Friday, 5 October 2012

Desert Fathers

Antony and Paul of Thebes, Isenheim Altarpiece c. 1500

The early Christian phenomenon known as the “Desert Fathers” is of interest outside the theological domain. Commonly misunderstood, and also still widely neglected, this subject will not be unlocked by the contemporary indifference to “monks,” a category fitting very different psychologies and lifestyles.

The earliest Christian monks did not resemble the medieval varieties, especially those in European countries. The Desert Fathers, basically meaning Coptic (and Greek) ascetics of Graeco-Roman Egypt, were frequently anchorites in the early phase, and in retreat from the persecutions inflicted by the Roman regime. A major ideological influence was Origen (entry no. 45), active at Alexandria in the early third century CE. Some (or perhaps many) ascetics similarly came from an urban background, and likewise possessing a strong degree of literacy.

The Greek word monachos later became the standardised description for all types of monk, including many destitute peasants during the fourth century, when the monasteries proliferated in Egypt. By that time, earlier figures were becoming legendised, especially Antony, who was the subject of a hagiography composed by the bishop Athanasius. “The legacy at hand for anyone who like Antony, at the turn [end] of the third century, retreated from the duties of social life for the life of a philosopher, was not what, half a century later, a bishop like Athanasius wanted his flock to be fed with” (Rubenson, The Letters, p. 125).

The distinction is vital between what came before and what followed after. The subsequent phase was increasingly manipulated by the Christian clerics, who sought to outlaw Origenism and other teachings which became maligned as heresies. Athanasius (c. 298-373) was a major factor in the trend to orthodoxy; this bishop of Alexandria sought to create a unified Egyptian church within the Roman Empire, and made the monks subservient to his scheme of organisation and doctrine. The simplified concepts attending “monasticism” became a vehicle of episcopal mandate.

Paul of Thebes, by Mattia Preti c. 1660 

The earliest anchorite on record was Paul of Thebes, an obscure figure who fled to the desert from the Decian persecution (249-51 CE). A legendary meeting between Paul and Antony occurred in the Eastern desert of Egypt, as related by Jerome (d. 419), a Latin-speaking scholar who favoured the monastic lifestyle.  Standard conceptions and beliefs about the early hermits derived from the pious milieu of a later era, in the hagiological literature which developed from the mid-fourth century. This corpus was extensively edited during the fifth and sixth centuries, and has to be regarded with caution. The lives (vitae) and sayings (apophthegmata) of revered “desert fathers” reflect preoccupations of later writers.

In the latter half of the fourth century, numerous places in Egypt were the scene of ascetic activity. Many hermits favoured the desert cells of Nitria and Scetis in the Delta region, and not far south of Alexandria. Their lifestyle is often classified as semi-anchoritic, as they were not completely cut off in solitude. The early ideal was that of cells at a sufficient distance apart to enable total privacy; the hermits assembled on Saturday and Sunday to share a meal, some travelling three or four miles to the rendezvous church. Over the generations, a standard form of mud-brick hermitage developed, accommodating up to three monks. Bread and salt was the staple diet, alleviated by pilgrim visitors who supplied gifts of more exotic food, including honey, fruits, and wine. There was no fixed monastic rule amongst the hermits; wine was discouraged by the elders. A widespread recourse was that of weaving mats, ropes, and baskets from halfa grass or palm fibre, these items being sold in the towns.

The Greek word monasterion originally designated the hermit cell; only at a later period did this term apply to a collective monastery. The cell varied in appearance, but with the passing of time, frequently comprised two rooms: an ante-room for manual activity such as rope-weaving, and a rear room for prayer and sleep. It is evident that quite a large number of the early Egyptian solitary monks lived a surprisingly practical existence, not at all resembling the medieval European models of cloistered existence. Ideas about ascetic extremism are wide of the mark, and certainly on an aggregate basis, it would seem.

