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VII John of Ephesus: Asceticism and Society
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Contrasts in Hagiography

Cyril of Scythopolis, like John of Ephesus, wrote with a self-conscious sense of purpose. The times in which he lived marked him too, and the task he set himself—to honor the founders of Palestinian monasticism—was not easy. Cyril saw the events of the fifth and sixth centuries as religiously dangerous. But where John saw an essential unity in time and space between the physical and divine realms, Cyril saw a gap, bridged only by contact of a limited kind.

Cyril's Lives are well-crafted biographies, though he includes the standard apologia that his own skills are inadequate for the task.[3] Yet despite his formality, he does not write heavily stylized hagiography. His language is clean and unadorned, carefully worked (unlike John Moschus') but unaffected.[4] He follows his subjects from birth to death, and sometimes posthumously.[5]

Cyril writes with a fastidious attention to detail. He marks and countermarks every verifiable point: where his information came from and how he got it, locations, relationships, and, above all, dates. In fact, Cyril's preoccupation with dates is startling in literature of this kind. At frequent intervals he notes the date in various combinations from the year in secular reckoning, the age of his subject at the time, which year of which emperor's reign, and the major landmark events:[6] imperial and patriarchate dealings and successions; occurrences of plague, famine,


drought, invasion; rebellion politically motivated (by the Samaritans) or religiously (by the Palestinian Origenists); and foundations and dedications of monasteries. He seems to offer us exactly what John of Ephesus does not provide, a welcome sense of order. But the contrast is deceptive and may in fact work the other way. John's carelessness is belied by the coherent discipline his subjects display. Cyril's narrative efforts, too, are belied by the content: the emphasis on historical setting appears an artificial imposition by the author and not a reflection of what these saints' lives intend.

Cyril limits himself to stories of leaders. It is here that we see his audience most clearly. He cuts himself off from the less glamorous activity John of Ephesus records. Cyril's saints are removed from the experiences of ordinary people, not only by their social class at birth but also and often by blood relations or high connections with the ecclesiastical and imperial hierarchies.[7] The disciples who follow their examples and join their monasteries are also of similar background. As a whole, theirs is a superiority of place as well as of class: none are native to Palestine. As Cyril recounts events, the work of these men effectively raises Palestine to a stature befitting its identity as the Holy Land and its authority through Jerusalem's position as patriarchal seat, sufficient stature to match the monastic and ecclesiastical authority of Egypt and Alexandria, and of Syria and Antioch. Indeed, Cyril presents Jerusalem as the patriarchate most loyal to the imperial throne. Cyril is aiming for a high audience, seeking it as far away as Constantinople; he addresses a cosmopolitan and powerful elite, centered in the great cities and their networks of great families.[8] John of Ephesus seeks only the audience of the East, a poorer and provincial lot.

The social advantages of Cyril's subjects find a spiritual correspondence in their elite place as holy men. Their ascetic practices and monastic work create a holy space that mirrors Paradise. Cyril's holy men are never wanting for food or water, whether lost in the desert or enduring widespread droughts or famine.[9] They are divinely protected from every facet of sixth-century calamity, calamities threatening the holy no less than the ordinary in John of Ephesus' Lives . These saints need not fear danger from fire, wild beasts, robbers, pillaging troops, or plague.[10] Indeed, their anchoretic solitude can last unbroken by any temporal care or contact for many, many years.[11]

Removed by grace from the normal hardships of the world, Cyril's saints keep themselves apart from such experiences. In no case do they minister or serve unless forcefully beseeched.[12] Claiming their own sinfulness precludes them from the position of mediator, they provide in-


tercession only with reluctance whether to emperor or to God.[13] For these holy ones, care for the needy is the business of the church in the world: institutions founded by wealthy patrons and run by the ecclesiastical hierarchy are of little concern to those of the desert.[14] Not surprisingly, Cyril emphasizes the posthumous miracles of Saints Euthymius and Sabas, miracles entailing cures, exorcisms, rescues of various sorts, and interventions where heretical doings threaten[15] —the very kinds of activity that the world sought from the holy men while alive but that they evaded by their retreat to the desert.

The good works performed by these ascetics are hence shown to be of total disinterest to them. The world of the desert and the world of the city do not meet.[16] For Cyril, the divine protection these men receive is the mark of their sanctity—Paradise regained—and their apparent lack of concern for the society beyond their monastic communities portrays their absolute devotion to God. In their sacred abode, they feel compunction if they unwittingly harm a mule,[17] but their compassion for the larger world is not in evidence. Yet Cyril does highlight just how powerful these holy men are when they do turn to the affairs of the Christian society beyond their walls.

