St Sabas decided to become a monk, and when he was eighteen, went to Jerusalem to see the holy places and visit the hermits who lived there.
Sabas was born in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, and educated at a monastery near his home. He liked monastic life so much that he decided to become a hermit in the Cedron valley near Jerusalem. The laura, or complex of hermits’ huts around a church which he set up, became an influential foundation and even still houses twenty Eastern Orthodox monks. Patrick Duffy traces his story.
Sabas was born in 439 at Mutalasca near Caesarea in Cappadocia (central Turkey today). His parents were pious Christians, but being a soldier, his father had to go to Alexandria and took his wife with him. He left the boy with his wife’s brother and his wife, but when they did not treat the boy well, Sabas went to a nearby monastery where the abbot looked after him well and taught him the monastic way. Sabas decided to become a monk, and when he was eighteen, went to Jerusalem to see the holy places and visit the hermits who lived there. But the abbot Euthymius urged him to live in a community with a life of prayer and manual work. When he was thirty, he allowed him to spend five days each week alone in a cave and come back to the community at the week-end. He helped the monastery by weaving fifty baskets a week from palm fronds.
The desert and the laura
When Euthymius died, Sabas spent four years alone in the desert near Jericho, where the Cedron brook provided him with water and local people brought him food. Pressed to found a community, he set up a laura, or complex of hermits’ huts around a central church, at what is now called Mar Saba. When a hundred and fifty monks joined, he reluctantly agreed to be ordained by the Patriarch of Jerusalem at the age of 53. Monks came from as far away as Armenia and Egypt. His mother, now a widow, also came to provide a guest house and two hospitals. In 493 the Patriarch made Sabas archimandrite or leader over all the Palestinian monks.
Visit to Constantinople
In 511, a new patriarch sent him with others on a delegation to the emperor Anastasius at Constantinople, but the guard at the door turned him away, thinking he was a beggar. He sat apart and when the emperor read a glowing account of him from the patriarch, and asked where he was, Sabas was admitted and spent the winter there opposing the Monophysite heresy.
When he was ninety, Sabas went again to Constantinople on behalf of the new patriarch of Jerusalem, Peter, to protest against a violent oppression by imperial troops of a revolt by Samaritans. The emperor Justinian received him well and offered to endow his monasteries. Sabas declined, but asked for a reduction in taxes for Palestine, a pilgrim hostel in Jerusalem and protection for monks against raiders, to which the emperor agreed.
Death and influence
Sabas returned home and appointed his successor and lay down for four days before he died.
His great laura at Mar Saba overlooking the Kidron valley is still functioning today with about twenty Eastern Orthodox monks.