Saint Euthymius the Great came from the city of Melitene in Armenia, near the River Euphrates. His parents, Paul and Dionysia, were pious Christians of noble birth. After many years of marriage they remained childless, and in their sorrow they entreated God to give them offspring. Finally, they had a vision and heard a voice saying, “Be of good cheer! God will grant you a son, who will bring joy to the churches.” The child was named Euthymius (“good cheer”).
St Euthymius’ father died soon after this, and his mother, fulfilling her vow to dedicate her son to God, gave him to her brother, the priest Eudoxius, to be educated. He presented the chid to Bishop Eutroius of Melitene, who accepted him with love. Seeing his good conduct, the bishop soon made him a Reader.
St Euthymius later became a monk and was ordained to the holy priesthood. At the same time, he was entrusted with the supervision of all the city monasteries. St Euthymius often visited the monastery of St Polyeuctus, and during Great Lent he withdrew into the wilderness. His responsibility for the monasteries weighed heavily upon the ascetic, and conflicted with his desire for stillness, so he secretly left the city and headed to Jerusalem. After venerating the holy shrines, he visited the Fathers in the desert.
Since there was a solitary cell in the Tharan lavra, he settled into it, earning his living by weaving baskets. Nearby, his neighbor St Theoctistus (September 3) also lived in asceticism. They shared the same zeal for God and for spiritual struggles, and each strove to attain what the other desired. They had such love for one another that they seemed to share one soul and one will.
Every year, after the Feast of Theophany, they withdrew into the desert of Coutila (not far from Jericho). One day, they entered a steep and terrifying gorge with a stream running through it. They saw a cave upon a cliff, and settled there. The Lord, however, soon revealed their solitary place for the benefit of many people. Shepherds driving their flocks came upon the cave and saw the monks. They went back to the village and told people about the ascetics living there.
People seeking spiritual benefit began to visit the hermits and brought them food. Gradually, a monastic community grew up around them. Several monks came from the Tharan monastery, among them Marinus and Luke. St Euthymius entrusted the supervision of the growing monastery to his friend Theoctistus.
St Euthymius exhorted the brethren to guard their thoughts. “Whoever desires to lead the monastic life should not follow his own will. He should be obedient and humble, and be mindful of the hour of death. He should fear the judgment and eternal fire, and seek the heavenly Kingdom.”
The saint taught young monks to fix their thoughts on God while engaging in physical labor. “If laymen work in order to feed themselves and their families, and to give alms and offer sacrifice to God, then are not we as monks obliged to work to sustain ourselves and to avoid idleness? We should not depend on strangers.”
The saint demanded that the monks keep silence in church during services and at meals. When he saw young monks fasting more than others, he told them to cut off their own will, and to follow the appointed rule and times for fasting. He urged them not to attract attention to their fasting, but to eat in moderation.
In these years St Euthymius converted and baptized many Arabs. Among them were the Saracen leaders Aspebet and his son Terebon, both of whom St Euthymius healed of sickness. Aspebet received the name Peter in Baptism and afterwards he was a bishop among the Arabs.
Word of the miracles performed by St Euthymius spread quickly. People came from everywhere to be healed of their ailments, and he cured them. Unable to bear human fame and glory, the monk secretly left the monastery, taking only his closest disciple Dometian with him. He withdrew into the Rouba desert and settled on Mt. Marda, near the Dead Sea.
In his quest for solitude, the saint explored the wilderness of Ziph and settled in the cave where David once hid from King Saul. St Euthymius founded a monastery beside David’s cave, and built a church. During this time St Euthymius converted many monks from the Manichean heresy, he also healed the sick and cast out devils.
Visitors disturbed the tranquillity of the wilderness. Since he loved silence, the saint decided to return to the monastery of St Theoctistus. Along the way they found a quiet level place on a hill, and he remained there. This would become the site of St Euthymius’ lavra, and a little cave served as his cell, and then as his grave.
St Theoctistus went with his brethren to St Euthymius and requested him to return to the monastery, but the monk did not agree to this. However, he did promise to attend Sunday services at the monastery.
St Euthymius did not wish to have anyone nearby, nor to organize a cenobium or a lavra. The Lord commanded him in a vision not to drive away those who came to him for the salvation of their souls. After some time brethren again gathered around him, and he organized a lavra, on the pattern of the Tharan Lavra. In the year 429, when St Euthymius was fifty-two years old, Patriarch Juvenal of Jerusalem consecrated the lavra church and supplied it with presbyters and deacons.
The lavra was poor at first, but the saint believed that God would provide for His servants. Once, about 400 Armenians on their way to the Jordan came to the lavra. Seeing this, St Euthymius called the steward and ordered him to feed the pilgrims. The steward said that there was not enough food in the monastery. St Euthymius, however, insisted. Going to the storeroom where the bread was kept, the steward found a large quantity of bread, and the wine casks and oil jars were also filled. The pilgrims ate their fill, and for three months afterwards the door of the storeroom could not be shut because of the abundace of bread. The food remained undiminished, just like the widow of Zarephath’s barrel of meal and cruse of oil (1/3 Kings 17:8-16).
