The Life of St. Sabbas
Our Holy Father Sabbas the Sanctified (pronounced “Sava”) was born in 439 A.D. of pious and wealthy parents, John and Sofia, in the village Moutalaske of Cappadocia. His father was an officer, was forced to leave for Alexandria with his wife Sofia and thus entrusted the upbringing of the five-year-old Sabbas to Ermias, his brother-in-law, on his wife’s side. A few years later, Sabbas, who was dissatisfied by his aunt’s behavior and the subsequent dispute between his uncles Ermias and Gregory over his upbringing and the administration of his parent’s property, took refuge in the monastery of Phlavianae near his hometown. There, he applied himself to learning the Psalter and other monastic duties and the practice of godly virtues and was distinguished by his abstinence, humility and obedience, in which he surpassed his sixty or seventy fellow monks. Foreshadowing Sabbas’ holiness, God graced him with unshakable and miraculous faith: on one occasion he entered a burning oven armed with the sign of the Cross, and emerged safe and unhurt, carrying the clothes that the baker had left therein.
St. Sabbas continued to lead a life of such great piety for ten years, until Theoktistos died, and two further years till Maris, Theoktistos’ successor, died, after which Sabbas asked the new abbot, Longinos, to allow him to lead the hesychastic life. In the light of Sabbas’ extreme virtue and with Euthymios’ consent, Longinos conceded to Sabbas’ desire and for the ensuing five years, Sabbas lived in a cave south of the monastery, praying, and working and eating nothing at all for five days of the week. Only on Saturdays and Sundays did he return to the monastery to bring in his handicraft and take part in common prayer. During Lent, Sabbas stayed with Euthymios and his disciple Dometianos in the great Rouba desert, between the Kidron Valley and the Dead Sea fasting, drinking little, praying and keeping vigil. The saint continued this way of life in later years as well. On January 20, 473, our great father Euthymios slept in peace.
Then St. Sabbas – at age thirty-five – did not return to the coenobium but left for the eastern desert, Rouba and Coutila, at a time when St. Gerasimos of Jordan shone in the Jordan desert. Sabbas remained in this desert, for four years and there he was spiritually connected with St. Theodosios the Coenobiarch through the monk Anthos. It was there that his deep belief in God and his extreme virtue enabled to attain complete fearlessness of the demons and the wild beasts and gain the respect of the barbarians. Later, summoned by an angel on the Mount of Evdokia, he moved to a cave on the eastern side of the Kidron Valley, still referred to today as the cave of St. Sabbas, opposite the Laura.
The original St. Sabbas Monastery in Jerusalem
Five years later, about seventy hermits and anchorites, all blessed men, started gathering around Sabbas. They composed the first brotherhood of the Laura in 483, and following the initial organization of the Laura and the miraculous appearance of a spring of agiasma (holy water), in answer to the saint’s prayer, Sabbas saw a fiery pillar rising to heaven on the western bank, opposite his cave. On examination of this place the next day, he found a God-built cave which was suitably shaped for a church. St. Sabbas made this place the center of his Laura. At that time his company numbered a hundred and fifty monks.
For such a holy work, it was impossible to avoid confrontation with the temptation of the devil and scandals. St Sabbas was scorned and slandered by his own monks who asked Patriarch Sallustios to replace Sabbas as abbot. Sallustios, however, knowing that Sabbas was a holy man, ordained him as presbyter and consecrated the Theoktistos Church on December 12, 491.
St. Sabbas in Harper Woods, Michigan
St. Sabbas’ heavenly way of life on earth continued. More monks joined him, mainly Armenians, attracted by his example, his life, his ascesis and miracles. During Lent, Sabbas led a superhuman life in the great desert. The Laura was joined by the most holy John, who despite being the bishop of Colonia, lived the life of a simple monk, later becoming famous for his virtue. In 492, St. Sabbas came to the Kastellion fortress in the desert northeast of the Laura, where he drove away the demons dwelling there and founded a coenobium and started a monastic brotherhood. Later, Patriarch Sallustios appointed Sabbas to be the head and ruler of all the Anchorites, in the area of the Holy City area and Theodosios the Coenobiarch head and archimandrite of all the coenobia. St. Sabbas once jokingly told Theodosios that he himself was “abbot of the abbots” while Theodosios was “abbot of children,” i.e. of beginners.
Reconstruction work on the Great Church of the Theotokos started in 494 and the Church was consecrated on July 1, 502. This work was necessary because the Theoktistos Church and the small prayer house were too small for the worship needs of the Laura.
