Saints of the Week: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley

The Martyrs’ memorial, Oxford (my photo)

This week’s saints are for those of you who perhaps feel a certain lack of things non-Patristic of late, and those who may unreasonably fear my turning Orthodox or Papist (which, in some circles, is thought almost worse than being an atheist).

Bishops Latimer and Ridley will be commemorated this coming week on the anniversary of their death at the stake, 17 October 1555, in Oxford.

Ridley was a Northumbrian, taught grammar at Newcastle, then studied at Pembroke College in Cambridge where he was awarded his Master’s degree in 1525. After his ordination to the priesthood, did further study at the Sorbonne, Paris. In 1529 he returned to England; 1534 saw him senior proctor of Cambridge University. His ecclesiastical career under Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (saint of the week here) and Kings Henry VIII (he’ll never be saint of the week) and Edward VI (not sure if he stands a chance given the sea of truer saints out there) led him to become a chaplain to the King  in 1541, then Bishop of Rochester in 1547, then was translated to the vacant see of London in 1550.

Like many reformers, Ridley was a preacher. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:

To his sermons the people resorted, swarming about him like bees, coveting the sweet flowers and wholesome juice of the fruitful doctrine, which he did not only preach, but showed the same by his life, as a glittering lanthorn to the eyes and senses of the blind, in such pure order that his very enemies could not reprove him in any one jot.

Ridley represents the wing of Anglicanism (which would ultimately win, although is under threat in Australia and possibly some African places), in the Vestments Controversy of 1550-3, that things that are adiaphora — not central to the faith, but matters of indifference regarding salvation and polity — are not to be stripped away willy-nilly. In a controversy with John Hooper, who took a more continental, Reformed line (influenced by Zwingli, not likely to ever be saint of the week either), he said that, even if vestments be adiaphora, the King and Bishops could require people to wear them, and choosing not to is disobedience. Basically.

It’s always more complicated than that.

In 1553, Edward VI died. Ridley was involved in orchestrating the accession of Lady Jane Grey to the throne, signing the letters patent giving her the throne, as well as preaching a sermon claiming Mary and Elizabeth both bastards.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Queen Mary had him burned at Oxford in 1555 — not only was he a Protestant and she a Catholic, he had been involved in conspiracy to prevent her accession to the throne.

Latimer Preaching, from Foxe’s Book, 1563

Hugh Latimer was from Leicester, and entered Cambridge University at age 14. 2 February, 1510, he was elected a Fellow of Clare College. 1514 he was awarded his Master of Arts, and 1515 he was ordained priest; in 1524, he was awarded his Bachelor of Divinity, his disputation for which was a refutation of Reformation doctrines.

However, one Thomas Bilney heard Latimer preaching against the Reformers and went to confess his own Reformation ways to this university chaplain. Latimer was moved by Bilney and began to move towards a more Protestant direction in his belief. He got involved with Bilney and others calling for Reform, including the call for an English Bible. This could have got him into more trouble, but at just this moment Henry VIII got himself a new Archbishop of Canterbury in Thomas Cranmer to get himself an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

1535 saw Latimer Bishop of Worchester, preaching reform and iconoclasm. But in 1539, he was opposed to Henry VIII’s anti-Reform Six Articles, so was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

He found himself in better favour under Edward VI, being a court preacher until 1550. From 1550-3, he was chaplain to Katherine Duchess of Suffolk. Under Queen, Latimer, like Ridley, was arrested — unlike Ridley and Cranmer, he was not involved in any conspiracies against the new monarch.

Trial and Death of the Oxford Martyrs

Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer were taken to Oxford where they were to engage in a disputation on the faith. Latimer was by now quite aged, and provided his declaration in writing. His prayer was, in the words of Foxe, ‘that he might stand faithful to the doctrine he had professed, that God would restore his Gospel to England once again, and preserve the Lady Elizabeth to be queen.’

All these would be granted, but Latimer would not live to see it.

The cross marks the spot where Latimer and Ridley were burned

The result of the disputation at Oxford was, naturally enough, that Latimer and Ridley were heretics in contravention of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Cranmer initially recanted, however (ever the politician?). They were to be burned at the stake in front of Balliol College, at the north end of the city.

Foxe relates the following about Nicholas Ridley:

Dr. Ridley, the night before execution, was very facetious, had himself shaved, and called his supper a marriage feast; he remarked upon seeing Mrs. Irish (the keeper’s wife) weep, “Though my breakfast will be somewhat sharp, my supper will be more pleasant and sweet.”

As they were burned at the stake, Latimer is reputed to have said:

Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out.

This echoes the Martyrdom of Polycarp (which both Latimer and Foxe undoubtedly knew). When Polycarp is entering the arena to face death, he hears a voice from heaven that says, ‘Be of good cheer, Polycarp, and play the man.’

As the two theologians were burned, Thomas Cranmer watched. He recanted his recantation and was himself burned at the stake six months later, in 1556, at the same spot.

As discussed in this post, I am not especially comfortable with praising Christians who were killed by fellow Christians as martyrs. However, whether we speak of the Oxford Martyrs, or Thomas More, or the Covenanters, or the Carthusians disembowelled by Henry VIII, or evangelicals imprisoned in Ethiopia today, we can say that they are, at least, victims of conscience in the face of a Christian government that is not behaving especially Christianly.

Of the two, I think I prefer Dr. Nicholas Ridley, in large part because of Latimer’s iconoclasm vs. Ridley’s championing of vestments. My vision of reformed (note the small r), Protestant Christianity is not a reimagined Christianity that starts from scratch but a Christianity purged of the late mediaeval abuses, anti-biblical teachings, and the requirements for salvation for things adiaphora. That is to say, in a post-1662 sense, Anglican, or possibly Lutheran — that trajectory of thought and worship in the Prayer Books, in Nicholas Ridley, in John Jewel, in Lancelot Andrewes, in Richard Hooker, but not in the Puritans, the Presbyterians, the Zwinglians, the Anabaptists.

Saint of the Week: St. Clotilda

Central Portal, Basilique St-Clotilde, Paris

My first Sunday in Paris, I visited the spectacular Musée Rodin, then walked over to the Eiffel Tower, a walk which continued across the Seine twice, and brought me within sight of two spires. I do enjoy a good spire-hunt – it brought me to some lovely churches and neighbourhoods in Milan, after all. So I wandered over to the spires and found a Gothic construction, the Basilique Ste-Clotilde.

I looked at this name and thought, ‘That name looks Frankish!’ A week or so later, my guess was confirmed as I did research for a piece of expression écrite for French class, my chosen topic being Clovis I (r. 481-511). In my recherches, I discovered that Clotilda (Clotilde, en français) was Clovis’s wife.

And what makes a Late Antique/Early Medieval Frankish queen a saint? Read on …

Clotilda (475-545) was the daughter of the Burgundian King Chilperic II. According to Gregory of Tours, in 493, her Uncle Gundobad killed her father and mother, sent her sister Chrona to a nunnery, and Clotilda herself into exile. Ah, the joys of early European royal families…

Clovis et Clotilde, by Baron Jean-Antoine Gros, c. 1811, at the Petit Palais, Paris (my photo)

Around the time she was heading into exile, the dashing young Merovingian (descendant of Merovingius, himself a descendant of a horse or something) Clovis, king of a growing realm of Salian Franks, was interested in taking her hand in marriage. This got Gundobad out of an awkward situation, so the marriage was arranged on the grounds that Clotilda would be able to continue practising her Catholic Christianity.

According to Wikipedia, Clovis was at this time an Arian. This is an assumption based on the fact that Germanic barbarians are famously Arian. However, my other research says that he was an unbaptised pagan, raised in the cultural mélange of traditional Frankish religion and Roman customs – his father had taken some of the land and responsibilities of the vestiges of Roman rule in Gaul, and he assumed more of these roles himself throughout his reign.

So Clotilda joined the ranks of not a few Catholic/Christian princesses to marry pagan kings/princes in this era, which is part of her interest.

Eventually, as young royal couples do, Clovis and Clotilda bore a son. Clotilda insisted on him going through with the Christian rite of baptism and encouraged her husband to do likewise. Clovis said no. The child died soon thereafer, only adding fuel to Clovis’ argument that baptism was useless.

Their second son, Chlodomer (495-524) fell ill soon after his baptism, but through the prayers of his mother was healed. Clovis remained unconvinced.

Clotilda was very concerned about her beloved husband. He was a warrior of great worth, a good king, and all such things. But he rejected the truth of Christ and remained living in pagan falsehood. She wished him to gain the great riches of the life in Christ, so she would nag him about religion frequently.

When this did not seem to be working, she got (St) Remigius (Rémy) of Reims to get involved. Remigius had sent Clovis a letter of congratulation back in 481 when the young King ascended the throne; the Catholic Church had received a certain amount of protection under Clovis, and he and the bishop of Reims had met on several occasions (see the story of the vase at Soissons from Gregory of Tours). Although Clovis was a pagan, this protection of the Church represents the way in which early Frankish kings adopted much of the culture and administration of the Roman Empire they were occupying.

Remigius was also unable to persuade Clovis. However, through a combination of wifely and episcopal persuasion and a deal with God, Clovis’ conversion in 496 was as follows, according to Gregory of Tours, History of the Frankish Kings II.30-31:

[30] The queen did not cease to urge him to recognize the true God and cease worshipping idols. But he could not be influenced in any way to this belief, until at last a war arose with the Alamanni, in which he was driven by necessity to confess what before he had of his free will denied. It came about that as the two armies were fighting fiercely, there was much slaughter, and Clovis’s army began to be in danger of destruction.

He saw it and raised his eyes to heaven, and with remorse in his heart he burst into tears and cried: “Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda asserts to be the son of the living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries.”

And when he said thus, the Alamanni turned their backs, and began to disperse in flight. And when they saw that their king was killed, they submitted to the dominion of Clovis, saying: “Let not the people perish further, we pray; we are yours now.” And he stopped the fighting, and after encouraging his men, retired in peace and told the queen how he had had merit to win the victory by calling on the name of Christ. This happened in the fifteenth year of his reign.

[31] Then the queen asked saint Remi, bishop of Rheims, to summon Clovis secretly, urging him to introduce the king to the word of salvation. And the bishop sent for him secretly and began to urge him to believe in the true God, maker of heaven and earth, and to cease worshipping idols, which could help neither themselves nor any one else.

But the king said: “I gladly hear you, most holy father; but there remains one thing: the people who follow me cannot endure to abandon their gods; but I shall go and speak to them according to your words.”

He met with his followers, but before he could speak the power of God anticipated him, and all the people cried out together: “O pious king, we reject our mortal gods, and we are ready to follow the immortal God whom Remi preaches.”

This was reported to the bishop, who was greatly rejoiced, and bade them get ready the baptismal font. The squares were shaded with tapestried canopies, the churches adorned with white curtains, the baptistery set in order, the aroma of incense spread, candles of fragrant odor burned brightly, and the whole shrine of the baptistery was filled with a divine fragrance: and the Lord gave such grace to those who stood by that they thought they were placed amid the odors of paradise. And the king was the first to ask to be baptized by the bishop. (From the Internet History Sourcebook)

Tour Clovis, Paris

Clotilda, then, was instrumental in the conversion of Clovis to Christianity. And he followed her version of Catholic Christianity, the form of Christian belief held by the majority of the populace under his rule in Gaul. This is a significant moment in the history of the western Church – the Roman Empire in Gaul has been replaced by a Catholic Kingdom. Clovis and his Franks will become more acceptable rulers aided by this religious assimilation, as well as their having taken up a variety of other Roman practices. They will also drive the Arian Visigoths out of southern Gaul under Clovis, uniting not only all the Franks (as Clovis did) but all Gaul again as well.

