Mary and Euphemia: The Contemplative and Active Lives

In John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints ch 12*, we learn of two interesting sixth-century ascetic sisters from amongst the Syrian Mesopotamian Monophysites recounted by John.

Mary, the elder of the two, lived the celibate life in Thella (Constantina). She was overcome by the desire to see the Holy City of Jerusalem and so she went on pilgrimage there. While in Jerusalem at the Church of the Resurrection (or Anastasis), she was overcome. She wanted to do nothing but stand there.

So she did.

And while she stood there, Mary was enraptured and had an ecstatic experience. She was drawn into the experience of the love of the great God of grace who rules all. Inevitably, some of the people who helped take care of this church thought her mad and tried shooing her out.

So Mary spent time in the street. And then would move back into the Church of the Resurrection.

Eventually, she was persuaded by some of the following that had developed around her that maybe should go home. So she went back to Armenia IV and lived as an ascetic in Thella, returning to Jerusalem every once in a while to pray to the God who had so enraptured her soul.

Of note: Mary gathered a following, and they were edified by her spiritual experiences. True mysticism always benefits the community.

Mary’s sister was Euphemia. Euphemia, unlike Mary, married and had a daughter. However, when her husband died, she was overcome by the desire to live a holy life. So she and her daughter, Mary like her aunt, learned the psalms and prayed the hours. They worked from the home, carding wool for the wealthy.

This work made them a denarius a day. Half of the denarius provided for their daily needs. The other half provided for the daily needs of anyone Euphemia could find.

Euphemia seems to have been a fiery sort of character, going about the city of Amida on the banks of the Tigris and finding poor people to do good to. And when there was a crisis, she would turn to the wealthy Christians of the city and berate them thus:

Is it well that you thus sit yourself while slaves stand and wait upon you, and enjoy a variety of tastes in dainty foods and in wines, and of pure bread and splendid rugs, while God is knocked down in the street and swarms with lice and faints from his hunger, and you do not fear him? and how will you call upon him and he answer you, when you treat him with such contempt? Or how will you ask forgiveness from him? Or how can you expect him to deliver you from hell? (Trans. E.W. Brooks)

In the West, we often make a distinction between the “active” life and the “contemplative” life. Despite Met. Kallistos Ware’s attempts to do away with these distinctions (cf. The Orthodox Way), they are often played out in reality, as in the case of these two Syrian sisters.

Both of these lifestyles are appropriate choices for the person totally surrendered to Christ. The latter, Euphemia, fits better with our conception of a good Christian. Indeed, I cannot help but say that her approach fits better with what we find in the Gospels.

Nonetheless, I think we have room — need, even? — for mystic visionaries of the contemplative life such as Mary. They are the ones who ground us in Christ. Sometimes feeding the poor becomes feeding the poor — not feeding Christ. Sometimes seeking righteousness becomes political lobbying — not seeking Christ. The contemplatives see Christ and live for him a radical way, often in bizarre, radical ways (cf. our friend Daniel the Stylite).

If we of the “active life” gather around the contemplatives, our own mission is given fuel, and it is easier to see Christ in the faces of the poor surrounding us.

Let us be encouraged by Euphemia to do good for poor, and by Mary that Christ is calling out to draw us into his warm, divine embrace.

*This chapter is in Patrologia Orientalis 17. The entire work is in fascicles from PO 17, 18, 19 if you’re interested…

This Week’s Saints Brought to You by Thomas Merton, Kallistos Ware, and the Chalcedonian Schism.

Makarios

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Makarios (the first on the left) stood in the midst of the gathering. He was one of the notables in the theological disputes. He and Eustathios of Antiokheia had been comparing the baptismal formulae of their cities, trying to come up with a statement to which the overseers could agree and put a stop to Arios’ destructive preaching.

However, this was a day to deal with other business. They were all in ready agreement with the condemnation of Origen’s self-mutilating solution to the problem of lust; such men as who purposefully made themselves eunuchs were by no means allowed to become or remain shepherds of Jesus’ flock. Nonetheless, those who were made so by a physician, due to illness, or by the cruelty of barbarians, ought surely to be admitted into holy orders if they so desire? There was assent all around to this.

Makarios stood up. “At the urging of various dear friends,” he began, “the following was brought to the revered Konstantinos, and thence, I, too, had private audience with his greatness. As many know, the dignity of the city I oversee, Aelia Capitolina, has much suffered in the past centuries. Thirty years after our Lord’s ascent on high, Titus and his men sacked and spoliated the city. And forty years further, the soldiers of Roma, when the people rebelled once more, destroyed it, until not one stone was left upon another, save one retaining wall, which once held the glorious Temple. But I am here, brothers, to say to you that the dignity of Mount Zion, of the city of Jerusalem, is to be restored!” He noted his arch-overseer, Eusebios of Kaisereia, sigh.