Egyptian (or Coptic and Greek) asceticism was mild by comparison with the Syrian Christian version of the anchoritic life. The desert fathers tended to disapprove of severe austerities. “Although evidence of excessive mortification can be found in Egypt, it nonetheless was an exception rather than the rule, and was usually practised most often in terms of food deprivation” (quote from Jeffrey Conrad, Egyptian and Syrian Asceticism, online PDF).

The sayings of the fathers are preserved in numerous collections, and in different languages varying from Latin and Greek to Arabic. These utterances have often been regarded as authentic fourth century records, but strong doubt applies on this point. “There is every reason to suspect theological and ecclesiastical tendencies at work in the sifting and transmission of the material over more than a hundred years. Thus the overall picture given in the sayings, even if only the earliest stratum is used, reflects the way the leading monastic circles wanted their forerunners to be remembered” (Rubenson, The Letters, p. 39).

The complexity of these trends as a whole is reflected in the fact that urban, village, and desert environments were all represented in early Egyptian monasticism. In this respect, the phrase “desert fathers” can be misleading. The Athanasian hagiography of Antony stressed the desert milieu, which the clerical version preferred. “The city and village ascetics continued in their role, but their place in history was lost” (Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert, p. 88).

Athanasius resorted to the phrase “a city in the desert,” supposedly created by Antony. In reality, most of the ascetics seem to have resided near inhabited sites. The desert myth has been interpreted as the contraction of a multi-faceted trend which the clerics wished to monopolise and control. A relative minority of the Egyptian ascetics really did move into the desert, and at a substantial distance from towns and villages, walking as much as three days or more before stopping at a cave or other location.

In an atmosphere of dogmatic manipulation, Athanasius wrote his Life of Antony at circa 360. The subject had recently died, and was now presented as a model of orthodoxy. The bishop’s alleged contact with Antony is strongly in question. His involvement in the Arian controversy was a doctrinal incitement to enlist the monks in his (anti-Arian) clerical cause. “Athanasius tried to involve the monks more fully in the public life of the Church by appointing many of them as bishops; he also asserted the right of bishops to intervene in monastic affairs” (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, p. 12). This was the death-knell of vintage monasticism. Origenist and other teachings were crucified in the ritualist cause of sacraments enforced by the clergy.

The conventional life of Antony (d. 356) exhibits clerical strictures and superficial lore, including the extravagant Athanasian demonology. Factual occurrences are slender. Seven formerly relegated letters of Antony are now considered to be a more reliable guide, serving to cast light upon what he really taught. “The obvious dependence on popular Platonic philosophy and Alexandrian theological tradition reveals that the author was no ‘ignorant monk’ who had simply exchanged the garb of the peasant for the monastic habit, but a teacher who wore a monk’s garment as if it was the robe of a philosopher” (Rubenson, The Letters, p. 11).

In his allegorical exegesis, Antony has been revealed as a follower of Origen. Antony’s sense of inward reflection exhorted his associates to “know thyself,” a spiritual essence being the subject of contemplation. This was far removed from the extroverted activities of the ritualist clerics, who were fixated on sacraments, pomp, and revenue. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, there were already 72 bishoprics in Egypt. “The Church, through donations of money, grain, valuable articles, animals, slaves, and above all of land, rapidly accumulated considerable wealth.... Apparently, the office of the bishop was soon regarded as so attractive that people tried to become bishops in order to enrich themselves” (ibid., p. 107).

Coptic monastery of St. Antony, Egypt

Antony was born in Middle (or Lower) Egypt, and is also associated with Mount Kolzim, near the Red Sea, where he reputedly lived in a cave, and later the site of a monastery. To the south, in the Thebaid, a strongly contrasting form of monasticism emerged, being communal (coenobitic) rather than anchoritic. The coenobitic model eventually became the standard for Christian monasticism, a situation in which the earlier hermit life was eclipsed.

