Desert and City: The Prophetic Ascetic

A friend recently brought up the criticism of the Desert Fathers that their withdrawal from the city meant a withdrawal from addressing the social issues and needs of the city. If we consider, perhaps, their own idealised desert anchorite or hermit, this holds true. However, if we consider the actual history of the Desert Fathers as well as their situation within the ancient church, I think this is a criticism that does not fit the reality as it was enacted.

First, as far as the actual history of the Desert Fathers is concerned, the first point we must acknowledge is the fact that almost none of the hermits achieved their idealised withdrawal from the world. St Antony ended up with a community gathered around him. St Simeon the Stylite shared wisdom with those who gathered around the base of his pillar. St Hilarion (although his story was largely fictionalised by St Jerome) was found by people wherever he went — he was forced into giving spiritual wisdom and performing miracles, whether he liked it or not. St Simeon the Mountaineer (less famous — one of John of Ephesus’ monks) found the local people living near his monk’s cell to be a field for evangelism.

Simeon the Mountaineer, in fact, is but one of many monks/nuns/hermits who found himself engaged in evangelism, despite the alleged ‘seclusion’ of his monastic profession.

Indeed, any anchorite or hermit whose name is known is known because he was the agent of God in the lives of others, whether, like Sts Barsanuphius and John, that was writing letters, or, like St Daniel the Stylite, that was dispensing advice in person. Therefore, they fulfilled a calling that was of benefit to church and world in these spiritual ways.

The cenobites (monks living in community), on the other hand, had opportunities to fulfill the commands to serve one another and love your neighbour simply through daily life. Moreover, there was always a class of monk who was in community because it provided him with the means of survival. Sure, you only ate once or twice a day. But you ate. At the social level, then, the cenobium provided the ancient poor with a place of refuge.

Moreover, not only the Desert Fathers but many other monks, nuns, hermits, et al., throughout history have left us a wealth of spiritual writings that are well worth reading. This is part of their prophetic calling. For we who read the sayings of the Desert Fathers, or the writings of Evagrius and Cassian, or the mystical treatises of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, are spurred onward and strengthened in our journey into God’s love through the wisdom he gave them in their lives of solitude.

This, however, does not save them all from their abdication of social responsibility.

My thought on this point has to do with the nature of the church in Late Antiquity, and, indeed, the Middle Ages. Not only was this a pre-denominational age for the church, the local church community did not see the different paroikia (parishes) and communities as, well, different communities. In a given, small-scale church community, not everyone is called to volunteer in the food bank, to lead the music, to cook meals, to help out with the moms’ group, to lead Bible studies, to get bricked into a room to pray and never leave. Each of us must discern which tasks are our own in the wider functional of the ecclesial community.

So in the ancient and medieval church. While we rightly see something lopsided in the belief that a life of retreat from the world and city was better, I do not think we can rightly see it as a wrong choice. Shenoute of Atripe and his monks may have lived in the White Monastery and prayed for the salvation of the world (and beat up the odd tax collector or two), but Cyril was in Alexandria giving to the poor (when not bribing the imperial court).

A better example: The ancient church needed bishops like St John the Almsgiver, a Bishop of Alexandria who was ceaseless in his acts of mercy, and St Daniel the Stylite, a monk on a pillar outside Constantinople who gave spiritual counsel to people from all walks of life.

In fact, I believe that, whatever their excesses and possible errors, the Desert Fathers were part of a prophetic movement of the Spirit of God beginning in the decades after the Constantinian settlement, a prophetic movement that monasticism and its offspring (such as the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans) would continue so long as Christianity and power were united.

Constantius in the Chronograph of 354

To a church that was seeing the large-scale conversion of aristocrats, as well as the syncretism of folk belief (as archaeology from Egypt shows), and which was perhaps getting doxologically and even morally lax in the comfort provided by favour from the state, the Desert Fathers served as a living embodiment of the full devotion Christ calls his disciples to make. They served as a reminder that Christianity is not a socially respectable institution but an encounter with the fully transcendent God (pictured below) who outstrips any purple-clad, bejewelled emperor in grace, holiness, and majesty (as pictured to the left). They served as a reminder that prayer is ultimately something we live, not simply something that we do when we turn up at a basilica for prayers before resuming ‘normal life’.

