Samuel Noble: Remembering Antioch’s Forgotten Saints
July 08, 2013 Length: 40:44Samuel Noble is a researcher in medieval Arabic Orthodox Christianity and Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University. He specializes in numerous forms of Arabic and has especially focused his research on Arabic and Syriac Orthodox Christianity in the Middle East from the 8th to the 18th centuries. Among other projects, he is working on translating the homilies of St. Raphael of Brooklyn into English.
I guess the title of my talk might sound a little bit odd. What does it mean for us to remember, or especially to forget, saints? If we think about the language that we use in the Church to talk about saints, we notice it is very frequently the language of memory. When we pray for the departed, of course, we pray that their memory will be eternal, their memory with us and with God. And the day-to-day rhythm of the Church’s worship life is determined by the commemoration of a list of saints across the calendar, that is, the liturgical recollection of saints’ names and lives is an important part of how we interact with them as they are present and interceding for us.
As we were reminded last Sunday during the commemoration of all saints, the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us is very great, and there are countless saints who are interceding for us whose names we’ll never learn in this life. But my talk today is not about unknown saints—whom by defintion I don’t know much about—but rather I want to talk about forgotten saints: those who at one point the Church commemorated, whose lives were known, whose feasts were celebrated, whose intercession was sought, but who, for various reasons, have fallen out of our calendars and out of our memory. These reasons are in fact closely tied to the history of the Church in the Middle East as well as cultural identity and how the Church adapts to new technology.
I’m constantly surprised by how little awareness there is of the Church of Antioch and even, sometimes, among its members. There is still somehow the notion that the patriarchate of Antioch disappeared from the record from the eighth century until the 18th century. This image is inadvertently propagated by our own liturgical books. Yes, there are many saints from the time immediately after the Islamic conquest, when Syria and Palestine were still culturally and intellectually the center of the Orthodox Christian world.
St. Sophronios of Jerusalem, John of Damascus, Cosmas of Maiuma, Andrew of Crete, Anastasios the Sinaite and others we remember, but after there stop being saints who wrote in Greek, did sanctity abandon the Middle East somehow? Of course not. We can see our patriarchate’s situation today, that there illustrates the hardships that the Church in the Middle East has always endured [and this] leads to the presence of many saints and martyrs. In the past two years, the Church has offered two new martyrs to God: Fr. Basilios Nassar and Fr. Fadi Haddad. This is not even to speak of Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo.
So where did a millennium of saints and martyrs go? First of all, it might help us to think about the way that the Church remembers the lives of saints, in kind of a technical sense, that is, in this case, the Church’s liturgical books. We have the Menaion, the Menologion, the Synaxarion, and that whole alphabet stew of bewildering books that the clergy here had to learn about in seminary, and in addition to that we have different saints’ lives that are written and sort of have their own textual life apart from the liturgical books. And, in the case of the saints of the patriarchate of Antioch, one of the best sources we have for the Middle Ages is actually a Muslim text. The recording of various people’s calendars that a Muslim polymath and scientist named Al-Biruni recorded in the first part of the eleventh century gives us a complete calendar for how the Orthodox Christians of central Asia celebrated their saints.
In any case, for most of history, these liturgical books were nowhere near anything like as uniform as they are now. Local variations across geographical and cultural space and languages was pretty much the norm. So in the case of the patriarchate of Antioch, there was probably even more variation than elsewhere, given that the patriarchate in the Middle Ages stretched from Cilicia—so the area around Mersin, Turkey—all the way into the vastness of central Asia. In terms of languages, although the liturgical books originally existed in Greek and in Syriac, we have liturgical texts quickly being translated into Arabic in the eighth century, especially the eleventh century we have surviving bits of liturgy in Sogdian, the language of the Silk Road, as well as accounts of the Church using Georgian, Persian, Turkish, even Armenian, other languages like that. So the patriarchate of Antioch is characterized historically by its great diversity. We can think about that as being similar tot he patriarchate’s situation today where English and Portuguese and Spanish are also very important languages alongside Arabic.