Thus the emphasis many scholars have placed on the imperial interventions of Saints Euthymius and Sabas must be seen in the hagiographical context that Cyril establishes for us.[18] Euthymius was only persuaded with great difficulty to meet the empress Eudocia, although Simeon the Stylite himself had sent her; and he spurned her pleas for advice more than once despite her devoted efforts and building campaigns on behalf of the church.[19] Again, one of Euthymius' posthumous miracles is instructive: during the reign of Zeno, the patriarch Martyrius of Jerusalem sent an envoy to Constantinople to plead for help in the religious turbulence rife in Palestine; but the saint appeared in a vision and forbade the journey altogether.[20]

The work of Sabas was, however, of a different kind; and it is here that Cyril writes from within a set of calamitous circumstances that match the backdrop of John of Ephesus' Lives . In 511, Sabas was persuaded by Elias, then patriarch of Jerusalem, to meet with the emperor Anastasius regarding the severe disturbances within the church: the Acacian schism with Rome and the Monophysite struggles of the eastern patriarchates.[21] The holy man was persuaded to make this journey because Elias pressed him hard about the perils to orthodoxy. While in Constantinople, Sabas admonished Anastasius about his Monophysite leanings and also requested fiscal reforms for Palestine, again at the patriarch's behest. Although he campaigned vigorously against Severus,


who was in Constantinople at the time, and thus incurred Anastasius' disfavor, his presence was sufficiently impressive for him to return to Palestine with imperial largesse for distribution among the monasteries.[22] Later, Sabas himself took the initiative to approach Anastasius, this time by organizing and sending a petition of protest, signed by the bulk of the Palestinian ascetic community, against Severus' activities as patriarch of Antioch and the imperial support Severus enjoyed in these endeavors.[23]

Some years later, Sabas was again besought to play envoy for Palestine. The province had suffered severe famine and drought for several years, narrowly avoiding a popular rebellion; shortly thereafter, the Samaritan revolt left the cities and countryside of Palestine in ruins. Sabas was approached by Peter, now patriarch of Jerusalem, and by the other leading Palestinian bishops and begged to go once more to Constantinople, this time to plead for leniency and tax remission on behalf of the battered province. In 531, the saint set off for Justinian's court.[24]

Sabas' time in Justinian's care is described by Cyril as spectacular, and indeed it would seem to have accomplished spectacular results, both for Palestine and for the Chalcedonian church.[25] But Sabas had shown no more interest in or inclination for alleviating Palestine's suffering before this excursion than he had before his voyage to Anastasius' court. On both of these occasions, he acted because he was summoned to do so. The outrage that spurred Z'ura the Stylite and Mare the Solitary to march to the imperial presence and protest against imperial policies and the compassion that found the Amidan ascetics feeding and clothing the stricken populace of the east, although themselves in exile under hazardous conditions, are absent in Sabas' work and in the less histrionic actions of Euthymius. Cyril's concern to place his holy men firmly and accurately in their historical setting shows their disassociation from it.

However, Sabas did act on his own initiative on one occasion: the letter of protest to Anastasius about Severus of Antioch. The major issue for Cyril's saints is heresy, and their fear about it laces all of Cyril's accounts. The Life of Euthymius treats us to lengthy declarations of faith and angry responses to the charge that the Council of Chalcedon (which took place during the height of Euthymius' monastic reign) had blessed Nestorianism by a different name.[26]

Indeed, Cyril's writings show that defense of Chalcedon was required as much in the sixth century as it was in the fifth.[27] However, Cyril's Lives dwell above all on the theological divisions that rent the Palestinian monastic community internally during the fifth and sixth cen-


turies, culminating in Cyril's own time with the crisis of Origenism.[28] The theological divisons within the desert are Cyril's overriding concern, above all else, and are the only form of crisis that move his holy men to action of their own doing: the real world is here.

For Cyril and for his subjects, the desert is the primary scene. It is where they live and where they work; their interest is not in what lies outside it. Only the battle against heresy can stir them to action in the temporal world, for heresy is an attack on the divine. The struggling eastern populace rouses no sense of urgency for these ascetics. John of Ephesus and his subjects also perceive religious crisis as the only important reality. But for them, the crisis of true faith is found in, and battled out in, the midst of society, the community of the Christian body. Although ascetics might choose solitude for part or all of their career, John does not present us with the attitude even from hermits that the human and divine are dichotomized arenas. Such a view is, however, precisely what Cyril leaves with us.

