Saturday, 9 September 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 5 — Syrian Monasticism

We would like to say a few words about Syrian monasticism. The best source on Syrian monasticism is a work by the Bishop of Cyrrh, Theodoret. This work is made up of the Lives of a number of Syrian monastic saints, including St Symeon Stylites, whom Theodoret knew personally. What comes through in these lives is the severity of Syrian asceticism. For example, it was common for these ascetical monks to live completely enclosed or to live completely restricted to the environs of a house without a roof (winter and summer, without protection from the elements). One can understand what is involved from the Life of St Symeon Stylites, who invented the practice of living on top of a pillar. (Incidentally St Symeon really did exist and really did have his name go out through the Roman Empire: the location of the ruins of his pillar complex is well known.)

Another aspect of Syrian monasticism is that Syrian ascetics did not work. Rather they concentrated on their religious duties. This aspect of Syrian monasticism continues up to St Isaac the Syrian, and can even be found in St John of Damascus’ Life of Barlaam and Ioasaph. In this, Syrian monasticism was quite different from Egyptian monasticism, and the Egyptian monks did not accept the Syrian point of view on the matter, as is attested in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Egyptian attitude to work is the one which prevailed in the ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church, up to and including Mt Athos today.

Since in Syria there was a strong presence of Manichaeans, and since the more advanced Manichaean ascetics also did not work, we wonder whether the Syrian attitude towards manual labour by the ascetic does not reflect an attitude that was ‘in the air’ because of the presence of the Manichaeans. This is not to question unnecessarily the Syrians’ Orthodoxy: such an influence would not automatically mean that the Syrian ascetics were heterodox.

In general, in the history of Orthodox asceticism, whenever we encounter ascetics living on pillars, and other such severe forms of asceticism that were originally encountered in Syria, we can assume that there is a Syrian influence. That is why these things are so sporadic in the Lives of the ascetical saints of the Byzantine Empire: it was an essentially foreign practice that was being adopted by the saint in question. That is also why these things were somewhat more common in Asia Minor: there was more of a Syrian influence there, in our opinion.

The case is somewhat different of St Ephraim the Syrian, interlocutor of St Basil the Great, lyrical poet of Eros towards Christ and a profoundly humble man. His way of life seems somewhat more moderate than what we encounter in the saints described by Theodoret, and he is distinguished by the quality of his writings: the other Syrian ascetical saints did not occupy themselves with letters.

The case of Cappadocia is important; we will discuss it after we discuss early Egyptian coenobitic monasticism.

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