We should also note that when we’re talking about the pre-Ottoman period, we’re really talking about both the patriarchate of Antioch and the patriarchate of Jerusalem. They are very close. Jerusalem and the monasteries around it, especially Mar Saba, are extremely culturally important for the transition of texts and culture from Greek into Arabic, from Syriac into Greek, and things like this. So the saints in the calendars in the liturgical texts for these two patriarchates are generally very similar. Through most of history, or at least from the time of the conquest until about the 13th century, they closely coordinated with each other in most things and were more or less completely out of contact for a lot of that time with either Rome or Constantinople. Along with the patriarchate of Alexandria, they were often called the Melkite patriarchates from the original common name in Arabic for the Chalcedonian Orthodox Church.
Given all of this variety, we have, one, the problem of making transitions from one language to another: the transition from Greek into Arabic, the translation from Syriac into either Greek or Arabic, etc. And then we also have the question of how technology affected this. This really is the question: why do we have uniform liturgical texts? Why are our current liturgical texts more or less the same as that of Constantinople? Now, the reason, for the most part… I mean, there’s periods where uniformity happens, and the material gets borrowed from the synaxarion of Constantinople into Antioch and Jerusalem. This happened specifically in the eleventh century when the Byzantines retook Antioch, and there was much more close communication with Constantinople and a lot of liturgical and patristic texts were translated, but really it comes into the beginning of the 17th century with printing.
Printing in Arabic has a really fascinating history. It can tell us a lot about the modern patriarchate of Antioch and even the lead-up to the schism of 1724, but when printing came about, it had a kind of power that manuscript books didn’t have. It had a kind of authority because each copy is identical. They didn’t have, or they had fewer, errors that were apparent errors. So a lot of cultural power could be gained by printing copies of books and distributing them in this way. The Roman Catholics gained a lot of influence over the patriarchate of Antioch by distributing books in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The metropolitan of Aleppo, at the beginning of the 17th century, Meletios Karmah, who later became Patriarch Euthymius II, set out to translate or make a new contemporary translation of all the liturgical texts into Arabic. In his introduction to these texts, he goes on and on about how he’s checking all the older Arabic translations; he’s checking the Syriac—but he’s not. He basically translates what’s available in Venice at the time, so the standardized Arabic texts come to be kind of Arabic carbon-copies of the Greek texts that were being printed in Venice. It’s basically in that way in the slow replacement of local manuscript traditions with, first, manuscripts that were translated from Greek-printed texts, and then finally from Arabic-printed texts, that we have this change in that locally remembered saints fall out of the calendar and are replaced by what was available in state-of-the-art 17th-century Greek texts.
I have the bad habit of making Meletios out into a kind of a villain. His close protege, who would become the Patriarch Makarios ibn Zaim, sort of had a bit of an opposite movement where he tried to collect some of the saints’ lives and other material from the medieval Melkite heritage and distribute it, but these were never printed. These remained in his own manuscripts and remained copied in manuscript. So you see how, when you jump on a new technology, this often determines what the future of things will look like. But these manuscripts are still available and can be examined, and this is how everything we’re going to be talking about from now on, where this information comes from.
There has been in the 20th century another sort of technological change, and this is that first people started microfilming manuscripts. In the 1950s there was an expedition to Sinai led by the Library of Congress that microfilmed the majority of the manuscripts there. So for over 50 years, if you write the Library of Congress, send them some money, they’ll send you a roll. More recently, there’s digitization, which means that now you can write various libraries and get JPG copies of a very large proportion of medieval Arab Christian texts. The patriarchate of Antioch has digitized virtually all of their manuscript collection with a few exceptions, but this also means that hopefully these manuscripts will be safe, at least in digital form, from the vicissitudes of time and conflict.
Starting in the middle of the 20th century, we get some serious research about the history of the patriarchate of Antioch’s Church calendar and traditions. The Roman Catholic order, the Bollandists, who are a very, very small subsection of the Jesuits, produced a book edited by Joseph-Marie Sauget that is an attempt to reconstruct the first synaxarion in Arabic and Syriac. This does a lot of the research for us in terms of knowing about where we can find these saints’ lives and where they were commemorated on the calendar.
More recently—not so recent in that he was able to use a computer; he was still working off of microfilms—Archimandrite Touma (Bitar), Abbot of the Orthodox monastery in Douma, North Lebanon, produced a book in Arabic that was titled, Forgotten Saints in the Antiochian Tradition that attempts to put as many saints’ lives as he could gather together on the calendar. The phrase “forgotten saints” I’m just borrowing from Fr. Touma’s work. We need this book in English. It’s a bit of a monster in size, like that, but we need it for recovering our history and heritage.
