Review: The Monastic Achievement by George Zarnecki

The Monastic AchievementThe Monastic Achievement by George Zarnecki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My brother Michael got me this book for Christmas, and when I started it, I was thinking that somehow it would be a history of monasticism pure and simple. But it isn’t — probably because such a thing could hardly ever be written. In this volume of Thames & Hudson’s Library of Medieval Civilization, Zarnecki gives us the history of the monastic movement primarily interested in the art and architecture of the monastic world.

This book has five chapters: ‘Monastic Origins’, ‘To the Limits of Christendom’, ‘The Return to Simplicity’, ‘Contemplation and Action’, and ‘Monastic Art and Artists’. They move roughly chronologically from the Desert Fathers to the 1400s.

In Chapter One, Zarnecki begins his discussion with the biblical precedents for the ascetic life and the early Christian domestic forms of self-denial, then moves to Sts Antony and Pachomius. The next patristic ascetic is St Basil ‘the Great’ of Caesarea, who has been very influential in eastern Christian monasticism. St Basil rejected the life of hermits, having tried it himself, because he did not see how a hermit could fulfil Christ’s command to love one another.

My one important tweak of this section is that eastern monasticism is not all ‘Basilian’ the way Zarnecki talks about it as though every monastery followed Basil’s Asketikon the same way Benedictines follow St Benedict’s Rule. In reality, eastern monasteries are usually independently organised, and the monastery follows a rule established by its founding abbot. They do tend to be very similar and are inspired by St Basil, but they are ‘Basilian’ in the way the adjective makes it sound.

The main focus of this book, however, is western monasticism in the Middle Ages, so Zarnecki makes his way West very quickly, discussing the early patristic sources for western monasticism. This takes about a page, and then more extensive discussion of St Benedict ensues. After St Benedict, we are introduced to Irish Monasticism, the earliest monasteries of which leave us some very interesting archaeological remains with their bee-hive huts. Then comes St Augustine of Canterbury and the Benedictines in England.

[Aside] As is usual with many Anglophone books about the Middle Ages, a lot of attention is paid to England throughout the book. I don’t mind this, although England is not instrinsically more interesting than other places in Europe. It is simply a reflection of the knowledge and interests of Anglophone writers, publishers, and their audience. [End aside.]

After the Insular section with some magnificently beautiful images of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art, we meet the Carolingians and the influence their Reform had on monasticism — largely through regularisation and the spread of the Benedictines plus all that art. After the Carolingians comes the period of the Romanesque and the Order of Cluny.

Chapter Two discusses the spread and development of Romanesque in the 11th century when there was a monastic revival and the spread of many beautiful buildings built along similar lines, as well as the churches and art of the road to Compostela, with a discussion of the mother house at Cluny as the culmination of Romanesque art.

Chapter Three discusses the reform movements, above all the Cistercians, who are the most successful. These movements sought to return to the simplicity of the original Rule of St Benedict. Accordingly, their art and architecture tended to be quite plain — original Cistercian church buildings are square (no round apse!) and have no bell-tower. Their manuscripts tend not to have decoration, or — if they do — it is usually simple flower motifs (although Zarnecki gives us some striking examples that break such ideals).

Meanwhile in the mid-11th century, canons following the Rule of St Augustine were organised. These were clergy who lived a common life but who were also active in parish ministry and life — whereas the strictly-defined ‘monk’ lives only within the monastery walls and is truly ‘cloistered’ (a cloister is the covered walkway connecting the buildings of a monastery together).

Chapter Four brings us to the world of the Carthusians, who are hermits who live together — if you see a Charterhourse, you’ll note that in fact it is a series of small, one-room house, each with its own garden, looking into a common area with a chapel. Carthusians are the most austere monks — they all take a vow of perpetual silence. (I recommend the film Into Great Silence) And beside the Carthusians, we learn of the warrior monks, the Templars and Hospitallers, and their role in protecting pilgrims and the monastic houses they built in Europe and the Middle East. Also mentioned are the Teutonic Knights who did some ample conquering in north-central Europe.

We also meet the successors to the monks — in the 13th century, the heyday of monasticism was really over in Europe. Their place was being taken by the friars, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who also lived the ascetic, communal life, but who were preachers and much more active and visible in the community. The world was now Gothic, and the great architecture was now found in the cathedrals and parish churches, not in the abbeys and abbey churches. Manuscript production was moving to secular scriptoria. While monasteries would continue to produce and commission great art and architecture, their high point in such cultural influence was gone.

Finally, Chapter Five discusses monks and monk-art. Much art that we associate with the monasteries will actually have been created by lay craftsmen in the employ of the monastery, but the content will have been set. There are, however, some famous monk-artists, and it is evident that some of them were able to work in multiple media.

Throughout, Zarnecki discusses the art and architecture of the different orders and parts of western Europe under discussion. When tenable, he shows the relationship between an order’s ideals and its art. The book is accordingly full of pictures, which I found to be very useful as well as very lovely. Not only did I meet many interesting monastic persons while reading this book, I saw so much great art. In total, there are 19 colour plates and 109 black and white illustrations. I recommend it.

View all my reviews

Jedburgh Abbey

This past Saturday, my wife and I rented a car with friends and fulfilled a desire we’d had almost since we arrived — we visited Jedburgh and Melrose Abbeys. Also, I drove on the left and succeeded in killing no one. Accident free. That alone made it a success.

Our first stop, after lunch at the Buccleuch Arms in St Boswells, was Jedburgh Abbey. We had seen Jedburgh Abbey driving up from a trip to England with the in-laws back in May of 2011. When you approach Jedburgh from the South, you are immediately struck by the long, three-tiered, Gothic nave of the abbey church. And it is pure awesome. Light and beautiful and … here, I’ll skip a thousand words:

IMG_4613

Of course, as this picture demonstrates, Jedburgh Abbey is one of those interesting places that is not a single architectural style. It has some Romanesque and some Gothic aspects. It was begun in 1138 under the patronage of Scotland’s great abbey builder, King David I (son of Queen St Margaret and Malcolm III [‘Canmore’], yes, of Macbeth fame) as an Augustinian Priory. By 1154, Jedburgh’s religious house was large enough to qualify as an abbey.

It was built from East to West (right to left in this pic). The chancel, where building began, was originally two Romanesque levels, but was modified and had a third Gothic level added in later years, along with an extension. I seem not to have a clear photo of this aspect, so this will have to do, looking West from the very end of the chancel — the walls are just visible on right and left before reaching the transept:

IMG_4626

Augustinians — who also had abbeys at Holyrood near Edinburgh Castle and Cambuskenneth near Stirling, places that, like Jedburgh, had royal castles — were not like the Benedictines (first in Scotland at Dunfermline in 1070 under Margaret & Malcolm) or the reformed orders that followed Benedict such as the Cistercians (first in Scotland at Melrose, also founded by David I) or Tironensians (first reformed order in Scotland Britain at Selkirk, later moved to Kelso, also founded by David I, also at Arbroath).

Technically, you see, Augustinians are canons not monks like Benedictines and the reformed orders (who follow the Rule of Benedict as well). Monks are meant to live in seclusion, away from the world, devoting their lives to simplicity and prayer. Augustinian canons, on the other hand, are all priests, and they take on responsibilities in local parishes. They, too, are meant to lead simple lives, but they combine the ministries of pastoring and prayer in a way that traditional monks do not.* They follow the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo, which was designed for parish clergy in the 4th-5th centuries; as an order, they were established in 1059.

This means that Jedburgh Abbey Church was also the local parish church. Local lay folks worshipped in the nave, on the other side of the Rood Screen from the monks. They entered through this Romanesque door:

IMG_4637

And they stood in this Gothic space:

IMG_4646

IMG_4649

The canons, on the other hand, lived to the south of the church (so on the other side from the picture above). They entered from the cloister through either the East processional door, that went to the clergy-only area:

IMG_4617

IMG_4620

Or the West processional door, leading to the nave (highly restored in 1876):

IMG_4635

Sadly, this abbey did not have an easy time of it. King David built it in the Borders, and he built it big and beautiful, specifically as a way of showing the authority and power of the King of Scots. Later centuries would see that power and authority challenged and hammered. The abbey was besieged and taken by the English on many occasions; Edward I even installed his own abbot.  It had to be repaired extensively in the 1400s, and in 1523, the Earl of Surrey, who had earlier slain King James IV at Flodden, set fire to the abbey. By the 1540s, only eight canons remained at Jedburgh.

