What I actually wanted to share with you today does not fall under the heading ‘Why I am not Orthodox.’ It is, rather, a little letter from Barsanuphius. Barsanuphius was a monk who lived near Gaza in the early 500s. He was both a solitary recluse and an abbot. He communicated with his community via letters, and is called ‘the Great Old Man.’ He had an assistant, John, ‘the Other Old Man,’ who basically ran the monastery for him.
Once, a brother got fed up with John and said that Barsanuphius did not exist, that he was imaginary, and that John was using this authority figure to manipulate them all. Barsanuphius heard this, broke through the mud brick wall behind which his cell was located, and, without a word, washed the brothers’ feet. Then he went back to his cell and bricked himself in again.
This is the sort of oddity you get used to when you study early monasticism. Unlike many of the world’s solitaries, however, Barsanuphius had an active ministry beyond his monastery’s walls. He wrote letters, as did John. There are over 800 of them that survive. These letters are to bishops, priests, and deacons, as well as to farmers and monks and aristocrats. Anyone could write, and many did.
So here’s my translation of Ep. 120. If you want more passages suitable for Pentecost, chiefly Patristic (but not exclusively), I recommend you review the past several days at Enlarging the Heart. Happy Pentecost!:
Question from the same to the Great Old Man: Master, as you know, since I am sickly in soul and body, I beg you to call upon God to supply power and strength to me for endurance so that I may gratefully bear the attacks.
Answer of Barsanuphius:
Brother Andrew, I wish that your charity would learn that all gifts are given through the coming of the Holy Spirit, and ‘of diverse kinds and in diverse ways’ (Heb. 1:1). For God gave the Spirit to the Apostles at one time to cast out demons, at another to accomplish healings, at another to foresee, at another to raise the dead, and in the end to release sins and liberate souls from darkness and lead them into the light. Thus, behold, I beg God that after the freedom of your soul He may give you the Holy Spirit for endurance and thanksgiving, and so that ‘the enemy might be dishonoured since he has no defence against us’ (Tit. 2:8) Assist, you as well, fighting to obtain it, and ‘God who is rich in mercy’ (Eph. 2:4) will give it to you. Pray for me, brother.
A friend of mine is a minister at a church with a very multicultural, international congregation. One day, of the many Africans in his congregation came to him and offered to pay him so that he would put a curse on someone for him. His answer was a firm no.
This is the sort of startling story we hear coming out of Africa more frequently than most of us are very comfortable with. But if the Global South is becoming the new Christendom, as Philip Jenkins argues in The Next Christendom, then ought it not to have all the characteristics of the old Christendom?
When I first mentioned the Christianisation of Europe here, it was in the context of the persistence of pagan practices throughout the Middle Ages, after Europe was an ostensibly “Christian” continent. The ongoing resort to non- and pre-Christian practices by believers go back to the sixth century under Justinian, if not earlier.
One letter of Barsanuphius and John will suffice:
Letter 753:Question: Since my beast of burden is ill, it’s not out of place for someone to cast a spell on it, is it?
Answer: The casting of spells forbidden by God, and it is not necessary to make use of it all, for it is destruction of the soul to transgress the command of God. Apply to it, rather, the treatments and cures of veterinarians,* for this is not a sin. Pour over it holy water as well.
Given that the person addressed the letter to the Two Old Men of Gaza, he was probably well associated with the church (although we cannot forget the social function of the holy man in Late Antiquity). We cannot assess this person’s level of Christian commitment. This person could be head-over-heels for Christ and attend Church assiduously. However, how many sermons about spell-casting do you really ever here? And how well catechised is the growing Christian population of the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century?
What this letter illustrates is the continuation of apparently “pagan” practices in the Christian Empire on the part of Christians. It also demonstrates the difficulties attendant on catechising the many Christians of Justinian’s Empire. It also casts away the easy distinction between “Pagans” and “Christians” as we observe the historical record.
Finally, it brings home the importance of helping Christians learn accurate Christian faith and practice so they don’t go around casting spells on sick beasts of burden.
As mentioned in passing previously, the later Patristic age saw a new development in Christianity as large quantities of people converted for social, political, or legal reasons. Over this period, with a succession of Christian Emperors, measures were often taken by the secular government to impose spiritual uniformity in the Empire — this was done as a means of ensuring the continued success of the Pax Romana (thus, the same reason the old pagan Emperors persecuted the Christians) as well as of helping along the spread of orthodoxy.