Whether in the desert or the city, whether monastic or cleric or layperson, each of us must realise that, for the Christian, there is no ‘normal life’, for the immanence of the transcendent God and the sacramentality of his good creation make that impossible.

And this is the prophetic role of the Desert Fathers.

 

Transfiguration of Jesus, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (art of the Desert)
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Monk takes devotion to new heights

I blogged on this site once about the original and most famous stylite, St Simeon the Stylite as well as one of his successors, St Daniel the Stylite. Stylites are people who are the living embodiment of ancient desert monasticism, poised between earth and heaven, continually interceding for those below. They were most popular in the fifth century and have pretty much died out. But here we see that there is one in Georgia! What impresses me is that the monastery at the bottom of the pillar serves as an outreach to troubled young men. This is what true asceticism is about — the quest for holiness and God reaching ever upwards and then, as a natural result, turn outwards to bring Grace to the world.

CNN Photos

Maxime the monk lives on a pillar. When he wants to step down out of the clouds, the 59-year-old scales a 131-foot ladder, which takes him about 20 minutes.

After living on Katskhi pillar for 20 years, Maxime’s climbs have slowed, but having worked as a crane operator in a past life, he’s never feared heights.

Photographer Amos Chapple heard about Maxime while working in the country of Georgia, and when he first arrived and asked to go up, he was told no. Only priests and some of the troubled young men learning from Maxime and living in a monastery underneath the pillar were allowed to go up.

Chapple stayed with the men at the base for four days before he was told he could ascend the pillar. He participated in prayers seven hours a day, including four-hour night prayers from 2 a.m. to sunrise. When he was finally going…

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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.

A Story Involving Relics from Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor

In Book 9.6 of the Chronicle (or Ecclesiastical History) of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor, a Justinianic Syriac Monophysite, we read this story:

After [the Persian Emperor] Kavadh, his son Khusro reigned. His mother, during the life of her husband Kavadh, was possessed by a demon, and all the magi, sorcerers, and enchanters who were called by her husband Kavadh, who very much loved her, did not profit her at all, but truth be told, they added demons upon demons to her. She was sent in the fourth [indiction year] in the days of the dux Liberarius to the blessed Moses who had a monastery above Dara, some two parasangs from the region. He was famous, and she was with him a few days and was purified, and returned to her land, having taken from this holy Moses of the monastery called Tarmel the blessing of the bones of Cyriacus the martyr so that she could take refuge in it for her protection, so that the [evil] spirit would not return upon her; and she built for him in a secret [place] a house of prayer in her land in order to honour [him], and he was venerated there. When she remembered the grace that had happened to her through this blessed Moses of Tarmel, she aided the country of the Romans with a purpose and reason that are described below. (Trans Robert R. Phenix & Cornelia B. Horn in the TTH trans, ed. Geoffrey Greatrex)

According to n. 95, p. 328, Christian literature abounds with stories of Persian monarchs being cured by saints, and according to the Armenian version of Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle, Khusro’s mother was actually baptised.

This story reminds me of a biblical parallel (and no doubt on purpose), the story of Na’aman in 2 Kings 5. Na’aman was a Syrian general who was afflicted with leprosy. Like the Persian Queen Mother in Pseudo-Zachariah, he went to the man of God, in this case the Prophet Elisha (successor to Elijah). To make a long story short, Na’aman was cured by washing in the River Jordan and returned healthy and hale to his people. He vowed that he would worship YHWH in secret — whenever his master bowed to the god Rimmon, he would bow as well, but secretly incline his heart to the God of Elisha. Khusro’s mother also worshipped in secret according to Pseudo-Zachariah, building a shrine to St. Cyriacus (apparently a popular martyr’s name).

