Christianisation Under Justinian: 1

Inspired by some reading I did after this post.

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.

*Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans.

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Mary and Euphemia: The Contemplative and Active Lives

In John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints ch 12*, we learn of two interesting sixth-century ascetic sisters from amongst the Syrian Mesopotamian Monophysites recounted by John.

Mary, the elder of the two, lived the celibate life in Thella (Constantina). She was overcome by the desire to see the Holy City of Jerusalem and so she went on pilgrimage there. While in Jerusalem at the Church of the Resurrection (or Anastasis), she was overcome. She wanted to do nothing but stand there.

So she did.

And while she stood there, Mary was enraptured and had an ecstatic experience. She was drawn into the experience of the love of the great God of grace who rules all. Inevitably, some of the people who helped take care of this church thought her mad and tried shooing her out.

So Mary spent time in the street. And then would move back into the Church of the Resurrection.

Eventually, she was persuaded by some of the following that had developed around her that maybe should go home. So she went back to Armenia IV and lived as an ascetic in Thella, returning to Jerusalem every once in a while to pray to the God who had so enraptured her soul.

Of note: Mary gathered a following, and they were edified by her spiritual experiences. True mysticism always benefits the community.

Mary’s sister was Euphemia. Euphemia, unlike Mary, married and had a daughter. However, when her husband died, she was overcome by the desire to live a holy life. So she and her daughter, Mary like her aunt, learned the psalms and prayed the hours. They worked from the home, carding wool for the wealthy.

This work made them a denarius a day. Half of the denarius provided for their daily needs. The other half provided for the daily needs of anyone Euphemia could find.

Euphemia seems to have been a fiery sort of character, going about the city of Amida on the banks of the Tigris and finding poor people to do good to. And when there was a crisis, she would turn to the wealthy Christians of the city and berate them thus:

Is it well that you thus sit yourself while slaves stand and wait upon you, and enjoy a variety of tastes in dainty foods and in wines, and of pure bread and splendid rugs, while God is knocked down in the street and swarms with lice and faints from his hunger, and you do not fear him? and how will you call upon him and he answer you, when you treat him with such contempt? Or how will you ask forgiveness from him? Or how can you expect him to deliver you from hell? (Trans. E.W. Brooks)

In the West, we often make a distinction between the “active” life and the “contemplative” life. Despite Met. Kallistos Ware’s attempts to do away with these distinctions (cf. The Orthodox Way), they are often played out in reality, as in the case of these two Syrian sisters.

Both of these lifestyles are appropriate choices for the person totally surrendered to Christ. The latter, Euphemia, fits better with our conception of a good Christian. Indeed, I cannot help but say that her approach fits better with what we find in the Gospels.

Nonetheless, I think we have room — need, even? — for mystic visionaries of the contemplative life such as Mary. They are the ones who ground us in Christ. Sometimes feeding the poor becomes feeding the poor — not feeding Christ. Sometimes seeking righteousness becomes political lobbying — not seeking Christ. The contemplatives see Christ and live for him a radical way, often in bizarre, radical ways (cf. our friend Daniel the Stylite).

If we of the “active life” gather around the contemplatives, our own mission is given fuel, and it is easier to see Christ in the faces of the poor surrounding us.

Let us be encouraged by Euphemia to do good for poor, and by Mary that Christ is calling out to draw us into his warm, divine embrace.

*This chapter is in Patrologia Orientalis 17. The entire work is in fascicles from PO 17, 18, 19 if you’re interested…

This Week’s Saints Brought to You by Thomas Merton, Kallistos Ware, and the Chalcedonian Schism.

St. Augustine’s pears, St. Sabas’ apples & patristic genres

One of the more famous bits of St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions is the scene where he, as a youth, broke into someone’s orchard and stole a bunch of unripe pears which tasted terrible (the story is so popular there is even a Petra song about it). He and his buddies stole them entirely for the thrill of stealing, entirely for the excitement of sin. They didn’t even want to eat the pears; that wasn’t the point. St. Augustine, it seems, still felt bad about it years later. The story is as follows:

I wanted to commit my theft, and I did it compelled by neither want nor poverty but by a distaste of justice and a feast of iniquity. For I purloined that in which I abounded — and in much better! Nor did I wish to profit in this affair in which I was striving with theft, but only in the very theft and sin. There was a pear tree near our vineyard, weighed down with fruit alluring neither in appearance nor in flavour. To shake this tree and make off with its produce, we no-good youths made haste in the dark night when we had carried on our game in the streets according to our pestilential custom. And we carried off from there enormous loads of fruit not to to our meals but rather to cast before swine; even if we ate some, nevertheless it occurred that it was pleasing to us to do that which was not allowed.

Behold my heart, God! Behold my heart, which you pitied in the depths of the abyss. Now, behold, may my heart tell you what it sought there that I became evil freely and there was no cause of my evil except for evil. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to be lost, I loved my rebellion — not that to which I was rebelling, but my rebellion itself did I love. My shameful soul was jumping from your firmament into destruction, not seeking anything with disgrace but disgrace itself. (Conf. 2.IV, my trans.)

St. Augustine spends the rest of Book 2, chh. V-X, going into depth about the anatomy of sin and the blackness of his own heart. You can read it all in Chadwick’s translation, pp. 28-34, or online here (Latin) and here (English).

In my current research, I came across another story about a saint in an orchard. This was the tale of St. Sabas (439-532) and the apples as told by Cyril of Scythopolis (524-558) in the Life of Sabas, one of his seven Lives of the Monks of Palestine. At some point between the ages of eight and eighteen (probably earlier than later), when he was living in the Monastery of Flavianae in Cappadocia, the following occurred:

Once, when he was working in the monastery’s orchard, a certain desire came upon him to eat an apple that appeared ripe and exceedingly delightful before its regular season. Since he was burning with desire, he plucked the apple from the branch, but, when he had considered it, he prevailed against himself nobly.

So he rebuked himself with a pious reasoning, saying, “The fruit that put me to death through Adam was ripe for looking and good for eating, when he preferred that which appeared delightful to the eyes of the flesh over the intelligible beauty and considered the satiety of the belly more honourable than spiritual enjoyments. On account of this, death came into the world. And so I must not turn away from the beauty of self-control, weighed down with any spiritual drowsiness — for just as a blossom comes before all fruit-bearing, so self-control comes before the doing of good.”

Thus, when he had conquered the desire with this stronger reasoning, he threw the apple to the ground and trampled on it with his feet, trampling his desire along with the apple. From then on, he gave to himself such a rule not to experience the taste of apples until death. (Life of Sabas III, my trans.)

Following his encounter with the apple in the orchard, St. Sabas devoted his life to ascetic labour so as to produce virtue. He went on to found the Great Lavra, a monastic settlement in Palestine.

The difference between these stories about youths encountering fruit trees is striking. One is a tale of woe and sin, of seeking disgrace for disgrace’s sake. The other is a tale of victory and virtue, overcoming the flesh with the spirit. One imagines that young Augustine was more fun than young Sabas — only he seems sort of … neurotic at times, all messed up over those pears. But the real difference is not in the facts themselves but in the genre of writing we find here.

Augustine’s Confessions is among our earliest autobiographical bits of literature (other early autobiography comes from the pen of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and his poetry). This work is written as one long prayer to God, confessing both in terms of the sinful state of Augustine’s soul as well as, after conversion, the power of God and Augustine’s belief in God. Thus, it binds together in a single narrative two types of confession. It is psychological and theological, seeking to show the reality of sin within the depths of the abyss of the human heart as well as the power of God to raise us out of sin and into the virtuous life of the righteous.

The Confessions edifies through telling us what God can do for sinners like us. That is its devotional purpose. Each of us may have wicked inclinations, but God can transform us through His Spirit, through good preaching, good friends, good books, Holy Scripture, and the prayers of our mothers.

Cyril’s Life of Sabas is a different creature. It is hagiography, and as such hovers between the borders of history and myth. At one level, the purpose of hagiography is write down the stories of holy men and women so that these stories will not be lost. Good deeds must perish unless they are sung of (I forget the reference for that quote). That is the same purpose as history as well as of heroic poetry. At another level, these particular stories are written down in their particular order to demonstrate what holiness looks like. The point is not necessarily to show us psychologically real person who is simul justus et peccator (to toss a bit of Luther in). Rather, the point is to show us what a holy life looks like.

We may say to ourselves that holiness is unattainable. Or ridiculous. Why give up apples? But, two chapters after he gives up apples, we see young Sabas walking into a giant bread-oven whilst it was lit and not getting harmed. Holiness is not just ascetic labour but also the accompanying miracles and virtues. The holy men of old gave up the world, gave up their parents, gave up their inheritances, gave up apples (of all things!) to draw closer to God and meet Him where He is.

The point of hagiography is to edify us through these holy examples. We are to stand in awe of the God who can take an Augustine — such as we all are, with our dark hearts full of wickedness, seeking disgrace for the thrill of it — and make him into a Sabas — such as we all hope to be, conformed into the image of Christ. Our worship of God is thus lifted higher and exalted — the whole purpose of theological enquiry, by the way.

And we are encouraged, for it is God who makes the saints holy. Thus we can become holy ourselves. He will effect this change in ourselves. This is the point of hagiography, even if St. Sabas may never have walked through the fires unscathed (even though he may have, if you believe in a God for Whom nothing is impossible).

