The sick saint has long captured the western imagination. Take Anatole France's 1890 novel Thaïs. Although France is no longer fashionable (and is hardly in print in English), from the fin de siècle to the 1920s France spoke of the mentality of the times. He was considered by many "the greatest living author" in 1924 (the year he won the Nobel Prize for literature) and praised by such still-revered authors as Edmund Wilson and Henry James. In Thaïs, his most popular novel—an international bestseller translated into eighteen languages—France begins his tale of late ancient Egypt with a graphic, pathological image of the early decades of monastic life. Anchorites and cenobites suffer gladly through harsh ascetic behaviors, making themselves sick. This lifestyle transforms the monk into something injured yet aesthetically desirable: "Mindful of original sin, they refused to give to their bodies not only pleasure and satisfaction but even the care that is considered necessary by those who live in the world. They believed that physical affliction purified the soul and that the flesh could receive no more glorious adornment than ulcers and open sores. Thus was the word of the prophets observed: 'The desert shall be covered with flowers.'"
France's adaptation of the prophet Isaiah evokes the image of the desert as body, erupting with the bloom of diseased ascetics, much as each ascetic's body is adorned by the efflorescence of disease. France places the cultivation of illness at the heart of the nascent monastic movement, a distinctive feature of the exotic world of late ancient Egyptian asceticism. While Athanasius of Alexandria in his Life of Antony famously characterized the same period of monasticism's birth as a desert transformed into a city of health, led by Antony as a "physician (iatros) for Egypt," in Anatole France's version the desert becomes a garden of disease.
A generation later than France in his native Romania, E. M. Cioran too identified illness as central to the Christian ascetic project, drawing on the lives of the saints he had read as a child and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Genealogy of Morals is suffused with images of disease, sickness, wounds, quack healing, and self-destruction as characteristics of the ascetic. Cioran writes, "All saints are sick, but luckily not all sick people are saints. . . . Through sickness we understand the saints, and through them, the heavens." Sickness—whether of body, soul, or both he does not specify—is endemic among ascetics; it is also, for both the saintly and the not so saintly, a means of transcendence and gnōsis. Throughout his 1937 hagiographical meditation Tears and Saints, Cioran returns to the role of Christian asceticism ("saintliness" in Cioran's terminology) as the response—but not the cure, strictly speaking—to humanity's endemic illness. Asceticism embraces and transforms humanity's fallen putrescence: "Had there not been any illnesses in the world, there would not have been any saints, for until now there has not been a single healthy one. Saintliness is the cosmic apogee of illness, the transcendental fluorescence of rot. Illnesses have brought the heavens close to earth. Without them, heaven and earth would not have known each other. The need for consolation went further than any illness and, at the point of intersection between heaven and earth, it gave birth to sainthood." For both France and Cioran, ascetics willingly accept—and even court—disease's embrace as a form of ascetic practice and self-transformation.
Such a characterization of early Christian asceticism is echoed among later critics and historians, as it certainly is in numerous early Christian texts. The Syriac poet Jacob of Serug (c. 451-521) turns rot into an object of aesthetic (and ascetic) transcendence, comparing the stylite Simeon's rotting, gangrenous foot to "a tree, beautiful with branches." The literary theorist Geoffrey Halt Harpham characterizes this perspective well, observing, "For the Christian ascetic, pagan beauty was thematized as the demonic, while the disfigured was figured as the desirable."
Such characterizations make meaning of the illness of saints or ascetics by reading it within the symbolic matrix of Christian salvation history and myth. The anthropologist and psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman notes that cultures make meaning out of illness by interpreting the signs of disease not just—or even primarily—on the plane of diagnostic nosology but within the matrix of shared symbols, principally of religious myth and ideology, forming a cultural meaning of illness that can exist independently of any professionalized medical diagnosis. These "cultural meanings," Kleinman says, "mark the sick person." But as he notes, these meanings are contentious, not automatic. They are the result of individuals reconstructing their own illness narratives within the symbolic matrix at hand. They can also be imposed on the sick unwillingly, "stamping him or her with significance often unwanted and neither easily warded off nor coped with," even as far as "stigma or social death." While the work of Kleinman and the field of medical anthropology have recognized and perhaps heightened the overriding concerns of postmodernity with the meaning of illness (both personal and societal), the meaning of illness posed serious interpretive problems in the symbolic world of late ancient Christians as well.
The symbolic world in question is a familiar one, shared in some measure by the modern writers just cited and the ancient ones who will be the focus of this book. In the early Christian tradition illness, bodily decline and decay, and pain, as Elaine Scarry and Teresa Shaw have variously argued, were understood as direct consequences of the first humans' ejection from Eden and god's curse upon the pair and their descendants. While the Genesis account, on which Scarry and Shaw base their readings, touches only indirectly on illness, as opposed to toil, pain, and ultimately death, the popular and widely translated parabiblical Life of Adam and Eve makes the causal connection between the fall and illness painfully clear. Probably written in the first century a.d. but widely read, adapted, and interpolated among Christians through the Middle Ages, the Life elevates the status of illness as the prime effect of the fall.
At the end of his 930 years Adam announces that he is sick, leaving his children bewildered, as they have never witnessed illness before. Seth then asks one of the most basic existential questions about being human: "What is pain and illness (ti estin ponos kai nosos)?" Adam responds by telling the familiar story of primal sin. But in the Life of Adam and Eve god's punishment is not mere toil, labor, and return to dust, as in Genesis 3:16-19, but disease. As god tells the couple, "Because you have forsaken my commandment and have not kept my word which I set for you, behold, I will bring upon your body seventy plagues (plagas); you shall be racked with various pains (diversis doloribus), from the top of the head and the eyes and ears down to the nails of the feet, and in each separate limb." Adam explains that the seventy plagues apply not only to the transgressors Adam and Eve but also "to all our generations."
The popular Life of Adam and Eve thus elaborates on the curse implied in the biblical account. Disease and decrepitude are neither "natural" components of the human body nor diabolical ruses by jealous gods unleashed on humanity (as in Hesiod's version of the Pandora's jar myth) but just punishment for humanity's sins, punishment that must be paid out throughout the generations, forever. Illness is the most visceral sign of humanity's fallenness.
The Life of Adam and Eve represents a distinctive emphasis on the part of early Christians, who interpreted illness not simply on the plane of physiology or in the common Greco-Roman "care of the self," but more profoundly within the context of a sacred history of decay, disease, and convalescence. Over a century ago Adolf Harnack well described the ideology that resulted from such an orientation: "Christianity never lost hold of its innate principle; it was, and it remained, a religion for the sick. Accordingly it assumed that no one, or at least hardly any one, was in normal health, but that men (Mensch) were always in a state of disability." The remedy for this illness, both psychic and bodily, naturally lay in the saving sacrifice of Jesus, which left for the church the healing sacraments of baptism ("the recovery of life" in Tertullian), the Eucharist ("the potion of immortality" in Ignatius and many after him), and penitence ("the true medicine derived from the atonement" in Cyprian). And while bodily healings could still function in the charismata of the postapostolic church, Christians were far more focused on awaiting the final cosmic healing promised at Christ's return.
Within the symbolic matrix of a fall into decrepitude and disease followed by the present, anticipatory state of convalescence, illness (and its absence) among ascetics—the focus of this book—could be read in a number of ways. As will be discussed in more detail in Chapters 2 and 3, early observers of Christian monasticism frequently understood the withdrawal to the desert to rectify the primordial lack on the planes of both morality and physiology: asceticism could restore the health enjoyed by Adam and Eve prior to their ejection from Paradise. In monastic narrative the saint frequently functions as an exemplar, as Peter Brown notes. In this capacity the saint (body and soul) symbolically marks the health made possible after the incarnation. H. J. W. Drijvers observes, "Saints' lives and related literature present conceptions of the person with a specific bodily symbolism that stands for a new relation of the individual to his society. The indwelling of Christ's spirit in each individual transforms him into a son of God, makes him return to his original paradisal state, changes his body into the condition it had before the fall." Early monastic literature luxuriates in such restorative rhetoric, as in the Letters and Lifeof St. Antony, the Asceticon of Abba Isaiah of Scetis, and the Life of St. Paul of Thebes. The very title of the popular aphoristic collections of the late ancient Syriac world, The Paradise of the Fathers, reflects this widespread understanding of Christian asceticism as remedy for postlapsarian maladies. Throughout, the saint's status as symbol and moral exemplar renders his or her health or illness especially meaningful within the symbolic matrix of late ancient Christianity.
But clearly the ascetic reclamation of primordial health is not at work in France's or Cioran's vivid characterizations of ascetic illness. These ascetics do not accept the benefit of Christ's saving intervention. Rather, they emulate him, as well as the other afflicted saints, such as Job and Paul with his thorn and even Jesus on the cross, all righteously suffering the ills of the world. Within this symbolic matrix, the saint—also as symbol—creates a distinctively Christian meaning out of illness that is at odds with the prevalent restorative rhetoric.
Modernists such as Cioran and France and contemporary theorists such as Harpham reflect a notable trend in early Christian approaches to illness in ascetic practice when they point to the embrace of illness and suffering among the saints, their delight in debility, and the desirability of their disfigurement, as do those who note the paradisiacal, restorative rhetoric of late ancient ascetic discourse. But it would be a mistake to take such generalizations as normative, or even typical, of late ancient mentalities. Rather, these two traditions of making meaning out of illness persist in dialectic and tension. Health is the clearest signifier of the reclamation of paradisiacal wholeness, a garden home of the saint. At the same time illness is the great source of glory for the Christian, nothing short of a martyrdom, at the hands not of empire but of nature.
Ascetics and their followers thus made meaning of illness among the saints within the ambiguous territory of early Christian attitudes toward illness. For all the resonance of France's ulcered ascetics or Harpham's disfigured holy men, the sick ascetic did not presage any such stable meaning, whether reflected through saints' lives, rules, treatises, or letters, public or personal. Illness posed special difficulties for late ancient monks in interpretation and regulation; the following chapters will show that monastic writers read illness in a number of ways, denying any special meaning for monastic illness as well as elevating the health or illness of the monk as a most telling signifier of sanctity. Even among those who saw illness among monks as especially meaningful, monastic authors disagreed sharply over how to make meaning out of it. The following chapters contain an exploration of how late ancients used illness in constructing Christian asceticism and ascetic theology. Late ancient Christians presented asceticism as the cure of humanity's endemic illness and illness as asceticism's apogee, the most effective mode self-mortification. Health became one of the most telling features of monastic hagiography, and in return hagiographers resorted to constructing apologia for monastic illness. Illness points to ambiguities of embodiment: it threatens the ascetic's practice, yet could serve as the model and mode of ascetic transcendence and self-fashioning. Through the diverse perspectives from late antiquity discussed here, I hope to demonstrate that the early Christian ascetics understood the experience of illness as a profoundly problematic one, much like other areas of bodily practice, sex and eating most notably. The sustained debate over the practical, ascetical, and theological meaning of the illness experience opened up new ways for Christians to understand the self, the body, and ascetic practice.
Sources and Scope
I draw on a range of monastic and ascetic sources, from the earliest generations of documentary and literary evidence for Christian monasticism through the mid-sixth century. The focus has been primarily on sources from (or relating to) Egypt and to a lesser extent Cappadocia and Palestine. I have not aimed for comprehensiveness. There are, to be sure, relevant texts not treated here, either at all or in the detail that a given reader might prefer. The writings of Shenoute, for example, offer an as-yet-untapped resource for exploring how an ascetic used his own illness to establish his authority and discipline his community. Since the critical edition of the works of Shenoute, of which I am a contributor, is ongoing and Shenoute's Canons 6 and 8 (in which he discusses his illness at length) pose particular textual challenges, it seemed prudent to postpone a comprehensive study of Shenoute's illness (and "illness narrative") for a later opportunity. From the Apophthegmata patrum, whose complicated transmission and challenges for historical use too frequently go unrecognized, I have drawn sparingly and not systematically, generally when sayings are related intertextually with other literary sources. A more systematic investigation of the Apophthegmata in all their complexity might well reward the researcher. Syriac literature too may offer a wealth of other perspectives that might complement this volume's Egyptian focus, and indeed might take the investigations begun here in a different direction. In the Syriac linguistic context we might think of the importance of healing in Ephrem's theology or the ascetic theology of the physician-monk Simon of Taibutheh, to take just two examples. And while the cultural models of the Bible will be persistently present in the chapters that follow, I do not focus in detail on Patristic exegesis.
Nonetheless, my selection of texts has not been arbitrary, but rather based on their interconnectedness, both temporal and generic and intertextual and thematic. My sources include some of the earliest documentation of Christian monasticism, which lies not in the Lives and Rules of great monastic organizers but in quotidian documents from the early monks and their followers, detritus left behind in garbage pits or later reused to bind papyrus leaves into codices of more lasting value. The greatest concentration of early fourth-century monastic papyri is found in several archives identified as from a monastery called Hathor, a community not otherwise documented in literary sources. Much like the more familiar Pachomian monasteries of Upper Egypt, the monastery of Hathor was united with several others in a federation, although it is not clear what kind of leadership role Hathor played, if any. This federation, known only through the publication of documentary papyri in the past century, rivals that of Pachomius for the title of the first union of monastic communities, and apparently belonged to the Melitian church—a schismatic church popular in many parts of Egypt. More details on these documentary sources are included in Chapter 2.
Contemporary with the monks of Hathor are the Letters of Pachomius (c. 292-346). Pachomius founded his first monastery sometime after a.d. 323 near the Theban town of Tabenesse. Whether Pachomius influenced the formation of such Melitian monasteries as that of Hathor or was influenced by them (or whether the systems developed independently) remains an open question. The genuine writings of Pachomius comprise eleven Letters, along with several fragments of indeterminate genre. None bears a date, but Pachomius is known to have died in 346. The Letters are among the earliest literary witnesses to Egyptian monasticism and among the earliest original literature in Coptic. The Letters are preserved with various numerations in Coptic (Pachomius's native tongue), Greek, and Jerome's Latin translation. I focus on Pachomius's fifth Letter, among the longest and most thematically unified letters and among the few to avoid Pachomius's vexing use of the religiously significant ciphers that dominate most of his letters.
More widely read than Pachomius's frequently opaque Letters are the extensive corpus of Lives of the coenobitic pioneer. I focus on one important version of the Life of Pachomius, what I have called the "Great Coptic Life." The textual transmission of the Lives of Pachomius is complex and disputed. The principal version discussed here is preserved by manuscripts (some more completely preserved, some quite fragmentary) in the Sahidic and Bohairic dialects of Coptic and in two Arabic versions. Armand Veilleux refers to this version of the Life as the Sahidic-Bohairic Life (or SBo), a designation that is incomplete (since the Arabic manuscripts are an important witness to the tradition, whatever one makes of Veilleux's stemma) as well as a bit awkward. I refer to it as the Great Coptic Life, which distinguishes it from the important and ancient Greek tradition and the various extremely fragmentary Sahidic Lives (such as the First and Second Sahidic Lives).My focus is almost exclusively on this Life, but whenever it diverges significantly from the First Greek Life of Pachomius—which it does frequently and significantly in descriptions of Pachomius's ill health—I refer to the alternative version there as well. While a lengthy discussion of textual stemmatics is avoided, some explanation is needed of the relationship of the Great Coptic Life and the Greek Vita Prima. Veilleux has convincingly argued that these two primary narratives of the bios of Pachomius are independent; neither is the source of the other, but both draw on a common source that gives at least a basic narrative of the life of Pachomius and of his main successors, Petronius, Horsiese, and Theodore. My interest here lies not in reconstructing the life of the "historical Pachomius" but in how one particular collection of stories shaped the memory and memorialization of this important saint in narrative form.
I also look to the seven Letters attributed to a contemporary "founder" of Christian asceticism, Antony (c. 251-356), whose Life, probably authored by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria shortly after the monk's death, ranks among the formative cultural productions of late ancient Christianity, and which I also discuss. Much like the other early monastic letters, and unlike Athanasius's influential Life of Antony, the Letters composed by the famous hermit are relatively little known, even among readers of early Christian ascetic literature. Their lack of familiarity is due in some measure to the complexities of their transmission. The only reliable and complete version of the Letters is preserved in Georgian, an obstacle to most scholars of early Christianity, although fragmentary or clearly flawed versions were transmitted in numerous other languages. Furthermore, their frequently abstract and explicitly Origenist contents have not endeared them to a scholarly community more drawn to the stark simplicity of the sayings of the desert fathers or the drama of the lives of holy harlots. Yet after decades of relative neglect, scholars such as Samuel Rubenson and David Brakke have rehabilitated the Letters of Antony in recent decades and returned this corpus to its proper place among the earliest witnesses to the intellectual culture of nascent monasticism.
Antony probably wrote his original letters in Coptic, which if so would make Antony one of the earliest original literary writers in the Coptic language, along with Pachomius. Dating the letters is problematic since we know little about the chronology of Antony's life apart from his death in 356. The Life of Antony, even if it were considered a reliable witness to Antony's biography, provides little in the way of detail by which we could date the letters. Samuel Rubenson, who has done the most in recent years to bring this epistolary corpus to the attention of historians of late ancient Christianity, argues that Antony's criticism of the Arians, along with the general absence of explicitly Athanasian theology, plausibly points to a date in the 330s or perhaps as late as the 340s. In any case, Antony's death in 356 is a secure terminus ante quem.
The Life of Antony will also cast a long shadow over the sources explored in this book. The Life was probably written between 356 and 360 and is traditionally attributed to Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. There are numerous good reasons to accept that attribution, although it is still debated. At the very least it concords well with Athanasian theology, and no clear evidence disproves Athanasius's authorship. I take it as generally convincing that Athanasius wrote the Life and will refer to him as author below without repeating the previously given caveat. That said, the historical facticity of his authorship is not particularly relevant for my argument. The Life will probably be among the most familiar of the sources examined in the volume, and its importance and influence in establishing a popular literature about monasticism hardly need arguing. The Life of Antony would come to establish much of the contours of the monastic bios as a genre in antiquity.
In addition to the Lives of Pachomius and Antony, I draw on other early monastic hagiographies, which in general reflect and adapt the sorts of narrative structures and theological orientations of the Life of Antony. Jerome's Life of Paul of Thebes is a relatively familiar representative of the literary and theological interests of post-Athanasian hagiographers and offers an important rereading of the Athanasian model of the healthy saint. Jerome's Letters too offer an important perspective on the meaning of illness in the life of the ascetic. Perhaps less familiar, but even more interesting for my purposes, is the Life of Onnophrius, written by a certain Paphnutius, an Egyptian probably writing around the turn of the fifth century who also composed Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt. Beyond these two books we have no further information about the identity of Paphnutius; it was a common name among monks and monkish writers, and there are a number of possible identities among the known namesakes. Tim Vivian has identified ten possible matches and concludes that the most likely author was a Paphnutius Cephalas of the northern Egyptian community of Scetis. This Paphnutius was known for having traveled widely in the 390s, and the Life of Onnophrius has a clear connection to Scetis. Nevertheless the precise identity of the author remains uncertain. Regardless, the text can be placed in the late fourth or early fifth century and would become a popular hagiography in the late ancient Mediterranean and Near East as well as in medieval Europe, preserved in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and other languages. I use the Sahidic Coptic version of the Life, as preserved in a British Museum manuscript published by E. A. W. Budge.
I draw on other biographical narratives, such as the Lausiac History of Palladius of Helenopolis, dating to around 420; the anonymous History of the Monks of Egypt, a hagiographical travelogue written about 400; Theodoret's famous Religious History of the monks of Syria, written about 440; and other occasional writings about the lives of ascetics. I also draw on the biographical materials included in the Life and Regimen of the Blessed and Holy Teacher Syncletica, pseudonymously attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria but at any rate written in the tradition of the Life of Antony. Like the Life of Antony, the Life of Syncletica includes an extended section of teaching intended especially for the ascetics (primarily women) who looked to her for spiritual and ascetic guidance. These teachings offer a useful counterpoint to the predominantly hagiographical tone of the remainder of her Life, and the other major hagiographies of the fourth and early fifth centuries.
I look to other contemporary literature focused not on narrative but on moral exhortation and practical advice for the ascetic life, in particular writings of Basil of Caesarea and Evagrius of Pontus. In addition to Basil's own letters and a homily, That God Is Not the Cause of Evil, the "rules" of Basil, the Shorter Rules and the Longer Rules, are examined. The Shorter is a collection of 313 questions and relatively brief answers about the ascetic life, the Longer a collection of 55 questions answered at much greater length by Basil. These "rules" thus differ significantly in form from the famous and influential regulae of Pachomius, Augustine, and Benedict. Some, such as in Anna Silvas's recent translation, prefer to call them the Responses, but with the preceding caveat, I will use their traditional names (regulae, horoi).
Evagrius of Pontus (346-99) taught and practiced in the Egyptian monastery of Kellia ("The Cells") in the last two decades of the fourth century. Of his voluminous ascetic and theological writings I draw on two treatises in particular, the Praktikos and On Thoughts. Evagrius was a mystic and an ascetic theorist, but he was also interested in the practical techniques of monastic life, especially as developed in the semi-eremitical lavras of northern Egypt. He wrote in the generation following Basil and his Cappadocian contemporaries, and in fact was closely connected to them. Ordained a reader by Basil, Evagrius was later ordained archdeacon by Gregory of Nazianzus during his tenure as bishop of Constantinople. Thus it will not be surprising if there are commonalities between them.
Evagrius was to be marginalized as a thinker primarily for his elaboration of a speculative theology based on some controversial elements of Origen's thought. Many of Evagrius's prolific writings were lost. Some treatises were transmitted pseudonymously (especially under the name of Nilus of Ancyra), while others were preserved only in the languages of the eastern churches, especially Armenian and Syriac. Some were preserved under his own name in Greek, so great was his prestige and influence, but these treatises were limited to his more practical writings on the ascetic life. His ascetic and mystical theology forms the basis of much of the Christian mystical tradition—in the West through the influence of his protégé John Cassian and in the East through such writers as Maximus Confessor and John Climacus. Evagrius's influence is still felt, for example, in the tradition of the "eight evil thoughts" (later condensed to seven cardinal—and later deadly—sins), a psychological and spiritual set of theories expounded throughout Evagrius's large corpus of writings (and which we return to in Chapter 6). Elements of his spiritual and compositional technique would have a long history in the Greek ascetic tradition. A generation ago Evagrius's literary corpus and influence were largely unrecognized, even among historians of late antiquity. The situation is very different today.
As a more intimate reflection of the role and strategies of the spiritual director to wrestle with the meaning and function of illness in asceticism I turn to a remarkable body of literature that has been relatively little used as a source for late ancient monasticism: the Letters of Barsanuphius and John (active in the first half of the sixth century). The Letters (also called the Correspondence and Questions and Responses) resemble in form the Rules or Responses of Basil the Great but are far more expansive both in size and in the range of concerns addressed, and are addressed to individuals rather than communities. The correspondence includes some 848 letters from Barsanuphius and John, the "Great Old Men" from the monastery of Thavatha in Gaza, responding to a wide range of queries from other monks and laypeople. Notably the collection also includes the requests that prompted the responses, frequently in summary but often including extracts from the actual letters, sometimes even their entirety. The Correspondence as a whole was edited by an anonymous disciple, a contemporary of the Great Old Men (some suggest it was Dorotheus of Gaza, an equally influential writer from Thavatha). The Correspondence provides an interesting counterpoint to other, earlier sources. As much as the spiritual and psychagogic practices of the Great Old Men reflect the orientations and arguments of such teachers as Basil, Evagrius, and the desert Abbas and Ammas, the dialogic format of the Correspondence, as well as its temporal span, provides a view of the contentiousness and disagreement that were inevitably part of ascetic life. Even in this late collection echoes of the concerns about the meaning and function of illness raised in earlier sources can be heard. Job and Paul and Antony and the desert fathers and mothers are present intertextually in the Gazan correspondence.
* * *
The volume is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 establishes some contextual and methodological base points for the chapters that follow. Illness proved problematic for late ancient writers in two broad aspects: its function and its meaning. Functionally illness aids the ascetic process of self-formation;, yet it undermines core ascetic values, especially self-control. Furthermore, when placed in the context of the dominant symbolic world of the time, illness's meaning is equally ambiguous, being the most obvious sign of punishment for transgression against god as well as an affliction borne by the just and holy. Given the fundamental ambiguity in Christianity's unique attitude toward Christianity and illness's impact (in Christian asceticism and cross-culturally) on ascetic behavior in general, we should not be surprised at the contentious approaches that late ancient Christians took toward making sense of illness in ascetic life.
Chapter 2 looks at three of the earliest collections of monastic literature, including archives of letters written to monks at a Monastery of Hathor in the 340s and 350s, the circular Letters of Pachomius written to the communities that made up his monastic federation, and the Letters of Antony, written also to other monastic communities. These three letter collections are interesting both for what they say about questions of the meaning and utility of illness among ascetics and for what they do not say. While the silence of sources has limits in what it can tell, at the very least it shows what the authors understood to be most important to present. Of the three early monastic letter collections, the Letters of Antony receive the most attention, as we witness in them what may be the earliest elaboration of the paradisiacal, restorative rhetoric of Christian asceticism.