In the 1560s it was converted into the local parish kirk, and operated in such a fashion until 1876.

Next up: Melrose Abbey. Then maybe some reflections on Augustinians and Cistercians.

*Mind you, the Benedictine monks I stayed with in Austria were involved in a lot of parish ministry, but that is not Benedict’s ideal.

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)

Christianisation Under Justinian: 1

Inspired by some reading I did after this post.

As mentioned in passing previously, the later Patristic age saw a new development in Christianity as large quantities of people converted for social, political, or legal reasons. Over this period, with a succession of Christian Emperors, measures were often taken by the secular government to impose spiritual uniformity in the Empire — this was done as a means of ensuring the continued success of the Pax Romana (thus, the same reason the old pagan Emperors persecuted the Christians) as well as of helping along the spread of orthodoxy.

In response to the Emperor Justinian’s anti-Samaritan measures in this direction — measures that included the closure of Samaritan synagogues and the removal of the right to bequeath property to anyone other than orthodox Christians — the Samaritans of Palestine revolted in 529. The revolt was duly suppressed, and distressed monks sent petitions to the Emperor concerning the destruction of property of Christians. This year is the same year he is alleged to have closed or suppressed the Academy in Athens. (I need a better reference for this to confirm whether it’s true or not.)

Throughout his reign, Justinian also sought to Christianise the Empire through the dual methods of conversion and force, both of which we see in the career of John of Ephesus. John was sent by the Emperor to Asia to convert the pagans there to Christianity. He was also sent around Constantinople at a later date to round up people who were still practising “idolatry” and force them to repent, be properly catechised, and then baptised. This  latter action involved rounding up a large number of upper-class Romans in a church and forcing them to stay inside until they recanted.

In light of these actions geared towards the suppression of non-Christian religions in the Eastern Roman Empire in Justinian’s reign, in the years following 529 a lot of people converted to the Emperor’s religion. This produces interesting problems for the clergy, as we see in some of the letters sent and received by the monastic elders Barsanuphius and John of Gaza:

Letter 821:Question: A decree was promulgated by the Emperor that commands that the Greeks* [sc. Pagans] are not to make use of their customs, and similarly the aposchists [sc. ‘Monophysites‘]. Indeed, certain of them came after holy Pascha, some  to be baptised, others to enter into communion. Ought they to be received? And when ought it to be appropriate for the baptism and the holy communion?

Answer: It is necessary that those wishing to be enlightened are received, and to give them holy baptism in the holy Forty Days or on the Ascension of the Saviour, and they have the week as a festival. But if any of them is considered to do this through custom or simply through fear of the decree, say to him, “If you come because of the decree, this is a sin, but if with fear of God because of your life, it becomes two goods for you, the advantage of your life [sc. spiritual life] and of your body.” It is necessary for the same thing to be spoken by those who wish to enter communion with the Church. And if they say, “Because of God we have come,” receive them forthwith, for they are Christians. (SC 468, pp. 290-292, my trans.)

The next letter is also interesting. The question runs, “Since one of the Gentiles [sc. Pagans] was being arrogant in the midst of the faithful, many say that he ought to be killed or burned: is this good or not?” The answer is, of course, NO, that such action is not Christian. Instead, he is to be handed over to someone for catechesis so that his soul may be saved and he be baptised, entering the ranks of the church.

These two instances show us how … um … evangelism(??) works in an increasingly Christian Empire. Justinian decrees against pagans and non-Orthodox (not just Monophysites but also Nestorians and Arians — the former being driven out of the Empire), and as a result there is a very large number of baptisms and reconciliations to be made. The clergyman of Letter 821 wants to do the right thing, so inquires of the Two Old Men, who give him wise advice. No doubt many were dunked without such care.

Letter 822 reminds us that when the Church becomes an institutional power, we become confused as to what a Christian ought to do. Someone was acting hubristically towards the Christians (κρατέω is the verb used of his action; he acted like he ruled over them) — let’s kill him … no, better yet, let’s burn him! Response: “οὐκ ἔστι γὰρ τοῦτο χριστιανῶν” — This is not of the Christians!