I doubt the Merovingian Franks knew it, but they were part of a wider trajectory that would lead to Charlemagne and the attempt to unite the realms of western Europe as a single empire once more in the eighth and ninth centuries. We stand with Clovis and Clotilda at one of those moments of history, one of those points of the birthing of the Middle Ages where the players had no idea that the long-term significance of the religious act.

If Clovis had died a pagan, would he have united Gaul? Would the Basilica St-Denis in the north of Paris, where his remains were last accounted for, have been built?

Clotilda is part of a wider paradigm during the age of the barbarian conversions. We see other Christian princesses, in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, for example, marrying pagan kings and being instrumental in their conversion. Thus King Edwin, for example.

This path of sanctity is one recommended by St Paul, who urges believing wives not to leave unbelieving husbands to remain and convert them to Christ through the example of their holy lives and the witness of the words of the Gospel.

Clotilda and Clovis had four children who survived infancy, the aforementioned Chlodomer as well as Childebert, Clothar, and Clotilda. As was the custom amongst the Franks, Clovis divided his kingdom among the three sons upon his death in 511, each of them continuing the Merovingian line. Clotilda the younger married Amalaric, (Arian) King of the Visigoths.

In 511, upon the death of her husband at Paris, at the end of a long public career in the world alongside a man who had waged wars and sought to maintain a system of order in the Frankish realms both in Gaul and beyond, Clotilda joined the Abbey of St. Martin at Tours.

Not that being a nun would keep a late-ancient Queen Mother out of action permanently. In 523, Clotilda incited her sons to wage war against her cousin Sigismund in revenge for the assassination of her parents. Sadly for Clotilda, although this unsaintly action resulted in the death of her cousin, it also resulted in the death of her eldest son Chlodomer, which was followed swiftly by the assassination of two of Chlodomer’s sons by their uncles; the third joined the clergy and was thus safely out of the way.*

Having determined that politics was perhaps no longer her milieu, Clotilda devoted the rest of her life to the cloister, not simply by living in one, but by founding many. It is this pious, cloistered life and the conversion of her husband that have contributed to her sainthood.

Clotilda, a real woman in a man’s world, living her life for God’s Kingdom, who made some mistakes on the way, but who is revered to this day for her overall saintliness. The kind of saint I like.

*While this is particularly bloody, it is nothing compared to what happened upon the death of Constantine in 337. Read R W Burgess, ‘The Summer of Blood,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers 62 (2008),  5-51 (appeared in 2010), for an analysis of the events surrounding that succession.

Saint of the Week: St. Nicholas of Myra

A Version of a Post from 2007

Happy St. Nicholas’ Day!

That’s right, my friends, today is the feast day of jolly old Saint Nicholas–or, as the Eastern Orthodox call him, “Our Father Among the Saints, Nicholas the Wonderworker.” People these days seem to doubt that he ever existed, but considering that his bones were buried in Myra itself before being stolen by some Italian merchants and taken to Bari, I cast a vote in favour of his being real. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that all we can be certain of is that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.

The reason I think most people doubt his existence is the fact that, like St. George, he is most famous for the sort of thing modernists aren’t in favour of believing. In poor St. George’s case, it was because he had the terrible misfortune of slaying a dragon, the sort of thing that one really ought to leave up to mythological heroes, so people doubt he existed, even though the bulk of his story deals with his torture and martyrdom.

St. Nicholas is most famous for two things:

i. Being Santa Claus.

ii. Giving money to three daughters of a man who couldn’t afford dowries. The legend says something or other involving chimneys and stockings. According to abbamoses.com, he threw the money through the window because he was trying to give it in secret.

