The continued monasticism of the Byzantine Church

We have had occasion more than once to note the prominence and something of the place which monasticism held in the Byzantine branch of the Catholic Church. That monasticism had been partly shaped by Basil. Theodore the Studite had added to it. Monks were prominent in the life of the Church and the community and were much less susceptible to control by the c^saropapist state than was the ecclesiastical hierarchy, even though technically the bishops were drawn from the monasteries. The contrast may have been accentuated by the practice begun in the eighth century of appointing to the Patriar chate of Constantinople men who had risen through the civil bureaucracy and were thus seasoned in practical, secular administration and who in their mature years had gone through the form of assuming monastic vows. To this the more radical monks, among them the Studites, were vigorously opposed. They wished strict compliance with the canons of the Church. The monks were quite the most independent section in the official church of the Byzantine Empire.

More and more the course and the characteristics of this Eastern monasticism and those of the West diverged. Eastern monasticism tended towards contemplation and away from activism. Western monasticism displayed much greater variety. Some groups emphasized worship and contemplation, others activism, and still others combined the two. In the East, rather more than in the West, monasteries tended to be grouped together on holy mountains. They were also in the cities, but the mountain monastic communities were either without exact parallel or were more prominent than in the West. Several of the holy mountains were in Asia Minor. What came to be the most famous of all was in Europe, Athos, a rugged promontory jutting southward from the mainland into the ^gean. Mount Athos first attained prominence in years immediately preceding 950 through the exodus to it of monks from Constantinople in protest against the election to the Patriarchate of one whom they had opposed.

Hermits were revered in both East and West and were sought out by both the lowly and the eminent, and on mundane as well as spiritual questions. In the East, although they seem not to have persisted but to have been a fad that passed before many generations, "pillar saints" were prominent, those who had Simeon Stylites as their most famous prototype and inspiration. One of them was Daniel (409-493), whose years of fame were on the eve of the period with which we are now concerned. He entered a monastery at the age of twelve and spent the next twenty-five years there. For five years he visited some of the most famous of the ascetic "athletes of God" of his day, at forty-two he came to Constantinople and, after living for nine years in what had been a pagan temple, he mounted a pillar and passed his last thirty-three years on it. He was visited by multitudes, including officials, Emperors, and Patriarchs, at imperial command was ordained priest by one of the latter, and is said to have prophesied the fate of Emperors and to have been consulted not only on personal problems, but also on weighty matters of state. Many miracles were attributed to him.

A hermit, but not one of the pillar saints, was Theodore of Sykeon, of the latter part of the sixth and the first part of the seventh century. Born in Gatatia in Asia Minor, the son of a prostitute, from early childhood he was very devout and began following the ascetic road. So early did he commend himself by his singleness of purpose that he was ordained priest at the age of eighteen. He journeyed to the holy places in and near Jerusalem and at his request was given the monk's habit near the Jordan. Returning to his home country, he led a life of extreme asceticism, much of the time in a narrow cage suspended from a rock, where he was exposed to the storms of winter, had himself loaded with irons, undertook prolonged fasts, and followed a severe regimen of psalm-singing. Others were attracted to him and he became the centre and the head of a monastery. He was famed for his miracles of healing, of expelling demons, and of ending a curse of locusts by killing the locusts, and for inducing repentance of sin. At the insistence of the populace of a neighbouring city he was made their bishop. After eleven years, troubled by the burdens of administration which interrupted his prayers and contemplation and prevented him from giving due attention to his monasteries, he resigned his episcopate. He was sought by many, some for physical healing and others for spiritual and moral advice. Even high officials and Emperors honoured him and asked his counsel.

We must note another trend which in subsequent centuries was to give rise to a memorable controversy. That was towards contemplation and the way of the mystic. Known technically as Hesychasm, it went back to the beginning of monasticism. It was to have many aspects, some of them bizarre, as we are to see in a later period, was to persist into modern times, and was to be very important in that child of Byzantine Christianity, the Russian Orthodox Church.

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