Along that basis, with the idea that we’re now in a period of recovery, of re-remembering these forgotten saints, I wanted to give you an example, or three examples really, of saints’ lives. As is really typical of the patriarchate of Antioch, all three of these saints are martyrs. The first example of a forgotten saint that I would like to tell you about is the life of the Martyr Anthony, who in the world was known as Rauf. We know of his story from an anonymously written vita that has been preserved; it’s been published numerous times on the basis of a 10th-century manuscript held at Mt. Sinai. A first-ever English translation has been prepared by John Lamoreaux of Southern Methodist University, and it should come out next spring in this The Orthodox Church in the Arab World anthology that Fr. Andrew mentioned. According to the 17th-century Patriarch Makarios ibn Zaim, St. Anthony was commemorated on January 9, while the central Asian calendar preserved by Al-Biruni lists him for December 29. Neither are, in fact, the date of his martyrdom, but there’s good reason for that, as you’ll see.
Rauf was from the tribe of Koresh and was a descendant of Mohammed. He lived in a village outside of Damascus and had appropriated for himself part of a monastery there dedicated to St. Theodore Tyro. He had an apartment from which he could look down onto the people in the church through an open window. His great amusement was to mock the people who would come for church services. He would move decorations around or damage them, steal communion wine, and even grab the chalice from the priest and finish it off himself.
One day Rauf was sitting and watching the end of a church service. The priest shut the altar screen. In older Middle Eastern churches, instead of an iconostas there would be a painted cloth. You can see this in even modern Syriac churches. So Rauf saw, painted on that screen, a man on a horse—St. Theodore—smashing a dragon’s head with the butt of his spear. Rauf apparently didn’t like competition for his places—the armed man in the monastery—so he took an arrow and fired it at St. Theodore. The arrow flew towards the cloth, but before it reached it, it turned right around and went into his hand. He had trouble pulling it out and could only get it out with difficulty, and on doing so, he fell ill.
The next day was the feast of St. Theodore, so this is February 17. Rauf watched the church service from his window as usual, but this time he saw something different. When the priests brought the gifts of bread and wine into the altar during the Great Entrance, Rauf saw on the paten a lamb kneeling with a dove floating above it. When the paten was covered, the dove hovered above the priests as they prayed. Then Rauf watched as the priests dismembered the lamb, limb from limb, and then distributed it to the people. When they were done, the lamb became whole again as they brought it back into the altar. He was amazed by this miraculous sight and became convinced that Christianity is the true religion.
As an aside, actually, Eucharistic miracles like this, and visions associated with the Eucharist are extremely common in medieval Arabic saints’ lives and stories. At any rate, that night Rauf couldn’t sleep. He was restless and troubled and was trying to make sense of what he had seen. Suddenly, St. Theodore appears to him, dressed for battle. He said to Rauf, “You have hurt me by what you have done. You have mocked my temple. You have shot my icon. You ate the body of Christ, my Lord. You tore up the cloth of my altar. You held the servants of my church in contempt. Abandon now this attitude of yours and believe in the Lord Christ. Forgo your tyranny and accept life in victory through this proof of God’s power.”
Rauf believed, so the next day he went to go with the Christian pilgrims who were headed to Jerusalem. There in Jerusalem he visited the patriarch, Elias. This is Elias II, who was patriarch from 770 until 797. He told him everything that he’d experienced. On hearing Rauf’s story, he said to him, “My son, the mysteries of Christ are great, and he reveals them to whom he wishes. Is there anything you want?” Rauf asked to be baptized with his hand, but the patriarch was afraid to do so publicly, so he told him to go to the River Jordan where he would find someone who would do it.
When he arrived at the place of Christ’s baptism, he found two monks from the monastery of St. John the Baptist. It’s still there on the east bank of the river. He begged them to baptize him, and they agreed to do so with joy. It was a very cold day, so after baptizing, they rushed him back to the monastery and received him as an honored guest. They asked him if he wanted anything more from them, and he requested to be tonsured a monk. They were happy to do so. He’d already been living in a monastery. So they gave him monk’s robes and tonsured him with the name Anthony. After this, he went back to his home in Damascus.
