Today is the feast day of Saint Stephen of Mar Saba. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Stephen was a nephew of John of Damascus who spent a half-century as a monk in the convent of Mar Saba overlooking the Kidron Valley in the West Bank, east of Bethlehem. Entering the monastery to train with his uncle when he was just 10 years old, Stephen was the youngest to do so (as traditionally, men were not allowed into the monastery until they were old enough to grow a beard.)
Saint Stephen trained under the tutelage of his uncle for nearly 15 years. When John died in 749, Stephen, then 24, was ordained and began an eight-year period of service to the community. He was guest-master, cantor, dispenser and special guestmaster to those received into the igumen’s quarters. Once, while celebrating the eastern rite of the Mass, 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. From that occasion onward, whatever he prayed for during the Eucharistic liturgy was granted. This may be the period during which he earned the title Wonderworker.
Stephen eventually left the monastery, living a life of solitude and isolation in the desert around the Dead Sea. After fifteen years, he allowed others to visit him, many of which came for miraculous healing. He loved all of God’s creatures, and is often depicted surrounded by animals, with whom he was said to have special communion with. So was his love, he gathered worms from the ground around his dwelling, lest they be trampled by visitors.
However, Stephen sought permission from the igumen Martyrios to live as a complete hermit. Martyrios suggested a compromise: Stephen could lead a hermit’s life, but should be available to those who needed counsel. So Stephen placed a note on the door of his cell: “Forgive me, Fathers, in the name of the Lord, but please do not disturb me, except on Saturdays and Sundays.” So he prayed from Monday to Friday and was available for spiritual counselling at week-ends.
At the age of thirty-seven, Stephen went into complete solitude for fifteen years, three times going into the desert around the Dead Sea to observe Lent. When he was fifty-two, Stephen returned to the more relative form of the hermit’s life, and admitted disciples once more. Many came to him for healing.
He was a lover of animals and is portrayed, like St Francis, with his shoulders and arms covered with birds. The doves, starlings and deer fed out of his hand. 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 on. His biographer and disciple Leontius wrote about Stephen: “Whatever help, spiritual or material, he was asked to give, he gave. He received and honoured all with the same kindness. He possessed nothing and lacked nothing. In total poverty he possessed all things.”
Towards the end of his life, Stephen may have experienced persecution from the Umayyad and Abbasid Islamic dynasties, when many monks of St. Sabas met their deaths. The events of the time are recorded in Leontius’s The Life of St. Stephen the Sabaite. One of Stephen’s hymns, Art thou weary, art thou languid?, was sympathetically translated by John Mason Neale in his Hymns for the Eastern Church (1862). It shows the strength of heart of the monk and disciple who during the sad days when the Cross was bowing before the Crescent, accepted the way of his Lord:
Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
“Come to Me,” saith One, “and coming,
Be at rest.”
Hath He marks to lead me to Him,
If He be my Guide?
In His feet and hands are wound prints
And His side.
Hath He diadem, as monarch,
That His brow adorns?
Yes, a crown in very surety,
But of thorns.
If I find Him, if I follow,
What His guerdon here?
Many a sorrow, many a labor,
Many a tear.
If I still hold closely to Him,
What hath He at last?
Sorrow vanquished, labour ended,
If I ask Him to receive me,
Will He say me nay?
Not till earth and not till Heaven
Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is He sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,
Stephen died in 794.
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff