Melkite Greek Catholic Church
IN THE YEAR 650 THE EMPEROR JUSTINIAN sponsored the building of a monastery at Jebel Moussa on the Sinai Peninsula. It was built to enclose the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by St. Helena, the mother of St Constantine the Great, at the site where Moses is supposed to have encountered God at the burning bush. The full, official name of the monastery is the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, but for centuries it has been known as the Monastery of St Catherine. Justinian’s monastery still exists. The unique climate of Sinai has preserved some of the oldest Christian manuscripts in the world including the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, a handwritten copy of the Bible. The monastery houses the most important collection of early icons in the world. Many of them look as if they were painted yesterday. The monastery also cherishes numerous relics, the most revered being the head and the hand of St. Catherine of Alexandria which rest in the monastery church. In the eighth century the relics of St. Catherine were discovered buried in the ground by an ascetic who lived in the vicinity. They were later transferred to the monastery itself and placed in a sarcophagus near the principal altar. The saint’s head and hand remain there to this day, reportedly giving forth a heavenly scent and working countless miracles. Thus the liturgy calls Catherine “the protectress of Sinai” (troparion). In the eleventh century Simeon of Trier brought a finger of the saint to Rouen. Other relics are found in churches throughout the Mediterranean, in Ethiopia and in India. Devotion to St Catherine thus spread throughout the Christian world. The relics of Saint Catherine are brought out for the veneration of the faithful on special occasions, at which time each pilgrim is given a silver ring bearing the monogram of the saint. According to one tradition, Catherine had a vision in which she underwent a mystic marriage with Christ, who put a gold ring on her finger. Another version of the tradition says that, when Catherine was praying before a small icon of the Theotokos and Her Son, He turned His head and placed a ring on her finger. These rings are preserved by pilgrims as a blessing from the saint.

Who Was St. Catherine?

Despite the universal reverence for this saint in all the Churches, important questions about her identity remain unanswered. The first mention of her by name is in the Menologium Basilianum, a collection of saints’ lives compiled for Emperor Basil II who died in 886, over 500 years after her death. A longer life, by Simeon Metaphrastes, was written in the tenth century and is the source of all later compositions, including the hymns for her feast. According to Simeon, Catherine was an extremely learned young girl of noble birth who protested the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Maxentius —whose wife and several soldiers she converted — and defeated the most eminent scholars summoned by Maxentius to oppose her. The spiked wheel by which she was sentenced to be killed broke, and she was then beheaded. In the eighteenth century the Maronite scholar, Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768), seeking an earlier mention, identified Catherine with a young Christian noblewoman of Alexandria mentioned in Eusebius’ history of the Church, written less than 20 years after the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximinus. This woman was banished for refusing the solicitations of the emperor and suffered the confiscation of her estates. Others have thought that Catherine is a fictional person, modeled after the neo-Platonist philosopher Hypatia who, according to the fifth-century Christian writer Socrates Scholasticus, “made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.” This woman was killed in 415 by a Christian mob in Alexandria who believed she was influencing the city’s prefect against the bishop. This caused a great scandal in the Churches for, as Socrates observed, “Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.’ Those who support this theory believe that the story of a Christian woman philosopher martyred by the pagans might have been contrived to offset this scandal.

A Woman Philosopher?

Simeon Metaphrastes depicts St Catherine as a highly educated woman, a philosopher skilled in the Alexandrian tradition. Some people think that women emerged into public life only in the modern era. In the Hellenistic culture – and Alexandria was the educational center of the Greco-Roman world – learning and religion were the two fields most open to women. The degree of freedom a woman enjoyed depended largely on her wealth and social status. As a patrician, Catherine would have enjoyed such freedom and opportunity. A slightly later example is St Marina the Elder, matriarch of a noble Cappadocian Christian family. Her grandson, St Basil the Great, described her as “the illustrious Macrina, by whom we were taught the words of the most blessed Gregory [the Wonderworker].” That a grandmother would teach her grandchildren religion is not unusual – that a grandmother would pass on to them the deeply philosophical writings of a disciple of Origen is beyond our imagination today. St. Basil’s sister, Macrina the Younger, was named after her illustrious grandmother. She too was a noted Christian thinker who had considerable influences on her brothers Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. By her time, however, Christian women had a new field of endeavor open to them: monasticism. With another of her brothers, Peter of Sebaste, she devoted her resources to establishing monasteries on the grounds of the family estate. St Catherine is something of a symbol of an age in transition. She lived in a great center of Neoplatonism, a philosophy that was increasingly being mixed with superstition and divination. She died in the last of the great Roman persecutions and, through her relics, became a protectress of monasticism in which the Christian philosophy of theosis would thrive.
Hymns from the Liturgy Sticheron at Vespers (Tone 2) – On the feast of Catherine, wise in God, O friends of the martyrs, let us hasten in joy to crown her with our praises as with flowers. Let us say to her, “Hail, for you refuted the insolent babbling of the orators and led them from ignorance to faith in God! Hail, for through love for your Creator you handed over your body to countless torments, resisting like an anvil without being burned! Hail, for by your pains you attained the object of our desires – the dwellings above, where you rejoice in eternal glory! May the hopes of those who sing to you never be disappointed!” Exapostilarion at Orthros (Tone 3) – O Catherine, venerable virgin, glory of martyrs, you strengthen the courage of all women. You rejected as myths and foolishness the thoughts of philosophers who did not know the true God, for you had as your help the divine and all-pure Mother.
THE GOSPELS TELL US LITTLE about the man who approached Jesus to learn how to attain eternal life. Luke (18:18-27) calls him “a ruler;” Matthew (19:16-26) describes him as “a young man.” Both agree that he was rich. He was not willing to abandon his status and his wealth to follow Jesus, he became the classic example of how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God if your mind is on wealth and power in the kingdom of this age. On November 27 the Byzantine Churches remember another rich young man – one who made a very different decision from his Scriptural counterpart. The holy martyr James the Persian lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He was raised a Christian at a time when Christians exercised a measure of freedom in the Persian Empire. James became a respected and important member of Persian society. He was a military officer under Yisdegerd I and a favorite companion of his son, Bahram. James enjoyed royal favor, wealth and an enviable position in the inner circle of the Persian royal family. He was, in short, a rich young man.