Nevertheless, the monks who had previously slandered the saint, revolted again and St. Sabbas, wishing to appease them, was forced to leave the Laura. His absence lasted five years (503-508 A.D.) and during these years he organized two new coenobia at Gadara and Nicopolis, placed joined by Christians who wanted to become monks near him. Finally the reinstatement of the saint to the office of abbot forced the revolting monks to leave the Great Laura and settle in the New Laura. St. Sabbas, ever-forbearing, nonetheless even helped them build and organize their own Laura, appointing John, a holy man, as their abbot.
Archimandrite Evdokimos (L), abbot of St. Sabbas in Jerusalem, with Archimandrite Pachomy at the tomb of St. Sabbas
The saint then dedicated himself to the fostering of his spiritual children and, before his death, built two more lauras, the Heptastomos Laura (512 A.D.) and the Laura of Jeremias and two more Coenobia, those of Spelaion (509 A.D.) and Scholarios (512 A.D.). The last twenty years of his life were rendered brilliant with activities which were very significant for ecclesiastical and worldwide history. Under the pressure of the monophysite emperor Anastasios (491-518) and the leading monophysites “Akephalioi” Severos, Philoxenos and Soterichos, the Orthodox Churches of the East gradually fell into the hands of monophysite bishops. St. Sabbas, urged by the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, Elias (494-516), went to Constantinople in 512 and there – through his reputation and holiness – managed to persuade the emperor to annul Elias’ displacement. In the following year – when the Orthodox patriarch was displaced by the emperor – St. Sabbas gathered all the desert monks in Jerusalem to protect Elias and he anathematized the heretical delegates of the emperor. He organized a similar movement of the monks three years later, in 516, in order to support the new patriarch of Jerusalem, John III (516-524), with the help of St. Theodosios the Coenobiarch. This movement helped the Church of Jerusalem to retain its Orthodox faith at a time when the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch had fallen into the hands of monophysite patriarchs.
Not long after, Orthodoxy was restored everywhere.
Archimandrite Pachomy (L) with a monk of St. Sabbas
St. Sabbas visited Constantinople for a second time twenty-four years later, in 530 A.D., at the age of ninety. The Saint managed to deliver Palestine from measures Emperor Justinian meant to impose in response to the riots caused by the uprising of the Samaritans and the Jews (529). The saint even urged the pious king, who had already sensed Sabbas’ holiness through a vision, to undertake public works in Palestine and drive out the heresies of Arios, Nestorios and Origen in exchange of which he would gain the expansion of the empire in Africa and Italy. This prophesy and blessing were indeed fulfilled. The victories of the generals Velissarios and Narsis returned the western areas of the Empire to the rule of Constantinople, fulfilling Sabbas’ prophecy.
It is impossible to list the numerous miracles the saint performed. He was gifted with such a grace that stopped the five-year long drought in Jerusalem caused by the unfair displacement of Patriarch Elias and God’s subsequent wrath (in 520). Yet, his return from Constantinople was the beginning of the end of his earthly life. Our Holy Father Sabbas the Sanctified was delivered from his toils on December 5, 532 A.D. He had lived in the Phlavianae coenobium for ten years, till the age of eighteen, seventeen years in St. Theoktistos’ coenobium, in Palestine, and fifty-nine years in the deserts and the Great Laura. In 547 his holy relics were found in the grave, safe and uncorrupted, and were transferred to Constantinople many centuries later and thence to Venice by the Crusaders in 1204. In 1965 they were finally returned to his Great Laura. The unprecedented impact of his life on the pious Christians resulted in Cyril of Skythopolis composing the life of St Sabbas as early as 557 A.D.
According to our Lord’s infallible words, each man’s character is known by his fruits. Accordingly, the historical path of St. Sabbas’ Laura is the fruit of the saint’s godly virtue and proof of his glory and his boldness before God, through which he ensures even today the safety of the main monastic establishment in the Judean desert. One recognizes not only the numerous miracles of the Saint but also the impact of the monastic life of the Laura as it became a model which played a decisive role in the formation of the monastic life and ecclesiastical order throughout the entire Church and from which came a multitude of holy men, amongst whom stands out the greatest theologian of the eighth century, St. John of Damascus. St. Sabbas’ veneration spread rapidly from Rome to Georgia. His successors in the abbacy helped the Laura become an Orthodox fortress in Palestine, standing against Origenism, monothelitism, iconoclasm, and papism with the panorthodox reach of the world over. During the Middle Ages, the Laura became a school of the Holy Sepulcher Brotherhood, whose members were instructed in the Laura on the monastic way of life and gained experience in ecclesiastical matters. All this is owed to St. Sabbas’ intercessions and example: “How brilliant are the divine gifts of our enlightened Father Sabbas, his way of life glorious, his life virtuous, and his faith Orthodox. And this has, in part, already been shown by all that has been heretofore said.”
Taken from an album published by St Sabbas the Sanctified Monastery in Jerusalem in 2002 as part of their celebration of 1,500 unceasing years of monasticism.