On June 18th, 2010, we visited the Monastery of Saint Savvas in Palestine, one of the ancient defenders of the Orthodox faith. It stands as a spiritual fortress in the midst of the Judean Desert. A vast wilderness stretches from the start of the Kidron Valley between the Mount of Olives and Temple Mount in the east to a deep escarpment that drops further into the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley to the west. It’s a land etched by wadis and ravines, rugged hills, sand, and withering grass. This is where David fled from King Saul, where John the Baptist ate locusts and honey and preached repentance, and where Christ was tempted by the devil while fasting for forty days and forty nights. Desert monasticism flourished from the fourth through the seventh century as monks and hermits withdrew into the desert in an attempt to escape the distractions and pleasures of the world and draw closer to God.
One such monk was as an eighteen year old Cappadocian named Savvas. He left his home and traveled to Jerusalem in AD 457 where he was guided by Saint Euthymius the Great. Savvas lived ten years in the monastery before seeking solitude in the desert. He searched for several years until discovering the cave that became his home for the next ten years. In time, disciples gathered around him. Enough so that, in AD 483, the forty-five year old Savas decided to form a monastery from the cluster of caves and cells of hermits residing near his cave. He directed the monastery for fifty years until his death, nourishing the growth of the monastery that would eventually take his name.
Saint Savas Monastery became a model of monastic life and liturgical order and the fathers were fervent defenders of the Orthodox faith, fighting against numerous heresies. New buildings and walls were added during years of growth but the monks were often under threat of attack by outsiders. In the 8th century, Saracens broke in and looted the monastery, beating and torturing monks, beheading some and burning or suffocating others. In AD 614, Arabs came in search of plunder and beheaded and hacked to death 44 monks when they couldn’t find any treasure. The holy fathers who perished are commemorated on March 20th and May 16th respectively.
The decline of desert monasticism was initiated by the Arab Muslim conquest in the 7th century. But St. Savas Monastery has endured for over 1,500 years. Pilgrims today can still visit the monastery and venerate the relics of St. Savas, sit in the cell where St. John of Damascus wrote many of his works, and meet the monks who currently reside there. It is known as one of the most difficult monasteries to live in due to the monk’s extreme asceticism.