Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Desert Monks

The very success, and subsequent institutionalization, of a religious movement inevitably involves it in compromise, and is in fact bound to mark the beginning of a process of deviation from original aims.When the Roman Emperor Constantine declared that Christianity should be tolerated within the Roman Empire (313 AD) his motives were political rather than religious. It was expedient for him to have the growing number of Christian converts on his side rather than as enemies. Nevertheless his decree was an important turning point in both Christian and European history. In practice it did not mean that Christians were entirely immune from attack - for a while they remained vulnerable to sporadic bouts of persecution. But Constantine’s own deathbed conversion made it inevitable that sooner or later Christianity would be recognized as the official religion of the Empire. It was inevitable too that this development would have as profound an effect on the existing Christian communities as it would on the lives of Roman citizens in general.

However, the new dispensation (and the flood of new adherents that it generated) brought its own problems of adjustment. Being a Christian was no longer quite so special. They were not a suspect, isolated sect anymore, but neither were they God’s elect in quite the same exclusive way. The end of persecution, while it was welcomed by the majority of believers, also meant the loss of any possibility of martyrdom with its accompanying certainty of salvation. Not all Christians were inclined towards martyrdom, of course, but it was hard for some to abandon the long-held belief that Heaven was for the fortunate few. This led to a widespread feeling of the need for some extra effort to ensure deliverance. After all, if the expression of their devotion went no further than the, by now, ordinary observances, they had no more of a claim on God’s favour than the hugely increasing numbers of new converts.

The Allure of Asceticism

With the official recognition of the new religion the Church itself had become an arm of the state and, as a result, had rapidly became wealthier and more influential. This was reflected in the new social status of the clergy (which greatly expanded in the 4th century), and had meant that even members of the upper classes were now taking holy orders. But the perception of the increasing worldliness of the Church was contributing to a mood of spiritual unease amongst many believers. There were those who felt a pressing need for some greater demonstration of their belief, and of the rejection of corrupt worldliness. For these devout believers the only sure path to salvation involved a general repudiation of worldly values, and even the abandonment of society itself. So there began, as a sort of substitute martyrdom, the ‘flight to the desert’. The celebrated prototype for this movement was St. Anthony of Thebes. As a troubled young man Anthony had taken the Gospel injunction to poverty and renunciation quite literally (‘If thou would be perfect go and sell all thou hast and follow me’). He gave away his fortune to the poor, left his family, and moved out of town to an old deserted pagan tomb. There he confronted the demons that inhabited the place (in Christian eyes the old pagan gods had become completely identified as a satanic horde), and eventually won some form of spiritual victory over his adversaries. This triumph encouraged him to move further out into the desert, where he occupied an abandoned fort. He lived in this remote spot for the next twenty years, being continually subjected to demonic attack and temptations of many kinds.

By his own accounts Anthony suffered terribly from the assaults of the fiendish inhabitants of this place. At times he was attacked by masses of grimacing demons that leapt out of the darkness and tore at his body like wild dogs, at others he would be beaten with sticks and clubs. After one particularly savage attack he was so badly knocked about that he was taken for dead, and was returned to Thebes for funeral rites. But he managed to recover from this assault, and resumed his vigil. After this defeat the demons tried another tack, and took the form of beautiful, tempting women who would plant salacious thoughts in his mind. Anthony managed to overcome these advances by increasing the intensity of his prayers, and occasionally by hurling himself into thorn bushes.

In spite of his isolation Anthony’s spiritual exertions did not go unnoticed. His reputation as a saint steadily grew, and over the years he was joined by a steady stream of followers, until he was virtually besieged by them. This brotherhood gradually organized itself into a monastic community. Civilisation, of a sort, had pursued Anthony into the desert. He eventually chose to leave the old fort for an even more remote location, settling by a small oasis near the Red Sea where he lived for the next forty-three years - although he was again joined by great multitudes of disciples. By the end of his life this world-renouncing Egyptian ascetic had a following of some 15,000 monks.

Anthony was already locally famous when Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, wrote his biography. This publication rapidly became a bestseller and made the saint internationally famous. It also led to widespread imitation. Within a decade of its publication the idea of a withdrawal from the corrupt world into a life of penance and prayer had become a positive craze. Deserts all over the Middle-east, particularly those near to the great cities, were soon thronged with would-be monks. The more decadent the cities, the more ascetics they produced - and the more severe their self-imposed austerities.

Although this was initially a purely religious movement it is clear that the hermit’s life came to hold other attractions. Although the Roman state had been Christianized the transformation had made little difference to the oppressive nature of its administration. The authorities still demanded crushing levels of tax, and still required military duty from all able-bodied male citizens. It seems to have been the case that many took to the desert to avoid these military obligations, and for various other equally non-spiritual reasons. In the early Christian years immunity from military service was granted on religious grounds, but this privilege was withdrawn when great numbers took advantage of it.

