Second and Third Generation Desert Fathers

The Great Laura of St. Savvas

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:

Primary Sources

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).

Cyril of Scythopolis. Lives of the Monks of Palestine. Trans. EM Price, introduction and notes by J Binns. Cistercian Publications.

Dorotheos of Gaza. Discourses and Sayings. Trans. Eric P. Wheeler. Cistercian.

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibhead and Norman Russell. Classics of Western Spirituality: Paulist Press.

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.

Secondary Sources

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!

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Wait — Monophysites??

You were probably quite thrilled to see the saints return this week. And then you probably cocked your head to one side and said, “Monophysites? Aren’t they heretics?”

Well. No. Not really.

Or, if they are heretics, it is for being schismatics, as under Jacob Baradaeus who consecrated John of Ephesus Bp of Ephesus which already had its own bishop. That must have been awkward. John claims Jacob maintained the canons of Nicaea, but this does not sit with the fact that he created bishops for places that already had bishops.

But Monophysites are not the heretics you think they are.

Chances are, if you’ve heard of the Monophysites, you thought of them as people who believed that Jesus had one nature, and that nature was divine. Or that in Jesus’ single nature the divine was so powerful it completely subsumed his human nature, rendering it useless. Or that Jesus’ divine and human natures were confused with each other. Or that Jesus had a glorified body through his whole life on earth and, as a result, never suffered.

Each of those statements is a heresy, and each of them is a Monophysite heresy. But none of them is mainstream Monophysism as represented by Severus of Antioch, Philoxenus of Mabbug, Empress Theodora, John of Ephesus, et al.

Mainstream Monophysism is a highly conservative reading of Cyril of Alexandria that refuses to affirm the Council of Chalcedon on the grounds that its Christological formula “in two natures” divides the person of Christ and you effectively have two sons and two Christs, which is Nestorianism.

The rallying cry of the Monophysites is the statement of Cyril: mia physis tou theou logou sesarkmomene — one incarnate nature of God the Word. Since Chalcedon affirmed two natures, it was a posthumous betrayal of St. Cyril, according to the Monophysites.

If someone came along trying to interpret Chalcedon so that it could jive with the Cyrilline rallying cry, the Monophysites would pull out more Cyril, and say, “Nature = person = hypostasis. If Christ has two natures, he has two hypostaseis/persons.”

Monophysites such as Severus of Antioch believed that Christ was fully God and fully man, possessing all of the attributes of Godhead and manhood within the single theandric (God-mannish) union. This union was a complete union within his person, or hypostasis — thus, hypostatic union.

Now, people don’t fight about nothing. Well, sometimes they do, but usually they don’t. There was a real, substantial difference between them and the original Chalcedonians. The sad reality for the Monophysites, though, is that by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, called by Emperor Justinian, the Chalcedonians had so interpreted and reinterpreted Chalcedon such that it could by understood by a highly Cyrillian thinker — so-called “Neo-Chalcedonianism”.

But it was too late. The seeds of schism were sown. And to this day, the “Syrian” Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox are out of communion with us, despite joint statements on Christology. This is a sad reality, and one that should be remedied. Would that we had the grace to sit down together and work out the centuries of trouble!

If any of this makes no sense, let me know and I’ll try to de-jargonise it! 😉