St Stephen the Wonderworker of Mar Saba (725-794) monk
Trained by his uncle
Although unbearded men were not admitted to the community of St Sabas, Stephen, being the nephew of St John of Damascus, one of the most learned men of his day, was received when he was only ten and trained under his uncle's guidance for the next fifteen years.
Servant of the community of Mar Saba
When John died in 749, Stephen, then 24, was ordained and began an eight-year period of service to the community. He was guest-master, cantor, dispenser and special guestmaster to those received into the igumen's quarters. Once, while celebrating the eastern rite of the Mass, as Stephen elevated the Eucharist and recited the words, “Holy things to the holy”, the monastic cell in which he was celebrating the liturgy was filled with a brilliant light that emanated from the celebrant himself. From that occasion onward, whatever he prayed for during the Eucharistic liturgy was granted. This may be the period during which he earned the title Wonderworker.
"Do not disturb" notice
However, Stephen sought permission from the igumen Martyrios to live as a complete hermit. Martyrios suggested a compromise: Stephen could lead a hermit's life, but should be available to those who needed counsel. So Stephen placed a note on the door of his cell: "Forgive me, Fathers, in the name of the Lord, but please do not disturb me, except on Saturdays and Sundays." So he prayed from Monday to Friday and was available for spiritual counselling at week-ends.
Complete solitude for fifteen
At the age of thirty-seven, Stephen went into complete solitude for fifteen years, three times going into the desert around the Dead Sea to observe Lent.
Lover of animals and people
When he was fifty-two, Stephen returned to the more relative form of the hermit's life, and admitted disciples once more. Many came to him for healing. He was a lover of animals and is portrayed, like St Francis, with his shoulders and arms covered with birds. The doves, starlings and deer fed out of his hand. His compassion for the lowly black worms that crawled through his hermitage prompted him to gather them into a spot where they would be safe from being trampled on. His biographer and disciple Leontius wrote about Stephen: "Whatever help, spiritual or material, he was asked to give, he gave. He received and honoured all with the same kindness. He possessed nothing and lacked nothing. In total poverty he possessed all things."
His poem on the coming of Islam: Art thou weary, art thou languid?
Towards the end of his life, Stephen may have experienced persecution from the Umayyad and Abbasid Islamic dynasties, when many monks of St. Sabas met their deaths. The events of the time are recorded in Leontius's The Life of St. Stephen the Sabaite. One of Stephen's hymns, Art thou weary, art thou languid?, was sympathetically translated by John Mason Neale in his Hymns for the Eastern Church (1862). It shows the strength of heart of the monk and disciple who during the sad days when the Cross was bowing before the Crescent, accepted the way of his Lord:
Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
“Come to Me,” saith One, “and coming,
Be at rest.”
Hath He marks to lead me to Him,
If He be my Guide?
In His feet and hands are wound prints
And His side.
Hath He diadem, as monarch,
That His brow adorns?
Yes, a crown in very surety,
But of thorns.
If I find Him, if I follow,
What His guerdon here?
Many a sorrow, many a labor,
Many a tear.
If I still hold closely to Him,
What hath He at last?
Sorrow vanquished, labour ended,
If I ask Him to receive me,
Will He say me nay?
Not till earth and not till Heaven
Finding, following, keeping, struggling,
Is He sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,
Stephen died in 794.