Hermit saved by superstition
This 'Persian sage' lived where our war now rages
By Tony Staley
When: died about 345
Feast: April 7
Christianity has long opposed superstition and sought to replace
it with belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the triune God.
Often, the church has done that by converting pagan customs and
traditions into Christian practices. For example, pagan
celebrations on the shortest day of the year for the sun god became
the Christian celebration of Christmas honoring the birth of Jesus,
the son of God and the light of the world.
But sometimes, as St. Aphraates discovered, superstitions can be
useful just as they are.
Aphraates lived near Antioch as a hermit. He publicly opposed
the Arians, a heretical group that denied the divinity of Christ.
The Arians had considerable power, including the support of Emperor
Valens. They persuaded him to banish St. Meletius, Antioch's
archbishop and an opponent of the Arians.
The Arians then seized the city's churches and began persecuting
Christians. Those who were faithful to the church began meeting for
Mass on a military field near the Orontes River.
Aphraates decided to minister to them. One day, as he walked to
meet them, he passed the emperor who asked, "Why does a monk like
you wander so far from his cell?"
Aphraates replied, "If I were a maiden secluded in my father's
house, and saw it catch on fire, would you recommend that I stay
put and let it burn? You're the one who has kindled the flames that
I am trying to extinguish."
One of Valens' servants responded by urging the emperor to let
him kill Aphraates. Any thoughts Valens may have had about
arresting or killing Aphraates disappeared soon after when the
servant was accidentally scalded to death, thus convincing the
superstitious emperor to spare Aphraates' life. Aphraates further
helped his own cause by healing Valens' favorite horse.
Aphraates had been born into a pagan family living in Syria on
the border with Persia (now Iran). After converting to
Christianity, he moved to Edessa, Mesopotamia (now Syria), because
of its strong Christian heritage.
First, he lived as a hermit in a cell outside Edessa, spending
his time in penance, fasting and contemplation. Later, he moved to
a hut at a monastery near Antioch.
Eventually, he began offering spiritual advice to visitors,
which was how he became aware of the plight of the Antioch
Some scholars believe Aphraates is the same person as the bishop
of Mar Mattai monastery near Mosul, Mesopotamia (now in Iraq). The
bishop, called "the Persian sage," was the author of 23 treatises
on Christianity, known as Demonstrations.
(Sources: Dictionary of the Saints and Voices of the Saints)