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The Ascetic Response

The influence of the eastern monks on the attitudes and beliefs of common people is well attested by the sources for late antiquity.[73] Their constancy and zeal contributed to the Monophysite dispute an ingredient of popular faith, and not simply of theological debate.[74] For the Amidan ascetics, however, the immediacy of the religious crisis was matched by the cumulative impact of local natural disasters and political events. The ascetic ideal and motivation were thus profoundly affected by the state of the temporal world in a time of great need: the potency of ascetic actions rose.[75]


The desert had ceased to be a place of solitude. Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor describes the communities that grew up in the wilderness during the persecutions:

And so the desert was at peace, and was abundantly supplied with a population of believers who lived in it, and fresh ones who were every day added to them and aided in swelling the numbers of their brethren, some from a desire to visit their brethren out of Christian love, and others again because they were being driven from country to country by the bishops in the cities. And there grew up, as it were, a commonwealth of illustrious and believing priests, and a tranquil brotherhood with them; and they were united in love and abounded in mutual affection, and they were beloved and acceptable in the sight of everyone; and nothing was lacking, for the honoured heads of the corporation, which is composed of all the members of the body, accompanied them.[76]

Hence it was with pride that John of Ephesus stressed the continuity of tradition in ascetic practice for the Amidan monasteries, even while they lived in a present state of dispersal. The various communities continued, seemingly without interruption by their circumstances, the customary practices of fasting, vigils, genuflexions, weeping, and the use of standing poles and other aids. Further, they continued their role in society at large: admonishing and advising the local populace wherever they settled, healing the sick, and exorcising demons.[77] But they acted now, as pseudo-Zachariah indicates, in concert with the community that the wilderness fostered, bonded together by their common plight. Thus John of Ephesus praised the united body of Amidans, "the separate character of each convent being preserved in this only, the fact that its own brotherhood was separate, and its belongings and archimandrite and its priests, while all the affairs of them all were administered in common, together with all the spiritual labours of brotherly concord."[78]

The Amidan monasteries had for generations upheld a high-standing reputation for practice as well as for learning; their fame would spread on both accounts during their ordeal. In his history of the monastery of Mar John Urtaya, John of Ephesus records a faultless succession of abbots in the course of the persecutions.[79] Moreover, he reaffirms the monastery's ties to the city of Amida itself. Not only were the remains of the leaders who died in exile returned, when it became possible, to the monastery's own burial grounds; but further, the abbot appointed during the final period of persecution in which John wrote was born of a distinguished family of the city and had been in the monastery since he was a child.[80] Similarly, John saw fit, despite the disruptions of the times, to elaborate on the lengthy traditional method of gaining entry and serving


as novice in another Amidan monastery, emphasizing the commitment to correct training.[81] Nor was the image of the Amidan monasteries enhanced by John alone. John of Tella had immediately welcomed the Amidan exiles he encountered, knowing their place of origin and its high standards in ascetic practices and religious education.[82] Above all, wandering ascetics continued, with confidence, to join Amida's communities in exile, just as they had previously, so constant was the reputation they upheld.[83]

In the Lives of the Eastern Saints , the few accounts John offers of ascetics devoted purely to the pursuit of private worship are presented in this context. They are people who came to the Amidan communities before and during the periods of persecution: Abbi, who wore rags and passed his days reading the Gospels in ecstasy, speaking and eating rarely and always with tears; a poor stranger who would not reveal his name or anything of his travels, who meditated with mournful humility throughout the nights and allowed no morsel of food or drop of water to pass his lips without a prayer of thanksgiving, thus taking one hundred sips to drink a cup; and Zacharias, who shunned all contact with others, secretly carrying a pebble in his mouth to impede speech and mortifying his flesh with knots of rope to prevent unworthy thoughts from finding their way into his mind.[84]

These accounts stand in seeming contrast to John's emphasis on asceticism practiced within an urban setting or in close contact with village populations, for his usual ideal is that of an asceticism ministering to a crisis-ridden society. But the contrast becomes less when one realizes where he makes room for the virtuosi of private ascetic practice. For the exiled communities, these holy individuals ensured the validity of their tradition and of their spiritual authority, as much in time of peace as in trial, under the strongly politicizing pressures that beset the Monophysite population.

