The Desert Fathers and the wider church

Alternate Title: The Desert Fathers Never Left the Church, and Here’s Why

Alternate Title 2: The Historical Impossibility of the Desert Fathers Leaving the Church

Some days I am unhealthily obsessed with my stats. Today I observed that a search term that has brought people to this blog is, ‘why the desert fathers left the church.’ This is a tantalising query, and I can see why one may ask it.

For example, the Desert Fathers do leave behind the settled life of the city, moving to remote regions of Egypt or the Judean desert or the wild areas of Syria. In doing so, they are separated from the life of the rest of the Church in the city. This looks a lot like leaving the church.

Or we see the Desert Fathers, as the Holy Men described by Peter Brown in ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’* with some tempering of the thesis in Authority and the Sacred, taking some level of inherent spiritual authority formerly vested in the local bishop.

We see Desert Fathers/Holy Men such as Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) or the more famous Simeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) challenging the local authorities, be they bishops or secular rulers.

When people such as the many ascetics discussed by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in his Historia Religiosa (trans. for Cistercian as The History of the Monks of Syria) retreated into the wilderness, they were in many ways cut off from the regular religious life of the Christian community — the Eucharist, the acts of charity, the preaching, and so forth.

However, we must acknowledge that these noble men and women of the early history of Christian asceticism were not schismatics. The Desert Fathers of Egypt hid St Athanasius when he was on the run. Shenoute of Atripe was present at the First Council of Ephesus in 431. Monks went to Alexandria under Theophilus to help destroy pagan temples. Jacob of Nisibis was recruited from his naked life in the wilds of Syria to become a local bishop. Savvas went on embassies to Constantinople to persuade the emperor to fight against heresy and protect his monks from roaming bandits. Barsanuphius and John of Gaza encouraged local clergy in their pastoral task.

On the other hand, it is perhaps important to see the Desert Fathers as a sort of protest movement within the church. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea spends some time discussing the luxury and corruption of the late third-century church. While it is likely that this is possibly part of theodicy — why did God allow the last persecution — there may be the ring of truth to it. Furthermore, after the Triumph of the Church under Constantine, I have no doubt that in many ways the urban church began to become a bit more worldly.

The Desert Fathers, in their retreat from the ordinary ways of being a Christian, but by maintaining communion and contact with the official hierarchy and the urban Christian communities, were a way of protesting a perceived wordliness, if not compromise, in the church. They were a way of becoming living examples of holiness, cut off from the burdens of urban society and its networks of relationships. As men and women devoted to nothing but prayer, they could remind their local bishops with silver and gilt vessels that what matters most is a heart devoted to God.

And so, I believe, they did. The western luminaries Ambrose of Milan (saint of the week here) and Augustine of Hippo were certainly influenced by the Desert tradition. Ambrose melted down the Milanese silver plate to help ransom poor, enslaved Christians. Augustine turned to the ascetic life himself because of the example of St Antony (saint of the week here).

So, no the Desert Fathers did not leave the Church. But they stood at a distance from its official structures, providing a prophetic critique of the day and shining as examples of what they believed true Christianity was. This is the cause of their retreat, anachoresis, into the desert.

For more on the Desert Fathers, see my page here.

*In Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity and The Journal of Roman Studies …..

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.

Saint of the Week: Daniel the Stylite

I recently read the Life of Daniel the Stylite here. St. Daniel lived from 409-493 in the Eastern Roman Empire. I recommend his Life. It’s long, but the author gives a nice recap at the end:

Our all-praiseworthy father Daniel bade adieu to his parents when he was twelve years old, then for twenty-five years he lived in a monastery; after that during five years he visited the fathers and from each learned what might serve his purpose, making his anthology from their teaching. At the time when the crown of his endurance began to be woven the Saint had completed his forty-second year, and at that age he came by divine guidance, as we have explained above, to this our imperial city. He dwelt in the church for nine years, standing on the capital of a column, thus training himself beforehand in the practice of that discipline which he was destined to bring to perfection. For he had learned from many divine revelations that his duty was to enter upon the way of life practised by the blessed and sainted Simeon.

For three and thirty years and three months he stood for varying periods on the three columns, as he changed from one to another, so that the whole span of his life was a little more than eighty-four years.

During these he was deemed worthy to receive ‘the prize of his high calling’;( 1 Philipp. 3:14.)1 he blessed all men, he prayed on behalf of all, he counselled all not to be covetous, he instructed all in the things necessary to salvation, he showed hospitality to all, yet he possessed nothing on earth beyond the confines of the spot on which the enclosure and religious houses had been built. And though many, amongst whom were sovereigns and very distinguished officials occupying the highest posts, wished to present him with splendid possessions he never consented, but he listened to each one’s offer and then prayed that he might be recompensed by God for his pious intention.

One of the things from this life that interested me was his battle with demons in a little church. This demon-battling role is something that we find frequently in the monks and anchorites of the fourth and fifth centuries. The holy man does battle with the spiritual forces of evil on our behalf. St. Daniel cast out demons from people as well as places. He also healed the sick.

Holiness for the ancients wasn’t simply good, moral living. That’s called virtue. Holiness is that something more, that way of life that goes to the next level.

Martyrs, for example, bear witness to Christ through their deaths. The ascetic, once Roman persecution ceases, takes his place, bearing witness to Christ through his suffering. The martyrs are glorified by the wounds from their deaths — Tertullian imagines that they will still have them even at the Resurrection. Daniel was glorified through the wounds on his feet caused by standing on a pillar all the time.

The Stylite — a type of asceticism founded by Simeon — is a living symbol of what all monks are. He stands on his pillar between Earth and Heaven, interceding for the people below. He is an intermediary, and the pillar clearly shows us this aspect of the monastic role in society.

Daniel is also notable because, being a Stylite and being so close to Constantinople (1 mile North along the Bosporos), he was easily accessible to the emperors and aristocrats. The pious Emperor Leo of blessed memory (as the Life calls him) liked listening to Daniel so much that he had a palace built nearby. The Monophysite usurper Basiliscus sent an envoy to essentially get Daniel’s blessing. A very different world than our friend St. Antony of Egypt!

And so we see Daniel the Stylite. Living on a pillar isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it seems to have worked for him. One last thought from his biographer to close:

While we bear in mind our holy father’s spiritual counsels let us do our utmost to follow in his steps and to preserve the garment of our body unspotted and to keep the lamp of faith unquenched, carrying the oil of sympathy in our vessels that we may find mercy and grace in the day of judgment from the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost now and henceforth and to all eternity, Amen.