Saint of the Day: St. Cosmas Melodos

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 we commemorate St. Cosmas Melodos, whose account is found in Volume 4 of the series.)

Saint Kosmas Melodos

The tragedies and sufferings that mark the lives of so many of our revered saints seemed fortuitously to have been lacking in the life of Kosmas the Melodos, despite the fact that he was an orphan who might at best have lived and died in obscurity if he had not had the good fortune to be adopted into the right family. It was perhaps more than mere chance that the boy with such a creative musical gift should be adopted by a man named Sergios, who just happened to be the father of another boy with exceptional talent who is known to us as St. John of Damascus, one of the greatest hymnographers of all time.

Kosmas lived with his adoptive family in Damascus during the eighth century, raised as a brother to John, whom he greatly admired and by whom he was no doubt influenced in choosing to write the sacred hymns and other church music for which both are now famous. Whatever the inspiration, the talent was his own, and although he never quite achieved the prominence of his stepbrother, his poetic lyrics are as much a part of the Byzantine musical heritage as that contributed by John. Much of the beautiful music composed by the two twelve centuries ago is still extant and can be heard here and there in Orthodox services. A great deal of other Byzantine music of unknown origin could very well be attributed to either of these musical geniuses.

Sergios was a man of means and could afford the best tutors for his two boys. In addition to the classic liberal arts, the study of which made them scholars of note in mathematics, history, geography and philosophy, special emphasis was placed on music because of their special talent for it. The monk largely responsible for their musical training was instrumental in directing their gifts to the Church, as a result of which both John and Kosmas entered the historic Monastery of St. Savas in Jerusalem. After the required period of service, they were both tonsured monks, but the first to be ordained a priest was the elder and more personable John.

John was prevailed upon by the patriarch of Jerusalem to remain at the monastery where he could devote the greater part of his time to the writing of sacred hymns and he was therefore present to see Kosmas ordained a priest in 743 by Patriarch Meletios. One hymnographer at the monastery appeared adequate, and Kosmas was assigned to serve the Christians of Gaza, where he might have been swallowed up in anonymity except for the fact that in additon to his excellence in serving the Savior, he continued to write church music. He had no wish to intrude upon what appeared to be the exclusive milieu of his brother John, but neither could he suppress the creativity that welled within him. The result is sacred music of the highest order, composed by two who were raised in the same house and, while not blood brothers, exhibited a similar talent which suggested to all the world that they were natural kin.

The title “Melodos” has been applied to Kosmas by the Fathers of the Church, but that is not to say that he did nothing but seclude himself for the sole purpose of writing music. He was very much in evidence throughout Gaza, serving the church and its people with such dedication that he was elevated to bishop of Anthedon. The many duties of this post, in which he was kept quite busy for hours on end, le him no time for his music. With all his waking hours taken up by church work, there appeared every likelihood that he had written his last note, but that was far from the case, and he produced music in such abundance that the word was he must have written it in his sleep.

The music that ran through the mind of Kosmas as he went about his duties was hurriedly jotted down in his rare moments of freedom, and some of the music he wrote can be heard to this day, included in the Triodion of the Orthodox Church, as well as in the hymns of Christmas, Easter, Holy Week, Epiphany and Pentecost, not to mention morning matins and feastdays. Kosmas wrote in the style and quality of his brother John, and together with Andrew of Crete, is responsible for a great portion of the sweet liturgies heard to this day. If the character of all great musicians emerges with their music, then there can be no question of the saintliness of Kosmas, who died on October 14, 750.

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