The reputed founder of the coenobitic lifestyle was Pakhom (292-346), whose career also became legendary. He was born a pagan Copt, but became baptised as a Christian. Pakhom initially lived as an anchorite on the banks of the Nile, being the disciple of the obscure hermit Palamon. At the deserted village of Tabennesis, Pakhom established a community of monks, which eventually harboured a hundred inmates. His community flourished, and by the time of his death, there were nine monasteries under his direction. Manual labour was a strong feature of the coenobitic lifestyle.

“Most Pachomian monks were Coptic speaking peasants, but several brothers clearly belonged to the Graeco-Roman elite” (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 289). There were also two Pachomian monasteries for nuns, many inmates being the sisters, wives, mothers, and daughters of the monks. The discipline became codified into a formal Rule, committed to writing at an uncertain date.

There are strong indications that Pakhom resisted clerical interference, and avoided ordination. In his monasteries, ordination was regarded as a source of pride and jealousy. The ego inflation caused by clerical status was despised. In 345, a disapproving episcopal synod placed Pakhom on trial at Latopolis; he escaped during a riot. After his death, the practice of appointing monks to bishoprics became widespread by the fifth century.

The Pachomian communities adapted to clerical orthodoxy, but a rival grouping was eclipsed by episcopal strategies. The Melitian schism  produced a separate church in Egypt, primarily Coptic, which found supporters amongst Coptic ascetics. The Melitian monasticism was “mainly located in or very close to villages and towns” (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 345), and like the Pachomian model, was engaged in agricultural work and trade. The Melitian church had also evolved a clerical hierarchy by 334 CE, and they were effectively rivals to Athanasius, who regarded them as heretics.

The complexities in events included the participation of women, meaning the Christian virgins who appeared in the third century, particularly at Alexandria. They were noted for religious study; this trend attracted literate young women from a wealthy background, and was part of “academic Christianity,” to use a modern scholarly label. Bishop Athanasius campaigned against this tradition, wishing to impose clerical authority against the rivals like Origen. “Athanasius’ effort to separate virgins from the discourse of academic Christianity thus involved intensive censorship of the virgin’s speech and hearing” (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, p. 72).

The clerical ogres maintained their cordon in subsequent generations. Bishop Augustine enlisted the support of Jerome against the dissident Pelagius (entry no. 47), who was ousted from the scene as a heretic. Pelagius had strong connections with the monastic movement, and was not encumbered by the clerical appetite for ritual and predestination dogma.

See further David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford University Press, 1995); Brakke, Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity (Harvard University Press, 2006); Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (Oxford University Press, 1993); Susanna Elm, Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 1994); James E. Goehring, The Letter of Ammon and Pachomian Monasticism (Berlin: Gruyter, 1986); Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism (Trinity Press, 1999); William Harmless, Desert Christians (Oxford University Press, 2004); Philip Rousseau, Pachomius: The Making of a Community in Fourth Century Egypt (University of California Press, 1985); Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 48

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 1 October 2012


The moral right of Pelagius to a fair hearing should be asserted, despite the shadow cast by Augustine of Hippo (entry no. 46). The former was pushed off the ideological map by the latter. Indeed, Augustine composed fifteen anti-Pelagian treatises. An antique  Calvinist print (to left) supplies an imaginary depiction of Pelagius, along with  hostile  emphases influenced by orthodox stigmas. 

Pelagius was born in Britain at circa 350/360 CE. “He seems to have been one of the earliest, if not the very earliest, of that remarkable series of men who issued from the monasteries of Scotland and Ireland, and carried back to the Continent in a purified form the religion they had received from it” (quote from Pelagius).  Augustine and Jerome referred to Pelagius as a monk, a description which has been questioned. 

