Martin of Tours: Where Demonology and Scatology Meet

I was going to give you another post about St Columba and how we read/use hagiography and miracles, but then I starting reading Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin of Tours. It includes this:

During this same period and in the same town, as Martin was entering a house belonging to the head of some family, he stopped on the very threshold, explaining that he could see a horrifying demon in the entrance hall to the house. When he ordered it to depart, the demon seized the owner’s cook, who was in the inner part of the building. The wretched thing began to tear him with its teeth and to maul anyone it came across. The house was thrown into confusion, the household members panicked, and the people turned and ran. Martin stood in the way of this raving creature and first ordered it to stop. But when it raged and showed its teeth and, with its mouth wide open, threatened to bite him, Martin put his fingers in its mouth and said, ‘If you have any power, eat these.’ But then, as if it had received white-hot metal in its jaws, it withdrew its teeth a long way, refusing to touch the holy man’s fingers. Forced by these punishments and torments to flee from the body of the man who was possessed, it was not allowed to leave through his mouth but was expelled in a flow of diarrhoea, leaving behind it foul traces. (XVII.5-7, trans. Carolinne M. White in Early Christian Lives, p. 150)

As the title indicates — and as those of you who know me in person — what drew me to this particular demon story was its exodus from the cook’s body in diarrhoea. *Insert boyish/teenage-style chuckle here.* Demon diarrhoea. Hilarious.

Anyway, the demon diarrhoea in this story is actually interesting beyond the scatalogical humour it affords for me and many other men the world over. It is interesting because of the physicality of it. In the late fourth century when Sulpicius was writing this Life, the vision of the spirit world that was becoming current at the theological level was of an immaterial, non-corporeal spirit world. That is, spirit don’t have bodies; they cannot touch you. Angels and demons — along with the Trinity and the human spirit — are of this category.

Nonetheless, here we have a text that, despite its ‘high’ literary Latin, represents popular Christianity at some level. Of course, the idea of demons being involved in physical matter upon their exorcism from a human host is found in Scripture, when Christ commands Legion to enter a herd of nearby pigs. This physicality of the demonic remains, despite the high Platonic philosophy that comes to dominate Christian thought with people like Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers.

We have seen it in Besa’s fifth-century Life of Shenoute here and Adamnán’s seventh-/eighth-century Life of Columba here (being one of the most popular Coptic monk-saints and Scottish monk-saints respectively). Demonic physicality is also affirmed in the monastic Life par excellence, ‘Athanasius”s Life of St. Antony, as seen here and here. Although he does not linger on it, somewhere in the Conferences, John Cassian mentions demons who lurk at crossroads and mug travellers.

What makes Martin’s confrontation with the demoniac baker and its physicality different from the above is that, although the text blurs the person of the cook and the person of the demon, it is evident by the end that the cook is possessed. Martin accordingly expels the demon from the cook’s body — appropriate for a man who began his ecclesiastical career as an exorcist.

Nonetheless, the demonic diarrhoea — one of the crappiest ways for a demon to go — reaffirms the physicality of the demon.

I think this sort of tangible story with all the gorey details, so to speak, is an important difference between hagiography and other monastic literature. As I said above, John Cassian does not linger on demons who mug people. That sort of story, along with miracles, is not really what he’s into. Cassian’s literature is about how to fight the demons in daily life — and that means the constant struggle to your last breath against temptation (as goes one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers), it means regulating your thoughts, it means learning what arouses your concupiscible passions and what arouses your irascible passions.

Not whether or not demons can be expelled from a human person the same way as too many burritos.

The purpose of hagiography is always to edify the reader, as claimed by Sulpicius in his Life of Martin. It is to provide an example for monks to imitate. It is to strengthen the faith of the reader. It is to say, ‘If you are simply fighting temptation, look at the crap St Martin had to put up with!!’ But unlike what one may call monastic manuals such as Cassian’s work or Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer and Antirrhetikos (or Talking Back), most hagiography does not give the reader very specific instructions as to what the holy life looks like for imitation (although I would argue some of John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints do).

At the end of the day, I think this particular story is there to show us a. Martin’s holiness, b. what Christ can do with his saints, and c. the lowliness of evil spirits in the face of the fearless Christian. Those, I suppose, are lessons worth taking away.

