(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, Balaam, comes from Volume 4 of the series.)
"The ancient city of Antioch was one of the first citadels of Christianity, a city in which St. Peter himself had preached over periods of time totaling seven years. A far cry from the eminent St. Peter and the great number of hierarchs who rose to eminence and sometimes sainthood in this center of culture, there lived in the fourth century a man who was neither scholar nor cleric, nor even a missionary. Not only that, but this unlettered and untutored man of low station attained the highest honor that Christendom can bestow.
It is estimated that the man who has come down to us as St. Barlaam was about ninety years old when he was martyred, but no estimate can be made of the number of years he had known the grace of God. There is little sadness in the passing of a man who has led a long life, but the calendar of heaven is not made up of the solar years of man. If he lays down his life for Jesus Christ, it matters little if he is ninety or a lad of nine. Profound mysticism may escape an ordinary mind such as Barlaam’s, but the truth and beauty of the love of Jesus Christ is within the grasp of all who reach for it. Barlaam stretched out his arms in fond embrace of the Savior all of his long life, and he knew the meaning of salvation, even if he didn’t know how to spell it.
The storms of controversy in the fourth century set many good souls adrift – some lost their way, and some impaled their souls on the paganism they were afraid to deny – but Barlaam kept a steady course throughout his lifetime without the compass of intellect and the chart of knowledge. His love for the Savior was the magnet that drew him closer and closer to God, and all the while he established himself not as a man of ignorance, but as a man of simplicity. He sought nothing for himself and so endeared himself to his fellow Christians with his pure heart that he was looked upon with a respect usually reserved for the hierarchy.
No greater tribute could have been given to Barlaam than to have himself acknowledged as a true man of God by no less a Christian luminary than St. John Chrysostom, who wrote of the humble Barlaam in glowing terms.
No man of means, he had nothing to give. But he gave of himself with such helpful benevolence and genuine affection that he assumed the stature of leading figure in a religious circle that comprised some of the keenest minds in the Church. All of them would have traded their extensive knowledge for that touch of grace that lay within the heart of their unschooled and aging friend in Christ.
When one of the sporadic waves of persecution was set in motion, it was natural that the pagan magistrate should single out Barlaam, who in prior years had eluded authorities, but now, in his advanced years, refused to go into hiding and gave himself up without a chase. The magistrate fully expected to see a man with trappings of office and lowly bearing when he anticipated the confrontation. Instead, he was amazed to see a very old man clad in garments so plain he could have been taken for anything but a man to be reckoned with. It was business as usual, and overlooking the age of their prized captive, the proceedings followed the customary course. Barlaam was imprisoned, there to be abused and tortured, if need be, until he recanted and accepted the idols.
After a few half-hearted attempts to bring the old man to his knees, Barlaam was left to die in prison, since he appeared to be well on his way to eternity anyway. All but forgotten, he was brought to the magistrate during one of the pagan holidays and was taken to the temple where they hoped he could be forced to show reverence to the gods. A fire had been kindled at the altar, and more coals were called for as the fire glowed. It was then that Barlaam was ordered to place some burning coals to increase the blaze. When he refused, the spade was put aside, and Barlaam’s hand was shoved into the coals, where he was to place a handful into the flames and thereby show a participation in the rite.
Barlaam’s wrinkled old hand clutched some burning coals, but when he refused to place them on the altar, his arm was forced over the flame where he was sure to drop the coals. The old man let loose the coals, but not until he had withdrawn his hand and spilled them on the floor. He was then executed on November 19."
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikimedia.