The Stag and the Cross: The Life of St. Eustathius
Eustathius was a pagan military commander during the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. Even before he came to know Christ, he performed acts of charity, helping the poor and destitute. Like Cornelius from The Acts of the Apostles, the Lord guided this virtuous man on the way towards Paradise. Once while hunting in a forest, he saw a great stag which would stop now and then to look him right in the eye. Eustathius pursued it on horseback, but could not catch up. The stag leaped over a chasm and stood on the other side facing him. Eustathius suddenly saw a radiant Cross between its antlers. Surprised, Eustathius heard a voice coming from the Cross, “Why do you pursue Me?” “Who are You, Master?” he asked. The Voice replied, “I am Jesus Christ, whom you don’t yet know…yet you honor Me by your benevolent deeds. I’ve appeared here on this impressive creature for your sake, to capture you in the net of My love for mankind. It’s not fitting that one as righteous as you should worship idols and not know the truth. It was to save mankind that I came into the world.” Eustathius cried out, “Lord, I believe that You are the God of Heaven and earth, the Creator of all things. Master, teach me what I should do.” Again, the Lord replied, “Go to the Christian bishop near your home and receive Baptism from him, and he’ll instruct you in the faith.”
Eustathius returned home and joyfully recounted everything to his wife Tatiana. She in turn told him how the evening before, in a mysterious dream, she had been told, “Tomorrow you, your husband and your sons shall come to Me and know that I am the true God.” The spouses then proceeded to do as they’d been commanded by God. They hurried to the Christian bishop, who baptized all their family, and communed them with the Holy Mysteries. On the following day, Saint Eustathius set out to the place of his miraculous conversion and in fervent prayer he offered up thanks to the Lord for having called him onto the path of salvation. Again, Saint Eustathius received a miraculous revelation. The Lord Himself foretold told him of tribulations that were soon to come: “Eustathius, you will suffer many misfortunes, like the ancient biblical character, Job, but in the end, you will conquer the devil.” Soon Saint Eustathius was immersed in misfortune: all his servants died of the plague and his herds of cattle also died. Brought to ruin, but not despairing in spirit, Saint Eustathius and his family secretly abandoned their home, to make a pilgrimage toward Jerusalem. During the voyage, the saint faced a new misfortune. The ship’s captain, mesmerized by the beauty of Eustathius’ wife, cruelly set Eustathius and his children ashore, keeping the wife for himself. Sorrowfully, the saint continued on his way, only to encounter yet another heartbreak. Arriving at a raging river, he could only carry his sons across, one at a time. When he brought one across, the other was seized by a lion carrying him off into the woods. Turning back towards the other son, a wolf dragged that child into the forest. Having now lost everything, Saint Eustathius wept bitterly, but realized God had allowed these misfortunes to test his enduring faith and devotion. In his inconsolable grief, Saint Eustathius went on farther, still prepared for new tribulations.
In a nearby village, Eustathius found work and spent the next five years in constant labor. Saint Eustathius didn’t know then that through God’s mercy, shepherds and farmers had saved each of his sons, who were living very near him. He also didn’t know that the evil ship-captain had been struck down with a terrible disease and died, leaving Eustathius’ wife untouched. She’d been living in peace and freedom at the very place where the ship landed. During this time, the Roman Emperor Trajan needed to raise an army to deal with a rebellion that had risen up. But he was having a difficult time gathering the needed soldiers, because no one wanted to go into battle without their former beloved commander, Eustathius. So, they advised Trajan to send men out to all the cities to look for him.
Eustathius’ former friends looked everywhere for him. Finally, they arrived in the village where Saint Eustathius lived. When the soldiers found Eustathius, they didn’t recognize him, telling him of the one for who they were searching, asking his help and promising a large reward. Saint Eustathius, immediately recognized his friends, but didn’t reveal his identity to them. He quickly went to borrow extra food from a neighbor and then fed his visiting old friends. As they looked at him, the travelers began to notice how much he resembled their former commander. And when they recognized a scar on his shoulder from a deep sword-wound he’d once endured, they realized that their old friend was the very man standing before them. They embraced him with tears and told him why they were seeking him.
Saint Eustathius returned to Rome with them and once again became their general. Many new recruits were drafted into the army from all over the empire. Eustathius didn’t know that two of the new young soldiers who served him, whom he esteemed for their skill and courage, were actually his own two sons. They, likewise, didn’t know that they were serving under the command of their own father, nor that they were brothers by birth. While in pursuit of the enemy, the army led by Eustathius made camp next to a little village. The soldier-brothers were talking in their tent. The elder one told the other the story of his life, how he’d lost his mother and brother, and how terrifyingly he’d been taken from his father. The younger brother then realized that the man before him was his very own brother, and told him how he’d been rescued from the wolf.
A woman overheard the soldiers’ conversation, since their tent was pitched right next to her hut, and this woman realized that these were her two sons. Still not identifying herself to them, but not wanting to be separated from them, she went to their commander, Saint Eustathius, to ask him to take her to Rome with him. She said she’d been taken from her husband as a prisoner, and wanted to go beck home. Then she came to recognize the commander as her spouse, and with tears she told him about herself and about the two soldiers she’d overheard talking who were actually their sons. Thus, through God’s great mercy, the whole family was happily reunited. Soon thereafter the rebellion was crushed, and Saint Eustathius returned to Rome with honor and glory. The emperor wanted to celebrate the victory with an offering of sacrifice to the gods. However, to everyone’s astonishment, Saint Eustathius refused. “Why won’t you worship the gods?” the emperor inquired. “You, above all others, ought to offer thanks to them for granting you victory and helping you find your wife and children.” But Saint Eustathius replied: “I am a Christian and thus I glorify, and give thanks to, and owe my life to, and worship only Jesus Christ as Lord.” In a rage, the emperor ordered him and his family to immediately appear before the royal court. But no one there could persuade these steadfast confessors of Christ to offer sacrifice to idols. After some failed attempts to kill them, the cruel emperor gave orders to throw each of them alive into red-hot brass bulls…his most torturous way to kill someone. So Saint Eustathius and each member of his family endured martyr’s deaths. Three days later, they opened the brass bulls, and the bodies of the holy martyrs were found unscathed. Not one hair on their heads was singed, and their faces shone with an unearthly beauty. Many seeing this miracle came to believe in Christ.