In response to the Emperor Justinian’s anti-Samaritan measures in this direction — measures that included the closure of Samaritan synagogues and the removal of the right to bequeath property to anyone other than orthodox Christians — the Samaritans of Palestine revolted in 529. The revolt was duly suppressed, and distressed monks sent petitions to the Emperor concerning the destruction of property of Christians. This year is the same year he is alleged to have closed or suppressed the Academy in Athens. (I need a better reference for this to confirm whether it’s true or not.)
Throughout his reign, Justinian also sought to Christianise the Empire through the dual methods of conversion and force, both of which we see in the career of John of Ephesus. John was sent by the Emperor to Asia to convert the pagans there to Christianity. He was also sent around Constantinople at a later date to round up people who were still practising “idolatry” and force them to repent, be properly catechised, and then baptised. This latter action involved rounding up a large number of upper-class Romans in a church and forcing them to stay inside until they recanted.
In light of these actions geared towards the suppression of non-Christian religions in the Eastern Roman Empire in Justinian’s reign, in the years following 529 a lot of people converted to the Emperor’s religion. This produces interesting problems for the clergy, as we see in some of the letters sent and received by the monastic elders Barsanuphius and John of Gaza:
Letter 821:Question: A decree was promulgated by the Emperor that commands that the Greeks* [sc. Pagans] are not to make use of their customs, and similarly the aposchists [sc. ‘Monophysites‘]. Indeed, certain of them came after holy Pascha, some to be baptised, others to enter into communion. Ought they to be received? And when ought it to be appropriate for the baptism and the holy communion?
Answer: It is necessary that those wishing to be enlightened are received, and to give them holy baptism in the holy Forty Days or on the Ascension of the Saviour, and they have the week as a festival. But if any of them is considered to do this through custom or simply through fear of the decree, say to him, “If you come because of the decree, this is a sin, but if with fear of God because of your life, it becomes two goods for you, the advantage of your life [sc. spiritual life] and of your body.” It is necessary for the same thing to be spoken by those who wish to enter communion with the Church. And if they say, “Because of God we have come,” receive them forthwith, for they are Christians. (SC 468, pp. 290-292, my trans.)
The next letter is also interesting. The question runs, “Since one of the Gentiles [sc. Pagans] was being arrogant in the midst of the faithful, many say that he ought to be killed or burned: is this good or not?” The answer is, of course, NO, that such action is not Christian. Instead, he is to be handed over to someone for catechesis so that his soul may be saved and he be baptised, entering the ranks of the church.
These two instances show us how … um … evangelism(??) works in an increasingly Christian Empire. Justinian decrees against pagans and non-Orthodox (not just Monophysites but also Nestorians and Arians — the former being driven out of the Empire), and as a result there is a very large number of baptisms and reconciliations to be made. The clergyman of Letter 821 wants to do the right thing, so inquires of the Two Old Men, who give him wise advice. No doubt many were dunked without such care.
Letter 822 reminds us that when the Church becomes an institutional power, we become confused as to what a Christian ought to do. Someone was acting hubristically towards the Christians (κρατέω is the verb used of his action; he acted like he ruled over them) — let’s kill him … no, better yet, let’s burn him! Response: “οὐκ ἔστι γὰρ τοῦτο χριστιανῶν” — This is not of the Christians!
Monasticism helps preserve the way of peace and love, the way of costly grace (cf. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship ch. 1), in the face of an institutionalised Church that is becoming a cultural, social creature.
Usually, when people talk about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they mean those ascetics from the period of St. Antony, St. Pachomius, Evagrius Ponticus, St. Simeon the Stylite, and St? Shenoute. But what about the following generations of desert monasticism?
In my mind, the second and third generations of Desert Fathers are those who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. The sixth century Desert Fathers lived in the era after the Council of Chalcedon, in the days when the Church was drawing ever closer to fragmentation over Christological issues. They also live in the age of the Second Origenist Controversy, which resulted in a list of anathemas against certain “Origenist” teachings (available here) associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553.
The result of the Second Origenist Controversy, which was, as seems likely now, a battle between a more “intellectualist”, contemplative (hesychastic?) strain of monasticism and a more “practical” strain focussed on ascetic labours and “simplicity”, was the destruction of a large amount of valuable material by Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Didymus the Blind — although some survives in Latin or Syriac translations, other material circulated under false names, and still other stuff survived out of sheer obstinacy and the fact that a lot of monks really dug Evagrian spirituality — even if they rejected the theological system of the Kephalaia Gnostica.
