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 that was born was named Euthymius (“good cheer”).
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 child to Bishop Eutroius of Melitene, who accepted him with love. Seeing his good conduct, the bishop soon made him a Reader.
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. Euthymius often visited the monastery of Saint 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 Saint Theoctistus also lived in asceticism. They shared the same zeal for God and for spiritual struggles, and each strove to attain what the other desired.
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. Euthymius entrusted the supervision of the growing monastery to his friend Theoctistus.
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 Euthymius converted and baptized many Arabs. Among them were the Saracen leaders Aspebet and his son Terebon, both of whom 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 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 Mount 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. Euthymius founded a monastery beside David’s cave, and built a church. During this time 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 Saint Theoctistus. Along the way they found a quiet level place on a hill, and he remained there. This would become the site of Euthymius’ lavra, and a little cave served as his cell, and then as his grave.
Saint Theoctistus went with his brethren to 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.
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 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, Euthymius called the steward and ordered him to feed the pilgrims. The steward said that there was not enough food in the monastery. 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 (3 Kings 17:8-16).
Because of his ascetic life and firm confession of the Orthodox Faith, Saint 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. Saint Euthymius himself revealed to several of the monks that often he saw an angel celebrating the Holy Liturgy with him.
When the saint was ninety years of age, his companion and fellow monk Theoctistus became grievously ill. Saint 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 Saint Euthymius the time of his death. On the eve of the Feast of Saint Anthony the Great, Saint 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 (Colossians 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 shelter 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. Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint Euthymius had foretold.
Rejoice, O barren wilderness.
And be glad, sterile desert, that has never known the travail of birth.
The man of desires has multiplied your sons,
he has planted them in faith and piety.
He has watered them with the Holy Spirit:
They grow in self-denial and perfect virtue.
Through his intercessions, O Christ God, preserve Your people in peace.
The wilderness rejoiced at your birth, O holy father Euthymius.
In your memory, it brings a harvest of joy through your many miracles.
Pour these wonders on our souls as well and cleanse us from our sins,
that we may sing: Alleluia.