(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, St. Bessarion, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Bessarion of Egypt
The forbidding desert areas of ancient Egypt have beckoned holy men from all parts of the civilized world for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the bleak solitude that can be found in a land shunned by all save the scorpion and the reptile. Unfit for human habitation, the desert has nevertheless sustained many a monk or eremite, one of whom was a fourth-century monk named Bessarion. His incredibly long endurance in a trackless waste makes him a standout in human endurance, if not holiness, among others who have acquired fame or sainthood in much the same manner, but who have not subjected themselves quite so much to the punishment on which he seemed to thrive.
In his quest for spiritual perfection, Bessarion literally wandered in the desert for a period of forty years, taking root in no particular spot and availing himself of no comfort of a hearth or home. He wanted to prove that his temporal life was of no consequence to him while he sought out every spiritual avenue he could find to prove himself worthy of the kingdom of the Savior to whom he was completely given over. His long deprivation staggers the imagination, but offers convincing proof that he had to have divine assistance to survive four decades in a test of fitness that would fell an ordinary man in a matter of days.
The self-denial of Bessarion exceeded that of his teacher and spiritual mentor, no less a person than the great St. Anthony, one of the first desert monks and undoubtedly the most famous to be sainted by the Church as a reward for spiritual attainment through the exclusion of the practices of ordinary human beings. In addition to St. Anthony, the durable Bessarion had the good fortune to acquire a considerable knowledge of theology and dogma from another Christian luminary, the pious St. Makarios, who saw in his pupil that spark of divine grace that enabled him to withstand the rigors of the desert and reach the spiritual perfection so often sought and so seldom found. When some of the details of the life of Bessarion are known, even the most cynical of skeptics accept his purity.
Like a maverick that has strayed from the herd (except that it was by choice that he wandered), Bessarion never sought any kind of shelter. He endured the heat of the day with the same indifference he assumed as he sat or stood in the chill of night, sleeping in either position for all of his years. Not once did he allow himself the comfort of stretching out to lie down on the ground, to say nothing of never taking to a bed in sickness or health. The rigors that sap human life he found invigorating, allowing him to spend his every waking moment not concerned with his physical well-being, but with prayer, fasting and meditation.
On the rare occasions when Bessarion found himself in the company of men, he exhibited that rare gift of healing that comes from proximity to God. From that it can be assumed that he is not known to have had an illness in his lifetime (inasmuch as he was capable of healing himself or was immune to diseases that ravage civilization). Oddly enough, in avoiding civilization he became all the more civilized in the sense that he was what every civilized man should be in his attitude toward his fellow man and to the Savior.
In an incident that cannot be doubted when it is considered that bears hibernate for a period of months in winter, Bessarion, for a period of forty days, propped himself against a tree in a thicket of the desert and remained in that fixed position without food and water. For the bear this is accomplished by nature’s slowing down of the life process, but for Bessarion it was accomplished through a divine process.
Bessarion became a living legend with his extraordinary lifestyle, so much so that children were named in his honor. Apropos of which it is not generally known that a Russian named Bessarion had a son called Joseph Stalin whom he hoped would become a priest. Instead, the boy chose a course exactly opposite that of his father’s namesake. Not many, if any, children bear the name of Bessarion today, but his name is perpetuated with an annual feast day on February 20.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GoArch.org.