The Catholic Defender: Saint Sabas
(439 – December 5, 532) Born in Cappadocia, Sabas is one of the most highly regarded patriarchs among the monks of Palestine
After an unhappy childhood in which he was abused and ran away several times, Sabas finally sought refuge in a monastery.
He entered the monastery at age eight, While family members tried to persuade him to return home, the young boy felt drawn to monastic life. Although the youngest monk in the house, he excelled in virtue.
At age 18 he traveled to Jerusalem, seeking to learn more about living in solitude. After ten years in the monastery, eighteen year old Sabas traveled to Jerusalem. He was hoping to learn more about the practice of living in solitude.
After years of monastic life in the valley, Sabas was chosen to go on retreat in the deserts of Rouban, where it is believed Christ performed his 40 day fast before his passion.
During the retreat, Sabas became so dehydrated that he was close to the point of death. He prayed that the Lord would take pity on him. He stuck his staff into the earth. Immediately, a spring of water came forth and Sabas was able to recover his strength for the rest of the retreat.
“knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,”
Soon he asked to be accepted as a disciple of a well-known local solitary, though initially he was regarded as too young to live completely as a hermit.
Initially, Sabas lived in a monastery, where he worked during the day and spent much of the night in prayer.
At the age of 30 he was given permission to spend five days each week in a nearby remote cave, engaging in prayer and manual labor in the form of weaving baskets.
“Whoever sits in solitude and is quiet has escaped from three wars: those of hearing, speaking, and seeing. Then there is only one war left in which to fight, and that is the battle for your own heart.”
Following the death of his mentor, Saint Euthymius, Sabas moved farther into the desert near Jericho.
There he lived for several years in a cave near the brook Cedron. A rope was his means of access.
Sabas moved further into a desert cave, leaving behind the monastery. The only way to reach his remove cave home was by a rope, and Sabas dined mainly on herbs.
Because of his holy example, Christian men seeking guidance found Sabas in the desert.
Before long, his followers numbered more than 150.
Each one of them built a small hut around a remote church, called a laura.
When Sabas was fifty, his local bishop asked him to discern priesthood so that he could better lead the men who journeyed into the desert to follow him.
Sabas agreed, but every Lent he would leave the community for a forty day silent retreat.
Wild herbs among the rocks were his food. Occasionally men brought him other food and items, while he had to go a distance for his water.
Some of these men came to him desiring to join him in his solitude. At first he refused.
But not long after relenting, his followers swelled to more than 150, all of them living in individual huts grouped around a church, called a laura.
The bishop persuaded a reluctant Sabas, then in his early 50s, to prepare for the priesthood so that he could better serve his monastic community in leadership.
While functioning as abbot among a large community of monks, he felt ever called to live the life of a hermit.
One day, Sabas went into the desert to find a cave to pray in.
The one he chose was actually a lion’s den, and Sabas encountered the lion around midnight.
When the lion saw Sabas, he dragged him out of the cave by the hem of his garment. But Sabas wasn’t afraid.
He recited the book of Psalms to the lion, and reminded the lion that the cave was big enough for two.
The lion heard Sabas’ words and left the cave, not bothering Sabas again.
When local thieves came across Sabas in his cave, his holy example persuaded them to leave behind their life of sin and embrace a penitential life.
The winged lion symbol is associated with St. Mark because according to ancient legend, while taking refuge from a storm in the city of Venice, Mark was visited in a dream by an angel in the form of a winged lion.
Throughout each year—consistently in Lent—he left his monks for long periods of time, often to their distress.
A group of 60 men left the monastery, settling at a nearby ruined facility. When Sabas learned of the difficulties they were facing, he generously gave them supplies and assisted in the repair of their church.
Over the years Sabas traveled throughout Palestine, preaching the true faith and successfully bringing back many to the Church. “The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,”
At the age of 91, in response to a plea from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sabas undertook a journey to Constantinople in conjunction with the Samaritan revolt and its violent repression.
He fell ill and soon after his return, died at the monastery at Mar Saba. Today the monastery is still inhabited by monks of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Saint Sabas is regarded as one of the most noteworthy figures of early monasticism.
“Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.