January 26, 2015 (De Vitis Patrum by St. Theodoret)
JACOBUS of Nisibis
Moses the divine lawgiver, who laid bare the bottom of the sea, caused water to flow in the barren desert and did many other miracles, wrote down the deeds of those saints who were of old. He was not prompted by the wisdom of the Egyptians, but by the splendour of grace given him from above. For unless he had been inspired by the all-knowing divine Spirit, how could he have learned about the virtues of Abel, Enoch’s love of righteousness, the devout priesthood of Melchisedech, the calling of Abraham, and his faith, his courage, his meticulous attention to the duties of hospitality, the sacrifice of his son for the benefit of the world, and the whole catalogue of all the other deeds which he performed? I likewise need help in this present work, trying as I am to describe the lives of those holy people who shone both in our own times and in the times a little before us, and whom I would wish to portray as examples for those who would wish to emulate them. I beg your prayers for this, and so I begin my tale.
Nisibis is a state on the borders between the Romans and the Persians. At one time it was subject to the Romans and paid taxes to them. This is where the great Jacobus came from to embrace the quietness of a solitary life. He chose the peaks of the highest mountains as his abode. In summer and autumn he frequented the woods, with only the sky for a roof over his head; in the winter he made use of a cave, which gave him some sort of shelter. His food was not such as is laboriously sown and cultivated, but what grew naturally; he gathered the fruits which grew of their own accord on the trees of the woods, and edible herbs which served him as vegetables. He ate them raw, providing his body with sufficient to preserve life. He found it quite unnecessary for his clothing to be of wool; he used instead the prickly hair of goatskins, from which he made a tunic and simple cloak.
By afflicting his body thus, he was able to feed his body with spiritual food, by contemplation he purified the faculty of thought, wherein as in a clear mirror of the divine Spirit, with open face looking to the glory of God, he was transformed into the same image from glory unto glory, as by the spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3.18). Hence, his trust in God which came from God increased daily, and asking from God only what it was right to ask he immediately received what he asked for. As a result he was able to see the future prophetically, and by the grace of the most holy Spirit received the power of doing miracles. I shall tell of some of them, and make known the brightness of his apostolic splendour to those who were previously unaware.
An insane attraction to idols was flourishing among people at that time, the cult of worshipping inanimate statues was being promoted, and many neglected the worship of God. Anyone who did not wish to join in their drunkenness was held in contempt, but those given above all to the pursuit of virtue saw things as they really were, and mocked the senselessness of idols while worshipping the maker of the universe.
He had travelled into Persia at that time in order to see the new signs of true religion there, and what was equally important, to bring them some pastoral care. He happened to be passing by a pond where some girls were washing clothes by pounding them with their feet. Far from showing the respect due to him not only as a stranger but as one wearing the habit with modesty and dignity, the girls shamelessly cast burning looks and impudent glances at the holy man, nor did they cover their heads or let fall the garments which they had tucked up round their waists.
This made the man of God angry, and he called down a curse upon the pond, choosing this opportune moment to make manifest the power of God, and by performing a miracle to drive out wickedness. The pond immediately dried up. He also cursed the girls and punished their youthful impudence by turning their hair prematurely grey. The lesson he drew from this was that the changed colour of their hair was like what had recently happened to the trees, which were now crowned with autumn leaves. The girls watched the waters drying up and stared at each other’s heads. They knew these sudden changes were their punishment, and they fled back to the town to tell of what had happened. The townspeople ran out and soon met up with the great Jacobus, whom they begged to restrain his anger and remove the punishment. Jacobus did not keep them waiting long, but prayed to God and commanded the waters to flow once more. They immediately began to gush up out of the depths again, obedient to the holy man’s command. Having made that request they then begged that the colour of the girls’ hair should be restored. He granted this even though the girls had not returned, for he sought them out and lifted the punishment from them. This was a lesson to them that they should in future be temperate and well disciplined, and remember always how divine power had been shown forth on them.
