Shenoute and the Demons: The Limits of Hagiography

I tend to try and find something edifying in much of what I read. So weird stories about demons and stuff don’t necessarily bother me, so long as the example of the monk or the lesson about who God is can be of use. However, despite much wisdom having come from the desert tradition, not everything the Desert Fathers and Mothers had to say and do was necessarily a good idea.

Now, these days most people get uncomfortable with desert monks because of their strong emphasis on avoiding other people. This is a justifiable concern — St. Basil the Great held it as a criticism of his time in Egypt. If you don’t spend time with others, how can you even begin to fulfill the commandments? Nevertheless, this has never been a great concern of mine largely because the monks who say, “Avoid people,” said it to people whom they were ostensibly avoiding.

More troubling is Shenoute, Archimandrite of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from 385 to 465. Shenoute, as we see him in Besa’s Life of Shenoute, was a violent man whose idea of God’s forgiveness was that one is only forgiven after a sufficient penance set by Shenoute. Or a criminal’s repentance is not enough for salvation — he must also go to the secular authorities and be executed to reach paradise. He is a hard man, dried by the sun and his sparse diet, but it also feels at times that his soul and his very self are hard and dried out.

So when we consider Shenoute and demonology, we come across this story:

One day, when my father was sitting in the monastery, behold! the devil and a host of other demons with him came in and spoke to my father with great threats and wickedness. When my father saw the devil, he recognised him immediately, and straightaway he sprang upon him and grappled with him. He seized him, hurled him to the ground and placed his foot on his head, and shouted to the brothers who were nearby: ‘Seize the others who followed him!’ And they immediately vanished away like smoke. (Ch. 73, trans. David N. Bell for Cistercian)

Was this even the Devil? I mean, what if it was just an angry dude who Shenoute beat up? Or did it even happen? This is certainly a Frank Peretti moment in the world of ancient demonology, is it not?

The root and source of our tradition is Christ. Never does Christ beat up the Devil or step on his head. The Gospels are subtler than that — their presentation of the Devil is subtler than that! The Devil is a tempter in relation to Jesus. The demons, the unclean spirits, are beings that possess people in the Gospels.

The true defeat of the devil does not happen in a wrestling match in your living room or the forecourt of the White Monastery. It occurred on Golgotha when the Lord and King of the universe bled and died for His broken creation. It happened in the three days when that same Lord burst forth from the grave, trampling down death in victory.

Stories like this are there merely to enhance the prestige of their saint. One could argue that that is the whole point of hagiography, but I disagree; hagiography, at least most of what I’ve been reading, is about Christ and his power in people. Christ does not show up in this story, unlike in yesterday’s story of St. Antony.

The desert has its limits. As the desert tradition is gaining a certain amount of popularity today, as it encroaches upon our spirituality, let us stay grounded to the Scriptures and the broader tradition before we start going in for stories about monks who beat up the Devil.

The Cult of the Cross & Christ the King Sunday

Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday.  Rick Dugan has a good meditation on the topic over at St. George the Dragonslayer.  The image of Christ as the King he is was one easily taken up by the Anglo-Saxon world, reflected in many pieces of literature, such as Andreas where Christ is portrayed as a King and the Apostles his thegns.

One piece of devotional poetry that comes from the earliest days of English writing and is preserved for us in the tenth-century Vercelli Book, a manuscript containing various pieces of Old English literature.  It describes a dream the narrator had wherein he beheld the Rood (ie. Cross), and the Rood spoke to him, relating in dramatic verse and forceful power the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.  There is a translation of the whole poem here.  Read it; it’s worth the time, trust me.

For our purposes, I’ll quote the following from that translation:

The young hero stripped himself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.

And this, later on:

Death he tasted there, yet God rose again
by his great might, a help unto men.
He then rose to heaven. Again sets out hither
into this Middle-Earth, seeking mankind
on Doomsday, the Lord himself,
Almighty God, and with him his angels,
when he will deem–he holds power of doom–
everyone here as he will have earned
for himself earlier in this brief life.

This is a clear, unequivocal statement of the Kingship of Jesus.  Jesus is King.  He truly reigns on high, perfectly indivisible from the Father as true God.  Each age and culture tries to cast him into its own image of the ideal leader — we smile at the Dream of the Rood and Christ’s thegns and grimace at Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) when he says that God can do whatever He pleases since He is a Lord — and what we have to realise is that Christ is unlike any earthly ruler.

Christ is the King who laid down His life for His subjects.

His crown is of thorns.

His throne is the seat of his own execution.

He calls us to obedience and to follow his own example of self-giving love and endless charity.  We are to give of ourselves for others, give our lives for life.  We are to be humble.  We are to turn the other cheek.  We are not to consider our own esteem as something to be grasped.  If we live walking in His path, then we shall see Him when He comes to “deem . . . everyone here”.  He is King and, unlike any modern monarch, demands complete and utter obedience — an obedience, a service, that is perfect freedom.

So, “worship the King, all glorious above.”  He is seated on a sapphire throne today; let us remember the glory of the Cross of yesterday.

The Cult of the Cross: The New Tree of Life

Medieval Image of the Cross as the Tree of Life

One third-century image of the Cross worth considering from the literature surrounding the Cult of the Cross (previous posts here) is that of the Cross as a tree that brings life to the world.  Pseudo-Hippolytus proclaims in Paschal Homily 51:

This tree is my everlasting salvation.  It is my food, a shared banquet.  Its roots and the spread of its branches are my own roots and extension.  In its shade, as in a breeze, I luxuriate and am cared for.  Its shade I take for my resting place; in my flight from oppressive heat it is a source of refreshing dew for me.  Its blossoms are my own, my utter delight its fruits, saved from the beginning for my harvest.  Food for my hunger and well-spring for my thirst, it is also a covering for my nakedness, with the spirit of life as its leaves.  Far from me henceforth the fig leaves!  Fearful of God, I find it a place of safety; when unsteady, a source of stability.  In the face of a struggle, I look to it as a prize; in victory, my trophy.  It is the narrow path, the restricted road.  It is Jacob’s ladder, the passage of angels, at whose summit the Lord is affixed.  This tree, the plant of immortality, rears from earth to reach as high as heaven, fixing the Lord between heaven and earth.  It is the foundation and stabilizer of the universe, undergirding the world that we inhabit.  It is the binding force of the world and holds together all the varieties that human life encompasses.  It is riveted into a unity by the invisible bonds of the Spirit, so that its connection with God can never be severed.  Brushing heaven with its uppermost branches, it remains fixed in the earth and, between the two points, its huge hands completely enfold the stirring of the air.  As a single whole it penetrates all things and all places. (Trans. Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 81)

Those looking for a Great Apostasy or papist idolatry need look no further.  Those, however, with a discerning mind, will see here the cross being a symbol for Christ, for his atoning work achieved for us on the tree.  What our foe intended for our ruin, an instrument of shameful death and destruction, has become for us the very source of life.  Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross 2000(ish) years ago, we can taste true life now and live forevermore after the Resurrection.

This is the message of the Cross, the point of the image of the Cross as the tree of life.

For those looking for other beautiful images of the Cross, check out the Dream of the Rood.