Friday, July 6, 2012

St Sisoes the Great

What's so "great" about St Sisoes? Simply, his humility and of course, the amazing icon which depicts St Sisoes standing over the grave of Alexander the Great. This icon shows humanity in contemplation of the great mystery of death, to help focus our earthly journey towards the Kingdom of Heaven.

I first came across this icon hanging on the wall of St Ignatius Chapel at the Antiochian Village when I was a camper back in the late 90s. It struck me as "odd" with the depiction of bones in a tomb and a saint standing over the corpse. Reading the description in written word, I was amazed at the imagery. Later on, while in college I took courses in Greek & Roman history, one of them focusing on the Life of Alexander the Great.

I had always wanted to purchase this icon, and recently did so from Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I had it blessed and wanted to put it up in my office at St George Houston. Embarrassed as I am to admit, however the icon didn't get hung and got stacked on my desk with a bunch of books and papers until TODAY! I finally decided to get movin' and hang it up. After placing it on the wall, I went online to find the Troparion for St Sisoes the Great to add to my prayer after hanging the icon. Much to my amazement, TODAY is the feastday for St Sisoes the Great (July 6)! God is good!

Image Source

St Sisoes the Great is commemorated on July 6 in the Life of the Church. He lived in the Egyptian desert during the 4th/5th centuries, passing from life in 429 AD. He was a solitary monk, pursuing asceticism in the Egyptian desert in a cave sanctified by the prayerful labors of his predecessor, St Anthony the Great (January 17). For his sixty years of labor in the desert, St Sisoes attained to sublime spiritual purity and he was granted the gift of wonderworking, so that by his prayers he once restored a dead child back to life.

Extremely strict with himself, Abba Sisoes was very merciful and compassionate to others, and he received everyone with love. To those who visited him, the saint first of all always taught humility. When one of the monks asked how he might attain to a constant remembrance of God, St Sisoes remarked, "That is no great thing, my son, but it is a great thing to regard yourself as inferior to everyone else. This leads to the acquisition of humility." Asked by the monks whether one year is sufficient for repentance if a brother sins, Abba Sisoes said, "I trust in the mercy of God that if such a man repents with all his heart, then God will accept his repentance in three days."

When St Sisoes lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoes replied that he saw St Anthony, the prophets, and the apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, "With whom are you speaking, Father?" He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, "You have no need for repentance, Father" St Sisoes said with great humility, "I do not think that I have even begun to repent."

After these words the face of the holy abba shone so brightly that the brethren were not able to look upon him. St Sisoes told them that he saw the Lord Himself. Then there was a flash like lightning, and a fragrant odor, and Abba Sisoes departed to the Heavenly Kingdom.

-Taken from the Lives of the Saints from

The famous icon may represent an historical event lost in document form, but preserved in the tradition of iconography. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1452, there appeared among the newly subjugated Greeks an image of a 4th century ascetic Saint, lamenting over the tomb of an even more ancient, pagan Emperor: Alexander the Great. This icon, the Astonishment of Sisoes, is a contemplation on death, but not only the death of a man, but of an earthly empire.

The icon started to appear in Greek monasteries and quickly spread to other monasteries throughout the former Byzantine, now Ottoman Turk, Empire. The ascetic Saint kneeling in the Icon is Sisoes the Great, depicted much larger over the dead bones in Alexander the Great’s open tomb. The inscription found on the icon explains the scene:

"Sisoes, the great ascetic, before the tomb of Alexander, King of the Greeks, who was once covered in glory. Astonished, he mourns for the vicissitudes of time and the transience of glory, and tearfully declaims thus:

'The mere sight of you, tomb, dismays me and causes my heart to shed tears, as I contemplate the debt we, all men, owe. How can I possibly stand it? Oh, death! Who can evade you?'"

Through the prayers of St Sisoes the Great, O Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us!

- A Day in the Life of the Youth Director

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