IV. THE CHRISTIAN EAST

1. The Monks of the East

As the Church ceased to be a set of devotees and became an institution governing millions of men, she tended to adopt a more lenient view of human frailty, and to tolerate, sometimes to share, the pleasures of this world. A minority of Christians held such condescension to be treason to Christ; they resolved to gain heaven by poverty, chastity, and prayer, and retired completely from the world. Possibly Ashoka’s missionaries (c. 250 B.C.) had brought to the Near East the monastic forms as well as the theory and ethics of Buddhism; and pre-Christian anchorites like those of Serapis in Egypt, or the Essene communities in Judea, may have transmitted to Anthony and Pachomius the ideals and methods of the strictly religious life. Monasticism was for many souls a refuge from the chaos and war of the barbarian invasions; there were no taxes in the monastery or the desert cell, no military service, no marital strife, no weary toil; ordination to the priesthood was not required of a monk; and after a few years of peace would come eternal bliss.

Egypt, whose climate almost invited monasticism, teemed with anchoritic and cenobitic monks, following the solitary habits of Anthony, or the community life that Pachomius had established at Tabenne. The Nile was banked with monasteries and convents, some containing as many as 3000 monks and nuns. Of the anchorites Anthony (c. 251–356) was by far the most renowned. After wandering from solitude to solitude he fixed his cell on Mount Kolzim, near the Red Sea. Admirers found him out, imitated his devotion, and built their cells as near to his as he would permit; before he died the desert was peopled with his spiritual progeny. He seldom washed, and lived to the age of 105. He declined an invitation from Constantine, but at the age of ninety he journeyed to Alexandria to support Athanasius against the Arians. Only less famous was Pachomius, who (325) founded nine monasteries and one nunnery; sometimes 7000 monks who followed his rule gathered to celebrate some holy day. These cenobites worked as well as prayed; periodically they sailed down the Nile to Alexandria to sell their products, buy their necessities, and join in the ecclesiastical-political fray.

Among the anchorites a keen rivalry arose for the austerity championship. Macarius of Alexandria, says the Abbé Duchesne, “could never hear of any feat of asceticism without at once trying to surpass it.” If other monks ate no cooked food in Lent, Macarius ate none for seven years; if some punished themselves with sleeplessness, Macarius could be seen “frantically endeavoring for twenty consecutive nights to keep himself awake.” Throughout one Lent he stood upright night and day, and ate nothing except, once a week, a few cabbage leaves; and during this time he continued to work at his basket-weaving trade.32 For six months he slept in a marsh, and exposed his naked body to poisonous flies.33 Some monks excelled in feats of solitude; so Serapion inhabited a cave at the bottom of an abyss into which few pilgrims had the hardihood to descend; when Jerome and Paula reached his lair they found a man almost composed of bones, dressed only in a loincloth, face and shoulders covered by uncut hair; his cell was barely large enough for a bed of leaves and a plank; yet this man had lived among the aristocracy of Rome.34 Some, like Bessarion for forty, Pachomius for fifty, years, never lay down while they slept;35 some specialized in silence, and went many years without uttering a word; others carried heavy weights wherever they went, or bound their limbs with iron bracelets, greaves, or chains. Many proudly recorded the number of years since they had looked upon a woman’s face.36 Nearly all anchorites lived—some to a great age—on a narrow range of food. Jerome tells of monks who subsisted exclusively on figs or on barley bread. When Macarius was ill someone brought him grapes; unwilling so to indulge himself, he sent them to another hermit, who sent them to another; and so they made the rounds of the desert (Rufinus assures us) until they came back intact to Macarius.37 The pilgrims who flocked from all quarters of the Christian world to see the monks of the East credited them with miracles as remarkable as those of Christ. They could cure diseases or repel demons by a touch or a word, tame serpents or lions with a look or a prayer, and cross the Nile on the back of a crocodile. The relics of the anchorites became the most precious possession of Christian churches, and are treasured in them to this day.

In the monasteries the abbot required absolute obedience, and tested novices with impossible commands. One abbot (story says) ordered a novice to leap into a raging furnace; the novice obeyed; the flame, we are informed, parted to let him pass. Another monk was told to plant the abbot’s walking stick in the earth and water it till it flowered; for years he walked daily to the Nile, two miles away, to draw water to pour upon the stick; in the third year God took pity on him and the stick bloomed.38 Work was prescribed for the monks, says Jerome,39 “lest they be led astray by dangerous imaginings.” Some tilled fields, some tended gardens, wove mats or baskets, carved wooden shoes, or copied manuscripts; many ancient classics were preserved by their pens. Most Egyptian monks, however, were innocent of letters, and scorned secular knowledge as a futile conceit.40 Many of them considered cleanliness hostile to godliness; the virgin Silvia refused to wash any part of her body except her fingers; in a convent of 130 nuns none ever bathed, or washed the feet. Towards the end of the fourth century, however, the monks became resigned to water, and the abbot Alexander, scorning this decadence, looked back longingly to the time when monks “never washed the face.”41

The Near East rivaled Egypt in the number and marvels of its monks and nuns. Jerusalem and Antioch were meshed with monastic communities or cells. The Syrian desert was peopled with anchorites; some of them, like Hindu fakirs, bound themselves with chains to immovable rocks, others disdained so settled a habitation, and roamed over the mountains eating grass.42 Simeon Stylites (390?–459), we are told, used to go without food through the forty days of Lent; during one Lent he was, at his own insistence, walled up in an enclosure with a little bread and water; on Easter he was unwalled, and the bread and the water were found untouched. At Kalat Seman, in northern Syria, about 422, Simeon built himself a column six feet high and lived on it. Ashamed of his moderation, he built and lived on ever taller columns, until he made his permanent abode on a pillar sixty feet high. Its circumference at the top was little more than three feet; a railing kept the saint from falling to the ground in his sleep. On this perch Simeon lived uninterruptedly for thirty years, exposed to rain and sun and cold. A ladder enabled disciples to take him food and remove his waste. He bound himself to the pillar by a rope; the rope became embedded in his flesh, which putrefied around it, stank, and teemed with worms; Simeon picked up the worms that fell from his sores, and replaced them there, saying to them, “Eat what God has given you.” From his high pulpit he preached sermons to the crowds that came to see him, converted barbarians, performed marvelous cures, played ecclesiastical politics, and shamed the moneylenders into reducing their interest charges from twelve to six per cent.43 His exalted piety created a fashion of pillar hermits, which lasted for twelve centuries, and, in a thoroughly secularized form, persists today.

The Church did not approve of such excesses; perhaps she sensed a fierce pride in these humiliations, a spiritual greed in this self-denial, a secret sensualism in this flight from woman and the world. The records of these ascetics abound in sexual visions and dreams; their cells resounded with their moans as they struggled with imaginary temptations and erotic thoughts; they believed that the air about them was full of demons assailing them; the monks seem to have found it harder to be virtuous in solitude than if they had lived among all the opportunities of the town. It was not unusual for anchorites to go mad. Rufinus tells of a young monk whose cell was entered by a beautiful woman; he succumbed to her charms, after which she disappeared, he thought, into the air; the monk ran out wildly to the nearest village, and leaped into the furnace of a public bath to cool his fire. In another case a young woman begged admission to a monk’s cell on the plea that wild beasts were pursuing her; he consented to take her in briefly; but in that hour she happened to touch him, and the flame of desire sprang up in him as if all his years of austerity had left it undimmed. He tried to grasp her, but she vanished from his arms and his sight, and a chorus of demons, we are told, exulted with loud laughter over his fall. This monk, says Rufinus, could no longer bear the monastic life; like Paphnuce in Anatole France’s Thaïs, he could not exorcise the vision of beauty that he had imagined or seen; he left his cell, plunged into the life of the city, and followed that vision at last into hell.44

The organized Church had at first no control over the monks, who rarely took any degree of holy orders; yet she felt responsibility for their excesses, since she shared in the glory of their deeds. She could not afford to agree completely with monastic ideals; she praised celibacy, virginity, and poverty, but could not condemn marriage or parentage or property, as sins; she had now a stake in the continuance of the race. Some monks left their cells or monasteries at will, and troubled the populace with their begging; some went from town to town preaching asceticism, selling real or bogus relics, terrorizing synods, and exciting impressionable people to destroy pagan temples or statuary, or, now and then, to kill an Hypatia. The Church could not tolerate these independent actions. The Council of Chalcedon (451) ordained that greater circumspection should be used in admitting persons to monastic vows; that such vows should be irrevocable; and that no one should organize a monastery, or leave it, without permission from the bishop of the diocese.