Christianity under Attack

Religion and politics were inseparably entwined in this era. When the Roman Empire persecuted Christians, the Persian Empire welcomed them. Thus when Jerusalem was demolished in the second century many of its Christians crossed the border into the Persian realm. On the other hand, as Christianity came to be the official religion in the Roman Empire, life became difficult for Christians in Persia. Yisdigerd I, who had at first protected Christians and persecuted Zoroastrians, reversed his policy. The Church of the East was cut off from the Churches in the Roman Empire in the interests of national security. When Yisdegerd turned against Christianity he began urging the members of his court to abandon the “Roman religion” in favor of the Persian. The king tried hard to estrange James with gifts and gratuities. He chose a good-natured approach, persuading James with benefits and flatteries, rather than with threats and torments. At first James resisted this pressure, but ultimately was seduced by the many generous favors of the ruler and denied Christ. Like the young ruler in the Gospel, James put status and wealth ahead of the Lord. According to the account in the Great Synaxarion, James’ wife and mother, hearing what he had done, wrote to him to this effect: “It was not proper to your nobility to exchange falsehood for the truth; to defraud the faith for the honor of men and temporary rewards, which pass by as a dream and disperse like smoke; and to love the perishable and temporary kingdom, and abandon immortality and eternity. For this violation you would elect to be cast into the inextinguishable fire and endless torment?… We have been greatly distressed by you and pour forth many tears and, with all our hearts, we pray to the true God not to desert you, as He is compassionate, but to receive your return. … you departed badly; but the Master, whom you denied, will receive you with open arms and rejoicing. If you disdain our advice and tears, when you reach the divine judgment, you will be punished in torments endlessly and your crying will be in vain.” James was moved by his wife and mother and resolved to confess Christ before the Persians. Meanwhile James’ onetime friend Bahram had become the emperor on the death of his father Yizdegerd. Bahram V, intensified pressure on Christians to adopt the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. When the king learned that James had reverted to Christianity, he confronted him and tried to persuade him to return to the Persian religion. When James refused, Bahram invoked their friendship and promised him greater wealth and power than before. Again James refused and the king, in a rage, handed him over to be tortured. Taking the advice of a more obliging courtier, the king ordered that James be tortured in a public spectacle. His body was slowly dismembered: first his thumb was cut off, then each finger and so on. At each amputation he was encouraged to save his life by renouncing Christ. Instead James answered each time with a prayer. After several hours he was finally beheaded. When the news of this reached Constantinople it caused the Roman emperor to invade Persia, starting the brief Roman-Sassanid War (421-422). James quickly came to be revered in the Byzantine Churches as James the Persian and among the Latins as St James Intercessus (the Dismembered). The great Armenian cathedral in Jerusalem is dedicated to his memory.