The paradoxes are apparent in Cyril's Lives, too, through his treatment of women. Cyril does not choose to include any female subjects among his select group of biographies, and indeed he makes no mention of the convents and women solitaries who were part of Palestine's desert community.[29] The antipathy of his subjects towards women is made plain; even a remote resemblance to women was dangerous. Euthymius and Sabas were both adamant that eunuchs and beardless youths must be kept separate from the primary monasteries and from the desert lavrae and cenobiae.[30] Sabas once punished severely a monk who had seen the eyes of a woman that the two had passed by: no more, but no less.[31]

Yet the few women mentioned in passing in Cyril's accounts are all shown to be virtuous;[32] in fact, Cyril himself as well as some of his subjects are seen to have been encouraged and prepared for their monastic careers by pious women.[33] The extremes of shunning women as the source of destruction, and yet encountering women as positive models of faith, do not balance out; they resemble the extremes between Cyril's conscientious historical sense and his subjects' lack of orientation to time, place, or society. In the case of women, in this context of stressed enmity, there is a peculiar edge to the physical intimacy with which Sabas heals women, touching and anointing their bodies.[34] Cyril's intent in recalling these incidents is to show that his saint is truly not of this world; but he succeeds, too, in severing the human from the holy. Consider the contrast, for example, in John of Ephesus' holy woman Susan, who neither saw the face of nor showed her face to a man for more than


twenty-five years while yet living within and leading a mixed ascetic community. For her, the temporal and the holy are distinct but not unrelated realms.

For Cyril's saints, faith can be found in the temporal world, but the holy cannot be. The divine must be sought outside it. The ascetic's responsibility to the wider community of believers is fulfilled in the action of achieving a spiritual life, thereby offering a bridge between the imperfection of human society and the perfection of a life conforming to the will of God. Cyril's meticulous style, then, accurately reflects his subjects insofar as it matches the discipline of their lives in the desert.

The stylistic contrast between Cyril's formality and John Moschus' informality could hardly be greater. Cyril speaks to a sophisticated readership; Moschus looks to satisfy popular interests with favorite themes and diverting tales. The shared motifs and perspectives of the two collections are thus seen in sharp relief: one does not expect the two to tally so well.

However timeless the activity of his holy men, Cyril does set them in a historical framework. Moschus does not bother to do so, and the reader might often wonder when and where the stories take place. He too writes in a style befitting his content; spare and stark, his language easily conjures the uncluttered world he unfolds.[35] Here the Palestinian desert is remote in both place and time. The ascetics that Moschus brings to life are also remote. They can pass years, sometimes decades, without seeing or speaking with another soul;[36] they can lie dead for as long again, unchanged, until another anchorite or traveler accidentally stumbles across them.[37] They suffer often the demons of boredom and sexual desire and seem to return to towns or cities only when they have fallen from their vows and seek the debauchery of their fantasies.[38] In this black and white existence, miracles and prodigies are the norm, the Lord's favorite people plainly indicated, and the will of the divine equally explicit.

Moschus does include stories of worthy ascetics living in urban settings; but these tend to be bishops, or holy men on business, who remain as detached in their city as in the desert, though an occasional glimpse of social context emerges: the women who become prostitutes because they are starving,[39] and the citizens ruined by burdensome debts.[40] The ascetics themselves are untouched by the events of their time, events that penetrate the desert air only for didactic purposes. If plague strikes a village, one can seek out these holy men, whose prayers can save one's children and banish the epidemic.[41] If a marauding barbarian attacks, the prayers of these men can cause the enemies to be swal-


lowed up by the earth or carried off to death by a giant bird; they can even cause the innocent person to be transported elsewhere.[42] Nor is food a problem: for these men, bread multiplies itself.[43] Moreover, for Moschus, holy women are solely occupied with battling Satan over the issue of fornication, a restricted sphere of activity even for women.[44]

Moschus' Chalcedonian faith is manifested by the same means as his ascetic vision. His orthodoxy is revealed in signs, dreams, and miracles. The gates of hell are opened to reveal what punishment awaits the heretic in the afterlife;[45] holy sacraments are consumed by lightning if defiled by Monophysite hands.[46] Divine apparitions prevent Monophysites from worshipping in the holy places of Jerusalem;[47] evil odors are emitted by Syrian Monophysite monks, however faultless their ascetic practice.[48] The question of faith is omnipresent but is forever played out in the intangible space between the temporal and divine worlds. Thus two stylites, one Chalcedonian and one Monophysite, bring their religious dispute to the test by exploring the miraculous qualities of their respective holy sacraments—the Monophysite morsel, not surprisingly, proving unable to survive the trial.[49]

Moschus presents in concrete terms the themes that underlie Cyril's seemingly less credulous biographies.[50] The similarity in perspective between them is more than a case of shared hagiographical motifs. The shared themes blend with the nature of the ascetic activity portrayed to reveal a common religious perception between the two works, despite their very different literary modes.

