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St Anastasius the Persian
Martyr (entered heaven this day in 628)
I commend your eager desire to become “deeper in joy and wiser in prayer”, as you so eloquently put it. But something is missing from your methods. You have traced out a solid program of meditation, Scripture reading, regular confession and communion, and apostolic activity – so far so good. Now you just need to add two ingredients to complete the recipe: contemplation and constancy. The astonishing story of today’s saint illustrates their necessity.
Anastasius (from the Greek word for “resurrected”) was the name taken by a young Persian soldier called Magundat after he had been baptized. In the seventh century, Persia (modern day Iran) was a growing empire whose religion, consisting of ritual magic and superstitional practices justified by a syncretistic philosophy, was an enemy of Christianity. Magundat, adept at the magical sciences so revered by his countrymen, was among the Persian troops that conquered Jerusalem and brought home as booty the relic of the True Cross. During the translation of the relic to Persia, the young soldier became curious about what it meant. He was deeply impressed by the Christians who revered it when it passed through their cities and villages, and once he reached home, he started to make inquiries. He was so eager to find answers that he retired from the army and moved in with some Christians. He drank up all the pious teaching he could get, began to learn to pray, and filled his heart and imagination with the testimonies of the martyrs. Even so, in Persia his progress was slow, so he moved to Jerusalem, and there he advanced more quickly in knowledge and virtue, and received baptism.
Wanting only to serve the Lord with all his “heart, soul, mind and strength”, he was granted permission to join a monastery. For seven years he followed the rigorous schedule of work and prayer, setting an edifying example for the other monks. All the while, however, the desire for martyrdom, the supreme witness of love, grew in his heart. He was granted a vision in which our Lord promised that his desire would one day be granted. With that, he decided to make a tour of the holy sites in the Persian Empire.
During his pilgrimage, he ran into some Persian soldiers engaging in their magical rites in a public plaza. He interrupted them, and exhorted them to abandon their pagan practices in favor of the true religion. He was immediately apprehended as a spy, but he explained that he had once been one of them, and now was a Christian. At that, they threw him in a dungeon to await judgment from the governor.
Thus began a drawn-out period of incarcerations, interrogations, and tortures during which the governor (and then the King himself) did everything in his power to win this promising and intelligent young soldier back to the false beliefs of his native culture. But nothing could shake Anastasius’s faith. He was chained to another criminal; he was chained to himself (his neck linked to his ankle); still chained, he was forced to carry heavy loads of rock during the day, and thrown back in the dungeon at night; he was laid on the ground and beaten with clubs; his legs were crushed with a heavy beam pressed upon them; he was beaten with staves for three days in a row; intermittently he was offered position and honor and wealth in the Persian court if he would only abjure his faith (he was even offered a special deal – he would be allowed to continue living as a Christian if he simply denied Christ by word in a private conversation with the king). Through it all he remained steadfastly faithful to Christ, and he persevered in prayer, such that at night his cell would be filled with a heavenly glow, and whenever possible his fellow Christians would flock to him for words of encouragement and guidance.
When all efforts failed to detach him from Christ, he and 70 other Christians were condemned to be strangled by the banks of the Euphrates – Anastasius being the last victim (it was hoped that witnessing the horrible deaths of the others would break his courage – wrong again).
The Saint’s constancy is clearly evident: no matter how adverse circumstances became, he kept his heart in Christ. His contemplation is less obvious, but not less important. Even before baptism, it was his sensitivity, his docility, his humble listening to the whispers of the Holy Spirit that came through the examples of other Christians, the images, relics, and histories of martyrs, and the short and long periods dedicated to prayer, that enabled him to stay close to his Lord. Constancy is the firm decision to follow through on your commitments no matter what; contemplation is the habit of listening to God’s voice in every situation. If you add these points to your program, you should be “deeper in joy and wiser in prayer” in no time.
Your loving uncle,
P.S. I can’t figure out why you have neglected to include in your program spiritual direction. It’s the surest way to avoid crippling subjectivism. Anastasius was only able to shed his deep-set habits of magical and superstitious thinking and acting by opening himself fully to his director in the monastery; until he did, he was literally bludgeoned with temptations.