Mar Saba, in the Judean desert east of Jerusalem

is one of the titles or names given to Saint Sabbas the Sanctified in the liturgical texts written in his honor and chanted today, on December 5/18. St. Sabbas the Sanctified is one of, if not The, great monastic father of the Judean desert. The roots of monastic life are biblical. Monastics have always looked back at the lives of St. John the Baptist, the prophet Elias and others, and many chose to wander in the same desert where the Lord spent 40 days in prayer and fasting as preparation for His preaching and His mission of salvation from the earliest days of Christianity. Nevertheless, as a movement and established form of life monasticism developed and flourished from the IV-VI centuries. Once persecution ceased and Christianity offered security and respectability and became “mainstream”, so to speak, the more fervent began to feel stifled by a mediocre, official and politicized religion, and in order to live the Christian life as possible they were drawn to the wild places of the desert. It is mistaken to think that they fled the world. The monks of the Judean desert were intensely involved in all of the major political and religious movements and controversies of their time. From among them came poets, historians, and great theologians, whose writings had an incalculable influence.

This monastic movement is indelibly tied to the lives, experiences and teachings of three great saints: St. Chariton, who founded the first monastery or laura in 330, Saint Euthymios, who could be called the most charismatic, for he attracted thousands of disciples and novices, and today’s saint, Saint Sabbas (439-532), the great organizer of this movement. By the time Saint Sabbas became abbot of Mar Saba and a leader of monks there were at least 74 monasteries scattered throughout the desert east of Jerusalem. The lives of saints and histories from the period tell us of 50 such places, and archeologists have uncovered at least another 24. Only Mar Saba has been occupied and functioning continually as a monastery since that time. His monastic rule and the practices of his monastery still serve as the most the basic guidelines for Orthodox monastic life today, and the order of the divine services developed by his disciples, known as the typicon, is still the order followed, not only by monastics, but by all of the Orthodox Church today, however abbreviated or incomplete our interpretations might be. Perhaps the most famous and influential of the monks of this monastery was St. John of Damascus, whose memory the Church celebrated yesterday. One of the greatest and most moving liturgical poets of the Orthodox Church, he also wrote the most influential defense of the legitimacy of images. Without his classic defense of icons the culture of Byzantium and of Christian Europe would have been very different and much poorer.

The Dormition of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified, End of 16th cen.. Found in the collection of the Benaki Museum, Athens. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This icon depicting the repose of Saint Sabbas was on view in Paris last Fall. It gives an idea of life in the monastic desert, depicting the various handicrafts of the monks, as well as their love and solicitude for each other. Note the younger monks helping or even carrying their elders to say goodbye to Saint Sabbas.

I visited Mar Saba with a pilgrimage group in September 2013. Though to this day the monastery does not admit women, one can get a decent peak inside from the surrounding hills and from the tower outside the monastery walls. The stark landscape, contrasting with the lightness of the monastery structures, toppled one upon the other in a seemingly haphazard way, like building blocks, leave an unforgettable memory of the greatest and most influential monastery of the Judean desert. When we were reminiscing about the pilgrimage one of the ladies in our group summed it up best when she said, “You know which place impressed me the most? That monastery way out in the desert, where they didn’t let us in…”

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