Ascetic orientation

The strong ascetic orientation of Syrian Christianity may be its most widely known feature. No wonder that asceticism had also a significant impact on Syriac hagiogra-phy. From the very beginning, until the most recent beatifications and canonizations of nineteenth-century Maronites, almost all saints who were not venerated as martyrs have an ascetic element in some way or another. The vitae praise monks and nuns, church officials and hierarchs with an ascetic background, but also a considerable number of lay ascetics, men and women who lived a life of continence and prayer without taking any formal vows. Although not unique to Syrian Christianity this latter feature is quite prominent. It has been pointed out that what links the stories of Syrian martyrs and ascetics is the fact that holy lives and holy deaths are about the same thing. What is at stake is not the idea that asceticism might be an alternative form of martyrdom or vice versa, but that martyrdom and asceticism are two forms of the same event: humanity's encounter with the divine.

There are famous hierarchs and learned theologians as well as heroes of charity, among the Syrian ascetics. Moreover, a considerable number are known for asceticism in rather extreme forms. In his History of the Monks of Syria, Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. 466) describes such ascetics of his time, for example, wandering ascetics who contin ued the charismatic tradition of the New Testament, and 'grazers', who lived more or less naked in the wilderness, enacting the life of Adam and Eve in Eden. The prototype of the stylites, St Symeon (d. 459), who, according to Theodoret, was famous all over the Roman Empire during his lifetime, spent most of his life on top of a pillar. Of course, almost all hagiographic testimonies - even those which are close to a saint's life, such as Theodoret's stories, rely more or less on an eyewitness - attribute to their heroes other aims than those of modern biographers and historical researchers. Nevertheless, the historical kernel of the story of a famous ascetic should not be underestimated, if only for the reason that it describes an ascetic practice which hardly fits in with modern western ideas of holiness. Some of the more striking forms of asceticism may have irritated the church authorities at the time, as we can see from canons outlawing itinerant ascetics. At times there were also profound tensions between the ascetics and the hierarchy, particularly in the Church of the East. But in general one must be aware that what is described in the lives of these saints was attractive to contemporaries; it echoed their perception of a holy man or woman. Thus, St Symeon on top of his pillar is said to have attracted Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Iberians, Himyarites, Spaniards, Britons, Gauls and Italians. As Theodoret puts it, people of all nations and classes came seeking his advice and intercession with God.

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