There was, at first, a general hostility towards those dropouts who so blatantly renounced the social conventions of this late-Classical world. But this attitude gradually gave way to one of fascination with the tales of moral athleticism that began to emerge from the desert. There were any number of pious visitors who made the rounds of the hermits in their isolated cells, gathering stories of their extraordinary acts of penance (and frequently embellishing these with accounts of miracles etc.). And a curious element of competition crept in to the business. An element of rivalry had developed between the desert monks, who now appeared to vie with each other in acts of austerity and holiness, until their mortifying competitions seemed almost to have become an end in itself; self-torture had become the signifying mark of sanctity.

Many of the desert monks lived in the open, unprotected from the elements, and most ate only the most wretched food, frequently fasting for long periods. It was common practice to pray for days on end without eating or drinking at all. On principle they never washed or cut their hair, and they wore their clothes until they fell to pieces. But many felt the need to go further than this, and began to weigh themselves down with heavy chains, or adopt a permanent standing position; others (the ‘Grazers’) clambered about on all fours and ate nothing but grass. Somehow the idea of holiness had become completely associated with these severe (and often ostentatious) austerities. The practice of ‘mortification of the flesh’ had become completely identified with great virtue; indeed, among themselves there was a presumption that only those practicing such austerities could expect to be saved from Hellfire.

However there was an unexpected complication to this drama of the wilderness. In Gibbon’s words the desert monks ‘began to acquire the respect of the world which they themselves despised’. By establishing their sanctity with their rejection of the world and their severe penances they themselves became revered and sought-after. The stories of their exploits multiplied. Authors like the scholars Jerome and Cassian promoted and mythologized their saintly existence. These accounts, and many others in the same vein, were avidly consumed and encouraged an ever increasing throng both of visitors and encouraged would-be followers. These hordes soon became the absolute bane of the monk’s existence. No matter how far they retreated into the desert their quest for the silent, contemplative life was disturbed by these pious tourists. There was a certain distorted logic in this quest. The deeper into the desert the monks went, and the greater the hardships that they endured, the more clearly they demonstrated their spiritual qualifications - and the greater the virtue to be gained by contact with them. There must also have been an element of sheer curiosity about the degree (and variety) of their austerities. As a result all the monastic communities, even those in the most inhospitable, inaccessible wastes of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts were subjected to a constant stream of pilgrims, many of whom were little more than sightseers.

Anthony’s original retreat at Nitria underwent a population explosion that drove him, at the age of eighty-seven, even deeper into the desert where he established the Cells (Cellis). Nitria, which by this time had a disciplined regime, was itself a hard enough school (the diet was grim and order was maintained by the free use of whips), but it gave aspiring monks a chance to toughen themselves up for the further outpost at Cellis, where the level of austerity was bleak indeed. There was, by this time, no shortage of volunteers willing to undertake the most extreme forms of penance. It is recorded that a particular monk at Cellis was so remorseful at having killed a mosquito that he banished himself to a marsh, where he lived among stinging insects for several months. When he returned his face was so disfigured that he was almost unrecognizable.

Needless to say there was, in this mad game of competitive asceticism, a step beyond even the extremes of self-punishment practiced at Cellis. About forty miles further into the scorching desert (and twelve miles beyond the nearest water supply) lay Scetis, the place of ultimate masochistic exile. At first there was just one lone hermit living there, but (inevitably) he was joined by others. Eventually four separate communities were established in this utterly desolate, arid location, and of course the place exerted an irresistible appeal for the more intrepid pilgrim/tourists.

The ascetic movement drew so many into its thrall that by the end of the 4th century there were almost as many able-bodied men inhabiting the middle-Eastern deserts as there were in its cities! It was accepted without question that those who spent their lives in prayer and penance must be inspired by God, and were widely admired for this. In fact it became quite common for the more highly regarded to be dragged out of their retreats to be appointed as Bishops or Archbishops. Some unprincipled individuals used this route as a short cut to the honours and wealth of high ecclesiastical office - but this sort of abuse was the least of the movement’s problems.

From their earliest days monasteries had tended to attract undesirables. Quite apart from being used as sanctuaries by those wishing to avoid tax they were a convenient hangout for deserters and criminals of all kinds. They were also a magnet for fanatics and the mentally disturbed (although the distinction between the pious and the lunatic must have been a fine one), and contemporary accounts speak darkly of the continuing problem of homosexuality. But the most serious threat to monkish equanimity (and to their eternal souls) were the female pilgrims.

