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ST. APHRAATES, ANCHORET
From Theodoret, Philoth. c. 8, and Hist. b. 4, c. 26. See Tillemont, t. 10, and Henschenius, t. 1, Apr. p 604.
THIS saint was descended from an illustrious family in Persia, but infected with the superstitions of idolatry. He had the happiness of attaining to an early knowledge of the truth, which he embraced with his whole heart. Grieving to see it so little known and loved in his own country, regardless of honors and worldly advantages, he renounced all pretensions to them; and, leaving his friends and country, came to Edessa, in Mesopotamia where Christianity flourished. There he diligently informed himself what was the best manner of serving God perfectly, and securing his only affair, the eternal salvation of his soul. After some deliberation, he shut himself up in a little cell without the walls of that city, applying himself entirely to the exercises of penance and heavenly contemplation. After some time he removed into a cell near a monastery in the neighborhood of Antioch, in Syria, where, many resorting to him for spiritual advice, he became a great advocate for virtue and truth against vice and the reigning Arian heresy, by whomsoever professed. He ate nothing but a little bread after sunset, to which, when he was grown extremely old, he added a few herbs. He made use of no other bed than a mat laid on the bare ground. His clothing was one coarse garment. Anthemius, who was some time after appointed governor of the East, and consul, returning from an embassy in Persia, pressed Aphraates to accept of a robe he had brought with him, because the product of his own country. Aphraates made answer: “Do you think it reasonable to exchange an old faithful servant for a new one, merely because he is a countryman?” “By no means,” replied Anthemius. “Then,” said the hermit, “take back your garment; for I have one that I have worn these sixteen years; and I am not willing to have two at the same time.” Hitherto the saint had lived retired in his cell; but seeing the Arian persecution under Valens make great havoc in the flock of Christ, he left his retreat to come to the assistance of the distressed Catholics of Antioch: where he omitted nothing in his power to comfort the faithful, and to assuage the fury of their heretical persecutors. Valens had banished the holy bishop Meletius: but Aphraates joined Flavian and Diodorus; who governed St. Meletius’s flock during his absence. His reputation for sanctity and miracles gave the greatest weight to his actions and words. The emperor Valens being at Antioch, looking one day out of a window of his palace upon the high road which parted it from the river Orontes, and led into the country, saw the saint passing by, and asked who that old man was, so meanly clad, and making such haste; and being told it was Aphraates, for whom the whole city had the greatest veneration, asked him whither he was going in so great a hurry? The man of God replied, “To pray for the prosperity of your reign.” For the Catholics, not being allowed a church in the city, held their assemblies of devotion in a field where martial exercises were performed. The emperor said, “How comes it that you, who are by profession a monk, leave your cell thus to ramble abroad?” Aphraates answered, “I lived retired so long as the flock of the heavenly Shepherd enjoyed peace; but now I see it torn to pieces, how can I sit quiet in my cell? Were I a virgin confined in my father’s house, and should see it take fire, would you advise me to sit still and let the house be burned, in which I should also perish; or leave my room to run and procure help, carry water, and exert my utmost endeavors to put out the fire? Reprove me not, O emperor, if I do the like; rather blame yourself, who have kindled the fire, not me for laboring to quench it.” The emperor made not the least reply; but one of his eunuchs, then in waiting, reviled the aged saint, and threatened him with death. But God chastised his insolence: for soon after, going to see if the emperor’s warm bath was ready, being taken with giddiness, he fell into the caldron of boiling water, and nobody being there to give him assistance, was scalded to death. This example so terrified the emperor, that he durst not listen to the suggestions of the Arians, who endeavored to persuade him to banish the saint. He was also much moved by the miraculous cures which the holy man wrought by the application of oil or water, upon which he had made the sign of the cross. Aphraates would never speak to a woman but at a distance, and always in as few words as possible. After the miserable death of Valens, when peace was restored to the church, our saint returned to his solitude, and there happily departed this life to possess God, “with whom,” says Theodoret, “I believe he has greater power than while he was on earth: on which account I pray also to obtain his intercession.” The whole church has imitated his example. St. Aphraates is honored in the Synaxary of the Greeks, and in the calendars of other oriental churches, on the 29th of January; but in the Roman Martyrology his name is placed on the 7th of April.
Every saint is eminently a man of prayer; but this is the peculiar perfection of holy hermits and monks. This was the means by which so many in that state have been raised to such wonderful heights in heroic virtue, so as to seem seraphim rather than men on earth. As a vessel at sea is carried by a favorable wind with incredible ease and swiftness, so a soul which is borne upon the wings of a true spirit of prayer, makes sweetly, and without experiencing either difficulty or pain, quick and extraordinary progress in the paths of all interior virtues, particularly those of a close union of her affections and powers with God, and those of divine charity, the queen and form of all perfect Christian virtue. In this spirit of prayer a simple idiot has outstripped the most subtle philosopher, because its foundation is laid by profound humility, and perfect simplicity and purity of heart; and compunction and love require neither penetration nor depth of genius, nor elegance of words, to express or raise their most tender affections. St. Bruno was an eloquent and learned man; yet in his most sublime contemplation he expressed to God all the burning sentiments of his soul by a single word, which he wished never to cease repeating, but to continue actually to pronounce it for all eternity with fresh ardor and jubilation: “O goodness! O goodness! O infinite goodness!” But by this word his heart said more than discourses could express in many years or ages.