (which was). He was left in Cappadocia with his uncle. And aunt, unfortunately, who disliked Sabbas and let him know it. Eventually he ran away to live with his other uncle, but soon the two uncles, thinking Sabbas’s parents were dead, began to fight over his inheritance. Sabbas, now eight, ran away again, this time to a monastery, where he learned to overcome temptations and other Motown groups. His uncles made it up and tried to get him to return to the world, but he wasn’t going back.

After ten years he moved to a monastery in Jerusalem. While visiting Alexandria for reasons, he rebuffed the pleas of his parents to return to the world, although he kindly accepted three gold coins from them, which he gave to his abbot. He then apprenticed under Euthymius the Great (Jan 20), who, moved by the disconnect between his great wisdom and his tender years, dubbed him “the Young Elder.” After Euthymius died, his lavra* went to the dogs (well, lazy monks), so Sabbas wandered off to live anchoritically. He was attacked by demons in the form of scorpions, lions, and other signs of the Zodiac, but he bravely withstood them all, knowing they were trying to tempt him to return to the world (which becomes a recurring theme, if you haven’t noticed).

He removed to a gorge-side cave, where he received regular food drops from “barbarians.” Soon monk wannabes began arriving, and a lavra sprang up, as did a spring, through Sabbas’ prayers. One night, while praying peripatetically, he saw a pillar of fire in the valley. In the morning he climbed down to where it had been, and lo! he found a cave, the inside of which was shaped just like a church. So they used it for a storehouse. Kidding! For a church.

Some while later Sabbas climbed the deserted and shunned Mount Castellium to pray. It turned out to be a veritable Grand Central Station of demons, but Sabbas conquered them by his prayers. “You got a whole desert to live in, but no-o-o-o, you have to come here,” they complained. Sabbas waved them off, then founded a cenobitic monastery on the spot. He founded many other monasteries as well, and wrote the typikon (rule) that is still used by all Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic monasteries.

About this time meddlesome monks tried to overthrow Sabbas, so he left to live again in the wilderness. There he found a lion’s den, went in, laid down, and fell asleep. The lion came home, grabbed the saint by the hem, and dragged him outside. Sabbas got up, dusted himself off, went back into the cave, and began the midnight office. The lion dutifully waited until the last “amen,” then got up, went in, and dragged Sabbas back outside. “Look,” Sabbas said. “This cave is big enough for both of us. But if you can’t share, then you might as well leave, because I’m staying.” The lion left. He was clearly one of the famous Loudmouth Lions of the Levant, however, as word soon reached the evil monks that Sabbas was dead. They went to the Patriarch and asked him to appoint a new abbot, but as they were talking, who should enter the room but the lion-tamer himself. The Patriarch told the monks that Sabbas was in charge, and if any monk didn’t like it, he might as well leave, because Sabbas was staying. Several left, and after that the monastery grove and threw. Throve and grew. Like that.

Sabbas ended a long and holy life by dying. His relics were stolen by Crusaders in the twelfth century, but were returned in 1965 by Pope Paul VI as a goodwill gesture to the Orthodox. Mar Saba is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited Christian monasteries in the world.