On the Edge of Heaven

We traveled today to the Monastery of St. Saba, in the Judean desert. Founded in the 5th century, it is the longest continually functioning monastery in the Orthodox world. There are 15 monks there today, though during its height, there were as many as 5,000 in the cliffs surrounding the monastery and the monastery itself. In the 7th century, the Persians invaded and martyred a number of monks, but the monastery survived, and monks returned. It is said by the monks that the Theotokos promised that St. Saba’s would remain a living monastery until Christ returned.

As we have found all over the Holy Land, the hospitality was overwhelming. I sat in the cave that was the cell of St. John of Damascus and prayed – venerated the incorrupt relics of St. Saba (and those of the many martyrs of the monastery).

The monk who was guiding us through the monastery was asked the question about the difficulties the monastery encountered with the political situation in the area (it is situated in the Palestian Authority area). He said, “We have been here since the 5th century and have seen many political situations. We are monks. We have no enemies.”

I immediately grabbed his hand and kissed it and told him, “You’re the first man I’ve met in the holy land who proclaimed that he had no enemies. You are a blessing.”

I realized that the great peace of the monastery came not only from the holy relics and the many prayers offered in that place through the centuries, but that the monks who are there now have found paradise. For to live in the midst of so much strife but to have no enemies is indeed paradise itself!

Leaving that place has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do since coming here.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





22 responses to “On the Edge of Heaven”

  1. marygail Avatar

    You have to come back to us!

  2. blackincense Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Fr. Bless!

    I don’t blame you for wanting to stay there….what a blessing! Glory to God!

    Perhaps then, now that we know of this monastery, we can rest that when Christ comes, he will indeed find faith on earth!

  3. Justinian Avatar

    How wonderful, such an true expression of Christian faith. Truly, the monks are the light for those of us in the world.

  4. Justin Farr Avatar

    I am very happy to hear this! Thank you for sharing, Fr.

  5. Lucias Avatar

    Indeed a very powerful and profound thing to say. And in a place where such a thing cannot be said lightly.

    Regarding the saying of Theotokos regarding the monestary. How would such a message have been conveyed ? Via prayer or a prophet or something ? I ask because you say the monestary was founded in the 5th century. I am not familiar enough yet with Orthodox to understand this.

    Many thanks and continue to enjoy and be blessed by your travels.



  6. Ian Avatar

    Father, thank you for sharing this with us. May the monastics of St. Saba, and all monastics, continue their work which helps us all though it is unseen and often unthanked.

    Prayers for continued safety in travels.

  7. blackincense Avatar

    Dear Lucias,

    I cannot answer for Fr. Stephen, and would never presume so. But I have heard similar things from monastics in other parts of the world. The Panagia has been known to visit monasteries herself. I learned to have no doubt about it. It is a mystery that the Orthodox do not speak about lightly, but it does happen.
    God bless you in your own journey….
    Much love in Christ,

  8. Shevaberakhot Avatar


    Being still, we are assured that Christ lives within us, and He is eager to be revealed to the world.


  9. Lana Balach Avatar
    Lana Balach

    I have pasted below the information on St. John Damascus(12/5) (Father Stephen prayed in his cell at the monastery) and the Icon of the Three Hands(12/4). At the end of the text is information about the miracle of the Blessed Theotokos visiting the Hilandar monastery. Daily scripture readings, readings from The Prologue by Bishop St. Nikolai and readings on all the saints can be found on the site http://www.orthodoxinfo.com both from the old and new calendar.

    The Damascene Icon of the Mother of God, by ancient tradition, was painted by St John of Damascus in gratitude to the Theotokos for the miraculous healing of his right hand, cut off through the perfidy of Emperor Leo the Isaurian. This icon is also known as “Of the Three Hands” Icon of the Mother of God (June 28, and July 12).

