One night in the year 478, a 40-year-old monk from Cappadocia (in what is now central Turkey) was praying in the gorge of Siloam about 10 miles southeast of Jerusalem, in the heart of the barren Judean desert. The monk's sixth-century biographer noted, "He was praying by night, and there appeared to him an angelic form in dazzling apparel who said to him … 'Stay here and make this cave your home and God will himself take care of you.' " Though the cave was some distance from a water source and accessible only by rope, the monk was overjoyed and immediately took up residence there.
After five years of solitary struggle in this cave, the monk, whose name was Sabas, began to allow others to join him, and the monastery slowly grew. Under Sabas's leadership, it would become the most important early monastery in Palestine.
Sabas was no novice at the solitary life. To escape a custody battle between two uncles, he had become a monk at age 8. Like many others, he felt called to follow a life of renunciation in the place where Christ himself had lived and died, so at age 18, he moved to Jerusalem and settled at the famous monastery of Euthymius, a few miles to the east. He soon developed a taste for taking lengthy retreats into the wilder parts of the desert, and it was on one of these sojourns that he received his vision.
As the monastery grew, access to water became an increasing problem. But, according to Cyril of Scythopolis, Sabas's biographer, another miracle occurred: Sabas was again praying by night when he saw a wild ass "digging deep into the earth with its hooves, then lowering its mouth and drinking." The spring of water he discovered provided for the needs of the monks. Then a new church was built, followed by a tower for observation and defense. The numerous caves nearby were claimed by new arrivals as places to live and work, and eventually small dwellings were built to provide even more space.
The monastery was really a settlement rather than a community. The rough and rocky terrain was not suited to the compact enclosed buildings and the cultivated fields of a "cenobitic," or communal, monastery. Instead, the monk in a "laura," as this style of monastery was called, lived through the week in his own cell, either alone or with one or two others. He prayed and occupied himself with simple handicrafts, such as making baskets or rope. On Saturdays he went to the buildings at the center of the laura for worship, a communal meal, and to exchange the completed baskets for raw material for the following week's work.
This laurite style of life enabled much solitude, yet with the support of a community, and developed especially in the area around Jerusalem. Approximately a third of the monasteries of the Judean desert were laurae.
Sabas's monastery wasn't the first monastery in Palestine, but it became arguably the most important. Chariton founded the first Palestinian laura around the year 330, and there had been a steady influx of monks since then. Archaeological research has identified about 70 Byzantine monastic sites in the desert around Jerusalem and Jericho, which could have accommodated up to 3,000 monks. A few nuns lived in the area as well, especially in the city of Jerusalem, but it was mainly a male world.
Sabas himself loved the solitary life but was also a natural leader and organizer. Cyril describes him as a "faithful and prudent steward who by the favor of God, the assistance of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit colonized the desert with a huge number of monks and founded seven famous monasteries." He was appointed leader of the hermits while his friend Theodosius cared for the cenobitic (communal) monasteries. Sabas used to joke with Theodosius, "You are a superior of children while I am the superior of superiors, for each of those under me is independent, the superior of his own cell."
On two occasions the patriarch of Jerusalem sent Sabas on diplomatic missions to the empire's capital, the city of Constantinople. On one of these trips, Sabas submitted the requests of the monks to the emperor and then, while the emperor busied himself giving the necessary orders, Sabas sat in a corner saying his prayers. One of the monks felt that this was a little rude and rebuked Sabas for not being more appreciative. "They, my child, are doing their work," the saint replied, "let us in our turn do ours."
Rebellion in the ranks
When Sabas had overseen his monasteries for nearly 20 years, his leadership was severely tested by doctrinal controversy. The main conflict involved the teachings of Origen, a third-century Egyptian theologian who was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. In about 500, a dissident group expelled Sabas from his own monastery.
After the patriarch of Jerusalem reinstated him, the rebels took up pickaxes and destroyed the tower where he lived, then moved to another monastery. Sabas eventually forgave the renegade monks and later helped them build a church and bakery at their compound, which came to be called the New Laura. Heresies, especially surrounding the Origenist controversy (see "Ascetic Agitators") continued to plague the New Laura, but while Sabas lived (he died in 532), orthodoxy was maintained.
The monastery that grew up around the cave that was so miraculously revealed to Sabas in 478 came to be known first as the Great Laura, and later as Mar Saba. It has continued to be a center of scholarship, spirituality, and especially church music until the present.
John Binns is vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Great in Cambridge, England, and author of Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ: The Monasteries of Palestine 314-631, (Oxford).
For photos of Mar Saba, see: Jerusalem 96
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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