Today, 31 Mar 2012, is the feast day of St Stephen of Mar Saba (a.k.a. St Stephen the Sabaite) a holy hermit of the 8th century and a spiritual leader of many monks. From a youthful age he began to give his all to God, growing step by step in holiness until God, in turn, refused him nothing.
St Stephen was born in Damascus around the year 725, and when he was only 10 years old he accompanied his uncle, St John Damascene, and another relative, to the holy monastery of Mar Saba (a little to the east of Bethlehem in Palestine). Even from childhood Stephen was known for his virtue and loving disposition. Upon their arrival, a visiting abbot prophesied great sanctity for young Stephen. ‘May the Lord bless you, excellent boy, beloved of God, desirous of His wisdom, pious disciple.’ From his uncle in particular, and from the other monks in general, Stephen drank in an education of holy scripture, the writings of the Fathers and lots of monastic wisdom.
Upon the death of his uncle in 749, Stephen went from imbibing truth to service in charity. For eight years he served in rotation through just about all of the service roles a monastery had to offer eg bakery, cantor, guest-master etc. Having proved himself as a monk, the abbot arranged for him to be made deacon. Thus began in earnest Stephen’s great love affair with the divine liturgy. All through these years Stephen had been growing in the desire to become a hermit. Approaching the abbot, Stephen shared with him the desires of his heart and sought guidance. The wise abbot suggested a compromise that would be of great benefit not only to Stephen, but to the monastic community and all those who came to seek holy advice from monks of holiness. In obedience Stephen began the pattern of life that would be so fruitful for souls; on the five weekdays he would dedicate himself to complete silence and prayer and on the weekend he would be available for the celebration of the divine liturgy, and to all of those who wished to consult him and seek his intercession. No one who came to him went away without having received graces for soul and body, encouragement and consolation.
Where did Stephen obtain these graces for souls? From his great struggles against temptation and the wiles and fury of the devil. Struggles in which he was victorious through God’s grace and through his disciplined spiritual life. The battles were won with constant prayer, long vigils and fasting. As his confidence in the power of God grew, he looked forward to these spiritual battles because he knew that they would be beneficial to souls and would come with heavenly rewards. What he went through sounds very similar to the demonic attacks St John Vianney went through centuries later. When the holy respect that his fellow monks had for him became intolerable to Stephen’s humility, he set out for longer periods each year on his own; Eastertide, Christmastide and time leading up to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross he would spend in the monastic community, and the rest would be penitential time away from human society and alone with God.
Yet Stephen knew himself thoroughly and his own human weakness. He would pray ‘Merciful One, make me worthy of the fathers who were before me…My Lord, I know myself, that I do nothing that is fit for the life of a monk; nonetheless, my your manifold mercy reckon me among your holy ones…’ When saved by God from a pack of dogs about to tear him to pieces he prayed, ‘I, wretch that I am, have acquired not one of the virtues. I have not yet wrought even a little of what pleases God. I am not worthy of such care…But nevertheless …My Lord, I love You with all my heart and strength and thoughts, and desire to be with You forever…’
When Stephen reached his early 50s, a monk visited, Martyrius by name, who had implored God that he would not see death until he had met a monk totally pleasing to God. Martyrius rejoiced in at last finding one in Stephen, and Stephen for his part consulted the holy Martyrius about God’s will for him. Stephen desired to retire to the desert permanently, but Martyrius revealed to God’s desire that Stephen spend half of his year in the desert and half of his year available to assist the souls that would be sent to him.
At some point Stephen was ordained a priest. One day, after a fellow monk had been pestering him for some time to come and offer the holy Eucharist in his cell, Stephen came. During that Mass Stephen was transfigured by God, and experienced profound confusion at being granted this experience of God. Accordingly he begged the Lord not to favour him in this way again, but instead ‘when I am in need of Your grace at the time of the Eucharist, deem me worthy of it by Your many mercies.’ And so it came about that whenever Stephen was in need of wisdom for souls, revelation from God, healing for bodies and all the other manifold needs of souls, he went to the holy Eucharist and received all that he asked for, and more. The good God could not refuse his holy servant anything.
Around eighty miracles are recorded in Stephen’s life; some are of persons being freed from evil spirits, others of healing at a distance, however there must have been many more unrecounted ones. He had the gift of being able to read souls, and at times to fortell the future. Stephen entered into the joy of the Lord a few days after Easter in the year 794.
Portions of ‘The Life of Stephen of Mar Sabas’ written by his disciple Leontius of Damascus and translated by John C. Lamoreaux are available through Google Books. If you need some encouragement today, read some of it. A Google search with ‘The life of Stephen of Mar Sabas Volume 579′ will find it for you. (The link is just too long and complicated to write out).
Thank you Lord God for raising up St Stephen and for making him a flowing conduit of your grace to souls. May souls today continue to benefit from his powerful intercession before You.
St Stephen of Mar Saba, pray for us.