2. The Eastern Bishops

Christianity was now (400) almost completely triumphant in the East. In Egypt the native Christians, or Copts,* were already a majority of the population, supporting hundreds of churches and monasteries. Ninety Egyptian bishops acknowledged the authority of the patriarch in Alexandria, who almost rivaled the power of the Pharaohs and the Ptolemies. Some of these patriarchs were ecclesiastical politicians of no lovable type, like the Theophilus who burned to the ground the pagan temple and library of Serapis (389). More pleasing is the modest bishop of Ptolemais, Synesius. Born in Cyrene (c. 365), he studied mathematics and philosophy at Alexandria under Hypatia; to the end of his life he remained her devoted friend, calling her “the true exponent of the true philosophy.” He visited Athens and was there confirmed in his paganism; but in 403 he married a Christian lady, and gallantly accepted Christianity; he found it a simple courtesy to transform his Neoplatonic trinity of the One, the nous, and the Soul into the Father, Spirit, and the Son.45 He wrote many delightful letters, and some minor philosophical works of which none is of value to anyone today except his essay In Praise of Baldness. In 410 Theophilus offered him the bishopric of Ptolemais. He was now a country gentleman, with more money than ambition; he protested that he was unfit, that he did not (as the Nicene Creed required) ‘believe in the resurrection of the body, that he was married, and had no intention of abandoning his wife. Theophilus, to whom dogmas were instruments, winked at these errors, and transformed Synesius into a bishop before the philosopher could make up his mind. It was typical of him that his last letter was to Hypatia, and his last prayer to Christ.46

In Syria the pagan temples were disposed of in the manner of Theophilus. Imperial edicts ordered them closed; the surviving pagans resisted the order but resigned themselves to defeat on noting the indifference with which their gods accepted destruction. Asiatic Christianity had saner leaders than those of Egypt.* In a short life of fifty years (329?–379) the great Basil learned rhetoric under Libanius in Constantinople, studied philosophy in Athens, visited the anchorites of Egypt and Syria, and rejected their introverted asceticism; became bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, organized Christianity in his country, revised its ritual, introduced self-supporting cenobitic monasticism, and drew up a monastic rule that still governs the monasteries of the Greco-Slavonic world. He advised his followers to avoid the theatrical severities of the Egyptian anchorites, but rather to serve God, health, and sanity by useful work; tilling the fields, he thought, was an excellent prayer. To this day the Christian East acknowledges his pre-eminent influence.

In Constantinople hardly a sign of pagan worship remained. Christianity itself, however, was torn with conflict; Arianism was still powerful, new heresies were always rising, and every man had his own theology. “This city,” wrote Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyassa, about 380, “is full of mechanics and slaves who are all of them profound theologians, and preach in the shops and the streets. If you desire a man to change a piece of silver he informs you wherein the Son differs from the Father; if you ask the price of a loaf.… you are told that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you inquire whether the bath is ready, the answer is, the Son was made out of nothing.”47 In the reign of Theodosius I the Syrian Isaac founded the first monastery in the new capital; similar institutions rapidly multiplied; and by 400 the monks were a power and a terror in the city, playing a noisy role in the conflicts of patriarch with patriarch, and of patriarch with emperor.

Gregory Nazianzen learned the bitterness of sectarian hatred when he accepted a call from the orthodox Christians of Constantinople to be their bishop (379). Valens had just died, but the Arians whom that Emperor had set up were still in ecclesiastical control, and held their services in St. Sophia. Gregory had to house his altar and his congregation in the home of a friend, but he called his modest church by a hopeful name—Anastasia (Resurrection). He was a man of equal piety and learning; he had studied in Athens along with his countryman Basil, and only his second successor would rival his eloquence. His congregation grew and grew till it was larger than those of the official basilicas. On the eve of Easter, 379, a crowd of Arians attacked the Anastasia chapel with a volley of stones. Eighteen months later the orthodox Emperor Theodosius led Gregory in pomp and triumph to his proper throne in St. Sophia. But ecclesiastical politics soon ended his tranquillity; jealous bishops proclaimed his appointment invalid, and ordered him to defend himself before a council. Too proud to fight for his see, Gregory resigned (381) and returned to Cappadocian Nazianzus, to spend the remaining eight years of his life in obscurity and peace.