To be sure, there may be practical considerations affecting their lack of attention to the larger Christian community. Palestine did not suffer as intensely as Mesopotamia during the calamities that swept the sixth-century Byzantine East. Famine and plague do not appear to have been so long-lasting or debilitating when they occurred; natural disasters may not have been so frequent; warfare and marauding Saracens were not as persistent or as extensively destructive as such activity in Syria and Mesopotamia.[51] The Samaritan revolt inflicted severe damage, but Justinian paid a generous largesse to the province soon afterwards, in recompense.[52] Furthermore, the battle for orthodoxy was on a different footing for these two writers than for John of Ephesus. Origenism and Monophysites were real and present dangers for Cyril and Moschus, but their Chalcedonian faith nonetheless stood in a dominant position.

Yet the differences in misfortune are a matter of degree. Palestine was affected by the general malaise in the Byzantine East, and it did suffer accordingly. So Cyril's Lives and Moschus' anecdotes are not temporally divorced because their subjects were sheltered from overriding


conditions, which, as can be glimpsed in their stories, they did in fact occasionally encounter. Their focus is other-worldly not by luxury of circumstance but by conscious intent. Theirs is a majestic vision of ascetic devotion to God, unbounded by time or place. But both works also admit that this grandeur was tarnished by human weakness: whether the seduction of the spirit by the flesh, or the erosion caused by petty disputes, or the insidious harm of ambitions worked out through the excuse of doctrinal conflict. Moving out of the temporal world into that of the spiritual life did not necessarily bring one closer to God. It did, however, alter the nature of religious crisis and of holy presence.

By contrast, the Lives of John of Ephesus jolt the reader into an awareness of their setting. Cyril's precision and Moschus' simplicity are consonant with their detachment from surrounding events. But if one looks for stylistic pointers, then John's writing also reveals much about his subjects, even if not as he intended. John's muddled style is not inappropriate for his content. The reality of his times is apparent throughout the Lives . As we have seen, the people his ascetics seek out and care for time and again are the victims of what befell the East. The immediacy of his portrait of human experience, and of holy presence within it, is heightened by the shared suffering he depicts: his ascetics may serve by divine grace, but grace does not protect them. John might have wished to present his subjects in a dignified manner—hence his pomposity in style—but his narrative style provides the best mirror for his context: there is no consistency, no clarity, and no escape.

The points where John seems to dovetail with Cyril and Moschus in hagiographical presentation are the very places that reveal their disparity of outlook. John's Thomas the Armenian forsook the luxury of his inheritance because he recognized that material goods were an ephemeral blessing. But his cry that "all is vanity" was not made with the derision of a cynic; he knew his father's wealth had been amassed by oppression of the poor.[53] John and his subjects recognized that life in the temporal world could not be dismissed as worthless or illusory; the world of human life belonged to God. A vow of devotion to God was a vow to care for what was His.

John describes the fervor with which Thomas took up his new career: "His soul became drunk on God."[54] He also tells us what that meant: "He devoted himself to making gifts on a large scale to the needy and the distressed, and to those who had creditors, and to churches and monasteries."[55] Further, Thomas kept enough of his wealth to establish a large monastic community, from which he provided spiritual leadership. When persecution struck, he carried on in exile as before. Thomas


exemplifies John's choice of subject, although his career appears to begin in the well-worn formula of renouncing the temporal world for the spiritual.

Nor did John harbor illusions about his saints. He worried about Thomas' lack of care for the black ulcers on his legs,[56] just as he worried about the holy woman Euphemia's diseased feet.[57] His fear was that such negligence would result in the wearing out of the ascetic's ability to serve. He describes with clinical detail the grievous results when the monk Aaron left a gangrenous sore unattended on his body.[58] But John further relates the skill and ingenuity with which the doctors handled the case, once Aaron's condition had been discovered. His respect for the medical profession, an uncommon attitude among devout Christians,[59] was pragmatic: Aaron lived and labored another eighteen years after "the testing of this trial." But although he states the medical facts of the case, John still perceives the miraculous element of God's hand at work. Human effort in no way excludes divine agency.