Monasticism helps preserve the way of peace and love, the way of costly grace (cf. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship ch. 1), in the face of an institutionalised Church that is becoming a cultural, social creature.

*Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans.

Thoughts on Climacus’ Ladder, Step 4

I am partway through Step 4 of John Climacus’ (Saint of the Week here) Ladder. Not being a monk, I find a lot of his wisdom wasted on me. Still …

A lot of people these days are really stoked about “narrative” and “narrative theology” and suchlike things. I remember once at a party a guy who worked for the Canadian Bible Society remarking that the Gospel could never be put into propositional statements because Jesus taught in parables. Given that that was a propositional statement, I was amused. Given also that the content of the Gospel is not Jesus’ parables but his life, I was a bit irked.

A lot of people try to pit narrative against proposition, though. This is wrongheaded, as Edith M. Humphrey (once Anglican, now Orthodox [yes, I’ll mention that every time I mention her]) notes in her book Ecstasy and Intimacy. We need both. We need balance. In Step 4, about obedience, St. John Climacus, Father of the Church, demonstrates the usefulness of both ways of presenting truth.

Approximately half of this Step on the ladder to paradise is occupied with stories about a monastery John once visited in Alexandria. He was filled with wonder at what he saw there. The monks lived in obedience to their abbot to a very high degree. To test them, he would make them lie on the ground for undetermined lengths of time just to see if they would do it. Once, to see if a postulant was worthy of admission, he made this man, a former fornicator (with both humans and animals), thief, and liar confess in detail his deeds before all the brothers at Divine Liturgy. Brothers who were disobedient enough were cast out or sent into the Prison where they only got bread and raw vegetables for food.

The monks were also obedient to one another and sought to outdo each other in virtue and in bearing one another’s burdens, claiming the sins of others for themselves to help brothers avoid punishment.

The result of this radical obedience was great virtue. John writes, “If they had to speak, what they talked about all the time was the remembrance of death and the thought of everlasting judgment.” (95, Classics of Western Spirituality translation) The advanced brothers were so humble that, when asked about hesychia by John, they claimed to be merely corporeal men with no knowledge of such things.

These men were calm of heart, humble, meek, pure. The longer they lived in the monastery, they less they were involved in backbiting and prideful actions.

Now, I’m not sure if I can handle such radical obedience. But imagine if we tried to do things for people without grumbling or complaining (cf. Philippians!). Imagine if we tried to be the servant of all (cf. Mark!). Imagine if, when asked to do something that is largely indifferent, we did it, seeing it as a way of learning humility. Imagine if we saw everyone around us as Kings and Queens. Or, to take another image, imagine if we saw them as Christs (cf. Matthew! Also, John of Ephesus, Lives of Eastern Saints, Chapter 5 about Simeon & Sergius, Patrologia Orientalis 17, pp. 84-89) rather than as nuisances.

Anyway, Climacus pairs this narrative teaching technique with propositional statements such as this:

Obedience is a total renunciation of our own life, and it shows up clearly in the way we act. Or, again, obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, and unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness. (91-92)

I like this technique, this balance between narrative and proposition. Western preaching has swung too far to the propositional, but I do not think it should be lost. We should find, however, a place for deep and meaningful storytelling in our teaching, as we see St. John Climacus doing in Step 4.

In the words of my friend Fr. Ioannis, “How clever the ancients were!”

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!

Saint of the Week: Simeon the Stylite

Of the various patristic holy men you’ll encounter in readings of hagiography, few grab the imagination quite so much as St. Simeon the Stylite (c. 385-459) — not even his younger contemporary and imitator, St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here).

Years ago, I read the Life of Simeon by his (alleged?) disciple Antony (not that Antony) when I was just getting into Patristics, monasticism, and hagiography. Last week, I read Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ Historia Religiosa (trans. by EM Price for Cistercian as A History of the Monks of Syria), and one of the longer of his 30 biographical sketches was that of this famous Syrian ascetic. (I am soon to read the Syriac Life and make it a whole set, don’t worry.)

When Simeon came along, Christian Syrian asceticism already had a long and venerable history stretching to generations before Antony took refuge in the Egyptian desert. Ancient Syrian Christianity always had an ascetic streak, calling people to become “Sons and Daughters of the Covenant”, calling the faithful to live together in celibate marriages, calling believers to go into the Desert in “anachoresis” from the secular world, calling Christians to rise up and become the Perfect on the narrow road to the city of Christ (recall the Liber Graduum from this post).

