Abba Euthymius The Great
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Abba Euthymius the Great?
Abba Euthymius the Great was born near the end of the 4th century AD in Armenia. His parents, desiring a son, visited a local church dedicated to the martyr Polyeuctus, and prayed to God that he would give them a son. When Euthymius was born, his education was charged to the bishop of Melitene (now Malatya, Armenia).
Abba Euthymius was taught by the bishop and was ordained a priest as a young man. The Melitene bishop charged him with the supervision of the monasteries of the region. Euthymius grew to love solitude with Christ. At the age of 29, he left his home country in secret in order to seek God in the silence and solitude of the desert.
Abba Euthymius traveled to Jerusalem and chose to dwell a few miles outside of the city in solitude. As word of the miracles worked by his prayers and his the depth of his teaching spread, disciples began to flock to him around 411 AD. Adhering to a strict rule of solitude, Euthymius appointed a few men to care for the monks, and charged them with conveying his teachings to them on a daily basis. He would emerge from silence on Sundays to instruct those who had flocked to him.
Once, a young Arab man whose body has half-paralyzed visited him. When Euthymius made a short prayer for the young man, he was miraculously healed. Word of the miracle spread, and many Arabs in the vicinity dedicated their lives to Christ. Euthymius was consecrated as a bishop in order to care for the spiritual needs of these new converts to Christianity.
Another time, when Abba Euthymius was preparing the bread and wine of communion for the monks gathered, multiple eye-witnesses saw a flame descend from heaven and surround Euthymius and his assistant for the duration of the offering of communion. The corresponding manifestation of heavenly presence drove many in the gathering to fear, trembling, and awe. The fear of God was said to be so present in the gathering that some were even afraid of moving from where they stood.
It was said that Euthymius had been gifted to look upon the face of an individual and discern the thoughts of their heart. He was known to be so profoundly accurate that, when it was time to administer communion, he would counsel those whose hearts were in need of preparation, or admonish those who had prepared themselves well to partake of the body and blood of Christ.
Due to the humility and love with which he carried himself he won the affection of many disciples. He was known as a man that wept over his sin, and was moved by the love of Christ. His disciples would marvel at the sternness and gentleness that seemed to co-mingle effortlessly within Abba Euthymius.
He refuted the heresy of Eutychianism, the belief that there was only one will within Jesus, rather than a human and divine will in perfect harmony. Abba Euthymius was instrumental in the conversion of the Empress Eudoxia of Rome away from Eutychianism to the orthodox Trinitarian formula of the Council of Chalcedon. As a monk he was an influential theologian, being one of 250 bishops present at the Council of Ephesus in 431 to argue over the divine nature of Christ at his birth.
Once, when 400 men and women arrived at the steps of his monastery seeking aid and shelter, Euthymius ordered his assistant to bring food for the travelers. His assistant protested, claiming that they barely had enough to feed the monks of the monastery. How could they possibly entertain these visitors as it would exhaust their supplies. Euthymius would have none of his assistant’s protestations, and ordered him all the more to open the storehouse and feed the strangers. His assistant begrudgingly went to the store room and, much to his surprise, found it full to overflowing with bread. He at once set out orders to feed the 400 and returned to Euthymius repentant for his lack of trust in the provision of God.
The Spiritual Life
To Abba Euthymius the Great, the spiritual life consisted of forsaking the world, and consistently practicing obedience and humility. Obedience and humility taught the individual to forsake their own will and to follow the will of God. In practicing submission to a leader, we in fact practice submission to the Godhead.
The spiritual individual was to practice watchfulness of heart.
“…become all eyes, as we hear of the Cherubim, so that you may examine yourself from every angle as one who is forever passing through the midst of many snares.”
Watchfulness taught one to be mindful of the battleground of the mind. When a thought attempts to grab hold of our attention it is our responsibility to resist from the outset. A thought that carries pride, lust, greed, etc…when not resisted, stimulates the flesh and exacerbates the mind, potentially causing an unnecessary fall.
The problem with the human condition is that these thoughts carry with them a certain lustful appeal. If we fail to resist the moment of temptation and succumb to the appeal of pleasure, we find ourselves that much closer to the willful practice of sin. Watchfulness is then a necessary component to purity of heart.
When resistance is particularly difficult, Euthymius counselled his disciples to practice hardships (such as fasting) in order…
“…to extinguish, little by little, the flame of youth…”
Restraint keeps one from reaching fulfillment of desire. As such, the first place the individual could find resistance to difficult thoughts would be in the restraint that fasting teaches. Euthymius said,
“…perfect restraint is that which keeps a man from reaching satiation, even if we feel the need to eat and there is still food before us. This means that we should eat less than that which we feel we need.”
The practice of self-restraint was also evident in how one would treat the goodness of his accomplishments. It was said about Euthymius that,
“Neither did he want goodness to be trumpeted, made manifest, or noised abroad; rather, he wanted it, as far as possible, to go unnoticed.”
As one abstains from food by fasting, one abstains for the approval of man by desiring his goodness to unnoticed. Resistance to temptation is not something to parrot around as if it makes one worth anything, it is to be done in secret before the Lord. In practicing abstinence self-restraint one truly imitates God. And if one imitates the nature of God they have taken upon themselves the likeness of God.
The Practice of Love
If humility and obedience are the means of the spiritual life, the driving force is love. Love caused Christ to submit himself to the point of death. Humility may have been the practice of Christ, but love was the reason. Willing submission is born from the fruit of love, and thankfulness is an aid in loving God.
Euthymius taught that love is practical. To him, the guiding principle of love in a relationship would cause one to leave their own work to assist in the work of another. Love would cause one to share in the reward of mutual effort, rather than seek it for oneself. It would cause one to extend beyond the commitment that has been made to another, preferring to do more than is expected. Love would willingly give what has benefited oneself rather than keeping it for oneself. Love would leave what possessions it has for the benefit of another rather than exhaust them on oneself. Love looks at the needs of those around and adjusts its conduct based upon the weaknesses of other around.
Love was not merely an ethereal idea, but it was practiced in the midst of community. In fact, community would provide ample opportunity to practice the tenacity of love. If an individual blames those around them for their inability to practice the spiritual life, chances are the problem is with the individual and not the community.
Shortly before he passed away, Euthymius prophesied to two men that they would become the fathers of Jerusalem and gave a spiritual address to his disciples exhorting them to humility and love. He passed away in 473 AD at 95 years old, after having spent 68 years as a solitary in the desert.