    In the ninth century in the time of the Iconoclasts, St John of Damascus (December 4) was zealous in his veneration of holy icons. Because of this, he was slandered by the emperor and iconoclast Leo III the Isaurian (717-740), who informed the Damascus caliph that St John was committing treasonous acts against him. The caliph gave orders to cut off the hand of the monk and take it to the marketplace. Towards evening Saint John, having asked the caliph for the cut-off hand, put it to its joint and fell to the ground before the icon of the Mother of God. The monk begged Our Lady to heal the hand, which had written in defense of Orthodoxy. After long prayer he fell asleep and saw in a dream that the All-Pure Mother of God had turned to him promising him quick healing.

    Before this the Mother of God bid him toil without fail with this hand. Having awakened from sleep, St John saw that his hand was unharmed. In thankfulness for this healing St John placed on the icon a hand fashioned of silver, from which the icon received its name “Of Three Hands.” (Some iconographers, in their ignorance, have mistakenly depicted the Most Holy Theotokos with three arms and three hands.) According to Tradition, St John wrote a hymn of thanksgiving to the Mother of God: “All of creation rejoices in You, O Full of Grace,” which appears in place of the hymn “It is Truly Meet” in the Liturgy of St Basil the Great.

    St John Damascene received monasticism at the monastery of St Sava the Sanctified and there bestowed his wonderworking icon. The Lavra presented the icon “Of Three Hands” in blessing to St Sava, Archbishop of Serbia (+ 1237, January 12). During an invasion of Serbia by the Turks, some Christians who wanted to protect the icon, entrusted it to the safekeeping of the Mother of God Herself. They placed it upon a donkey, which without a driver proceeded to Athos and stopped in front of the Hilandar monastery. The monks put the icon in the monastery’s cathedral church (katholikon). During a time of discord over the choice of igumen, the Mother of God deigned to head the monastery Herself, and from that time Her holy icon has occupied the igumen’s place in the temple. At the Hilandar monastery there is chosen only a vicar, and from the holy icon the monks take a blessing for every obedience.

  10. Lucias Avatar

    Black incense thank you for the information.



  11. shevaberakhot Avatar


    A very uplifting and interesting commentary, thank you.

    While the observer and subject will always have different perspectives when talking of such things, all mankind is called into the fullness of worship.

    Observation is useful only if it leads to what Father Stephen referred to as the act of going beyond the curtain. It is here that mankind is renewed by and in the Spirit of God’s unconditional love. This leads to authentic worship.

    Thanks once again for your commentary.


  12. Shevaberakhot Avatar


    My apologies, lines 8-9 should read: This is authentic worship (as per John 4:23).

    Through the infinite virtues of Christ’s body and blood the Eucharist, of course.


  13. T (now John) Avatar
    T (now John)

    I found some cool pics of this monastery online if anyone wants to see them:


  14. mic Avatar


    was there a monk there by the name of Ephraim?

    i visited Mar Saba a few years ago, and although i was not Orthodox at the time, Ephraim allowed me to come into the courtyard…he then pulled a couple raison’s out of his pocket and some random wild bird came out of nowhere, sat in his hand and ate the raison’s…mighty!

    So, is he still there?


  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    The monk Ephraim is still there, and like the whole of the monastery, continues to share his wonderful gift of hospitality.

  16. mic Avatar


    Glory be to God!

    i have a picture of the bird eating out of his hand, i look at it often and pray for him.

    it is good to know that he is still there.


  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    Only men were allowed within the monastery. Fr. Ephraim came out of the monastery into the entrance courtyard and brought refreshments for the women, a collection of relics for veneration, and regaled them with tales and teaching that sounded like they got the better end of the visit. From my wife’s account, he is a remarkable monk.

  18. mic Avatar

    Glory be to God!

    thank you Father for sharing that with me.

    may the blessings of your journey be multiplied!


  19. […] earlier shared the story of my conversation with a monk at Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean desert. For me, […]

  20. […] a land that has been torn apart by religious and political strife for centuries. During this visit, Father Stephen visited the Monestary of St. Saba, which has existed since the 5th Century and has seen its share of martyrs. Father Stephen writes […]

  21. […] reminded of two posts by Father Stephen Freeman about a monk in the Holy Land who has no enemies, On the Edge of Heaven and A Single Monk. I invite you to read his posts. Father Stephen expresses what I would say better […]

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