Saint of the Week: Benedict of Nursia – The Man and His Life

St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543) is one of the most influential figures in the western Christian spiritual heritage, due largely to his Rule which was adopted by much of Western Europe as the Church under the Carolingians and others sought to standardise and regularise the monastic movement — as a result, the Rule is the foundational document for Benedictines and Cistercians (including Trappists). Given the impact of the Rule over the centuries, we shall discuss Benedict in two sections: “The Man & His Life” and “The Rule & Its Legacy”.

The Man & His Life

Benedict was born to noble parents in Italy in the years just following the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer, in those years where, although there was no longer an emperor in Rome (or Ravenna, for that matter), life went on in many respects much the same, except that, following Odoacer, Italy was ruled by Goths who were ostensibly under the Emperor in Constantinople, although effectively kings of Italy. Justinian’s (re?)conquest of Italy was not completed at the time of Benedict’s death — yet he still lived through turbulent times.

What follows derives largely from Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogue 2, from St. Gregory’s series of lives of holy men of Italy cast as dialogues. It is available online here., although I read it in Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives.

When a youth, he decided to abandon the usual route of formal secular education for fear of the pagan learning infecting his delicate brain and casting him into eternal hellfire and brimstone. If this is true, he joins the ranks of another learned sixth-century Christian figure with no pagan education, my current companion Cyril of Scythopolis. Anyway, he and his nurse went off to live holily together.

When he was old enough, this young man decided to run off and become a solitary, a hermit, an anchorite. While he was wandering in the woods, a monk named Romanus found him, and Romanus showed him to a cave where Benedict could live in secret. Unlike other secret anchorites such as we see in the Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, Benedict did not immediately draw a crowd but lived in his cave for a long while, fed by Romanus’ who gave him food from his own rations at the monastery.

Eventually, however, the cat was out of the bag, when God decided that Benedict was ready to be shown to the world, and a priest was shown in a vision where to find Benedict and to celebrate Easter with him. Thus, Benedict and the priest celebrated Easter together. Shortly thereafter, some shepherds found Benedict, having first mistaken him for a wild beast. They helped him out and came to him for spiritual comfort (this once happened to, I believe, Savvas in Palestine).

People got to hearing that there was an anchorite around who was pretty holy, and soon Benedict was in the holy man business, giving spiritual counsel and all the usual.

Eventually, the abbot of Romanus’ monastery of Vicovaro died, and the brethren there elected Benedict to be their abbot. He left behind his anchorhold and took up the spiritual leadership of this monastery. However, according to Gregory, the monks at Vicovaro were lazy and not up to living truly spiritual lives. They found the rule that Benedict produced for them to live under too stringent. Soon they were complaining, and after an attempted poisoning, Benedict left them and returned to his cave.

As often happens with famous anchorites, people seeking the holy life started to dwell in the area around Benedict. There in the wilderness he founded twelve monasteries of twelve monks each — this being the ideal number of monks in Benedict’s mind. He himself served as spiritual head of them all, much as his Palestinian contemporaries Barsanuphius and John would, holed up in their cells and never seeing a soul.

As people were taking up the spiritual life, the local priest grew jealous of Benedict and his popularity, thinking that he should be the most popular spiritual man around, so he tried various stratagems, from slander to a troupe of naked dancing girls, to ruin Benedict’s plans. All of them failed, but eventually Benedict felt it was better for all involved if he took his leave of that area. So, appointing priors to continue his work in the monastic foundations he’d made, Benedict departed.

He took up residence at Monte Cassino around 531 and founded a monastery as its abbot. It was for the community of monks gathered here at Monte Cassino that Benedict wrote his famous Rule. His first act upon arrival on Monte Cassino was the destruction of a Temple of Apollo and its grove (still in use!), the site of which he covered with a shrine to St. Martin. As in his old residence, Benedict founded more monasteries in the area as the years passed.

Throughout his life, both as an anchorite and as an abbot, Benedict is recorded to have performed many miracles. Outside of one battle with the spirit of fornication, he never seems to have had any failings, something common to saints of the Early Middle Ages — too bad, really; I like redemption stories. He also helped alleviate the sufferings of the people of Campania during famine (I wonder if the famine was due to the war btwn the Goths and “Romans”?) with great liberality despite the limited resources of the monastery. Furthermore, Benedict was involved in the conversion of many of the pagans still abroad in sixth-century Italy.

So we see that Christ sanctified his servant Benedict and demonstrated his own power through Benedict’s miracles and spiritual leadership. Indeed, the greatest reminder that Christ was with this saint lies not in the miracles, not in the visitations from Gothic kings, but in the spiritual movement that rose up around his teachings and way of life, drawing men to holiness in Benedict’s lifetime and for centuries beyond.

Despite Benedict’s many miracles, Gregory reminds us in an interchange with his interlocutor Peter that the focus of all our lives, as those of the saints, is to be on Christ:

Peter: … In my estimation, Benedict was filled with the spirit of all just men.

Gregory: Actually, Peter, Benedict the man of the Lord possessed the spirit of only one person, of Him who has filled the hearts of all the elect by granting them the grace of the redemption. John said of Him, He was the true light who illuminates every man coming into this world, and it is also written of Him, Of his fullness we have all received. For the holy men of God might possess special powers from the Lord but they could not grant them to others. (8.8-9, trans. White)

A collection of … hagiography?

I am the proud possessor of a small but growing collection of saints’ lives. My first was a remaindered copy of the Penguin Classic Early Christian Lives by Carolinne M. White, picked up for St. Antony but also containing the delightful lives of Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus by Jerome, Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, and Benedict by Gregory the Great. These are lives that helped establish the genre.

My interest in Desert monasticism drove my next hagiographical purchase, the Cistercian Studies translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto called The Lives of the Desert Fathers. This is an interesting travelogue that visits a bunch of the fourth-century monks and tells their stories. It is as illuminating as it is entertaining.

My third was a grab at a used book shop of another Penguin Classic, Lives of the Saints by J. F. Webb, containing the Voyage of Brendan and the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid. I bought it because of the Voyage of Brendan but greatly enjoyed Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert. I have yet to read Wilfrid, but this volume contains lives that show us the world of Early Mediaeval Britain and Ireland, the saints of the “Celtic” and Anglo-Saxon worlds. Worth a read. This is, I have learned, no longer published, but the material available has been expanded in the Penguin Classics volume The Age of Bede.

My most recent acquisitions take us back to the desert, one being Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, translated by R. M. Price for Cistercian. This is a collection of seven monastic biographies by Justinianic (sixth-century) Palestinian monk Cyril. It tells the stories of some of Palestinian monasticism’s founders, such as Sts. Euthymius and Sabas. These are lives of men approximately contemporaneous with Brendan and Benedict but living on the other side of the world in the desert. Very informative about the world of sixth-century monasticism.

At the same time as Cyril of Scythopolis, I got Cistercian’s translation of Besa’s Life of Shenoute, telling the life of one of the most important figures of Coptic monasticism, Shenoute, archimandrite of the White Monastery in the first half of the fifth century. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s bound to be good.

I’m thinking of getting my own copy of Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba. We’ll see about that.

If I could, I would certainly add John of Ephesus’ Lives of the Eastern Saints, but the only English translation is that by E. W. Brooks in PO 17, 18, 19. Alas.

So many saints. Because of its chronological and geographical breadth, I’d recommend White’s Early Christian Lives if you wish to start reading hagiography yourself! The genre is introduced at the beginning of the volume, and each life contains a brief introduction to the subject. The translation is highly readable, which is always a blessing.

What good is Patristics?

The Temptations of St. Antony by Hieronymous Bosch

I first got into the world of the “Church Fathers” in the third year of my undergrad (2004). My entrypoint was not, as for many, Augustine’s Confessions or the dogmatic writings of the Cappadocians. No, indeed. My point of entry was the world of the Desert Fathers as reflected in their sayings (Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin Classics) and in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony (Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives).

Since then, I have tasted the dogmatic theology of Sts. Augustine and Athanasius, Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. Among these, St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations have been shining stars. And my dear friend Pope St. Leo the Great. Of course.

These shining stars have helped me think more clearly about who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how the All-holy Trinity is to be properly discussed. In turn, this thought has, for me at least, raised my worship to new heights as I worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That alone is worth the effort of reading Patristic theology.

For me, though, it is the return time and again to the devotional literature of the monasteries that has been most potent. There, in John Cassian’s Conferences and Palladius’ Lausiac History, or in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine and Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer — in these and more, I have found the exhortations to holiness that motivate me.

For example, Cassian’s first Conference is all about purity of heart. Purity of heart is the goal of the ascetic (Christian?) life. The end of purity of heart — its purpose — is the vision of God, of Christ. If we are not pursuing purity of heart, we are not pursuing the truest goal of human existence.

This call is one I need to hear constantly, not because I don’t think rest, relaxation, and entertainment are worth my time but because I think I waste a lot of time anyway.