Yet unlike Na’aman, the Persian Queen does not convert. She does not offer prayers to Christ our God. Instead, she takes back with her some sort of relic — I imagine the “oil of the saints’, oil that has made contact with a relic and is used for the purposes of healing the sick and casting out demons. The tomb of St. Euthymius in the Judean Desert has a hole through which to pour the oil, and it comes out a little drain at the bottom for you to gather it; such oil recurs frequently throughout the Life of Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), and Cyril of Scythopolis often speaks of the “oil of the holy Cross”, which is probably a similar idea.

Her reverence is for the holy man and the saint who cured her, not, to use the popular Byzantine turn of phrase, “Christ our God.” This is too bad, really. The Church should certainly be seeking to heal those who are sick, be it with demonic possession or physical ailments, but what about the ultimate, deepest sickness, the fallenness of the human soul? Should not Moses have introduced this Persian aristocrat to Christ the Physician? Perhaps he tried, and she would have none of it.

Alas, then, that this woman was cured of a temporal sickness but refused the medicine of the eternal sickness, taking away superstition rather than true religion! No doubt the history of the Church is full of such stories.

Fighting the Demons 1: St. Antony

In Frank Peretti’s bestselling thriller This Present Darkness there is a scene wherein one of the characters engages in physical combat with demons in his living room. No joke. This sort of presentation of demonology, while it certainly entertained me as a teenager, draws attention away from the real fight with the demons, a fight that usually has as its great champion Christ.

Even if you don’t believe in demons, I think the lessons we have to learn from the ancient demon stories are applicable. So please, keep reading.

A very good description of the real fight with demons, a fight that takes place at the level of temptation, not at the level of wrestling matches, is John Cassian’s in The Institutes when he deals with the Eight Thoughts (precursors to Seven Deadly Sins). However, hagiography does give us some interesting demon stories, so I’m going to give you three posts and three stories battle with demons: St. Antony (below), St. Savvas (here), and St. Columba (here).

Other saints who have similar stories are St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), one of John of Ephesus’ saints whose name escapes me, and some other tales from the Desert Fathers. This is probably literary borrowing, not historical truth, but I believe it has a lesson inside.

What can we learn from patristic and mediaeval hagiography? I mean, we’re not likely to wrestle with demons Peretti-style, nor are we likely to be tempted Antony-style. So what on earth can these ancient demon stories say to (post)moderns in the 21st century?

Case One: The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius

This is the locus classicus of monastic hagiography as well as the battle with demons. Evagrius and Cassian may give us the more nuanced, psychological vision of how we combat the tempters, but here Athanasius gives us a very vivid picture of St. Antony’s temptations from demons and the fight against them. I’ve posted on this before here.

This time, rather than focussing on the strange menagerie comprised by the denizens of Hell, let us focus on what actually happens to St. Antony.

If you read this encounter of St. Antony with the demonic, which we can find at 8.7-10.9 of the Life which is pp. 14-16 of White’s translation in Early Christian Lives and available through the CCEL here. In some ways, this account is Frank Peretti-esque, especially with the Devil and his minions beating St. Antony up.

Despite being beaten, however, we see that Antony continues to inhabit the tombs and prays continually. He also recites verses from the Psalms against the temptations that assail him. Ultimately, regardless of everything the adversary throws at him, he prevails in the combat.

At the end of it all, he is granted a vision of Christ.

St. Antony immediately asks why Christ didn’t help him. Apparently Christ was testing him, but then goes on to assure him that he will be present with Antony through the rest of the saint’s testing with demonic powers.

What can we learn, then? I mean, we aren’t likely to be beaten. And those of us who even believe in demons don’t tend to dwell on them and often live as though they don’t exist. Is there any edification for today’s reader, then?

I think so. (No surprise there.)

First, as I mentioned when I first posted about the Temptations of St. Antony, our saint does battle with prayer as his chief weapon. We should never forget this piece of our arsenal when we are beset by temptations or evil in any of its forms, be it within ourselves or in the unjust world we see around us. Prayer is a walkie-talkie for the battlefield of Christian life (I think J Piper said that).