When his indifferent successor died, the imperial court invited to St. Sophia a priest of Antioch known to history as St. John Chrysostom—of the Golden Mouth. Born (345?) of a noble family, he had imbibed rhetoric from Libanius, and had familiarized himself with pagan literature and philosophy; in general the Eastern prelates were more learned and disputatious than those of the West. John was a man of keen intellect and sharper temper. He disturbed his new congregation by taking Christianity seriously, condemning in plain terms the injustices and immoralities of the age.48 He denounced the theater as an exhibition of lewd women, and as a school of profanity, seduction, and intrigue. He asked the opulent Christians of the capital why they spent so much of their wealth in loose living, instead of giving most of it to the poor as Christ had commanded. He wondered why some men had twenty mansions, twenty baths, a thousand slaves, doors of ivory, floors of mosaic, walls of marble, ceilings of gold; and threatened the rich with hell for entertaining their guests with Oriental dancing girls.49 He scolded his clergy for their lazy and luxurious lives,50 and their suspicious use of women to minister to them in their rectories; he deposed thirteen of the bishops under his jurisdiction for licentiousness or simony; and he reproved the monks of Constantinople for being more frequently in the streets than in their cells. He practiced what he preached: the revenues of his see were spent not in the display that usually marked the Eastern bishoprics, but in the establishment of hospitals and in assistance to the poor. Never had Constantinople heard sermons so powerful, brilliant, and frank. Here were no pious abstractions, but Christian precepts, applied so specifically that they hurt.

Who could be more oppressive than the landlords? If you look at the way in which they treat their miserable tenants, you will find them more savage than barbarians. They lay intolerable and continual imposts upon men who are weakened with hunger and toil throughout their lives, and they put upon them the burden of oppressive services. … They make them work all through the winter in cold and rain, they deprive them of sleep, and send them home with empty hands….

The tortures and beatings, the exactions and ruthless demands for services, which such men suffer from agents are worse than hunger. Who could recount the ways in which these agents use them for profit and then cheat them? Their labor turns the agent’s olive-press; but they receive not a scrap of the produce which they are compelled illegally to bottle for the agents, and they get only a tiny sum for their work.51

Congregations like to be scolded, but not to be reformed. The women persisted in their perfumes, the wealthy in their banquets, the clergy in their female domestics, the theaters in their revelations; and soon every group in the city except the powerless poor was against the man with the golden mouth. The Empress Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius, was leading the gay set of the capital in luxurious living. She interpreted one of John’s sermons as alluding to her, and she demanded of her weakling husband that he call a synod to try the patriarch. In 403 a council of Eastern bishops met at Chalcedon. John refused to appear, on the ground that he should not be tried by his enemies. The council deposed him, and he went quietly into exile; but so great a clamor of protest rose from the people that the frightened Emperor recalled him to his see. A few months later he was again denouncing the upper classes, and made some critical comments on a statue of the Empress. Eudoxia once more demanded his expulsion; and Theophilus of Alexandria, always ready to weaken a rival see, reminded Arcadius that the Chalcedon decree of deposition still stood, and could be enforced. Soldiers were sent to seize Chrysostom; he was conveyed across the Bosporus, and banished to a village in Armenia (404). When his faithful followers heard the news they broke out in wild insurrection; and in the tumult St. Sophia and the near-by Senate house were set on fire. From his exile Chrysostom sent letters of appeal to Honorius and the bishop of Rome. Arcadius ordered him removed to the remote desert of Pityus in Pontus. On the way the exhausted prelate died at Comana, in the sixty-second year of his age (407). From that time to this, with brief intermissions, the Eastern Church has remained the servant of the state.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!