Once, the monk Auxentius refused to carry out his assigned obedience. Despite the fact that St Euthymius summoned him and urged him to comply, he remained obstinate. The saint then shouted loudly, “You will be rewarded for your insubordination.” A demon seized Auxentius and threw him to the ground. The brethren asked Abba Euthymius to help him, and then the saint healed the unfortunate one, who came to himself, asked forgiveness and promised to correct himself. “Obedience,” said St Euthymius, “is a great virtue. The Lord loves obedience more than sacrifice, but disobedience leads to death.”
Two of the brethren became overwhelmed by the austere life in the monastery of St Euthymius, and they resolved to flee. St Euthymius saw in a vision that they would be ensnared by the devil. He summoned them and admonished them to abandon their destructive intention. He said, “We must never admit evil thoughts that fill us with sorrow and hatred for the place in which we live, and suggest that we go somewhere else. If someone tries to do something good in the place where he lives but fails to complete it, he should not think that he will accomplish it elsewhere. It is not the place that produces success, but faith and a firm will. A tree which is often transplanted does not bear fruit.”
In the year 431, the Third Ecumenical Council was convened in Ephesus to combat the Nestorian heresy. St Euthymius rejoiced over the affirmation of Orthodoxy, but was grieved about Archbishop John of Antioch who defended Nestorius.
In the year 451 the Fourth Ecumenical Council met in Chalcedon to condemn the heresy of Dioscorus who, in contrast to Nestorius, asserted that in the Lord Jesus Christ there is only one nature, the divine (thus the heresy was called Monophysite). He taught that in the Incarnation, Christ’s human nature is swallowed up by the divine nature.
St Euthymius accepted the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon and he acknowledged it as Orthodox. News of this spread quickly among the monks and hermits. Many of them, who had previously believed wrongly, accepted the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon because of the example of St Euthymius.
Because of his ascetic life and firm confession of the Orthodox Faith, St Euthymius is called “the Great.” Wearied by contact with the world, the holy abba went for a time into the inner desert. After his return to the lavra some of the brethren saw that when he celebrated the Divine Liturgy, fire descended from Heaven and encircled the saint. St Euthymius himself revealed to several of the monks that often he saw an angel celebrating the Holy Liturgy with him. The saint had the gift of clairvoyance, and he could discern a person’s thoughts and spiritual state from his outward appearance. When the monks received the Holy Mysteries, the saint knew who approached worthily, and who received unworthily.
When St Euthymius was 82 years old, the young Sava (the future St Sava the Sanctified, December 5), came to his lavra. The Elder received him with love and sent him to the monastery of St Theoctistus. He foretold that St Sava would outshine all his other disciples in virtue.
When the saint was ninety years of age, his companion and fellow monk Theoctistus became grievously ill. St Euthymius went to visit his friend and remained at the monastery for several days. He took leave of him and was present at his end. After burying his body in a grave, he returned to the lavra.
God revealed to St Euthymius the time of his death. On the eve of the Feast of St Anthony the Great (January 17) St Euthymius gave the blessing to serve the all-night Vigil. When the service ended, he took the priests aside and told them that he would never serve another Vigil with them, because the Lord was calling him from this earthly life.
All were filled with great sadness, but the saint asked the brethren to meet him in church in the morning. He began to instruct them, “If you love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15). Love is the highest virtue, and the bond of perfectness (Col. 3:14). Every virtue is made secure by love and humility. The Lord humbled Himself because of His Love for us and became man. Therefore, we ought to praise Him unceasingly, especially since we monks have escaped worldly distractions and concerns.”
“Look to yourselves, and preserve your souls and bodies in purity. Do not fail to attend the church services, and keep the traditions and rules of our community. If one of the brethren struggles with unclean thoughts, correct, console, and instruct him, so that he does not fall into the devil’s snares. Never refuse hospitality to visitors. Offer a bed to every stranger. Give whatever you can to help the poor in their misfortune.”
Afterwards, having given instructions for the guidance of the brethren, the saint promised always to remain in spirit with them and with those who followed them in his monastery.St Euthymius then dismissed everyone but his disciple Dometian. He remained in the altar for three days, then died on January 20, 473 at the age of ninety-seven.
A multitude of monks from all the monasteries and from the desert came to the lavra for the holy abba’s burial, among whom was St Gerasimus. The Patriarch Anastasius also came with his clergy, as well as the Nitrian monks Martyrius and Elias, who later became Patriarchs of Jerusalem, as St Euthymius had foretold.
Dometian remained by the grave of his Elder for six days. On the seventh day, he saw the holy abba in glory, beckoning to his disciple. “Come, my child, the Lord Jesus Christ wants you to be with me.”
After telling the brethren about the vision, Dometian went to church and joyfully surrendered his soul to God. He was buried beside St Euthymius. The relics of St Euthymius remained at his monastery in Palestine, and the Russian pilgrim igumen Daniel saw them in the twelfth century.