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of the Day

 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinApril 4, 2003 Issue 

Hermit saved by superstition

This 'Persian sage' lived where our war now rages

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor
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St. Aphraates

When: died about 345

Where: Antioch

What: Hermit

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 Christians.

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)

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