St. James of Cyrrhestica


The primary life is found in works the Syro-Greek author Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, History of the Monks of Syria (trans. R. M. Price, Cistercian Publications, 1985) and Ecclesiastical History. These are preserved in the Greek and Syriac versions.

Theodoret a younger contemporary and had a close personal relationship with St James.



St. James lived in the region around Cyrrhus in Asia Minor from about 375 to about 468. A native of the area, he entered the ascetical life as a disciple of the Cyrrhestican ascetic Polychronius.

Polychronius was disciple of Zebinas. A distinguishing aspect of Zebinas's asceticism was all-night vigils involving continuous standing. While Polychronius himself also engaged in enduring long periods of standing, his distinguishing asceticism eschewed wearing iron chains in favor of caring an exceedingly heavy oak root.

When it seemed good to Zebinas, St. James and a companion, Limnaeus, sent them to became disciples of St. Maron (f.d. Feb. 14).

St. Maron appears to have known both Greek and Syriac. It is clear that his influence to extended beyond the region Cyrrhus to Antioch as he was known to St. John Chrysostom. The first to adopt the practice in this region, St. Maron followed a moderate "open-air" asceticism, permitting himself the occasional use of a tent. St. Maron's purpose in emphasizing moderation was to clarify that the goal of asceticism not as a war on the flesh, as the enemy is spiritual. Christian asceticism was not a Gnostic undertaking, rather the purpose of spiritual labor is to destroy "arguments and every high thing exalted against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive for obedience to Christ." (2 Cor. 9-10)

Having reached a level of maturity, St. James went to pursue his spiritual labors on a mountain some distance to the southeast of Cyrrhus. Theodoret observes that in the nature and scope of his spiritual labor he emulated the open-air, ascetical bishop and father of the Council of Nicaea, St. James of Nisibis (reposed ca.350, f.d. Jan. 13), who successfully protected his city from Persian conquest, was closely associated with St Ephraim the Syrian, and was called by Theodoret, a new Moses.

Asceticism and Hospitality

The nakedness of the saint's open-air asceticism meant that everyone had complete freedom of access to him. As a result of his holiness and prophetic reputation ensured a steady stream of visitors seeking healing, guidance, blessing, and wonder working, including a case of resuscitation of a reposed body.

At the same time, the nature of James's asceticism imposed care-taking responsibilities on the community.

One type of community care taking responsibility is physical protection. In the winter, the mountain upon which James lived experienced significant snowfalls, often of several days' duration. James's disregard for weather meant that he needed others to dig him out from underneath a covering of snow with shovels.

A second type of community care taking is reciprocity in hospitality. This was especially evident during times of illness. St. James was not an easy patient. For example, in attempting to comfort St. James during an illness, Theodoret learned of the numerous chains. Similarly, the saint's reaction to learning he had been removed from his mountain during an extreme three-day fever was that of being "extremely vexed" accompanied by a demand to be returned immediately.

As an ascetic grounded in mildness and moderation, James rationally accepted the ministrations of others, exempting himself from the rigorist practices of dualists who reject the goodness of God's creation. Hence, Theodoret is able to reason with him that "just as when in health and desiring food you overcame appetite by endurance, so now when you have not appetite show endurance by taking food." On another occasion the discipline of hospitality persuaded him to lie in the shade while running a high fever: It would be disgraceful, father, for me, who am young and strong, to obtain this relief, while you, who are beset by a violent fever and need of such solace, sit outside, receiving the sun's rays. and if you want me to enjoy this rest as well, let us lie down together father, for I will not have the embarrassment of lying down alone.

For St. James, hospitality was an opportunity for edifying exchange. For example, when a ministering servant covered a cup of water to protect it from being gazed upon by others, James responds, do not hide from men what is manifest to the God of the universe.

Inner Life

The value of worldly engagement and hospitality were secondary to St. James. He rebuffed those who interrupted him at unsuitable times in a way that earned him a reputation for disagreeability. Discussing the issue with Theodoret, St James disclosed the central, interior aim of his ascetical life.

I did not come to this mountain for another's sake but for my own. Bearing the wounds of so many sins, I need much treatment, and because of this I beseech our Master to give the antidotes to wickedness. How, then, would it not be absurd and utterly senseless to break the sequence of petition and make conversation with men in between? If I happened to be the domestic of a human being like myself, and at the time for serving the master failed to bring the food or drink at the right time but instead made conversation with one of my fellow-servants, what great blows would I not justly receive? And if I went to the governor and, while relating an injustice I had suffered from someone, broke off my discourse in the middle and made some remarks to one of those present, do you not think that the judge would be annoyed, withdrawal his assistance, and have me whipped and driven from the bar? How could it be right... for me, as I approach God, the eternal Master, the Judge most just, and King of all things...during my prayers to turn to my fellow servants and hold a long conversation with them?

Stories about the inner life of St. James blur boundary between human and demon intruders. As disrespectful people, demons would assault him at prayer. On one occasion, he resisted one who banged in his door attempting to drag him from his work. Nevertheless, by facing east and maintaining himself in an attitude of prayer, the demon, unable to overcome God's strength, departed. On yet another occasion, when visited by a more playful demon seeking to charm him into distraction, St. James related the following conversation to Theodoret.

How do you have such strength...He replied was not on his own, but that a mass of demons was scattered through the entire world, to play tricks and be at work simultaneously; for by their playful appearance they are at work to destroy the whole human race. "But as for you" I said, "go away: you are being ordered by Christ, who by means of swine sent a whole legion into the abyss.

Facing Death

Alive when Theodoret wrote his account, James had prepared for his repose, with burial to be on his mountain. Collecting the relics of many prophets and martyrs as he could obtain, placing them in a single coffin. His own tomb was to be simple and nearby that the greater shrine. In his repose, St. James would be "honored to dwell with them."