The Monks and Women

Almost from its inception Pauline Christianity had held decidedly ambivalent attitudes towards women. On the one hand it promised a greater degree of equality between the sexes (Christian teaching with regard to the sanctity of marriage seemed to offer women more security and a higher domestic status than they had achieved in the pagan Classical world), on the other hand Christian theology became thoroughly diffused by a sexual pessimism that was to become increasingly misogynistic in tone. Sin became more and more identified with sex, and women to be blamed as the source of temptation. One of the more important reasons for ‘fleeing the world’ was the avoidance of the company of women.

In the stories of the lives of the desert monks much is made of their efforts to shun the slightest contact with the opposite sex, even with their own mothers or sisters. In fact the denial of ordinary affections was a standard feature of the mortification process and was taken as further proof of virtue. The Lives of the Saints abound with stories of aged mothers braving the deserts to catch a last glimpse of their saintly sons, only to be summarily dismissed by their offspring or turned away by his fellow monks. St. Pior allowed his sister a brief visit, but kept his eyes firmly closed during the entire interview; St. Marcus adopted the same tactic when his mother visited him, but took the additional precaution of disguising himself, so that she only realized that she had met him after the event. St. Poeman and his six brothers all refused to see their old mother, to her great distress. Breaking the heart of an aged, infirm parent became one of the conventional motifs of these pious chronicles. It gave proof positive of their protagonist’s saintly, otherworldly character.

Naturally women were rigorously excluded from the monk’s desert settlements, but this did not stop them from trying to make contact or, at a later date, from forming their own communities. There are numerous accounts of attempts by female devotees to force themselves into the presence of saintly ascetics, usually ending in their stern dismissal. One typical case involved a young girl who made a lengthy pilgrimage to one St. Arsenius. On meeting the saint she threw herself at his feet and pleaded with him to remember her in his prayers. He was horrified, telling her that his only prayers would be that he should be able to forget about her as soon as possible. Other, more circumspect, female pilgrims dressed as men for their travels around the hermitages. One, the ex-actress St. Pelagia, actually managed to pass herself off as a monk and was able to spend the rest of her life sharing their austerities, undiscovered until after her death. It was not unheard of for wives to send their husbands to implore the monks to allow them to be received, but in general, at least up to the middle of the 4th century, women were seriously discouraged from visiting the desert.

The situation changed with the introduction of the idea of monasticism to Rome. In 341 Athanasius (whose biography of St. Anthony had triggered the ascetic movement in the Christian middle-east) took two disciples of Anthony to the Eternal City. The wild appearance, and even stranger behavior, of the monks at first horrified, but then intrigued the sophisticated Romans, especially the matrons. One of the ascetics, Ammonias, simply carried on with his acts of austerity during his stay - he starved himself, cut off his ear and applied red-hot irons to his body to subdue his desires (and all the while managed to maintain his vow of silence). His fellow monk Isadore, by contrast, was far more amenable to their astonished hosts and regaled them with accounts of the extraordinary feats of piety of his fellow monks back in the desert. Isadore got to meet the entire Roman Senate and made a great impression on all of them - and an even greater one on their wives.

The wild men from the desert had arrived at a propitious moment. Rome was rapidly adjusting to the new Christian order, and the members of the old families of the aristocratic elite were particularly receptive to the monks, seeing them as representatives of a new, Christian, elite. The ascetic movement as a whole seemed to offer a means of adopting the new religion whilst at the same time retaining their distinctive social status (and sidestepping its unfortunate egalitarianism).

There was also a genuine reaction against the grossness of late-Classical sensuality. The fashion had changed and pietism had became the new thing. There was a rush to emulate the monk’s asceticism, particularly among the wealthier wives. Following the example of the desert monks they also went into retreat and began to pray incessantly; they also engaged in serious fasting; quite often to excess; occasionally to the death. They ostentatiously gave away their jewels and gold ornaments and their silks - and, just as had happened with the monks themselves, an element of competitiveness crept in. The aristocratic ladies were soon outbidding each other in their demonstrations of piety. Huge estates were put under the hammer and the proceedings were used to endow churches. Palaces and Villas were transformed into religious houses. Many husbands were also converted, but many more were simply bewildered by events. In a curious half-understanding of Christian principles slaves were sold off, rather than being given their freedom, and the money thus raised was distributed among the poor. In the meantime the Roman ladies made plans to follow the monks to their desert retreats...