Another result was the banishment of large numbers of “Origenist” monks from Palestinian monasteries. The Evagrian-Origenist legacy would continue, but with less clear force and never unambiguously — the tension between praktike and theoria would never be resolved in Desert monasticism.
The sixth-century Desert Fathers also saw some good things. This is the Age of Justinian, which included the foundation of St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. This is also the age following the gathering and disseminating of collections of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, mostly from those first generation monks of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Sayings, or Apophthegmata, were so popular that not only do they exist in various Greek collections and in Latin translation, there are translations of the collections into Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Arabic, and probably even Ethiopian.
Sixth-century monasticism flourished in Palestine, both in Gaza and the Judean Desert. Desert Fathers include Dorotheos of Gaza, whose spiritual works are considered by Eric P. Wheeler who translated them for Cistercian as Discourses and Sayings to be an easier introduction to the Desert tradition than the Sayings and the hagiography. Also of interest are Dorotheos’ teachers, Barsanuphius and John, a selection of whose letters has been translated by SVS Press for their Popular Patristics Series.
St. Savvas also lived in the sixth century, although he began his work in the fifth. Savvas was the great expander of Palestinian monasticism, primarily in the form of “lauras” communities of monks who lived in separate cells together but only gathered on the weekend. He was a defender of Chalcedon against the anti-Chalcedonians and made embassies to Emperors Anastasius and Justinian on the behalf of Palestinian monks.
Parallel to St. Savvas is St. Theodosius, his comrade, who did much the same things as he only for coenobitic monasticism — monasteries as we imagine them, with a full, common life.
Important for our knowledge of Palestinian monasticism is sixth-century writer Cyril of Scythopolis, who wrote seven Lives of Palestinian monastic leaders, covering Euthymius, Savvas, Kyriakos, John the Hesychast, Theodosius, Theognius, and Avraamius. He is also our most important source for the Second Origenist Controversy.
The seventh century saw the continuation of the Desert tradition. In the Sinai, at St. Catherine’s, John Climacus (saint of the week here) was the abbot and produced his famous Ladder. He himself shared in the inheritance from the Fathers of Gaza as well as from the Evagrian spiritual system. St. Catherine’s was one of the most important foundations of the later generations of Desert monasticism, and it is in her libraries that many Syriac manuscripts have been found, and from here come several of the authors within the Philokalia.
The seventh century is also the century of St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, who lived in St. Savvas’ Great Laura in Palestine and is one of the spiritual masters to make his way into the Philokalia.
However, by the seventh century, the monasticism of the Desert had lost some of her impetus, no doubt due to the ongoing disputes between the Chalcedonian imperial church and the anti-Chalcedonians, who by this stage had formed a separate church in Syria through the efforts of Jacob Baradaeus and were well on the road to schism in Egypt. As well, this is the century of the exhausting wars between the Empire and Persia which affected the Syrian and Palestinian heartland of Desert monasticism. Finally, the seventh century is the century of the Arab invasions, through which the Desert was lost to the Christian Empire.
The legacy of the Desert Fathers and the outgrowth of monasticism in the sixth century is still impressive, however. Their spiritual heritage is found in St. John Climacus’ contemporary, the ascetic spiritual theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, and Syrian asceticism found new life in the last Church Father, St. John of Damascus. But the centre of gravity for Christian monasticism had shifted from Syria and Palestine to Athos and Constantinople for the Chalcedonian Greeks, but also East to Armenia and South back to Egypt and into Ethiopia.
For further reading on the later Desert Fathers:
Barsanuphius and John. Letters from the Desert. Trans. John Chryssavgis. SVS Press. The Fathers of the Church series has also issued the entire corpus of lettes in two volumes (corrected from earlier today when I said it was ACW).
The Philokalia, vol. 2. Trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. This volume contains St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Thalassios the Libyan, St. John of Damascus, A Discourse on Abba Philimon, and St. Theognostos.
Hirschfeld, Yizhar. The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period. This book covers the archaeological remains of the multitude of monasteries in the Judean Desert at this time as well as the daily life of the monks.
Hombergen, Daniel. The Second Origenist Controversy. This is a highly technical book — in fact, a PhD dissertation — and not for the faint of heart. However, it deals with a lot of the issues in Desert monasticism leading up the Second Origenist Controversy and seeks to uncover what, exactly, the controversy was really about.
Maas, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. This book includes a section on the religious and philosophical situation in Justinian’s reign.
I would like to include Derwas J. Chitty’s The Desert a City, but I can’t, because I don’t recommend books I haven’t read, no matter how highly recommended by others!