Once home, his kinsmen were horrified to see him dressed as a monk and confessing Christ. They tried to cajole him to return to Islam, reminding him of his illustrious lineage. When he refused, they dragged him to the judge. Now, according to Islamic law, if a Muslim converts to another religion, they’re supposed to receive the death penalty, but they’re not executed immediately; rather, first they have to be imprisoned and persuaded to return back to their religion. So the judge ordered that Anthony be beaten and thrown into prison. He spent several months there in prison, and he would still not renounce Christ. So he was thrown into the city’s dungeon, where they threw foreigners and the worst criminals. After 18 days in the dungeon, a light shone upon him, and a voice said, “Fear not, Anthony. You are among the elect. I have prepared felicity and a crown for you to go through with all the martyrs and all the saints.”
The judge was troubled by this light in the dungeon that everyone had seen, so he moved him back into the prison for Arabs. The other Arabs, some like him from the tribe of Koresh, constantly pestered him with religious debate and insults against Christianity. But once more Anthony received a vision to reassure him. He saw two elders dressed in white. One held a lamp that burned without oil or coal. The other held a crown which he placed on Anthony’s head.
The next day the judge ordered that Anthony be transported to Ar Raqqah, which is to the east of Aleppo on the Euphrates, and it’s currently held by rebels, but then it was where the caliph would stay for part of the year. The caliph, who in this case is the famous Harun Al-Rashid, heard about this unusual prisoner. He ordered that he be unchained and brought to him. He once more tried to cajole Anthony, offering him any money, possessions, or honors that he might want, if only he would return to Islam, but Anthony would only reply, “In truth, I haven’t been led astray, but guided, and I’ve come to believe in the Lord Christ who came into the world to enlighten and save all who seek him and strive for his good pleasure. I am today a Christian, one who believes in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
The caliph then commanded that Anthony be beheaded, to which Anthony replied, “In truth, you have fulfilled my request, and your command today has caused me to attain what I desire. And this, because I have sinned against my Lord three times, I do not think that my sins can be erased unless I am beheaded.” The caliph asked him what these three sins were, so Anthony replied, “First, many times while still a Muslim, I prayed in Mecca at the Bait ul Haram, and truly, as indicated by its name, God has declared it forbidden, that is, haram”—it’s a play on words here—“for those who believe in Christ. Secondly, I slaughtered and sacrificed on Eid al-Adha. Thirdly, I participated in raids against Byzantine territory and killed persons who believed in Christ. And now it is my hope that through my beheading, God will erase my sins from me and baptize me in my own blood.” Seeing that the case was hopeless, the caliph immediately had him killed. This took place on Christmas day in 799.
There are many elements in that story that are common, but one that’s somewhat unusual. The encounter of a monk or a convert to Christianity with the caliph is a common trope in both saints’ lives and also in fictional stories that were used as catechism, as debates where you hear both sides and ordinarily the monk wins. The theme of a clerical figure being afraid to baptize a Muslim is also somewhat common in texts like this. But the second saint that I would like to talk about, the tenth-century Patriarch Christopher of Antioch, is really a particular favorite of mine, partially because of the really amazing amount of detail that is in his life. We’re lucky to have a detailed account of his life, written by a disciple of his named Ibrahim ibn Yuhanna, who incidentally was himself a prolific translator of patristic texts from Greek into Arabic. He is responsible for the translations of the orations of Gregory the Theologian into Arabic from Greek.
The life of the Patriarch Christopher was published in 1952 along with French translation by Habib Zayat. It’s significant for two reasons apart from its value as a source of historical information. First of all, it gives us an example of a patriarch who was a wise and effective leader and builder, but it also gives us an example of martyrdom during a time of civil strife and political chaos not altogether unlike current events in the Middle East. The future Patriarch Christopher was born in Baghdad to Orthodox parents who gave him the name Issa. As a young man, his penmanship and eloquence in Arabic made him a good candidate for the type of secretarial career that has often through history been the best path for advancement open to Christians in the Islamic world. So he went to Aleppo to seek his fortune at the court of the ruler Sayf al-Dawla. Sayf al-Dawla was himself most famous as the patron of the poet Al-Mutanabbi, who wrote many poems celebrating Sayf al-Dawla’s campaigns against the Byzantines. It seems that Sayf al-Dawla was sufficiently impressed with Issa’s abilities, and he made him secretary to one of his emirs, Caliph ibn Jundi, in the town of Shaizar, northwest of Hama.