His early life is very obscure. Different assessments have ascribed his move to Rome as dating to the 380s or circa 405. In Rome, Pelagius gained profile as an ascetic and moral reformer; he was well read and composed a commentary on the Pauline Epistle to the Romans. Pelagius denied any hereditary transmission of sin devolving from the fall of Adam; instead, he maintained that sin was caused solely by wrong choices and voluntary will. 

Shortly before the invasion of Rome by the Goths in 410, Pelagius moved to Sicily and Carthage, finally settling at Palestine. He lived in relative peace until 415, when Augustine sent two letters (via a Spanish priest named Orosius) warning Jerome against him. By 417, Pelagianism had become an obsession for Jerome. “All the eloquence and violence of his invective were now aimed at these pestilential Pelagians and especially at the man whom he believed to be their leader” (Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic, p. 17). 

Jerome  (d. 419) was a Latin ascetic and savant well known for his polemical attacks on dissenters. This period saw the inception of a dogmatic Latin theology, in which Augustine figured as a seminal influence, even more so than his ally Jerome. In his status role as Bishop of Hippo, Augustine supplied an inflexible cordon against heretics and pagans, meaning the doctrine of predestination. This disconcerting persuasion has been described in terms of: 

“In pressing his case on the need for salvation even if it meant applying coercion, on the eternal damnation of infants dying unbaptised, on the absolute necessity for regeneration through baptism within the church, on the exclusive power of divine grace to save or destroy, on a form of predestination which limited the number of the saved right from the moment of creation... he [Augustine] was impelled to adopt extreme positions in order to buttress his own arguments” (ibid., p. 17). 

Described by some scholars as a reformer of Christian morals, Pelagius became “the leader of a large and influential circle of loyal adherents comprising not only educated aristocrats, many of them women, but also clerics who were later to form the nucleus of the opposition to his final condemnation in 418” (ibid., p. 19).

Pelagius advocated that the church should be formed of “perfect Christians,” as distinct from nominal Christians who retained pagan habits. Yet it was not merely the aggregate Christians who were under criticism here; the official church hierarchy were also implied as compromising with self-indulgence and the values of mammon. Pelagius has been described as the last exponent of the ancient Christianity, in contrast to the conveniences implemented by the clerics. In more recent times, the original or “primitive” Christianity has been discerned as something overlaid by what the status exponents chose to substitute. 

Pelagius was a baptised layman, and did not seek ordination as a cleric. Although sometimes described as a monk, he was “neither a monk nor a priest” (ibid., p. xiv). In Rome and elsewhere, laymen and women gained prominence in the multi-faceted ascetic movement,  a phenomenon which Augustine and Jerome tried to influence. However, the predestination dogma was not accepted by many monks. Pilgrims from all over the Christian world passed through the homes and meeting places of the radical Christian laypeople in Rome.

Similar to Augustine, Pelagius  resisted the Manichaean doctrine. Yet he was very different in other ways. Jerome composed Against the Pelagians, censuring those who taught apatheia (freedom from passions), which entailed a belief in the attainment of spiritual perfection; this concept was deemed heretical, and is now associated with Stoics, Manichaeans, and Origen. The heresy was deemed a threat to the mediation of sacraments by the clergy, who maintained a stifling  ritualism. 

Pelagius wrote formal letters of exhortation to the perfect Christian life. He attracted patrons and inspired young disciples from educated families. A fair number of the latter seem to have renounced the world in a monastic spirit, including Celestius, possibly an Italian, who opted to join the clerical status programme by receiving ordination. The latter was censured in 412 by a synod in Carthage for holding Pelagian views.

Freedom of choice was an important aspect of Pelagian teaching. Nothing could make sense without this component. The individual had to create better values in the decadent Roman society, and not rest content with the conventional habits. Numerous pagans in Rome had recently become Christians, but the general tendency of these converts was to maintain former customs. Many of them were members of a ruling class desiring to protect their extensive properties at any cost to society. This was the underlying rationale for the imperial laws which exacted brutal punishments. These upper class “good Christians” of Rome “were capable of discussing at the dinner-table both the latest theological opinion, on which they prided themselves as experts, and the kind of judicial torture they had just inflicted on some poor wretch” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 347). 

