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 …..

Joseph Campbell and Hagiography

This post is hypothesising more than anything. Please keep that in mind, in case you place great stock in Late Antique/Early Mediaeval hagiography.

In Authority and the Sacred, Peter Brown writes:

In large areas of eastern Christianity (and, if in a more diffident and spasmodic manner, also in the West) the holy man was thought to have brought back to the settle world, from his long sojourn in the wilderness, a touch of the haunting completeness of Adam. (p. 76, referencing B. Flusin, Miracle et histoire dans l’oeuvre de Cyrille de Scythopolis (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1991), pp. 34-5.)

A good example of this narrative is the life of Jacob of Nisibis, recounted by Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ in his Historia Religiosa (translated for Cistercian as A History of the Monks of Syria). Jacob was what is termed a boskos, a grazer. He lived in the wilds of Syria with no shelter and no food. He literally lived off the land, eating wild plants to sustain himself. This was his ascetic labour.

Somehow, word of Jacob’s holiness got around, and he was elected bishop of Nisibis. Reluctantly, he answered the call of the people of Nisibis and strode naked into the local church, and was duly consecrated. This anti-social character lived out the rest of his life as bishop of that city, serving the spiritual needs of his flock.

Similarly, St Hilarion (saint of the week here) spent a very long time in self-imposed exile before his monastic complex sprung up around him in Palestine. Barsanuphius of Gaza never left his retreat, bricked up in a cell in his monastery, but dispensed wisdom to many through his letters. St Symeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) spent time living as a traditional anchorite before climbing his pillar and drawing crowds; so did his imitator, St Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) in Constantinople.

Examples no doubt abound. The basic cycle of the story is that the holy man or woman withdraws from human society — into the wilderness, into a tomb, up a mountain, into a cave, on a pilgrimage — and there acquires holiness and access to God and the wisdom of God. This access to God (parrhesia) and power (dunamis) is acquired through ascetic struggle, through wrestling with demons, constant prayer, fasting, or wearing iron undergarments.

Then, whether he or she likes it or not, a return to society is made. Sometimes, society comes to the saint, as with Symeon the Stylite. Sometimes the saint goes to society, as with Jacob of Nisibis. Having returned to society, the saint dispenses the wisdom, holiness, and spiritual power upon the people. The saint intercedes on their behalf, with God and with local or imperial men of power.

This is the basic story.

It sounds a lot like this:

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

This is an image representing the most popular aspect and core thesis of Joseph Campbell’s work on comparative mythology and psychological interpretation thereof, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. According to Campbell, the vast majority of hero mythologies take this journey from the known to the unknown and back again. This is part of the archetypal universe that inhabits the subconscious of the human psyche.

I find it interesting that Late Antique and Byzantine hagiography fit this pattern. Many would probably subscribe to a statement such as, ‘Hagiography is a skillful blending of history and mythology.’ By that, however, they would usually mean that true facts about these persons are mingled with tall tales and fables. They would not mean, ‘Hagiography is mythological in that it traces the same patterns as the foundational myths of most civilisations.’

This can mean a few things. One thing this observation can mean is that the appeal of hagiography throughout the Byzantine centuries is precisely rooted in its drawing up the same archetypal motifs as all mythology. We all like mythology — Homer, Hesiod, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the adventures of Sigurd (Siegfried). It speaks to something in the core of our being. It resonates with us.

Myths are not just stories that are untrue and that explain some religious aspect of the universe. They are often this. But they are more than this. To quote my friend Emily, something that is mythical is bigger than true. Whether such a definition helped her ESL students, who can say? But that does get at the heart of why we find the voyage of Orpheus to the Underworld or Galahad’s Quest for the Grail so compelling. They speak to our hearts and communicate realities that mere history and philosophy (and their awkward companion allegory) cannot touch.

Thus hagiography’s appeal.

Another realm for play in this discussion ties into the thoughtworld of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. For these Oxford dons, Christianity was the myth that came true. It was not simply the history of God with humanity. It was not simply theology. Nor was it myth in the sense of an untrue story that communicates deep truths about the world. It was a myth that actually happened.

This is to say that the mythical impulses of the Christian story — the eucatastrophy of the Easter cycle (a concept discussed in Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ — see the volume Tree and Leaf), the miracles, the events surrounding the lives of the apostles — are, in fact, historically true, just as Augustus’ victory at Actium in 31 BC is historically true. But they are still mythologically charged and speak to the mythical impulse in ourselves. It is as though the myths of the world that resemble the Incarnation are, in fact, backwards echoes of the power and incomprehensibility of God becoming man. Or that they are implantations within the human heart of the greatest story of all, a historically true story to be recognised when met.

What if, then, the mythological impulses of hagiography are real? This would presuppose the staying power of God’s presence in the world after Christ’s ascension. This would also mean that myths can be acted out in real life. Indeed, could not the appeal of Campbell’s cycle tug on the heartstrings of real men and women? Could they not live out the myth for real? It strikes me as plausible.

Perhaps we should all live out the myth. Hagiography was written to remind us that we, too, should be holy. Let us leave the familiar and combat the forces of darkness that we may return to the world of the known, bestowing the gifts of the divine upon our fellow humans.