The Holy Physicians

As there are literally many thousands of saints' lives in the various Eastern Orthodox Churches, I have chosen to concentrate on the Anargyroi or the Holy Physicians in this section and to follow it with a second section on the New Martyrs.

In Orthodox churches anywhere in the world one is certain to come across icons or wall-paintings depicting the Holy Physicians of Eastern Christian tradition. These saints are immediately distinguished by the medical chests and spatulas they display and by voluminous robes. Invariably, these are the 'Hagioi Anargyroi' or 'Unmercenary Physicians', sober-looking men of all ages, only rarely accompanied by women helpers. The Anargyroi are the widely venerated patrons of medical practitioners and the infirm alike and are reputed to have never accepted any recompense for their services and to remain efficacious intercessors to the present day.

The Anargyroi are commemorated individually or in groups alongside the Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Holy Priests and Monks recognized by the Church. Like these, the Anargyroi are singled out for a general office in the Greek and Slavic Menaia - indicating that they form a unique category for the Orthodox Churches. In the ecclesiastical calendars of the Byzantine tradition feasts related to one or another of these Anargyroi fall in every month. From their prominence it can be argued that this group of saints represents a model (one amongst several) for sanctity in the Christian East. The iconography associated with the Anargyroi is distinctive and ubiquitous. Church dedications are quite common. Names associated with this group remain a popular Orthodox choice worldwide.

This model of sanctity has been presented to the faithful for centuries, illustrated in art, readings and supported by many customs. Ultimately, this was inspired by the miracles of healing recorded in the New Testament. The passage in the Gospel of Matthew (10: 1, 5-8) that includes the instruction given by Christ to his disciples: 'Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely you have received, freely give' is crucial. This text is always read in church on the feast-days of the Anar-gyroi and clearly inscribed on the scrolls decorating icons of this group. This and related passages endorse the link between Christian living and ministering to the sick, but also connect bodily ailments to those of the soul. The miraculous element, which features prominently in the Lives of the Anargyroi, also has scriptural precedents.

Church, state and individuals in Byzantium followed what was perceived to be the example set by the early Christians in founding charitable hospitals, sanatoria and institutions for those afflicted with mental ill-health. Such founders and benefactors included bishops like Basil the Great (d. 3 79), John Chrysostom (d. 407), Stratonikos of Harran (d. 502), Apollinarios of Alexandria (d. 568), John the Almsgiver (d. 616), Andrew of Crete (d. 740) and Theophylaktos of Nicomedia (d. 840). Others were abbots like Pachomios (d. 346), Theodosios the Koinobiarch (d. 529) and Sabas the Sanctified (d. 532). Notable amongst emperors were Justinian (d. 565), Alexios Komnenos (d. 1118) and John II Komnenos (d. 1143). The Emperor Isaak II Angelos (d. 1195) was remembered for having even transformed his palace into a hospital. Saints such as Andronikos and Athanasia of Antioch (fourth century) were lauded for leaving all their possessions to existing hospitals. Naturally, the donations of pious or socially minded individuals supplemented endowments but generally went unrecorded.

Throughout the Byzantine period hospitals and related institutions were generally attached to churches and monasteries. Even if these were not actually dedicated to Anargyroi saints they were commemorated by icons and special chapels. At the Meteora Monasteries of Thessaly and elsewhere this connection survived the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Above all, ministering to the sick and afflicted remained an important aspect of Christian witness in the Orthodox tradition. This needs to be emphasized as it is often overlooked by those western Christians who are primarily interested in desert spirituality and the Hesychast traditions of the Eastern Churches. It is also important to note that the Orthodox approach to this primarily social issue was mirrored in Islamic practice.

The Anargyroi are the saintly doctors and nurses of the Christian East whose lives, literary legends and associated folklore encapsulate a long-established Orthodox approach to health issues. They can be seen as the popular healers of previous centuries who used prayer alongside medicine and what we would now term alternative medicine or homeopathic techniques to help or cure people and animals alike. Church tradition presents the Anargyroi as having worked in pairs or groups and maintains that besides performing cures they engaged in general charitable and evangelical work. In the surviving Lives this latter aspect is greatly enhanced by the generally miraculous nature of many of the healings attributed to the saints. The miraculous underlines the truths of the Christian faith. Popular devotion to the Anargyroi is reinforced by numerous stories, recorded and orally transmitted, of their potent intercession and direct intervention in the daily affairs of individuals and communities, historically and up to the present day. If anything, pious accounts show the Anargyroi to be more widely active and effective after their earthly demise than during their lives.

Above all it is stressed that this group of saints were totally unlike their contemporary colleagues in the medical profession. The Anargyroi are characterized as upholding intransigent principles regarding recompense: they steadfastly refused to accept any form of payment or reward for their activity. Indeed, according to the Lives, this principle was so rigorously implemented that lifelong partners are shown as falling out when one suspected that the other was guilty of having accepted some gift, no matter how insignificant. The message is underlined by the implication that the early Anar-gyroi were persecuted and martyred by the Roman authorities, not only because they were subversives who promoted the Christian faith but also because they undermined the entire medical profession by never charging any fees. According to the Lives the therapies supervised by the Anargyroi and their miracles of healing discredited both the pagan physicians and their deities alike. We read that the temples of Asklepios and Isis were emptied as all in need flocked to the Christian Anargyroi. The temples remained empty because the Anargyroi continued to tirelessly heal the sick and ailing from beyond the grave. It follows that churches and tombs of these saints emerged as important centres for pilgrimage in the Byzantine era.

Some detective work might indicate that Greater Syria was the original homeland of the Anargyroi phenomenon, particularly the northern regions presently within Turkey. Tradition asserts that a number were martyred in Aigai (Ayas) or in the general vicinity of Antioch (Antakya). Significantly, Kyrros (Kilis), north of Antioch, was renamed Hagiopolis to draw attention to the claim that it held the tombs of the major Anargyroi, Kosmas and Damianos. Many Anargyroi are considered by the church to be martyrs. Some are titled great-martyrs, indicating that they suffered prolonged and particularly horrific tortures. As great-martyrs they are held to be major patrons of the Christian life. However, this is not the most important attribute of saints in the Anargyroi grouping, nor necessary for their inclusion. The epithet 'Anargyroi' came to be applied ever more widely in the Byzantine period to include not only Christian-minded doctors and nurses but also saintly people who organized or supervised charitable hospitals and hospices. Furthermore, all saints famed for miraculous cures were associated with this prestigious title, at least in the church offices and hymnody. It can be argued that some saints, like Therapon, probably came to be considered as Anargyroi owing to their names inviting a connection with healing (therapia, healing). This was an ongoing process as miracles of healing are attributed to the majority of saints, east and west. Nevertheless, the Anargyroi remain a clearly defined group amongst saints glorified by the Church.

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