Second, St. Antony quotes Scripture at the demons. We need to hold the Scriptures in our minds. We need to read, mark, and inwardly digest the Bible. We need to memorise it, pray it, study it, read it, recite it. If you want to have a biblical mindset, you need the Bible in your mind (this is part of the advice Abba Chaeremon gives Cassian in one of the Conferences).

Third, Christ was there all along. He is our champion. This role becomes very important in other monastic encounters with demons, from Palestine to Ireland. Hagiography is essentially Christocentric; Jesus is the reason the saints can do the great things that they do. We need to remember this, as well as the Old Testament name YHWH Nissi — YHWH is our banner. He fights our battles.

Saint of the Week: Daniel the Stylite

I recently read the Life of Daniel the Stylite here. St. Daniel lived from 409-493 in the Eastern Roman Empire. I recommend his Life. It’s long, but the author gives a nice recap at the end:

Our all-praiseworthy father Daniel bade adieu to his parents when he was twelve years old, then for twenty-five years he lived in a monastery; after that during five years he visited the fathers and from each learned what might serve his purpose, making his anthology from their teaching. At the time when the crown of his endurance began to be woven the Saint had completed his forty-second year, and at that age he came by divine guidance, as we have explained above, to this our imperial city. He dwelt in the church for nine years, standing on the capital of a column, thus training himself beforehand in the practice of that discipline which he was destined to bring to perfection. For he had learned from many divine revelations that his duty was to enter upon the way of life practised by the blessed and sainted Simeon.

For three and thirty years and three months he stood for varying periods on the three columns, as he changed from one to another, so that the whole span of his life was a little more than eighty-four years.

During these he was deemed worthy to receive ‘the prize of his high calling’;( 1 Philipp. 3:14.)1 he blessed all men, he prayed on behalf of all, he counselled all not to be covetous, he instructed all in the things necessary to salvation, he showed hospitality to all, yet he possessed nothing on earth beyond the confines of the spot on which the enclosure and religious houses had been built. And though many, amongst whom were sovereigns and very distinguished officials occupying the highest posts, wished to present him with splendid possessions he never consented, but he listened to each one’s offer and then prayed that he might be recompensed by God for his pious intention.

One of the things from this life that interested me was his battle with demons in a little church. This demon-battling role is something that we find frequently in the monks and anchorites of the fourth and fifth centuries. The holy man does battle with the spiritual forces of evil on our behalf. St. Daniel cast out demons from people as well as places. He also healed the sick.

Holiness for the ancients wasn’t simply good, moral living. That’s called virtue. Holiness is that something more, that way of life that goes to the next level.

Martyrs, for example, bear witness to Christ through their deaths. The ascetic, once Roman persecution ceases, takes his place, bearing witness to Christ through his suffering. The martyrs are glorified by the wounds from their deaths — Tertullian imagines that they will still have them even at the Resurrection. Daniel was glorified through the wounds on his feet caused by standing on a pillar all the time.

The Stylite — a type of asceticism founded by Simeon — is a living symbol of what all monks are. He stands on his pillar between Earth and Heaven, interceding for the people below. He is an intermediary, and the pillar clearly shows us this aspect of the monastic role in society.

Daniel is also notable because, being a Stylite and being so close to Constantinople (1 mile North along the Bosporos), he was easily accessible to the emperors and aristocrats. The pious Emperor Leo of blessed memory (as the Life calls him) liked listening to Daniel so much that he had a palace built nearby. The Monophysite usurper Basiliscus sent an envoy to essentially get Daniel’s blessing. A very different world than our friend St. Antony of Egypt!

And so we see Daniel the Stylite. Living on a pillar isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it seems to have worked for him. One last thought from his biographer to close:

While we bear in mind our holy father’s spiritual counsels let us do our utmost to follow in his steps and to preserve the garment of our body unspotted and to keep the lamp of faith unquenched, carrying the oil of sympathy in our vessels that we may find mercy and grace in the day of judgment from the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost now and henceforth and to all eternity, Amen.