At this time—and we’re now towards the end of the 950s—there was a conflict in the Church of Antioch over who should lead the community in the eastern parts of the caliphate. The institution for organizing the Church in the more far-flung parts of the patriarchate of Antioch was called the catholicosate. In fact, the title catholicos, as it is used by the heads of the churches of Armenia, Georgia, and the Church of the East, is a vestige of these churches’ original, usually nominal relationship to the patriarchate of Antioch. But, to keep things simple, we can think of a catholicos as something like a metropolitan of an autonomous church. He would be part of the patriarchate’s holy synod, but he had considerable independence in overseeing his own metropolitans and bishops. Traditionally the catholicos had his see in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the old capital of the Persian Empire, but following the Islamic conquest, the Orthodox catholicoi started living far-off in central Asia, in the town of Shash, or Romagyris, near modern Tashkent.
As the Orthodox population of Baghdad began to grow beyond the settlement of Byzantine prisoners of war and the arrivals of migrants from other parts of the caliphate, they began to argue that the catholicos should reside in their city. After all, it was the capital of the caliphate, and not far from the Persian capital, whose seat the caliphate notionally held. Just as the dispute between the Baghdadis and the Central Asians was reaching its height, the catholicos in Shash died. As news of this spread, both sides saw this as their time to act. The people of Shash sent a delegation to Antioch to ask the patriarchate to consecrate a new catholicos for them, and the people of Baghdad decided to send a delegation to plead their own case. Who was better to lead the Baghdadi delegation than the eloquent, politically connected Issa?
Before this could be resolved, however, the course of events was changed by another death. The patriarch of Antioch, Agapios ibn al-ka’ Baroum, reposed, and the question of choosing a catholicos was eclipsed by the need to choose a new patriarch. At this time, and indeed through most of the history of the patriarchate of Antioch, the task of selecting a new patriarch was left up to the clergy and the people of Antioch, as the patriarch was first and foremost the bishop of the city. The people of Antioch considered various names and possibilities, but they were most impressed with the piety and the ability of Issa. The leaders of the city then went to Sayf al-Dawla, who at the time was ruling Antioch, and he naturally approved of their choice of his protege. With little delay, Issa was ordained and then consecrated patriarch, taking the name Christopher.
Despite the fact that the new patriarch had been a layman, and presumably a pretty well-off one at that, the author of his life emphasizes that from the very beginning of his patriarchate, he sought to live as an example of monastic piety and asceticism for his priests. During the week, he would rise early every day to pray before dawn. He kept vigils every Saturday, from the evening until the Sunday morning Liturgy. He ate a simple, meatless monastic diet, and never ate before nightfall. His administrative wisdom was soon demonstrated in the way that he resolved the dispute between Baghdad and Shash that had originally occasioned his arrival. Even though he was, by all accounts, a proud son of Baghdad and had originally come to Antioch on behalf of his city, he chose to appoint two catholicoi: for Baghdad, he appointed a man from Aleppo, Nemaje, and for Shash a man from Antioch named Eutychios. He then set out to fill the many vacant sees of his patriarchate and to combat the rampant problem of simony and corruption among bishops and clergy.
Now, as you may have noticed, Christopher’s political background is a constant undercurrent in the story. In contemporary language, one might say that he was very close with the regime of Sayf al-Dawla. It was a sign of his wisdom and political skill that he was able to turn this delicate situation into an advantage for his flock. Under Islamic law, as you may know, Christians and Jews are required to pay a special head-tax, called the jizya, which, if they do not pay, they are forcibly converted to Islam. Up until Ottoman legal reforms in the 19th century, this would be a constant, pressing burden on poor Christians in the Middle East, and, indeed, it’s the single biggest historical factor for the conversion of most of the region to Islam. But Christopher used his good relations with Sayf al-Dawla to obtain a significant reduction in the jizya owed by the Orthodox. Not only this, but he arranged for the jizya owed by the poor to be paid by the patriarchate’s coffers, so no one in Antioch was forced by hardship to convert to Islam under his patriarchate. For this reason, and for the concern he had to personally serve the poor, among whom were often numbered his priests, in the story of his life he’s called a new St. Nicholas.
