By the fourth century, monasteries had appeared in Palestine. Aspiring ascetics sought to be like Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, who had found solitude in the desert east of Jerusalem. St. Sabas, a leader of that early monasticism, founded seven monasteries, three lauras and four cenobia. A laura is a settlement of hermits living in caves and huts around a church. A community of monks who live, worship, and work together is a cenobium. Sabas built well as his chief monastery, the Mar Saba, still exists after 15 centuries.
The saint dwelt in monasteries most of his life. At age eight he ran away from abusive relatives to a monastery in Cappadocia. Ten years later he went to the monastery of St. Euthymius at Jerusalem, hoping to become a hermit. But Euthymius judged him too young for absolute solitude and placed him in a cenobium nearby. When he was 30, Sabas was allowed to spend five days a week alone in the wilderness. After Euthymius’s death, Sabas finally became an anchorite, dwelling in a cave on the face of a cliff. So many monks came desiring to live under his direction that he had to establish his first monastery, which became the Mar Saba. Sabas did not give his disciples a written rule, but he expected them to follow certain basic guidelines. He did not micromanage their conduct. But he seized “teachable moments” to test his disciples’ fidelity, as he did on the occasion described in this account:
Once when journeying with a disciple from Jericho to the Jordan, this champion of piety Sabas fell in with some people of the world among whom was a girl of winning appearance. When they had passed by, the elder, wishing to test the disciple, asked, “What about the girl who has gone by and is one-eyed?” The brother replied, “No, father, she has two eyes.” The elder said, “You are wrong, my child. She is one-eyed.” The other insisted that he knew with precision that she was not one-eyed but had indeed extremely fine eyes. The elder asked, “How do you know that so clearly?”
He replied, “I, father, had a careful look, and I noted that she has both her eyes.” At this the elder said, “And where have you stored the precept that says, ‘Do not fix your eye on her and do not be captured by her eyebrows?’ (See Proverbs 6:25). Fiery is the passion that arises from inquisitive looks. Know this: from now on you are not to stay with me in a cell because you do not guard your eyes as you should.”
He sent him to the cenobium at Castellium and, when he had spent sufficient time there and learnt to keep a careful watch on his eyes and thoughts, he received him as an anchorite into the laura. The patriarch of Jerusalem ordained Sabas in 491, and two years later appointed him head over all the monks of Palestine who were hermits. When the saint was old, other patriarchs sent him on diplomatic missions representing the church’s interests to the emperors at Constantinople. Sabas died after a brief illness in 532.