It is with this intent that John relates the story of a monk who joined the Amidan monasteries while they were settled at Mar Mama.[85] Since it was uncanonical for a monk to leave his monastery to enter another without an official release, the Amidan archimandrite carefully examined this monk as to his previous training and present status. In fact he had not been released and had lied in order to join their community. Then a local plague broke out, and in the cramped living quarters of the exiles it raged freely, killing eighty-four of the Amidan brethren as well as some of their guests. The newly received monk, too, fell ill and was divinely punished for his perjury by hovering paralysed just outside death. The brethren finally guessed his situation and stood themselves


surety to gain his release, sending a deacon to petition his former archimandrite. As soon as this was done, the man died. Such an account underscored the Amidans' authoritative status, illustrating their care with canons was no less than that with faith.[86]

In the same way, John stresses an unbroken pattern in the Amidan ascetics' social involvement, despite their flight to unfamiliar territory. The personal trial of exile, with its hazards and discomforts, was not considered a release from an ascetic's obligation to others. Hala, a monk at the monastery of the Edessenes in Amida, had devoted himself for some years to caring for the destitute and strangers in the city.[87] When the monastery was expelled and its property confiscated or hidden, Hala was beside himself, having nothing with which to comfort those in need. At once he set about finding new ways of continuing his ministry, paying no heed to the affliction of his own monastic community or to their mockery of his efforts. Rather, he collected old coats and rags from dung heaps and then cleaned and sewed them together into cushions and rugs for the poor visitors who came. "And so he found this method of carrying out his own employment, not giving up this strenuous pursuit in peace or in persecution, in the city or in exile."[88]

In fact, the Amidan communities could in many respects conduct their life in exile just as they had previously, if they could find a safe place to stay. Their ministry during times of famine was both moving and familiar; they had dealt with such circumstances before.[89] However, exile was at times relentless. When they sought refuge in the monastery of the Sycamores, Abraham bar Kaili sent Roman soldiers under his command to expel them again. Upon their arrival the soldiers were stunned at the sight of hundreds of ascetics engaged in worship, standing row upon row without fear. Unnerved, the troops turned upon the nearby villagers, plundering their land, killing their animals, eating their food, and taking over their houses; the soldiers told the inhabitants that they would leave only if the monks were persuaded to depart as well. Oppressed beyond their means, the villagers collectively begged the monks to relieve them of their burden. The ascetics saw their grief, and wishing to cause ordinary people no harm they left at once.[90] The Amidan community and the laity they met seem to have aided each other wherever possible.[91]

But in such a context, the wilderness and its solitude bore fruit very much intended for the temporal world; it did not serve as a place of retreat for its own sake, or of refuge from the plight of the eastern cities. In their continuity of practice, of spiritual tradition and of social involvement, the Amidan ascetics in exile acquired an ever-increasing prestige.


And the potency of that authority was fully concentrated on the persons and events of their own time.

The expulsion of the Amidan monasteries carried further implications. Their absence left a burden on those who remained in Amida and its territory, that their services for the populace be continued. Thus a local recluse, who had chosen a separate life outside the city and its monastic complexes, found himself forced to leave his retreat and return. Simeon the Solitary had once been renowned for his labors in an Amidan monastery, both in private ascetic practice and in his ministry to the poor and strangers in the city.[92] When he chose to take up life as a hermit in the mountains nearby, he was "supplied by many persons with all that he needed" and served residents and travelers from his huts, while his fame spread throughout the region. Finally, however, the situation in Amida—the loss of its spiritual community—called him back:

But afterwards the storm of persecution was stirred up against [Simeon] together with all the rest of the church; and he bravely and heroically contended in the conflicts. . . . But he himself held firm; and thus he persevered and maintained a heroic contest, and he used to go around in the city itself at the very height of the persecution, and give absolution and baptise by night and by day.[93]

The persecuting Chalcedonians, on the other hand, had not allowed the city walls to restrict their efforts. Under Abraham bar Kaili, the local anchoretic sanctuaries were violated now for a different kind of booty. Local celebrities such as Maro the Stylite were coaxed for an unwitting slip of the tongue so that Chalcedonians could claim, "Behold, even Maro on his pillar agrees with us!"[94] The authorities were well aware of the ascetics' influence and knew that even apparent verbal capitulation on the part of such figures could draw many people to their communion.[95]

These solitaries and their disciples, no longer left to their business of serving community needs from their retreats, were forced into the social arena. Not only were their sanctuaries invaded but the strength of their religious commitment would not allow them to continue a life apart from the events around them. When the hermit Sergius was dragged from his hut, beaten by physical and by verbal blows, he could not continue his anchoretic existence.[96] His reentry into the city of Amida demonstrated in no uncertain terms the solitary's response to Amida's situation:

But the blessed Sergius went out, and arrived at the city on the holy day of Sunday, at dawn. He then went straight to the church, and as the whole city was sitting there after the morning hymns . . . suddenly at the door of the church there appeared a strange and shocking sight, and all were stunned, seeing an appearance not their own: a hermit was


entering, wearing rags patched together from sackcloth and carrying his cross on his shoulder. And he went right in, going straight to the middle of the church without a question, neither speaking nor turning to either side; and as the preacher was standing and speaking, he stopped, while astonishment fell upon the crowd, and they looked to see what was the matter. But the holy man, as soon as he reached the chancel, struck his cross upon the steps and began to mount. And when he had climbed one or two steps in silence, everyone thought that he was getting ready either to say something or to make a petition to the city or to the bishop [Abraham bar Kaili]. But when he reached the third step where the preacher stood, he flung out his hand, grabbed him by the neck, held him fast, and said to him, "Wicked evil man, our Lord commands, 'Do not give what is holy to dogs nor pearls before swine'; why do you speak the words of God before those who deny Him?" And he swung his hand round, punched him, twisted his mouth awry, seized him and threw him down.[97]

Sergius succeeded in rousing the congregation into full riot before he himself was beaten unconscious and carried off to an Armenian prison camp reserved for Monophysites. He was not long held, however, and soon escaped back to his own cell.[98]

Thus the city of Amida became a battleground against the forces of evil that had once been sought in the harshness of the wilderness. For there were those ascetics who chose to remain in Amida rather than go into exile with the majority of the monks, and these intensified their ascetic practice by the danger of their situation. Abraham was both cruel and thorough in the campaign he waged through the city.

Nonetheless, city life afforded some protection through the possibility of anonymity, and John of Ephesus speaks with admiration of the "underground" communities, the secret groups of ascetics exiled from their own monasteries or convents who remained in the city, residing in housing ostensibly rented for tenancy by others. Many of the exiled, as well as their various communications and business matters, passed through such groups, aided by sympathetic townspeople. For in order to ensure a presence eluding the authorities but efficacious for the populace, it was imperative that the Monophysite leaders inside the city depend upon the efforts of individuals and avoid the visibility of actions as a body.[99]

Such a person was the holy Euphemia, who had for many years lived an ascetic career in Amida with her daughter Maria.[100] She followed a private rule of austerity in her own life (John of Ephesus and others would beg her to show herself some of the kindness she so liberally bestowed on others) and, at the same time, with Maria's aid devoted herself day and night to ministering to the city's poor, sick, homeless, and


afflicted. There seemed no corner of the city or its environs unknown to her, and no one person, rich or destitute, citizen or stranger, whose life had not been touched by her grace and charity.

When the persecutions struck, a steady stream of exiled monks, singly or in company, began to appear at Euphemia's door for refuge. In no time she had organized accommodations for both housing and worship, setting up a substantial network through which they could stay in the city pursuing their habitual monastic practices or, if traveling, could have the assurance of lodging and hospitable company (no small gift when suffering flight). But it was not long, only a few years, before the Chalcedonian authorities became suspicious of the doctrinal leanings of the holy woman and her daughter and imprisoned them with the intent of forcing their submission to Chalcedonian communion. However, the officials had not reckoned on the support of Euphemia's followers, and the entire city, small and great alike, demanded the release of the two women. Faced with a public uprising, the authorities quietly banished Euphemia and Maria from the city.

Euphemia's life is a particularly instructive one, for her personal career well reflects the fortune of Amida in the sixth century. Thirty years of her life were passed in service to those in the city who suffered famine, invasion, and plague. The appearance of the persecutions at first seemed yet one more trial with which to contend. But her story reveals the cost that Amida's calamities were to exact from its citizens and ascetics, and if her end was less histrionic than the memory of a city driven mad with suffering, it was no less indicative of the times.

After their banishment from the city, Euphemia and her daughter went to Jerusalem, passing some time in pilgrimage. John of Ephesus then tells us,

imagining that perhaps the anger against them had abated, they returned to Amida and entered it secretly; and they stayed at the house of a certain nobleman. But when it began to be noticed, and their opponents began to speak about them, the people with whom they were staying became anxious, begging them to depart lest their house be plundered. But the blessed Euphemia was weary, and she wept aloud to God, saying, "My Lord, your mercy knows that I have grown weak, and I have no more strength. It is enough for me." And on that very night, the request of her prayer was answered.[101]

Within a week Euphemia had died of illness, having attained, John assures us, the crown of martyrdom. But hers was a death not caused by suffering under persecution so much as by the gradually wearing effects of the calamity that buffeted her time and place.


In this way Euphemia's story typifies the ascetic's experience in sixth-century Amida. The commitment of the ascetic to the temporal world was as pressing as that to the eternal; the space of the holy was not inviolable for either secular or religious forces, nor could it remain aloof from the events surrounding or involving it. The space of the holy was found nowhere separate for the Amidan ascetics or populace. On the contrary, it was everywhere present.


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