Through The Glass Darkly

How the holy man came to play a vital role in the fifth and sixth century Christian society

Theodoret

Theodoret

Two distinct phases of the hermetic life existed in early Christianity. The first phase was the Egyptian phase, the era of the desert hermits. With its scarcity of resources and its forbidding geography, the desert was a radical contrast to urban areas. These factors shaped the fierce insights of the desert hermits: the extreme individualism, their hostility toward social life, and their separation from conventional ecclesiastical authority.

But in Syria, Palestine, and the Middle East a second type emerged under the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. These geographical areas, while arid, were not entirely desert nor isolated, forbidding landscapes. Economically, subsistence farmers and pastoralists lived in villages at the outskirts of arid areas inhabited by Bedouins. Hermits naturally separated themselves from cities and villages but they did not live in deserts, but on the outskirts, in semi-arid areas of wilderness not distant from populated areas.

Hence the hermits of late antiquity developed a relationship with the peasants and villagers distinct from the separation experienced by the Egyptian hermits. The hermits of Syria were not isolated desert-dwellers. They were known as eccentric heroes.

The fourth and fifth century Syrian villages were undergoing a crisis of leadership as the administrative structures of the Roman Empire began to collapse. The large villas, the demesnes, and the pagan temples disappeared, and were replaced by local communities. It was the villagers who had to look around to recreate, with the human material at hand, the vital figure of the community leader.

This was what was called the sage or holy man described by the fourth century historian Theodoret. And the holy man was none other than the hermit. The hermit was first of all a figure of power, supernatural power in the sense of miracles. The holy man simply converted the conventional powers of the supernatural into intervention and resolution of disputes through the power of his reputation. He became an "arbitrator and mediator," solving disputes among rich and powerful as adeptly as among poor. The hermit was summoned by all and respected by all for his absolute selflessness, his genuine disengagement from property, position, and worldly affairs. The Holy Man’s importance in such communities was an answer to the necessity of finding someone who could resolve tension and explosions of violence in their community.

As Theodoret wrote of the holy man: "When men were at enmity with each other or had a grievance one against another he reconciled them, and those who were engaged in lawsuits he sought to bring to a better mind counselling them not to wrong each other."

Thus did their reputation for holiness grow into moral authority. It was by the intervention of such men that villagers sought a sense of communal identity. The hermit was essentially a social "stranger," not unlike the shaman or back country priest, the hermit's asceticism, perceptiveness, and lack of fear or craving was contrary to social norms: mysterious, transcendent, worthy of respect.

The holy man was the one man who could stand outside the ties of family and of economic interest; whose attitude to food itself rejected all ties of solidarity to kin and village. The holy man drew his powers from outside the human race: by going to live in the desert, in close identification with an animal kingdom that stood, in the imagination of contemporaries, for the opposite pole of all human society, and as an intermediary between God and the human community.

For example, the holy man Simon Stylites (396-459 ) spent 40 years living atop a 50 foot column. He received "a constant trickle of delegations from neighbouring villages, headed by their priests and elders, who trooped up the side of the mountain to hear 'the lion roar' as to how they should deal with some social problem Simon resolved lawsuits". In one village he sanctioned water rationing. In others he helped create low-interest loan systems.

The holy man's reputation was, however, the result of concrete acts on behalf of people. The report of their esteem reached higher and higher circles of power within Roman imperial society. Historian Peter Brown argues that the holy man's role was that of healer and confessor. "The holy man resolved a dilemma inherent in early Christian piety." Whereas God is "remote and unflinching," the hermit, unlike any other human being, is visible, understanding, charitable but just. So laymen flooded to the holy man. One may also see the hermit as filling a vacuum in a patriarchal society that sunders the roles of men and women, adding a voice of sympathy and holiness to a chaotic world.

Barnaby ffrench

Next week; How the Holy Man became the stoic sage

 

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