When considering tales from the lives of the great saints, we should be more mindful of the moral imparted by the story than strictly attentive to the accuracy of its details. We must take into account the perspective of the writer, his proximity to the events he describes, and his moral purposes. To do anything less would defeat the purpose of the anecdote. Yet I am confident that many of the stories related by the biographer of Euthymios the Younger (823 A.D.?–898 A.D.) are based on actual events, and are not the idle speculations of the cloister. One of these stories we will now relate.
Soon after he had arrived at Mount Athos in Greece, Euthymios the Younger acquired a reputation for his piety, courage, and special gifts. He was the kind of man that attracted others to him by virtue of his right actions and virtuous deeds. He eventually would ask several brothers of Athos to be his advisors; their names were John Kolobos and Symeon. These holy men were as devoted to spiritual progress as was their teacher Euthymios. In time these three monks, seeking a place even more isolated than Athos, formed the idea of moving to a remote island called Neoi, which in those days was uninhabited. This they did. And yet the universe has a way of imposing challenges upon the virtuous; and try as we might, we cannot escape trouble completely. It always has a way of finding us. According to his anonymous biographer, the sanctified activities of Euthymios and his brothers attracted the jealousy and anger of Satan, who sought to bring harm to them, and deflect them from their purposes.
Now we must remember that in those days, the Byzantine Empire and the caliphate of Baghdad were engaged in constant military struggle for control of the eastern Mediterranean world. The two superpowers would often raid each other, carry off each other’s people as slaves, and encroach on one another’s territory. It was simply the way things were. Rival ships roamed the seas, looking for plunder and spoils. One day, the brothers on Neoi saw that two Saracen (i.e., Arab) ships were approaching their island from over the horizon, and feared the worst. They knew that, in their exposed and indefensible position, they could offer no resistance. When the Arabs landed, they took the three holy men prisoner and deprived them of their meager possessions. The reader will recall that, in Western Europe at this very same time, Viking marauders were known to plunder monasteries remorselessly and show no mercy to holy men.
So Euthymios and his brothers were held captive on one Arab vessel, and their possessions were kept on the other ship. And here is where Euthymios’s biographer tells us that a miracle occurred. The ship that was carrying the holy men came to a halt in the sea, and was unable to progress any further, while the other ship carrying their possessions was able to continue sailing. The Arab sailors were dumbfounded at this bizarre situation; but they were also deeply religious men, and soon began to draw their own conclusions. “By God,” cried the Saracen captain who held the three Greek brothers in chains. “We are being punished by Allah for daring to harm these Men of God, even though they be deluded in their beliefs!” When the Arab crew heard this, they became deeply distraught, and wished to atone for their sin in holding the monks hostage. They asked the monks to forgive them for their conduct. Euthymios’s biographer tells us how this happened:
[T]hey prostrated themselves before the holy men and prayed to receive forgiveness for their rash deeds against them. And as soon as the [Greek] holy men with their customary compassion pardoned the Arabs, the ship was immediately seen to proceed on its voyage without any obstacle. Thus when the Arabs returned to the island [of Neoi] once more, they set about restoring the monks to their own cells. [Trans. by Alice-Mary Talbot]
It was a startling reversal. The monks then asked for their possessions to be returned to them. But the Arabs honestly told them that the possessions were on the other ship, and that they themselves did not have them. One of the monks then said, “If God wishes us to recover our possessions, surely that which pleases Him will be accomplished for us.” And after he said this, surely enough, the other ship appeared in the distance and came to the island with their possessions. We are told that the Arabs “marveled at the extraordinary nature of this episode” and knew that they were in the presence of true holy men. However, more strange things were to come. Euthymios was able to use his powers of prophecy to reveal an unpleasant future for the sailors. During these happenings, one of the Arab sailors foolishly struck John Kolobos. Euthymios intervened to stop it, and said to them all, “If you had returned us to our cells without any abuse, you would have been allowed to return to your own homes without incident. But since you have angered God by laying hands on this brother [John Kolobos], you will soon learn how bitter the wrath of God truly can be.” After saying this, the monks left them, and the sailors boarded their ships.
But it was only a short time before Euthymios’s prophecy proved to be true. The two Arab ships crossed paths with a squadron of Byzantine biremes; and the ship carrying the sailor who had hit John Kolobos was seized. The other Arab vessel was not seized, and continued on its way back to Syria. Our pious biographer of Euthymios reminds us, “This was the work of the God of marvels and the One who glorifies those who glorify Him and delivers unto the day of destruction the impious and the foolish. The [Greek] fathers were thus unexpectedly delivered from captivity, and God was glorified and the monks were joyful, and only the Devil who stirred up jealousy against them was disgraced for having committed a transgression to no purpose.” All the same, the biographer tells us, the monks soon moved back to Athos. For all men have a duty “to avoid dangerous places, and not tempt the Lord God even in places where He is able to save them, lest, by being captured again, they be judged by the pious to have brought it on themselves.” This is without doubt wise counsel. One must not rely on good fortune alone to save oneself.
Read more in my new, original translation of On Moral Ends, available in both Kindle and paperback: