Saturday, April 06, 2019

Thebaid of Umbria

This is the tradition of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, of whom St. Anthony the Great, or St. Anthony of the Desert, gained the title, "Father of all monks". It was from this great well, springing up in the desert, that all the great gardens of the Church were watered by the endless river of monastic prayer and sacrifice, the "ascetic life."

This life - monasticism - has been described by the great writers as the "combat of the desert" - and for the earliest monks it was single combat.

It is, however, the same combat we all must undertake in the Christian life. We battle not only with the devil but with our own tawdry concupiscences, our temptations, our impatience, our bad temper, our lust, our selfishness, our own love of things that we hold above the love of God. The difference is that the monk undertakes to remove all obstacles - all distractions - that might take him away from it, or provide him with a place to hide from it.

He goes out into the desert - whether metaphorical or literal - to force himself to confront his weaknesses, to remove all possibility of escape from the unpleasant work of stripping himself of his sins, faults and temptations. Where we have a million things in this life to think about that can shield us from the Living God, he takes all these away from himself, as an addict who wants to recover takes himself away from the neighbourhood of the drug dealers, or an alcoholic gets rid of the booze in his house and makes sure he doesn't go into a bar.

This great river of the desert includes, much more directly than one might have thought, the stream of Benedictine monasticism that built Christian Europe.


Today my longish first piece on the way this tradition was transplanted into Umbria and was passed on to the twins Benedict and Scolastica in the 5th century, will appear in the April 1st print edition of the Remnant.

I've been reading a great deal about the very early evangelisation of Umbria - dating to the 4th century - and it's deeply moving and inspiring. A huge influx of refugees from Syria, fleeing persecution by monophysite heretics, came to Umbria then and established the same kind of monastic life here that we read of in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers - clusters of eremitical cells - little houses, really - a short hike down a trail between them, all overseen by an abbot. An "eremitical community" if such a thing isn't too contradictory.

The story is quite extraordinary, and the moreso once you understand the influence these Syrian refugee hermits had and are still having on us today.

This was a time of massive, civilisational upheavals, when the great Christological debates were raging and Christendom was still very small (though growing rapidly) and in competition on all sides. The Empire was still strong (though now divided between Constantinople and Rome) but Classical Paganism was still followed by much of the ruling classes, and at the same time the Arian heresy was getting going. At this time no one in the Latin world had seen anything like this style of life. Even Augustine, who certainly was a Roman in the cultural sense, lived most of his life in North Africa.

It was into this chaos - increased exponentially by the sudden appearance of the invading and violent pagan Goths (and not a nice kind of civilised Classical paganism - the Goths were German "barbarians" who worshipped some very dark things in very dark ways) - that these very early Syrian desert hermit-monks came to Umbria to live their ascetic, monastic lifestyle.

Some of these monks eventually set up shop deep in the Sibilline mountains and ended up teaching St. Benedict and Scolastica - born 6 miles from their monastery - how to be monastic. It was from them, therefore, that we owe all of the later development not only of Western Monasticism, but of western European Christendom, since it is Benedictines who built all of Europe.

If it is true what many people are saying, and that the collapse of belief - the general mass-apostasy - of the last 100 years has brought us right down to nothing, back to effective paganism, then we are in an analogous position now. And I am willing to bet that the same solution could bring about the same effect.

This is the "luogo di silenzio" - the place of silence at Monteluco, a hill directly overlooking Spoleto.

There is a Franciscan monastery there today, founded when the eremitical monks gave St. Francis of Assisi a little bit of land to build a few rough hermitages. The Romanesque church that St. Isaac the Syrian would have known is still there, as are a good number of the hermitages occupied through the centuries by his followers.

A snippet from today's piece in the Remnant:

According to the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, the same document from which we learn most of what we know about the life of St. Benedict and his twin sister, one of these holy Syrian monks was St. Isaac, this time of the 6th century. Isaac, an orthodox Christian[1], was probably fleeing persecution by monophysite heretics during the reign of the emperor Anastasius I Dicorus, at a time when the eastern empire was under great political pressure because of the Christological controversies[2].
 Gregory relates that when the monk arrived in Spoleto he asked permission to remain in one of the churches to pray. The wardens of the church allowed this and he remained, unmoving in prayer, for three straight days, at which point the exasperated officials removed him by force. One of these men accused Isaac of being a hypocrite, of wanting to be seen to be holy.
This unfortunate man was immediately possessed by “a wicked spirit” and changed his tune when he asked Isaac to drive it out. Soon after this exorcism, “men and women, rich and poor, came running,” each one imploring the holy Syrian to come to their own home, some offering money or property. Isaac refused all this and left the city, but didn’t go far. In 528 “he found a desert [solitary] place, where he built a little cottage for himself.” From this hermitage he performed miracles and demonstrated “prophetic” or miraculous knowledge and converted many of the still-pagan and half-Christian locals who “under his discipline and government, gave themselves to the service of almighty God,” in the religious life. 
 Venerated in both the eastern and western Church as St. Isaac the Syrian and Isaac of Antioch, (d. 552) Isaac is sometimes also called Isaac of Monteluco, a still-extant hamlet in the hills above Spoleto where he had his hermitage and where there is a Franciscan monastery today. Some of the cave-like hermitages of this eastern-style community or “laura” of hermits still survive as does the Romanesque church dedicated to St. Peter which was given to Isaac to be the centre of his community. 
 In its time and for many centuries the community was like a miniature version of the Holy Mountain of Athos, indeed it was called the “Thebaid of Umbria,” and the mountain is still revered locally as a sacred place. The laura slowly changed to become a true cenobium[3] and later adopted the Rule of St. Benedict. These Benedictines gave St. Francis of Assisi a small portion of land to build a cluster of wattle huts for himself and his friars, which formed the nucleus of the current Franciscan monastery. 
But the eremitical life was preserved at Monteluco by the local bishops who encouraged the monks to form a formal eremitical congregation, which survived until 1795.

[1] This was before we had to capitalise that word to make distinctions. At this time it meant someone who refused to follow the Christological heresies of the time and retained the orthodox, Catholic Faith.
[2] The ferociously complex ecclesial and secular politics of this time can have an effect a person’s brain like that often attributed to a school of Amazon piranhas on a cow. Best leave it alone. 
[3] Cenobitic monks live in community, sharing work, meals and communal prayer, a later development from the original form of eremitical life of the Desert Fathers.



Emmanuel said...

My favourite East/West crossover is St John Cassian. I hadn't given much thought about at how monasticism arrived in the Italian peninsula. Is there any clue to as to type of the monastery where the monks tried to poison Benedict? Was it one of these or some local variant?

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I suppose it must have been something of the kind. An interesting note is that the great and famous (and of course now sadly diminished) Abbey of Farfa down south was also founded by one of these Syrian monastic refugees. Quite a story there too.

Emmanuel said...

I really can't imagine Eastern trained/formed monks being shocked or put out by a 'tough' Abbott. They would probably simply consider it 'par for the course's. I would think a local variant would more likely be somewhat perturbed...

What's your source for the Syrian connection? It's the first time I have read of it.