Thus, both genres are useful. We live in an age when things like the Confessions are more in vogue. We like to know that even good men, great men, have been there, too. Indeed, many people like to humanise our Lord Christ by making him imperfect yet still sinless (else how could he be fully human? — they say). We may find obsessing about our mothers’ teats and our desire to suckle as infants as selfishness a bit neurotic, but overall the Confessions are enduring literature that speak to a need in our souls.

I think hagiography is as well. Hopefully we’ll start to read more of it.

What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.

Byzantine Syria: Oppressive Hierarchies vs. Personal Connection with God

Last night I read the article “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians” by Don Belt in the June issue of National Geographic (I read it in print).  I do not doubt that Don Belt knows much more intimately the state of affairs for the modern Arab Christian; the article was very good and balanced and informed on that front.  However, the following statement makes me wonder at his knowledge regarding their Byzantine ancestors:

When the Musliam Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased.  But many Christians converted to Islam anyway, preferring its emphasis on a personal connection with God to the oppressive hierarchies of the Byzantine Church. (p. 94)

My issue is with the final sentence, not the first.  The first is true, verifiable, historical fact.  The second is speculation.  We do not know the motives behind most conversions of local populations at that time because most of them were unlettered — not necessarily illiterate, but not about to write a paperback about “My Conversion to Islam.”  I imagine that their conversion to Islam was similar to that of many Roman citizens in 313 or more likely 381.  This is the new religion in town, the rulers recommend it.

I acknowledge that the Church has had her times of “oppressive hierarchies” and that the Byzantines would not have been entirely free from them.  However, we should note a few things that make Byzantine Christianity different from Roman Catholicism (since most people imagine everything from Constantine to the Reformation to be the same sort of creature).

One fact is the lay nature of the monks.  Monasticism was a lay movement started and maintained by the laity of the Eastern Church, not governed or regulated by the clergy.  There were no bishops sitting around approving which orders were allowed to found monasteries; there are no orders in the East.  They are all just monks.  And often, especially in places like Syria and Palestine, the monks were local holy men, involved in the life of the community.  Lay monasticism was a source for popular piety amongst the Christians of the Holy Land, something not enshrined in the hierarchies.  These holy men would have stressed the importance of a personal connection with God.

Second, there was a robust Syriac and Aramaic Christian literature, as seen in the earlier St. Ephraim and the liturgies of the Syrian Church.  Many theologians would have been writing in Greek, the international language of the day.  St. John of Damascus, a Syrian, did, as did many across Asia Minor and in Egypt.  The existence of Christian literature in the vernacular speaks of the existence of personal piety in Late Antique/Byzantine Syria.

Third, the role of the clergy, this so-called “oppressive hierarchy” was to baptise, preside at the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist), and to teach the people.  In a proper setting, Eastern Christian clergy are not intermediaries between the lay people and God, but exhorters of the lay people, instructors of the lay people, shepherds who help keep the lay people on their pathway to their own personal connection with God.  The Eucharist is not about the priest standing between me and God; it is about God coming to me in the bread and wine.  Perhaps some people find the fact that it’s always a priest or bishop consecrating the elements oppressive; a proper understanding of the Eucharist creates popular piety and devotion to God (even a bad one can, both being seen in Mediaeval Catholic piety).

This personal connection with God would have been demonstrated in the attendance at morning and evening, and occasionally noon, prayers.  This is the same expression of a “personal connection with God” that Islam would have offered.  I could see an uneducated, uncatechised Christian not seeing much difference between Christianity and Islam due to similarities such as this; yet I do not imagine that they would say, “Great!  I am free from those oppressive hierarchies!”

Fifth, the whole point of Pseudo-Dionysius (aka Denys, before AD 532) was the accessibility of God to every Christian.  Mysticism is not meant solely for the monks and the priests.  That’s the point.  And Pseudo-Dionysius was very popular in the Byzantine world, as were many other mystical writers from St. Gregory of Nyssa to St. John Climacus.  Very popular as well was St. Ephraim the Syrian.

Sixth, if the hierarchies of this era were oppressive, what was a layman like St. John of Damascus doing producing such excellent and well-informed theology?

There was ample opportunity for a personal connection with God in the world of Byzantine Syrian Christianity, through monasticism and contact with monks, through the sacraments, through daily prayer, through the literature of Syrian Christians, through mysticism.  I think that a shift from Christianity to Islam on the part of the local inhabitants of the Middle East was fairly gradual and the result of a cultural form of Christianity that had not taken root in the hearts of the people.

Yet to this day there are many Christians residing in the Holy Land, praying where Christ and the Apostles prayed, walking where they walked, living where they lived, dying where they died.