Tuesday 19 July 2016

Written in Water #14: Prophets of the Sands and Stones

St. Jerome in the Wilderness, Bernardino Pinturrichio, c.1475
It's one thing to maintain an active religious belief when society at large is against you, and much has been written, ancient and present day, about what it's like to be in what everyone else calls a cult, and like it or not, that's what Christianity was for the first two and a half centuries of its existence. The fact is, it takes a certain kind of steel in your back to keep it up when they're kicking down your door and barbecuing you.

(By the way, and this is a complete digression, but the one thing I forgot to say when I wrote about the barbecuing of St. Lawrence is that the story has one big historical fact encoded in it. And I'm completely serious here: it shows us that the later Romans used barbecues. When Lawrence makes, in the story, that terrible joke about being cooked well done or rare, it can only make sense in the context of a society used to cooking its meat on a charcoal grill, and used to making a distinction between rare or well done. Which goes to show that even the strangest and craziest of these stories have real value historically, if you know how to listen.)

However you explain religious commitment in the face of institutional hostility, the fact is that when this formerly persecuted cult becomes – in a dizzyingly short period of time, remember – the religion of the head of state and by extension the faith of the multitude, that completely changes the religion.

And if you're used to following the hardline, discovering that suddenly your church is full of people who might not have been members when the persecution happened, and that their commitment might be from reasons other than honest belief, that's hard to swallow.

If you've been reading these pieces, you probably know that my take on this whole phenomenon is that things got very messed up very quickly. You go from being a violently suppressed (if growing) cult to being the religion of the Emperor himself in the space of two years. And then within a decade, your religion is the religious apparatus of state. That is not enough time to process the change. I don't know how long it should take for a change like that to process, to be honest, but to go from bottom to top in only a few years, that isn't something you're prepared for. And yes, I've written about survivor guilt and how that  turned toxic, but the flip side of that is new people in the church. New converts, who never experienced persecution – who might even, back in the day, have taken part in it.

Quite early on, some of those who in earlier days would have been happy to be martyrs, who even perhaps regretted not having had the chance, upped their game.

Getting away from what they saw as the corruption of the newly established church, the new people who didn't understand the cost, these would-be martyrs turned away from society. They headed out to the desert in search of solitude and contemplation.

For all that Christian writers would try to tie it into the Christian narrative by attaching it to the story of Christ's fast in the desert (as told in Matthew 4:1-13 and Luke 4: 1-11), this was a new mutation of the faith. Up to this point, Christianity had been social, corporate, based around families and communities. The gathering of believers was the central plank of its practice. Suddenly though,  people were going into the desert. Rather than being martyred by temporal authorities, they were martying themselves, scourging themselves, starving themselves. Inflicting suffering upon themselves for the sake of repentance, meditation, contemplation. In time, they would gather together and form communities of like-minded men and women with their own communities and social contracts. These were the first Christian monks and nuns.

The desert was a strange place to the people then, a place of fear, close enough to the great cities of the south, but in its inhospitable, deadly nature, nonetheless distant. And that distance made it a liminal place, a doorway between the understood world and the world of story, full of barely understood monsters, Satyrs and Hippocentaurs and Skiapodes.

I could tell you about Anthony, because every story of hermits and monks in the desert goes back to him, but really he's going to get his own entry, because his story really matters enough to deserve that. Just take away for now that his is the first significant story of a Christian Saint who was born in a Christian society and never experienced persecution. Take away that his life story, written by Athanasius of Alexandria, who also deserves an entry of his own, was so instantly and wildly popular that people imitated the man and imitated the story.

I've told you about Thaïs, locked in a room for three years. And Mary of Egypt, who levitated, and walked on water and made three loaves of bread last fifteen years and knew the Bible off by heart, though illiterate. And Pelagia who contended with Satan and became a man.

I could talk about Simeon Stylites who reasoned that if he couldn't escape the rest of the world horizontally he'd do it vertically and spent the rest of his life sitting on the top of a pillar with his lice and his ringworm, suffering the occasional ladder-climbing visitor and having his food winched up in baskets, but that's really the whole story.

Or what about John Moschus's tales of monks who keep meeting lions, lions that keep them warm at night, lions who eat bread and peas and do as they're told, or lions who refrain from eating the truly repentant?

Or Paphnutius the tormentor of Thaïs, whose own story has him meet a reformed bandit and realise that the former criminal is as good a man as he is, which casts him in a different light to the austere giver of judgement?

I have books and books of these stories, but for today I'm sticking with two of my favourites, about two hermits, both called Macarius. They lived about the same time. They knew each other. Their stories are consecutive in the same book.

Macarius of Egypt one day had a man come to his cave and ask for sanctuary because he'd been accused of a murder. Then came shortly after his pursuers, to arrest him. The man swore on the holiest things he could find that he didn't do it, and this Macarius asked where the murdered man was buried. So they all went to the grave. Macarius called out the name of the dead man, and the dead man's voice answered from the grave. Macarius asked if this was the man who'd killed him. The dead man said, no. Everyone there fell to the ground, and grasped his feet and begged him to find out the name of who had actually done the deed.
Then said he, "I shall not ask this thing: it is enough for me that the innocent goes free. It is not for me to betray the guilty."
Rufinus, History of the Monks of Egypt xxviii, trans. Helen Waddell

The story about the other Macarius, Macarius of Alexandria, well. It isn't like that.
They tell that once a certain brother brought a bunch of grapes to the holy Macarius: but he who for love's sake thought not on his own things but on the things of others, carried it to another brother, who seemed more feeble. And the sick man gave thanks to God for the kindness of his brother, but he too thinking more of his neighbour than himself, brought it to another, and he again to another, and so that same bunch if grapes was carried around all the cells, scattered as they were all Iver the desert, and no one knowing who first had sent it, it was brought at last to the first giver.
Rufinus, History of the Monks of Egypt xxix, trans. Helen Waddell
It's a feel good tale, that. Macarius draws the moral from it that his friends and colleagues are decent and selfless. He aims to do better.

What to add? It seems a shame to spoil it with further moralising.