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St. Sabas: Ascetic and Property developer.

The Monastery of Mar Saba

St. Sabas is one of the better known of the early ascetics, because, apart from anything else, the monastery he built in the Judaean desert in the sixth century is still standing and inhabited. Known in his day as the Great Laura, now Mar Saba, it is about ten kilometres from Bethlehem. St. Sabas died and was buried there in 532; his bones were taken to Venice by the Crusaders, but returned in 1965: the monastery and his tomb can be visited (by men only).

St. Sabas is portrayed by his biographer, Cyril of Scythopolis, as a great ascetic and a great builder. By the sixth century, the ascetic life as practised by Anthony had ceased to be a novelty. Monasteries abounded, and there were plenty of solitary monks living in individual cells whose extreme practices equalled and sometime surpassed those of Anthony and the Desert Fathers. Sabas started out in a monastery but progressed to a life of solitude in a cave. His asceticism is not dwelt on in any great detail – it is simply part of him: he fasted all through Lent, and went on solitary retreats into the desert.

Sabas lived alone in the cave, for five years, but then God told him that he should start taking disciples (as happened with Marcianos). At first, he made small cells for the disciples, but when they became more numerous, he started building, with the object of founding a monastery. This became known as the Great Laura.

Sabas built a church, an oratory and a tower to which he could retire when he wished to be alone. He provided accommodation for all and acquired mules to transport necessities. As he became famous, people made donations to the laura, most of which he chose to spend on building and maintenance work. He made improvements, and built a bakery, an infirmary., and a new church which was called the church of the Mother of God. Between this and the original church, he created a large forecourt. This is where Sabas was buried: his tomb can still be seen there, although today his bones are housed in the second of the two churches.

But he was not content with having built one monastery; his next project was the cenobium of Castellium. The hill of Castellium was originally the fortress prison of Herod the Great, Hyrcania. Sabas went there for a Lenten retreat and found it at terrifying place, full of demons. He got rid of the demons and returned after Easter with some of the monks from the Great Laura, to build a cenobium. (The distinction between a laura and a cenobium is that a laura is made up of individual cells, whereas a cenobium is a building in which all the monks live together).

From then on, when Sabas went on a retreat, he kept an eye open for a suitable site for a monastery. After Castellium, he built a cenobium for novices, and in all he founded seven monasteries, all of which Cyril lists in detail in his biography.

It would appear that Sabas had an eye as to how money was spent, and how to be economical: when the novices in his cenobium were ready for life in a laura, he gave them cells, but if they were rich, he told them to build one themselves – he said that building or rebuilding a cell was equivalent to building a church of God. Building for Sabas was a holy activity, and having sufficient money for it was important. Prospective monks who had personal wealth brought it with them when they entered a monastery, and clearly Sabas made sure they put it to good use.

In fact, Cyril more than once mentions the funds needed for the buying of land and purchase of building materials, and this highlights an interesting question, for although it is true that from the time of Anthony, the monks built dwellings for themselves (both individual cells and, as in the case of Pachomius, large cenobia), the question of ownership of the land and payment for building materials is not mentioned. One has to presume that the Egyptian desert was free for all to build wherever they wanted.

In the case of Sabas, he clearly did purchase land for his projects, and this leaves us wondering whether other saints had to negotiate for the site of their cells and their biographers have neglected to inform us of the fact.

Sabas was clearly obsessed with building, and it would appear that his real ambition in life was neither simply to be ab ascetic and a solitary, no to take disciples and become the head of a monastery, but to found monasteries all over the Palestinian desert, in imitation, presumably, of those in Egypt. Even when he was over ninety years old, Sabas couldn’t resist a building challenge. Having returned from visiting the emperor Justinian in Constantinople, he discovered that a deacon from the Great Laura had left it and started up on his own. Sabas went to visit him, and, delighted at what he saw, immediately rushed to build cells and an oratory, thus turning the place into yet another laura.

The extraordinary thing about St. Sabas is that he is portrayed as a simple soul, uneducated but deeply religious, who might never have become famous but for his building works. His monastery, the Great Laura, stands as a testament to his greatness.


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