This wasting of time is acute when you read saints’ lives. These men, be they John of Ephesus’ Monophysites or Cyril of Scythopolis, are very concerned about rendering a sacrifice of their lives to God that is acceptable. They are concerned about whether they have prayed often enough. They are concerned about whether they are giving enough to the poor or just wasting their time in idle pursuits.

Thankfully, their exhortations to holiness are accompanied by practical considerations about reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible, about praying, about resisting temptations, about what holiness actually looks like. These exhortations are what kept the monks from despair.

I may not fear for my salvation as they did (being a good Protestant), but I think living a holy life is important. May their exhortations have an experience on me for all my days as I seek to love the Crucified God Who saved me.

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius

A few weeks ago, I had the “opportunity” to stand in a doorway and discuss the Bible and Christology with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the floodgates of Heaven opened outside.  What stood out to me as we talked was how truly Arian their Christology is.  They encouraged me to read Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The LORD possessed me [Wisdom] at the beginning of his way …”) and tried convincing me that when the Word of John 1 is called “god” this doesn’t mean the same thing as the God with whom the Word is.

I did my best to pull out some St. Athanasius — Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father.  If like begets like (“Do you have a son? Is he of the same nature as you?”), and the Father is God, then God begets God, so the Son must be God.  I also used the analogy of the sun and its rays being different but the same and one being incomplete without the other.  That analogy breaks down — as well it should, for God is the Creator and entirely different from His creation.  St. Athanasius was an appropriate choice to use in debate with the Jehovah’s Witnesses because he spent most of his ecclesiastical career arguing against the heresy of Arianism.

St. Athanasius (c.296-373) is one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church.  He was born of Christian parents of Egyptian, not Greek, descent, and educated in the Greek Christian catechetical school in Alexandria.  He was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as a deacon and witnessed firsthand the debates about the divinity and eternity of Christ (Arius’ famous one-liner: “There was when he was not.”).  This is the Council that gave us that famous Creed that forms the basis of what we recite in churches around the world today (my translation here).  St. Athanasius was to spend the rest of his life combatting the teachings of the Arians and the Semi-Arians (or “homoiousians“), especially following his consecration as Bishop of Alexandria in 328.

He did his best to be a pastoral bishop, but constantly found himself running into heretical Arians or schismatic Meletians who were out to get him.  These run-ins, such as the Council of Tyre, had a tendency to end up with him in exile.  He was in exile in Trier (335-7), Rome (339-46), and the countryside around Alexandria (356-61, 362-3, 365-6).  While in exile within Egypt itself, he had occasion to take refuge with the nascent monastic movement that was flourishing at this time (ie. The Desert Fathers), encountering St. Antony about whom he would write one of the most influential works of hagiography (available in Carolinne D. White, Early Christian Lives).

His time spent in the West meant that the links between East and West were strengthened.  The Bishops of Rome during his episcopate (St. Sylvester I, St. Marcus, St. Julius I, Liberius, and St. Damasus I) were supportive of his teachings and polemic against Arianism.  Much of St. Athanasius’ work was translated into Latin, and he is one of the better-known Eastern Fathers in the West as a result of his time there and papal connections.

His theological works are focussed largely on the Person of God the Son, as seen in De Incarnatione Verbi Domini (On the Incarnation) and in his famous Contra Arianos.  One result of St. Athanasius’ reasoning about the Person of God was the statement that the Bible names God as Father.  This means that ontologically (ie. at the very root of Who God Is) God is Father.  Since God is eternal and unchanging, He will always have been Father.  One cannot be a father without offspring; God, therefore, begets the Son in eternity; God the Son is therefore eternal.  The implications for understanding Who God Is and what personhood is are far-reaching (see J.D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, chh. 1-2).

St. Athanasius, like most of the Fathers, was not just a theologian, not just a pastor, not just a preacher.  He was also a believer in the life of holiness.  This was the root of his support of the monastic movement, for it is with the monks that we see the enduring persistence of costly grace (see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, ch. 1).  We are reminded that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not to be divorced.  We are to think holy thoughts and live holy lives, worthy of the calling to which we are called.

St. Athanasius fell asleep on May 2, 373.  May we be half as vigorous in our defence of Truth as he.

Further Reading: Christopher A. Hall’s two books Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers and Learning Theology With The Church Fathers both deal with St. Athanasius.  I also recommend reading On the Incarnation as an entrance both to Athanasius and Patristic theology.