We don’t really know much about St. Nicholas. He is very famous in the East for his miracles (the sort of thing modernists don’t believe — for a highly intellectual and brain-stretching discussion of miracles, read C. S. Lewis’ book by the same name), and I have no reason to doubt whether or not they happened outside of the documentation, none of which I have access to. He didn’t much want to be a bishop but originally wanted to be a monk. I have a feeling he’s the sort of saint who lived by St. Seraphim of Sarov’s words, “Keep your heart in peace and a multitude around you will be saved.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia doubts he was at Nicaea in AD 325, whereas abbamoses says he was. I think he was but have no scholarly reason why.* The Orthodox tradition says that he approached Arius in the council and slapped him on the face for saying such blasphemies regarding Christ (Arius denied the divinity of Christ). The other bishops, while the agreed with St. Nicholas’ sentiment, felt that this was not entirely the way to go about things at the council, so they put him in prison overnight as punishment. As the story goes, he had a dream that night of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Blessed Virgin gave him the bishop’s stole and Christ gave him a copy of the Gospels, the symbols of a bishop’s authority. When they came to let him out the next day, they found him with these objects in reality. The miracle confirmed St. Nicholas’ righteousness and the truth of Christian orthodoxy.

Who knows if it’s true or not. But if St. Nicholas of Myra was in Nicaea in 325, he is in part responsible for something much bigger and better than hopping on a sleigh with 8 or 9 flying reindeer and bringing baubles and toys for the greedy children of the world. He would have helped craft this, which was later revised as this.

*His name does not appear on any of the earliest lists of bishops at the council. Therefore, there is no historiographical reason to assume his presence. However, it is difficult to know who exactly was present at Nicaea, because we have no actual Acta as we do for later councils such as Chalcedon (451).

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)

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.

David Wilkerson, 1931-2011

David Wilkerson went to sleep in the Lord on April 27 this year. And since any Christian in such a state is up for grabs to be Saint of the Week, here we go.

There is a good chance that you don’t know Wilkerson’s name. However, you probably do know the name of one of his books — The Cross and the Switchblade, which was also made into a film.

In 1958, David Wilkerson moved to New York City to bring the Gospel to the inner city gangs. He engaged in the risky business of outdoor, open-air preaching in the concrete jungle. And, unlike the guy I saw on Princes Street the other day, people actually stopped to listen. In fact, a couple of gang leaders came to Christ.

One of these early converts was Nicky Cruz, whom you may know from his book Run Baby Run. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of Rev. Wilkerson, Nicky was freed from heroin addiction and went on to become an evangelist himself.

As Wilkerson’s ministry amongst Nicky and his ilk continued, they discovered that they had to find a way to help all of these gang members and street kids that was of a more material nature than simply answering an altar call. So, having established Teen Challenge, Wilkerson and his team took over some old houses and provided places for the teens to live, to learn some skills, to go through withdrawal — that sort of thing.

If I remember correctly (the reference would be Twelve Angels from Hell), Teen Challenge also started a farm ministry for these kids who knew naught but the city to and experience God’s creation as part of the work.

One problem Wilkerson faced as the numbers of new converts grew was the fact that often people would be on the straight and narrow for a short while but eventually return to crime, drugs, and gangs. He asked Nicky and some of the first converts, who were now sort of senior members of the Teen Challenge community, and they said they were able to stay away from their old life after their baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Now, you may not be a Pentecostal like Wilkerson, but the experience of being overcome and overflowed with the Holy Spirit is something many a Christian can attest to, Pentecostal or not. This is the event that they learned was very important in helping these young people with broken lives and broken worlds become fully fixed by the living Christ.

Teen Challenge still exists to this day, working among the broken teens of the inner city.

In 1987, Wilkerson founded the Times Square Church, bringing the Gospel in a permanent way to New York City.

And Wilkerson, who prophesied doom and apostasy for the western Church back in the 80’s, was calling us all to repentance right up to the end (thanks to Rick Dugan for posting the video first):

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.