The wives and widows of the newly converted aristocratic made their presence felt as soon as they reached the Middle East. They gave huge sums away to those monks who would accept their donations, and set about establishing new monastic colonies - in which, of course, they themselves intended to practice the religious life. Occasionally, they compelled their slaves to join them in these pilgrimages, and in their asceticism. The institutions that they founded, conceived as they were by one elite for another, were thus tainted by an aura of exclusivity. One way or another, their aristocratic status, and their assumption of higher than usual sensibility, always managed to shine through, and as a result their religiosity was always somewhat contrived.

But a new pattern had been set. Back in Rome those wealthy matrons who had converted, or who were contemplating conversion, were now surrounded by sycophantic clerics who encouraged them in their religious enthusiasm (and who were not averse to picking up gifts or bequests). Mothers, and occasionally daughters, abandoned their families in droves for the monastic life, until the deserts were positively thronged with wealthy female pilgrims. Inevitably, abuses crept in. Many noble ladies were exploited; others used pilgrimage as an excuse to abandon their husbands in order to live with their lowborn lovers. Even more alarming to the church were rumours of improper relationships within sexually mixed communities of ascetics. Some monks were claiming that they had become so chaste that the proximity of women could no longer tempt them; the authorities were unconvinced, and began to insist on sexual segregation. The problem proved to be persistent; further laws had to be passed restraining women from passing the night in a male monastery, and vice-versa. Already, by the later 4th century, the standing of the monastic life has decidedly lowered and St. Gregory of Nyssa is able to portray the whole of Palestine as a hotbed of debauchery.

Heresy and Belligerence

Exerting any kind of influence over the ascetics had long proved to be something of a problem for the Church. Many of the monks were highly individualistic and chose to ignore conventional sacraments, and there had always been those who brought the movement into disrepute with excessive or histrionic behaviour. But the most serious concern for the ecclesiastical authorities were those groups of monks who were seen to be straying into the path of heresy. By the end of the 4th century Christianity was already divided into some eighty to ninety distinct sects, most of who reviled each other - some with considerable intensity. For the most part these sects were differentiated from each other by points of doctrine so fine as to be imperceptible to outsiders; but there were a few whose version of Christianity was decidedly non-doctrinaire.

The Messalians, or Euchites, were a case in point. This group believed that every man had his personal, indwelling demon, which could be expelled by their own system of energetic prayer. When this demon had been banished the novice could progress to a state of union with the Holy Ghost by undergoing a three-year period of abstinence and ascetic contemplation. Once this union had been achieved the initiate could return to the world; he (or she) was now part of God and incapable of further sin. The Messalians were fervent evangelizers, but they got a bad reputation for debauchery and were loathed by practically all other Christians. Once the Church had been recognised by the state its central tenets had formed the basis of orthodoxy. This increasingly meant that its disapproval of such deviant sects as the Messalians became state policy. The result was that heretics of all kinds were not only disapproved of by the Church, but were now seen as enemies of the state. The assertion of the necessity of orthodoxy in faith was enjoined by the entire Christian community at this time. It was no longer enough to ‘follow Christ’. A whole range of theological propositions were deemed to be essential to salvation, deviation from which would place the believer outside the Christian community. This gave rise to bitter disputes on matters of doctrine - in which the monks played a leading role.

The second and third generation of desert monks had become caught up in the church’s new centralising tendency. There was re-evaluation of the whole purpose of the ascetic movement. How did it fit with the new sense of orthodoxy? Did it have a social role? Or were the monks simply seeking their own salvation? There was now a reaction against the excessive individualism of previous years, and the gradual introduction of regulations to constrain it. The ‘Church Father’ Basil was instrumental in this. He introduced a wide ranging Rule that regulated the desert communities and brought them under the authority (and the orthodoxy) of local bishops. The new regime brought severe penalties for breaches of discipline (such as excessive fasting without permission), but it worked reasonably well when the local Bishops and heads of monasteries were sensible. Unfortunately they often were not.

Orthodox institutionalism had introduced a new mood of intolerance and partisanship among Christians. Pagans, Jews and Heretics were now completely alienated from true believers, who now felt that they had the political, as well as the moral, ascendancy - and there were attacks on all of these groups, frequently instigated by the Bishops, who found the monks a useful instrument for their intolerance. The end of the 4th century saw waves of pagan Temple smashing, Synagogue burning and bloody riots against heretical sects. Militant groups of fanatical monks were invariably in the forefront of these actions. They became a horribly effective force, smiled on by the church and tolerated by the secular authorities. It was said that the Imperial troops would rather face the fiercest barbarians. Monkish violence against unbelievers and heretics continued to break out until well into the 5th century. By this time their original objectives of world-rejection and humility appear to have been completely sidelined. The keynote now was violence in the name of Lamb of God. In this way the hegemony of orthodox Christianity was firmly established in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.