Another incident in Christopher’s life illustrates the firmness of his commitment to uphold Orthodox practice without compromise. It is recounted that one of his priests committed a minor sin for which Christopher asked him to do a penance. The priest was also the physician of one of the princes from Sayf al-Dawla’s family, so instead of simply doing the penance, he went to this [prince] and asked him to command Christopher to pardon him immediately. Christopher refused, so the prince asked him, “What is it that you cannot do if I command you to do it?” The patriarch replied, “That which pertains to my religion, my doctrine, my law. We are obedient to you in other things; we cannot disobey you. But as regards that which religion has forbidden, we are prepared to go to prison and to be killed by the sword.”
The prince then said, “Well, tell me then, what was the sin that touched upon your religion?” The patriarch replied, “Before this it was a small sin that is easily remedied, but now it is great and cannot be pardoned, since it is not permitted for a priest to seek the intercession of you, a Muslim, in matters that pertain to the Church alone.” The prince became angry and told the patriarch, “Be forewarned! Know that you will die, because I will take your head off, even if it’s resting in Sayf al-Dawla’s lap.” But Christopher was not afraid of him.
The events that led to Christopher’s martyrdom are also closely connected, both to his zeal for the Church and the loyalty to his patron. There are also portrayed in a somewhat ambiguous or unclear way in the text itself. It gives it a real air of vivid historical reality; events are often somewhat unclear. So when we’re getting towards the end of the 960s, Syria and Palestine are falling into political, economic, and social chaos. The constellation of many statelets ruled by local strong-men like Sayf al-Dawla who owed nominal loyalty to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, who by then was powerless, were no longer strong enough to defend themselves. Egypt and Palestine were soon to be conquered by the Ismaili Shia Fatimid caliphate, and Byzantine armies under Nikephoros Phokas were steadily moving eastward, retaking Cilicia and Tarsus and then Cyprus in 966.
At this point, the situation in Antioch had grown tense. The city was filled with refugees caused by the famine caused by the Byzantine invasion. The Byzantines’ favorite tactic was destroying cropland and laying siege. Sayf al-Dawla’s health was deteriorating, so his lieutenants began to plot against him. Christopher, however, would have none of this. Fearful that he would be implicated in the plot, and unwilling to be disloyal to his patron, he fled to the monastery of St. Symeon the Stylite near Aleppo, and he decided to remain there until everything blew over. One of the monks approached him and asked him how could he call himself a good shepherd if he’s abandoning his flock this way, and according to the life, according to the hagiography, he simply said, “You don’t know what I know,” and left it at that. This is highly unusual.
As it turns out, Sayf al-Dawla was not so weak as the plotters had thought, and he came to Aleppo and had them killed. This displeased a lot of people, and this displeased a lot of people with Christopher for his apparent willingness to side with Sayf al-Dawla. So people began to plot against him specifically. He became aware of this, and realized who was behind it and then invited them to eat with him. While at this meeting, he was killed. At least as the way the life portrays this, he did this with the knowledge that he would be killed in order that nothing affect the rest of the Orthodox community in the city, which presumably was the case.
In 969, the Byzantines come into the city. They take Antioch, and this was a very interesting moment in history. I’ll get to that in a second. But you would think that the memory of a patriarch who died partially because of his support for his Muslim patron, who was a fierce enemy of the Byzantines, would not make him an agreeable figure with them, but this is not the case. His body was first buried in a monastery outside Antioch, and then later it was moved into, during the period of Byzantine rule, the home of St. Peter, which was the major shrine in Antioch at that time. He was in many ways treated as a new St. Nicholas.
Part of this may be for one of his other really lasting contributions to the history of the patriarchate of Antioch, and this is that he was a great builder of educational things. In some way that resembles the late Patriarch Ignatius. In his life it says that he built two schools for training children for the Church. One was a smaller school for rich children, where they’d be trained in everything you need to know to serve the Church. The other was a larger school for poor children, that was financed by the smaller school for the wealthy.