Chapter 3 traces the growth of health and illness as central themes in the hagiographical literature of monasticism. The focus will be on the Life of Antony and two later hagiographies that treat similar themes: the Life of Paul by Jerome and the Life of Onnophrius by Paphnutius. These important hagiographies contrast in important ways with the less reflective letters discussed in Chapter 2. Now the meaning of ascetic health/illness and its utility (or lack thereof) in the ascetic project is a central concern. While Antony in his Letters drew on common Christus medicus and Origenist theology to characterize Christian asceticism as healing the cosmic wound of the fall and able to lead to spiritual health for the ascetic, Athanasius in his Life of Antony similarly promotes the vision of the ascetic who reclaims bodily health as well. The health of the ascetic thus becomes a signifier of the monk's virtue. While this would be exceptionally influential in later circles, it was not without controversy, even among those who adopted the Antonian Life as a basic template for the monastic bios. Jerome's Life of Paul and Paphnutius's Life of Onnophrius each critique the basic Antonian approach to ascetic illness and health while at the same time work within the same model of ascetic life writing.
Chapter 4 engages other types of late ancient writing that take up these same issues, including letters, rules, didactic treatises, and gnomic sayings. They show that ascetics of a variety of stripes and interests were vexed by the meaning of illness among ascetics and its usefulness for the ascetic project. Through reading ascetic treatises by Basil of Caesarea and Evagrius of Pontus, select Letters of Jerome, and the Life Syncletica, we see that illness was a contentious issue that in many ways cut to the heart of the ascetic project in late antiquity. Ascetic writers debated how, in the plane of ascetic practice rather than in the plane of hagiography, the monk should react to illness. As the Letters of Jerome suggest, the illness of an ascetic could cause considerable controversy for those around the ascetic, both followers and critics. Within hermitages and coenobia as well, the sick ascetic posed a crisis of interpretation and of communal order. The writings of Basil, Evagrius, and Syncletica reflect three approaches to the challenges to meaning and practice that illness posed for late ancient ascetics.
Chapter 5 looks at the Great Coptic Life of Pachomius, which reflects interestingly the hagiographical conventions discussed in Chapter 3 (both the Antonian commonplaces and the subversions of those narrative conventions) and the sort of disciplinary interests on display in Chapter 4. In the Great Coptic Life of Pachomius we witness the full development of a different type of saint, a chronically ill and weak saint, set up as a counterpoint to the dominant model of ascetic health promoted by the Life of Antony.
Chapter 6 draws on elements from the previous four chapters to show how these controversies over meaning and utility function in the correspondence of spiritual direction between the "Great Old Men" Barsanuphius and John and an elderly sick monk named Andrew. These fifty-two letters are an extraordinary archive of the process of spiritual direction in late antiquity. Written a century or more after most of the other sources discussed in this volume, they show that the interpretation of illness as a component of monastic and ascetic life—and the contentiousness that it provoked—was not something simply limited to the imaginary worlds of hagiography; it really did cut to the heart of the day-to-day concerns of ascetics. Their letters also show that the ambiguities and controversies provoked by illness among ascetics would not be easily solved. The issues continued to cause problems in the monastery of Thavatha in sixth-century Gaza. The correspondence of the Great Old Men and Andrew offers valuable insight into the difficulties of making illness meaningful in an ascetic life and reveals that the answers and interpretations offered by the leading ascetic thinkers of Christian antiquity might not have always convinced the monks they were intended to console. The Conclusion provides a look at an overlooked narrative of ascetic illness and consolation in Theodoret of Cyrrhus's Historia religiosa.
It will be clear that certain elements are emphasized. In my previous book, From Monastery to Hospital, I focused on more "ordinary" monks (at least as represented in early monastic rules and gnomic literature) and especially focused on healing, largely avoiding issues of theology. Here I am interested in illness rather than healing and furthermore on the pitfalls of interpretation for sickness among saints, leaders, and moral exemplars. I am not the first to note such issues, but the considerable scholarship on illness and healing in early Christianity has tended to focus either on systematic or historical theology (more narrowly construed), or healing and medicine, which are not my primary concern. Some, in more targeted studies, have indeed noted tensions over illness and meaning endemic in late ancient monastic literature. These have been useful touchstones in my evolving thoughts about these issues. This volume explores in some detail a corpus of related texts from late antiquity that point to the persistence of a complicated and complicating discourse about the meaning and role of illness in the life of the ascetic and saint, and the distinct changes in discourse over the course of the late ancient Mediterranean world.