Unlike the layman Pelagius, the prestigious Bishop Augustine was insensitive to the fact that crude dogmas of salvation could endorse injustices. The elect Christians could so easily abuse dissident Christians and pagans who were sentenced to damnation by predestination. Meanwhile, the Pelagian cause agitated at the public executions maintained by Roman ruling class barbarity at the expense of the poor and discontented. 

The last decade of the fourth century CE saw many imperial edicts against paganism and heresy. Hereditary occupations were enforced in a milieu “where the secret police (agentes in rebus) seemed ubiquitous, and where the screams of those under judicial torture and the gibbets of arbitrary executions were common sounds and sights” (Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 222).

“Pelagius wanted every Christian to be a monk” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 348). His precise relation to monasticism is uncertain, but his ascetic outlook is evident. “To sell all one’s possessions, as he himself had done; to refrain even from what was permitted; to be content, like pilgrims, with bare necessities; and to live in celibacy – these were his ideals” (quote from Pelagius). In contrast, Augustine favoured the affluent and married Christian layman disposed to vendettas and keen to fight for his property (Brown, op. cit., p. 348). In many ways, the African bishops represented underlying Roman Empire social attitudes. 

“For the Pelagians, man had no excuse for his own sins, nor for the evils around him” (ibid., p. 349). Augustine invented a new excuse, that of heavenly predestination for the baptised elect. He asserted the transmission of hereditary sin, and urged that pagan virtues were annulled by sin. Only divine grace for the elect counted. 

Many Pelagians wished to part with their enormous wealth in the pursuit of renunciation, a factor basically foreign to the pedagogical and episcopal outlook. Pelagians asserted that the (Christian) rich were damned, in contrast to the clerical insistence that non-Christians are eternally blighted. Augustine and other churchmen counteracted excess wealth being given to the poor by the pious injunction to endow Catholic monasteries (ibid., p. 350). The clergy and establishment monks depended on wealthy landowners, who were thus screened from criticism. 

The letters of Augustine to the Roman noblewoman Proba have been viewed with caution; he did not exhort Proba to change her situation, but merely to dwell on pious themes like corruptibility. Yet she was “the heiress of a vast agricultural empire, acquired by rapine and maintained with a selfishness that had aggravated the miseries and resentments of the Gothic disaster” (ibid., p. 351). 

The Bishop of Hippo missed out basic causality in his deceptive attitude to Roman life, whereas the Pelagians began to perceive the realistic deficit of huge problems underlying social and political existence. 

In 418, the Emperor Honorius ordered the banishment of Pelagius and Celestius from Rome (wrongly assuming they were still in that city), and condemned all those who denied the Fall (meaning original sin). In unison, the Council of Carthage issued a series of nine canons against Pelagianism. Pope Zosimos, under pressure from the conservative African bishops and Roman opponents, condemned and excommunicated the heretics. Augustine, the chief instigator, made further hostile gestures, with the result that Pelagius was expelled from Palestine, seeking refuge in Egypt, an event leading to his oblivion. 

Meanwhile, eighteen Italian bishops appealed against the condemnation, only to find themselves condemned, excommunicated, and banished from their homeland (Rees, 1988, p. 141). The repressive clerical programme lasted in variants for over a thousand years. 

See further Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber, 1967); Theodore de Bruyn, trans., Pelagius’ Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford University Press, 1998): Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967; revised edn, 1993); R. F. Evans, Pelagius: Inquiries and Reappraisals (New York, 1968); Evans, Four Letters of Pelagius (London, 1968); J. Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study (Cambridge, 1956); B. R. Rees, Pelagius: A Reluctant Heretic (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988); Rees, Pelagius: Life and Letters (Boydell, 2004). 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 47 

Copyright © 2012 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.