By Simeon’s day, Syrian Christianity was becoming more and more Greco-Latinised, and asceticism was already looking to fourth-century Egypt for its roots, examples, and golden years. Syrian asceticism delighted in the intense. Sure, Egyptians would go off into tombs for a while and wrestle with demons as Antony did, or found monasteries of thousands of people, as Shenoute did.

Syrian ascetics would live in the wild with nothing to protect them from the elements. Some were called “grazers”, and they lived off the wild plants that grew in the Syrian wilderness. Others would wear iron tunics, only removing them when their bishop came along and enforced obedience. Still others refused to sit or lie down, sleeping in an upright position, suspended from the ceiling with ropes. What, as ER Dodds asked in Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, was the cause of all this madness?

A madness for Christ — a burning zeal to know Him and suffer for Him and suffer for one’s sins and be made holy through askesis and abandon the world and all its allures. As Theodoret says in De Caritate, appended to the end of the Historia Religiosa, it was love for God that drove the monks to perform the feats he records.

Enter, then, Simeon.

He entered the monastic life at a monastery in Teleda. During his time in this monastery, he decided that it would be a good idea to wrap a rope around his waist beneath his tunic. He tied the rope really tight and never washed it or removed it. Eventually, he started to stink, and someone stuck his hand up the tunic and the jig was up.

Simeon ultimately decided that he was more suited to the solitary life, but the abbot would not release him. However, due to some of Simeon’s antisocial ascetic practices, he was eventually free to go. So he moved into a nearby well. Soon, the abbot thought better of it, and the monks brought him back from the well.

He later escaped the monastery in Teleda.

He settled in an enclosure atop a hill near Telanissus. After several years of asceticism in this location, he built himself a pillar (Gr. stylos, hence “Stylite”) and lived atop it and two successively higher ones for the next 36 years.

Holy men and women were not unheard of in the Syrian world, as we saw above, and they had various social functions to play, arbitrating in disputes, praying for rain, cursing infidels, diverting marauding bands of Saracens — that sort of thing. The sort of thing you need someone who is removed from society to do, the sort of thing an outsider can do, the sort of thing someone who is close to the Divine can do.

So people heard that there was this guy living on a pillar. And if you live on a pillar, you must be, mad, holy, or both. And if you’re holy, you can probably arbitrate in disputes, dispense wisdom, intercede for the faithful, etc. So people started flocking to Simeon on his pillar and getting all of the above.

Amongst those who flocked to Simeon were his disciples, who built a whole monastic complex at the base of the pillar (as also happened with Daniel). They helped regulate and organise the various pilgrims and suppliants who came to Simeon’s pillar.

Simeon, when not dealing with the masses below, would pray continually. He would pray, alternately standing up straight and bending over double. This bending over eventually caused him back problems, while the constant standing caused him foot problems.

This, in short, is the long career of Simeon the Stylite up on his pillar. He was a living symbol for the entire monastic movement, a man positioned between earth and heaven, a man ceaseless in prayer, a man who cared naught for this world around him.

More on Ancient Syrian Asceticism:

Primary Sources

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, A History of the Monks of Syria. Trans. EM Price, Cistercian Publications.

The Book of Steps: The Syriac Liber Graduum. Trans. R.A. Kitchen, Cistercian Publications.

The Lives of Simeon Stylites. Trans. Robert Doran, Cistercian Publications.

The Syriac Fathers on Prayer. Trans. Sebastian Brock.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Peter. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80-101, reprinted, with additional notes, in Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 103-52. Classic introduction to the holy man — however, be aware of its 25th anniversary sequel:

—. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity, 1971-1997.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6 (1998): 353-376.

Burton-Christie, Douglas. The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. This work focusses primarily on Egypt, yet its story of the origins of Christian monasticism is interesting and discusses aspects of the Desert Fathers of Syria.

Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. Asceticism and Society in Crisis: John of Ephesus and the Lives of the Eastern Saints. The Introduction, pp. 1-27, gives a good introduction to ancient Syrian Christianity and asceticism as found in Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Persia.