Saint Sabbas

A note of apology to many readers as my “inbox” fills and fills: I owe many of you replies including notes of thanks; but at the moment am struggling to catch up. Be assured there is no one I have intentionally ignored, beyond the few who only spit poison; and that I continue to gain from reading so many good comments, ideas, memoirs, corrections, and kind messages of encouragement. And in particular, let me express my immense gratitude to those who sent (much needed) donations this past week, after my little hint last Saturday.


There are at least six named Saint Sabbas (according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia of 1917, now digitally parked here). The last died as recently as 1237. But the one in our old missals for today was the fourth and greatest in this chronological succession. A hermit from Cappadocia, who was called to Jerusalem, this Saint Sabbas (439–532) founded several monasteries in Palestine and Syria, including the great lavra that came to bear his name. “Mar Saba,” as it is called in Arabic, is still there, overlooking the Kidron Valley, south-east of Jerusalem in its gorges opening towards the Dead Sea. Or at least, it was still there when I last checked, about eighteen years ago, and the couple of dozen monks remaining were still under the Rule of their founder — the 1,483rd anniversary of whose death we commemorate today.

His chapel at Rome, the basilica of San Saba, dates from more than a century later, when a flood of Christian refugees was arriving from the Mohammedan conquest of the Near East.

Those were days rather like today in Europe: the desperate hordes washing in (albeit then without terrorists mingled). And yet the paradox is that the little islands of Christendom which remained, to endure Muslim rulers, are being erased, finally, only in our generation.

Whereas, in our own realms, so many ancient and magnificent abbeys, cathedrals, chapels and churches — with their art, libraries, and other extraordinary cultural riches, and their careful records of the toiling generations — were destroyed in much less time during the Reformation, and atheist Revolutions in France, Russia, and elsewhere. Islam has proved, in the balance, an incredibly destructive religion; and yet Christian schismatics torched, smashed, desecrated, or bureaucratically dismantled, far more of the heritage of Christian Civilization, from within.

And this accounting overlooks the more horrible loss, of Christian souls, alienated from the source of salvation by those who appropriated not only their outward relics, but the very flesh and blood of Jesus in their Mass.

To me, Saint Sabbas, of whose life we know enough to write a fairly detailed biography, is a symbol of fortitude for our own times. Whatever is destroyed, we must rebuild; whatever is depopulated, we must repopulate; whatever is lost we must find again, and will, with God’s help if we pray and listen. Even in the days of Saint Sabbas — the later fifth and early sixth centuries — so much of the Christian mission consisted of recovering what had already been lost, or was being lost, to the devils. In fortitude we rededicate ourselves to build, and rebuild, better than the world can take away — not only in the externals of material culture, but more deeply in Christian hearts. For inscribed in them is the knowledge borne of Heaven in the Deposit of our Faith: that we, gathered in the Body of Christ, will never surrender.