In one of John's more hagiographically formulaic passages, he gives his sole report of a posthumous miracle: Paul the Anchorite, who had exorcised ferocious demons, continued to prove powerful after he died. John writes,

even after his death miracles were everywhere wrought through his holy bones, men taking his skull and going around the districts, and, wheresoever locusts came or hail, or a scorching wind, or bubonic plague, and his right hand or head went, God would straightway make deliverance.[60]

The report is noteworthy because it stands alone in John's accounts. But in the context of the Lives as a whole, it makes sense. The populace of John's day required spiritual comfort as much as physical succor. Fear could gnaw no less than hunger, and it did gnaw. The relics of a holy man like Paul satisfied this need by providing the promise of care from the company of saints, not a small gift under the circumstances.

So, too, John tells of an incident occurring when the Amidan ascetic communities were in exile.[61] During the widespread famines, these monks provided what food they could for those who came in need to their place of shelter. But one day, such a crowd pressed upon them that their supplies nearly ran out. The monks did not hesitate to draw out some of their own reserve, but finally they approached the elders saying, "The food of the brotherhood has reached the point of exhaustion, and there are still many strangers lying at the door, and we have no means of supplying the need of these and of the brotherhood." The elders responded at once,


Glory to our Lord! Go, our sons, and bring forth and relieve the poor and the strangers; and, if anything remains for ourselves, well, and if not, we will keep fasting vigil today, and let the needs of the strangers and the poor and the needy only be supplied; and let them not be cut short by us.[62]

When the monks gathered for their meal at the day's end, they discovered food in abundance still remaining for themselves. "And the whole brotherhood stood on the tables themselves together with all the old heads of the convents, and they cried 'Kyrie eleeson' with great awe many times, with many tears."[63] The contrast to the similar stories, on the theme of a miraculous multiplication of food, told by Cyril and John Moschus is stark. John's ascetics knew hunger firsthand.

What is most apparent in the Lives of the Eastern Saints is that the fundamental ascetic ideal—the basic understanding of devotion to God—and the response to crisis are identical. Neither offers a means of retreat or of refuge from the plight of the eastern provinces. As we have seen, the conditions of exile rendered the Amidan ascetics easy prey for hunger and plague; and their religious status did not exempt them from the massacres wrought by plundering foreign troops. Again, they could survive only so much Chalcedonian torture. In fact, these stories are notable for the standard hagiographical fare they do not include: the ascetic nagged by boredom or distracted by lust. Indeed, these sins are the product of too little activity and too much isolation. More pointedly, John presents no miracles for answers. These ascetics may cure the sick and exorcise demons and attend to those in need, but they cannot call forth divine intervention. They can only serve.

Such different understandings of the task of devotion are not necessarily contradictory. John of Ephesus and Cyril of Scythopolis could both record an incident they saw as miraculously performed by their saints. If one tells us only of the physical, human details, and the other only of the occurrence of the miracle itself, it is not because what happened in each case was different but simply because each writer had his own idea of which details were important.

John Moschus portrays in clear and even tones what Cyril declares in a more stately manner: an asceticism of impenetrable timelessness, in which the temporal world is a place to be shunned, while one's faith is played out between oneself and one's God. This too, for these two hagiographers, is the nature and arena of religious crisis, warfare on behalf of the divine in a space far removed from the irrelevance of human time and place.

But John of Ephesus tells us that there were times when the ascetics of the early Byzantine Empire held themselves accountable for the con-


dition of the temporal world, not because a beleaguered population sought them out but because they perceived themselves as inextricably bound to the temporal world. These saints of the eastern Byzantine frontier found only one answer to the calamity of their time and to the urgency of religious crisis: for them, the holy is found not outside human society but rather manifestly within it.

While we have seen concrete hagiographical contrasts in our texts, it is difficult to assess these contrasts in terms of theological significance. Modern scholarship on the Christological controversy has shown how complex the issues were, and how difficult it is to distinguish belief from perception of belief. On the surface, these texts seem to point toward genuine contrasts among the authors, both in how the hagiographers presented the relationship between asceticism and society and in what holy men and women actually did. Although one could not prove these contrasts to be theologically based, these sources do confront us with actual differences in hagiography and asceticism, differences pointing toward distinctions of culture and belief.

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