Christian literature – from Holy Scriptures, the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and the lives of the saints to the writings of present-day theologians – is full of “the journey” as a metaphor for the spiritual life. The liturgical year and the ceremonies and rituals of the Church use this metaphor to carry us forward and keep us moving on the path to righteousness. At Christmas and Epiphany, we join the shepherds in Bethlehem and follow the star with the Wise Men to worship and adore the Christ child. In Lent, we are moved to repentance in our remembrance of the 40-year journey of the Hebrew people through the wilderness and in Holy Week, as we walk the way of sorrow from His Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem to Golgotha with our Lord. Throughout Christian history, many have taken this metaphor literally and have gone not just on spiritual journeys of the heart, but also on physical pilgrimages to holy places or have retreated to lonely places for greater contemplation.
On March 11, we honor a saint whose life exemplified both the inward spiritual journey and the outward pilgrimage, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem. Born around the year 560 in Damascus, Sophronius entered the Monastery of St. Saba in Egypt as a young man; he spent time under the tutelage of St. John the Almoner, Patriarch of Alexandria; and later, he entered the monastery of St. Theodosius in Palestine. Here he took as his spiritual director the monk John Moschus, and when John embarked on a long journey to visit the monasteries of Egypt, Sophronius accompanied him. The two monks made their way to numerous monasteries and desert hermitages, collecting sayings and words of wisdom which John later published in two volumes entitled The Spiritual Meadow.
Sophronius’ bodily journey corresponded to the spiritual path he was walking, which led him to greater austerities and more constant prayer. The two men expanded their travels from Egypt to Rome, and there, in 619, John Moschus died. Sophronius had promised his teacher that, wherever his death occurred in their travels, he would take his body for burial to either the Sinai desert or back to the St. Theodosius Monastery. Sophronius dutifully returned John’s body to the monastery and then continued his pilgrimage in Jerusalem. He wrote the following verses, showing his joy at visiting the holy places:
Holy City of God,
Jerusalem, how I long to stand
even now at your gates,
and go in, rejoicing!
Let me walk thy pavements
and go inside the Anastasis,
where the King of All rose again,
trampling down the power of death.
Through the divine sanctuary
I will penetrate the divine Tomb,
and with deep reverence
will venerate that Rock.
And prostrate I will venerate
the Navel-point of the earth, that divine Rock
in which was fixed the Wood
which undid the curse of the tree.
How great thy glory, noble Rock, in which was fixed
the Cross, the Redemption of mankind!
Exultant let me go on to the place where all of us
who belong to the people of God
venerate the glorious Wood of the Cross.
(From Sophronius’ Anacreonticon 20, printed in Jerusalem Pilgrimages Before the Crusades by John Wilkinson)
Sophronius was present in Jerusalem in 629 when the Emperor Heraclius triumphantly entered the city, carrying on his back the True Cross, which he had rescued from the Persians who had stolen it in battle. Following this triumph, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Zacharias, who had been exiled into slavery, also returned but died soon after. He was followed in office by Modestus, who died in 634, and then the holy ascetic monk Sophronius – well-traveled and well-versed in the wisdom of the desert fathers – was elected Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Sophronius’ physical pilgrimage was now over, but his journey of the heart had many more miles to go. During his Patriarchate, the Church was beset internally by the heresy of monothilitism, the denial of the two wills, human and divine, of Christ. Patriarch Sophronius worked hard to combat this error, holding a local council to publicly condemn it, a decision confirmed at the 6th Ecumenical Council in 680-81.
There was also an external threat to the Church during this time. The Saracens, under Caliph Omar, were making their way through the Middle East, conquering cities as they went. Damascus fell to Omar in 636, and Jerusalem was conquered in 638. The Patriarch tried valiantly to gain mercy for his Christian flock and for this holiest of cities. He led Omar through Jerusalem, showing him the places that were venerated by the Church and received a promise from the caliph that Christians and their holy places would not be harmed. But Omar did not keep his word. He began to harass and rob the Christians, to plunder the holy places, and he banished the Patriarch from the city. St. Sophronius, whose last earthly journey was not of his choosing, died in 644.
Despite all his troubles during his service as Patriarch, St. Stophronius was able to make many lasting contributions to the Church. He compiled the lives of several saints (among them St. Mary of Egypt, which he learned in his desert travels), he wrote poems, homilies and treatises, and compiled the service of the great Blessing of Water. We are inspired by St. Sophronius’ faith and perseverance in the midst of great trials, his pursuit of wisdom and his reverence for the holy places, and we ask for his prayers for our life’s journey. Holy Sophronius, pray for us.