James and the Melkite Church Today

By the sixth century a monastery had been erected in his honor in Qara, a desert town north of Damascus. Abandoned since the death of the last monk in 1930, it was restored and, in 2000, reestablished by the Melkite metropolitan of Homs, Hama and Yabroud, Kyr Ibrahim Nehmé. The monastery is dedicated to the service of Unity of the Christians of the Middle East and in a spirit of openness towards Muslims as well. The monastery was founded as a women’s community, but by 2004 a men’s monastery has also been established there. These communities include members from various traditions – Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Syriac Orthodox – and even includes brothers from Muslim background. Besides the usual practices of traditional monasticism – worship, asceticism and communal life – the communities at St James Monastery are noted for their commitment to Christian unity. While remaining monastics of the Melkite eparchy of Homs, they accord filial honor, to all the Patriarchs of Antioch – Greek Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic – and from there embark towards ecumenical horizons and loving openness towards the other Churches and religions.
Troparion (Tone 4) James the Martyr and scion of Persia drowned the dragon in his blood by his contest: he was dismembered for his faith and became the Savior’s trophy-bearer. He intercedes unceasingly for our souls. Another Troparion (Tone 4) You astounded all, long-suffering James, by enduring horrible tortures with great patience. As the evil assembly performed the slaughter, you uttered prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord. Through your sufferings you received your crown, and came to the throne of the heavenly King, Christ God. Entreat Him to save our souls! Kontakion (Tone 2) You listened to your wife and considerer the final judgment O courageous James. You spurned the threats and commands of the Persians and your body was pruned like a vine. We praise you; O noble Martyr.
“WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?” This question is posed by a young Jewish leader whom Jesus meets on His way to Jerusalem. At first glance it seems a reasonable inquiry, one that many people would still ask today. Tell me what prayer to say, what shrine to visit, what project I can take on which will guarantee that I’ll get to heaven. Church Fathers, however, saw this as a trick question, seeking to trap Jesus into setting some new requirement not in the Law. The Lord does not give him another thing to do, adding to the list of precepts which devotees of the Torah felt set forth God’s will for them. Rather Jesus says that to be perfect you must “sell all you have” and commit yourself completely to Him. Perfection does not come from performing this or that isolated action, however good it may be. Perfection comes from entrusting one’s whole life to Christ. In the Pastoral Epistles we see some consequences of this life in Christ as it was perceived in the apostolic Church. The “elect of God” (Colossians 3:12) have died to the world, buried in Baptism and are now alive in Christ. Their way of life is to be Christ’s, embodying the compassion and forgiveness of Christ Himself. They are to bear with one another (after all, others are putting up with them). They are to build up one another’s faith “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16), thankful for the grace filling their hearts. This is certainly in stark contrast to the way of the world, where self-love, resentments, grudges, and slanderously tearing others down is the norm for many. One of the first qualities of someone dead to the world mentioned in Colossians is humility, a virtue most associate with monasticism rather than life in the world. In fact, as the Church grew, perfection came to be associated increasingly with some kind of ascetic life. At first people like the “sons and daughters of the covenant” in the Syriac Church lived in the world, but somewhat apart from others, devoting themselves to prayer and good works. By the third century ascetics like St Antony and the Desert Fathers lived as hermits in the wilderness, completely apart from others. Monasticism brought like-minded people together to live in a community, where they could commend themselves and one another and their whole life to Christ God while being apart from the world at large. But the Gospel is not addressed simply to monks and nuns; it is meant for all believers. How does a Christian in the world “sell all” and follow Christ? Is there a way for a believer to live in the world but not be of the world, as Christ enjoins? It is not wearing some distinctive dress that says “I am different.” It is rather living by a different set of principles, given by Christ. The popular book, Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander, affirms that our “wealth” is nothing less than our self-centeredness:
“Take a look at yourself and see how bound you are by your desire to humor yourself and only yourself. Your freedom is curbed by the restraining bonds of self-love, and thus you wander, a captive corpse, from morning till eve. ‘Now I will drink,’ ‘now I will get up,’ ‘now I will read the paper.’ Thus you are led from moment to moment in your halter of preoccupation with self, and kindled instantly to displeasure, impatience or anger if an obstacle intervenes” (p. 5).
Colliander stresses that asceticism is the only path to victory over our self-centeredness. He gives some practical suggestions for living an ascetic life in the world. Like St Paul, Colliander begins with meekness and humility. He contrasts true humility with the desire to be perceived as humble:
“We notice the person who is forever bowing and fussily servile, and perhaps say, ‘How humble he is!’ But the truly humble person escapes notice: the world does not know him (1 John 3:1); for the world he is mostly a ‘zero’” (p. 26).
Humility is rather a matter of not always putting forth one’s own will. Colliander teaches that following the Church’s tradition for fasting is the most basic school for obedience. We fast when the Church says to, we do not fast when the Church says not to. We fast not to be “righteous,” but to be obedient. Ordinary life provides countless other occasions for us to develop a humble spirit through obedience. Colliander notes,
“Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour” (p.44).
To “sell all one has,” then, ultimately means to give up one’s own will to follow Christ. Along with a certain simplicity of life and chastity appropriate to one’s marital state, we attain what St Tikhon of Zadonsk called “interior monasticism.” We put aside the values and pursuits of the world to follow Christ along the way of perfection in whatever state of life we find ourselves.

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