Such was the miracle of this latter-day Moses, performed not by striking with a rod, but by making the sign of the cross. Quite apart from the miracle I am astonished at his gentleness. For unlike the great Elisha he did not hand those impudent girls into the power of savage bears, (2 Kings 2.24), but shamed them by means of a fairly harmless punishment, and at the same time taught them to be respectful and restrained. I say this, not to condemn the prophet for savagery (far be it from me to be so presumptuous!), but to demonstrate how Jacobus possessed the same sort of power, but used it in a manner compatible with the New Testament and the greatness of Christ.
On another occasion he was present when a Persian judge handed down a judgment which was manifestly unjust, so Jacobus laid a curse on a large rock nearby, ordering it to be broken into fragments, showing by this how worthless the judgment was. All those present were terrified at seeing the stone shattered into a thousand pieces, and it was such a shock to the judge himself that he overturned his previous judgment and issued a just one. In this likewise Jacobus was imitating the Lord, who when wishing to show that he was going cheerfully to his passion of his own free will, refrained from punishing his persecutors but showed that he had power to do so by withering the fig tree (Matthew 21.19). In imitation of such clemency Jacobus did not punish the judge, but by destroying the rock induced him to judge justly.
His deeds became known, and made him so loved and respected by all that he was elevated to the bishopric of his own country. So through no desire of his own he was thrust into a very exalted way of life and social position. But he did not wear any different clothing or change his diet; his circumstances may have changed but his rule of life was not modified in the slightest. His labours increased, and were much greater than they were before. He was already fasting, sleeping on the ground and wearing rough clothing; to these labours were added the care of the poor, the widows and the orphans, and he also opposed those who dealt unjustly while supporting those who had suffered injustice. But what a task it would be to enlighten all those who are unaware of the benefits received by those he cared for! His great distinction is that he went about his work as one who above all feared and loved him who was the master of his sheep.
The greater his acts of kindness grew in number, so much the greater was the grace given to him by the most holy Spirit. On one occasion he was travelling through some village or town (I’m not quite sure where), when some poor people approached him carrying one of their number who they said was dead. They humbly begged him for money to pay for his burial, but he simply prayed to God to forgive him the sins he had committed in life and count him worthy to be admitted into the company of the just. At the very moment when these words were being spoken, the soul departed from the man pretending to be dead, while Jacobus gave them money for a shroud.
As soon as this admirable man had gone a little further on his way the perpetrators of this deed told the recumbent form to get up. Receiving no response they suddenly realised that what they had been pretending had come true, the playacting had become real. They rushed back to Jacobus and threw themselves at his feet, protesting that it was poverty which had driven them to do what they had rashly done. They humbly begged him to pardon their transgression and restore the dead man to life. And in imitation of the mercy of the Lord he did offer prayers and perform a miracle, so that as life had been taken through prayer even so life through prayer was restored.
This all seems to have certain similarities to the miracle performed by the great Peter, who handed over to death those thieves and liars, Ananias and Saphiras (Acts 5,1-10), for Jacobus also brought death to him who murdered truth and traded in lies. But whereas Peter inflicted the punishment having become aware of the theft by the Spirit, Jacobus knew nothing of what those men were trying to achieve, but simply offered the prayers which brought about the pretender’s death. The divine Apostle did nothing to snatch back the dead from their fate, because he needed to inculcate some fear before could begin to preach salvation. Jacobus, overflowing with apostolic grace, brought about an opportune punishment, but also later remitted the punishment, for the need here was to bring enlightenment to the offenders.
But we need to move on to other matters which should be briefly mentioned. After Arius created uproar and confusion in Egypt, the great Emperor Constantine gathered all the leaders of the churches together at Nicaea. Arius was the father and instigator of curse and blasphemy against the only begotten Son and the most holy Spirit, whereas Constantine was like a Zorobabel to our flock (Zorobabel brought the universal captivity of the righteous back from exile and rebuilt the holy temple which had been razed to the ground [Ezra 3.2].) The great Jacobus was also among those who came to Nicaea, determined to stand up for revealed truth like the brave army-leader he was, for Nisibis at that time was a Roman dependency. When the gathering was over and everyone returned home, he too came back like a brave man who had won a victory, rejoicing that true devotion had prevailed.