But more than that, he also brought people in and began getting the ball rolling on this great translation movement that happened in Antioch in the eleventh century. I already mentioned to you that Ibrahim ibn Yuhanna, the writer of his life and his protege, was a major translator of patristic works from Greek into Arabic. Then there were also other translators and abbots of monasteries and figures who were spiritual children of Christopher that are listed at the end of his life to sort of give his lineage. So, perhaps for that reason that he sort of established the future trajectory of the patriarchate of Antioch, that he was remembered so well, in addition to his death and a way that I guess in Russian terms you would call a passion-bearer.
Now, the final saint that I’d like to talk to you about today I hope is familiar to all of you, and this is St. Jacob [of] Hamatoura, the famous monastery of the Theotokos in North Lebanon. Relatively little is known about his life, at least as opposed to the two saints that I’ve already discussed today, but his story is particularly illustrative of the way that, even when saints are forgotten, they are still very active in the life of the Church. It seems that St. Jacob lived during North Lebanon during the 13th century. This is a dark time in the history of Christianity in the Middle East, and we know the names of very few Church figures or writings from that time. The region was ruled by the Mamluks, a Turkish military slave dynasty who were especially cruel to the Christians in their domains.
St. Jacob was a monk who set out to live in the ruins of the monastery of Hamatoura, which was originally founded in the fifth century. Over the course of its history, it’s been destroyed and rebuilt many, many times. Over time, he rebuilt the monastery. He became renowned for the spiritual care he gave to those in surrounding villages. His popularity angered the Mamluks, however, and they resolved to force him to convert to Islam. He refused in the face of their threats and cajoling, so they seized him, along with some monks and laypeople, and brought them to Tripoli. There they tortured him for almost a year before finally beheading him and burning his body. And that’s all we have of his life for the most part.
But the story of a martyred saint of Hamatoura was never completely forgotten in the surrounding villages. Over the centuries, the monastery, as I said, would be destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again. After the Mamluk destruction it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1600 and attacked by the Ottomans in 1770. It was reconsecrated in 1894, but with the decline of Antiochian monasticism in the first part of the 20th century, it was once more empty of monks by 1917. In 1992, a monk from Mt. Athos attempted to repopulate the monastery, but he found himself physically unable to cope with the difficult terrain there. So two years later, in 1994, Fr. Panteleimon (Farah) came to the monastery to permanently rebuild it as a monastic institution. Just immediately before that some candles lit in one of the churches had caused a fire that had done even more damage.
As the monastery came to be repopulated with monks and its churches filled with visitors, many of them began to experience the presence of St. Jacob. Some people were healed by him; others heard him singing along with the choir. The monks sought to find out more about their companion in the monastery, and, searching through manuscripts held at Balamand, they found an account of his life and were drawn to come to a list of monastic saints in manuscript Arabic number 149, where it states that his memory was celebrated on October 13. The monks prepared an akolouthia paraklesis service for St. Jacob and an icon was painted of him. So with the permission of the holy synod, his feast was restored to the calendar of the patriarchate of Antioch, starting October 13, 2012.
Exactly five years and a day ago, on July 3, 2008, while the monks were working to restore part of the church of the Dormition at Hamatoura, they discovered the bones of two people buried in the chuch. Both of them wore signs of torture, and one was beheaded and burned. After scientific analysis demonstrating that one of the two people was a man of about 50 years of age and the other a man of about 40 years of age, and dating them to 650 years ago, it became clear that these were the relics of St. Jacob and one of his companions that had been hastily buried there shortly after his martyrdom. Other bones of martyrs were also found under the altar of the church, and they were determined to be around 450 years old.
So here with St. Jacob of Hamatoura, we have a saint who could not bear to be forgotten any longer, a saint who did not want to be a footnote in a manuscript catalogue or archive, but to stand with us in worship and to have us be aware of that fact. Here is a perfect illustration of the relationship of the saints not only to history but to the end of history, our theme today. St. Jacob of Hamatoura, just like the Martyr Anthony and the Patriarch Christopher, are part of our past, whose lives we can learn from, but they are also present with us and interceding for us, even as they themselves have already tasted God’s presence at the end of history. Thank you.
"I came to know of your radio station because I am looking into the Orthodox faith. I live on an Army proving ground (Dugway) in Utah in a remote area and am a former Episcopalian. Listening to Ancient Faith Radio every day keeps a smile in my heart and gives me the strength to carry on."