“Is it not shameful, dear friends,” he continued, “that the city within which our Lord and Saviour, the Anointed Jesus, walked is devoid of any prestige and dignity at all? This was the city in former days, in times of old, where God Himself chose to dwell. Glorious things of you are spoken, Zion city of our God! calls out the psalmist. He made it His holy habitation, where the prophets proclaimed His word to the people. In this city, the words of the Holy Scriptures were put down for generations to come. He was worshipped in Jerusalem, sacrificed to, praised in song and dance.

“From the days of King David, Jerusalem was the chief city of God’s chosen people, of the descendants of Father Abraham, the people to whom His divine Light was given, to whom He disclosed His revelation. And from the line of King David himself, overseers, came our Lord. He visited Jerusalem, walked in Jerusalem, preached in Jerusalem, died in Jerusalem. In a garden near Jerusalem, Jesus, the High King of Heaven come down, was betrayed by the kiss of a friend. In a cold sepulchre, they laid the body, the lifeless corpse of the One who was life itself.

“Yet by that death, as we all know, He trampled upon death, and slew it with the lightning flash of His Godhead!” Makarios paused, knowing he had used the much-disputed word. “And in Jerusalem, He rose from the dead. Fifty days later, our Lord the Spirit descended in Jerusalem. The apostles were sent forth from Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Stephanos, whose blood is beautiful and calls out to the Lord for justice, was the first witness to die for the cause of the Good News. In Jerusalem, as well, Jacobos was beheaded. In Jerusalem, the very first gathering of overseers, of the apostles themselves, was assembled to deal with a divisive issue. And thus, in Jerusalem, as now here in Nikaia, the true Faith was upheld and the unity of the Assembly was maintained.

“Yet — oh sorrow — this city, the place where God Himself walked, where His incarnate foot trod upon the soil, rock, and grass, where His Blood was poured out for us men and for our salvation, is not honoured, but is only a minor city. The great sites of our faith, brothers, have been sorely neglected. Yet I tell you we know where the upper room of our Lord’s last supper is. We know where his holy sepulchre is. For generations, His disciples have walked the way from Gabbatha to Golgotha, sowing tears for their sins which led their Lord there. And we have suffered in Jerusalem as in all cities. And we have died, and our blood has run in the streets of Aelia Capitolina as did His.

“Let us, therefore, reclaim this place where the glory of Lord was shown forth so perfectly unto us! Let us restore the dignity where the fullness of His revelation was made known! Let us, in honour of that His precious death and glorious resurrection, give this city of Aelia Capitolina, that is, Jerusalem, a dignity and honour becoming so important a place to our abiding faith.”

Makarios stood silent. There was perhaps, by the dripping of the water clock, a pause of three seconds. And then Eustathios stood and noted his approval of the plan. Nikolaos of Myra also seemed pleased. He saw a fellow in a hat resembling a beehive nodding his agreement. And was that Metrophanes of Byzantion applauding in the corner? No, Makarios must have been seeing things. Most important of all, Konstantinos sat smiling, resplendent.

“But,” he noted, “we must remember the dignity and honour and history of Kaisareia, the city under whose administration Aelia falls. This council has noted how to uphold respect for those assembled, and Kaisareia is the administrative centre of the province. Whatever this holy gathering decides regarding Aelia, we must not forget the dignity of Eusebios and his city.”

Makarios then sat down. Not that he felt Eusebios had that much dignity, with his tendencies towards Arios’ teachings. He just knew that being irenic rather than polemic was the course of prudence, especially when one is taking dignity from someone else.

Little did innocent Makarios realise what the results of his impassioned speech and audience with the revered Konstantinos would be — pilgrims and basilicas, gold and glory, monks and holy places; a visit from Lady Helena, resulting in the discovery of the Cross itself! His head would have swum at Nikaia had he even thought of it. But he did not; he thought only of the importance of Aelia and its role in the history of salvation.

* * *

Canon VII of the Council of Nicaea, the result of Makarios’ action, viewable on the CCEL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.vi.viii.html

The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Macarius”: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09482a.htm

Eusebius of Caesarea. Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, translators and commentators. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. pp. 132, 282.

Waugh, Evelyn. Helena. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2005. An excellent novel about the life of Helena, Constantine’s mother. The chapter “The Innocence of Bishop Macarius” was the inspiration for this telling of the tale.