Some time after this, that great and highly regarded Emperor departed this life acknowledged by all to be a saint [lit. with crowns of piety], and his sons inherited the rulership of the world. But Sapores, the king of the Persians, had no respect for Constantine’s sons, deeming them to be nowhere near as powerful as their father, and he sent a great army of cavalry and infantry, together with a great number of elephants, to war against Nisibis.
He deployed his army to besiege the city and completely surrounded it. He brought his siege engines forward, built towers and dug ditches, barricaded the space between them with hurdles built out of branches, and ordered his soldiers to build mounds so that his towers would rival those of the city. He then placed his archers in them, ordering them to direct their fire on those manning the battlements. He ordered others to dig below and undermine the walls. But all these plans were of no effect and a waste of time, for they were all brought to naught by the prayers of Jacobus, that divine man. At last, however, Sapores came to a bold decision [lit. forbade weakness] and, confident that the numbers of his men were like a river in flood, built earthworks and constructed retaining barriers so that he was able to divert a real river of great quantity which he directed against the fortifications. It proved to be a most mighty device, for the walls were unable to withstand this attack and were struck with such force that at that point they began to crumble from beneath. A great shout went up from the besieging army, for now the city was on the point of being taken. They did not fully realise, however, the wall of defence which the citizens of that city still possessed.
For a time they deferred entering the city, unable to approach it because of the waters. They moved back some distance and thinking that their labours were almost over, they relaxed and took thought for their horses. But those who lived in the city turned to prayer, with the great Jacobus as their intercessor. Every able-bodied person worked as hard as they possibly could to rebuild, not worrying about whether the structure would be pretty and pleasing, but piling everything up at random, stones and bricks and whatever anyone could carry, to such effect that in the space of one night they had built high enough to prevent an attack by cavalry, and by infantry unless using ladders. They then all begged the man of God to show himself on the walls and hurl the weapon of cursing at the enemy. In response to their request he went up, and as he looked out over the multitude of them he begged God to send a cloud of mosquitoes and gnats upon them. Even as he spoke God responded, answering the prayer of Jacobus as he did the prayer of Moses. Men were pierced by these spears from God, horses and elephants broke their chains, bolted and scattered hither and thither, unable to bear the stings.
The wicked king realised that all his stratagems had failed; the flooding with water had achieved nothing, for the wall which had been destroyed had been rebuilt. His whole army was worn out by their labours and was under the curse of God, plagued by the snares of God. He saw the man of God walking upon the walls and thought it must have been the Emperor who had been in charge of all the work, for Jacobus seemed to be dressed in purple and crowned with a diadem. He was therefore enraged with those who had urged him into this battle, deceiving him by telling him that the Emperor would not be there. He condemned them to execution, dismissed the army and returned to his own kingdom as quickly as possible.
These miracles are in no way inferior to those which God performed through Hezekiah (2 Kings 19.35) – even greater, it seems to me, in that the city was not taken even though the walls had been undermined. But what I admire even more than that is that when he had recourse to cursing he did not call down thunder and lightning from heaven as the great Elijah did when each captain of fifty with his fifty men advanced towards him (2 Kings I.14). For Jacobus had understood what the Lord said to James and John when they wanted to do this: ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of’ (Luke 9. 55). So he did not ask for the earth to swallow them up, or that they should be consumed by fire, but just that they should be plagued by insects. Knowing the power of God he understood that discipleship had to be developed into the true way of worshipping God. Great indeed was the trust which this divine man had in God, great was the grace given him from above. His face was ever turned heavenwards, and having grown daily in the knowledge of God he at last laid down his life with great glory and departed from our midst.
Some time later, this city was handed over from its then rulers to the kingdom of Persia. Those who used to live there had to leave, but they took with them the body of their prince and defender, grieving and scarcely able to bear having to be exiled, yet singing and celebrating the power of this great conqueror. For if he had lived they would have had but a small chance of falling into the hands of the barbarians.
I have now come to the end of my account of this divine man, and so move on to another story, praying that his blessing may follow me.