The Communion of Saints: Consecrated Life

Well, we’ve finally done it – we’ve come to the end of this short series on the Desert Fathers.  In case you were too blown away by the obscure names of some of the monks to follow, I was trying to show the rise of the practice of religious life in the Church, from St. Anthony of the Desert leading up to St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism.

What’s the point of all this, you might ask?  I’m not writing these to encourage you to wear camel skins or wander off into the desert to live in ancient tombs or monasteries.  I write to show you that the practice of religious life is a beautiful thing!  Men, and (especially in our region) dedicated women, who have offered their lives in prayerful service for each of us in the Church, and who have shown us the meaning of discipleship through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, are incredibly important to the life of the Church.  Please pray for vocations to the religious life, and if you know someone who you believe would make a good religious brother or sister, PLEASE tell them in love!

That being said, religious life is just one specific path in answering that universal call to holiness given to all of us.  If there’s one thing that we can take away from the Desert Fathers, I believe it is their extreme example of taking seriously the words of Jesus.  All of us are called to leave behind that which is keeping us from God, so that we can focus on what is good and right, and live our lives to please God.  Please, continue to pray, fast, and give generously (even if it’s not Lent right now), and maybe offer a special sacrifice on Fridays.  These are simple ways that we can offer our lives to God in a similar way to the lives of these holy Desert Fathers and Mothers.

The Communion of Saints: St. Benedict of Nursia

The Medal of St. Benedict
The Medal of St. Benedict

Hooray!  We’ve finally reached someone whose name we might recognize – the great St. Benedict of Nursia.  His image and influence are everywhere – from St. Louis Priory School and St. Anselm Parish (run by the Benedictines) to the little cross I use on the altar during Mass, which has a Benedictine medal on it.  He truly is everywhere, and had an incredible impact on the Church.

St. Benedict was born the son of a Roman noble in Nursia, Italy around 480, and shared his life with his sister, Scholastica.  As Benedict grew up, he found himself in the wrong crowd and the wrong group of friends who lived a very indulgent and sinful lifestyle.  Benedict realized the situation and knew he needed to get out of there, so he left his home in Nursia and journeyed into the mountains.

It was on his journeys that he met a man named Romanus, who belonged to a monastery after the style of St. John Cassian.  Romanus taught Benedict his ways, and under his encouragement and support, Benedict became a hermit, living in secrecy and solitude in a cave near Subiaco, Italy.  Romanus continued to guide Benedict by visiting him, counseling him, and bringing him food.  It was a time of incredible self-discovery and spiritual growth for Benedict.

As time went on, Benedict became very well known and well respected by other monks in the area, similar to the way St. Anthony had done in the desert years before.  In fact, when the abbot of a nearby monastery died, a group of monks begged him to take over as abbot.  It didn’t work out great at first – they tried to poison him (which makes you wonder what happened to the first abbot, right?) – but over time, he came to be a better leader, and other monks were attracted to his way of life.  St. Benedict founded several other monasteries, including the great monastery at Monte Cassino, which was destroyed in World War II, rebuilt, and is used to this day.

St. Benedict is most famous for his Rule.  Up to this time, monasteries were somewhat independent, and followed the example of their founder or abbot.  However, St. Benedict chose to establish a rule or order to unite his monasteries under one way of life.  The Rule of St. Benedict was heavily influenced by the writings of St. John Cassian, and I can’t do it justice in just one paragraph, but the order essentially outlines their way of life through the motto “Ora et Labora”, meaning “pray and work”.  Under the Rule, the monks would go to Mass and pray the Divine Office together, do physical labor for spiritual gain, share their resources as a community, and dedicate their lives to study, prayer, and community.  The Rule is incredibly detailed, and is still followed by Benedictine monks all over the world today.

St. Benedict is widely considered to be the founder of modern Western monasticism, and gave rise to the idea of religious orders as they exist today.  Let us all pray through his intercession that we would also grow in holiness and simplicity!  St. Benedict, pray for us!

The Communion of Saints: St. John Cassian

St_John_Cassian_the_Roman_ca_1800Finally! After a ton of crazy Egyptian monk names, we finally have someone who’s name we can pronounce with St. John Cassian! However, St. John isn’t just important because of his pronounceable name – he serves as the link between the East and the West. All these monks had been in Egypt, and maybe a few in Palestine or Syria, but St. John Cassian was the first to bring these practices to Europe in a concrete way.

St. John Cassian was born around 360 in the area now shared by Bulgaria and Romania. His parents were very wealthy, and they used this wealth to give him a top-notch education. St. John grew up learning the works of Cicero, and spoke both Latin and Greek.

While he was still a young man, he and his friends took a road trip of sorts to Palestine. While most teens and young adults would spend their road trip doing…other things…St. John and his friends stayed in a monastery near Bethlehem to study and pray. The monastery where they stayed was set up by one of the desert monks, and St. John Cassian loved the experience so much that he wanted to learn from the horse’s mouth. He and his friends travelled to Egypt and spent fifteen years learning from the monks.

Struggles in the Church in Egypt drove St. John Cassian and his brothers to flee to Constantinople, where they sought the protection and support of the famous Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom. And of course, as soon as they got there, St. John Chrysostom himself was exiled as well! Cassian chose to go to Rome, where he met with Pope Innocent I.

While he was in Rome, he received an invitation to begin a monastic community following the style of our old pal St. Pachomius in what is now Marseilles, France. He founded the Abbey of St. Victor in 415 to hold communities of both men and women who spent their lives following the style of prayer and simplicity that St. John Cassian had learned from the Egyptian monks. Today, we wouldn’t really think too much of that – there are thousands and thousands of monasteries throughout Europe and around the world, and some even in St. Louis! At the time, however, the ideas of a monastery and following a life of simplicity were brand new concepts to the Western World!

St. John Cassian died around 435, and was buried in his community. The Abbey of St. Victor was still active as a monastery until the 1700’s, and can be visited today in Marseilles as a museum.

Well, there you go! The ideas of St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers finally made it to Europe. But it was all just the beginning!

The Communion of Saints: St. Pachomius the Great

Cretan Icon of St. Pachomius the Great from the 16th Century
Cretan Icon of St. Pachomius the Great from the 16th Century

For a while now, we’ve been learning about individual monks and their way of life, and it’s easy to compare it to things that we already know today.  Usually today, we think of monks as being members of religious orders like Benedictines, Franciscans, Precious Blood Sisters, or otherwise.  But in the time of the Desert Fathers, things were still very much in their infancy.

There were monasteries built in those times, but not as we would think of them now.  Mostly, the monks lived solitary lives as hermits, but they would gather together once in a while to seek counsel or to pray.  Some of the older monks or those who were physically unable to live the extreme lifestyle in the desert would stay at the monastery and live in the rooms there.

One great Desert Father changed all of this – St. Pachomius the Great.  He was born in Thebes in Egypt around 292 to a pagan family.  In his teens, Pachomius was forced into service in the Roman army, and was put on a ship to be sent down the Nile for training.  It was there that he first experienced Christians.  They reached out to the troops, giving them food, water, comfort and prayers.  This had a lasting impression on him, and when he was able to leave the army, he immediately sought out the Church to be baptized.

As a new Christian, Pachomius came into contact with the hermits of the desert, and sought to pursue that path for his own life.  He studied and imitated the life of Christ the best he could, and also the life of St. Anthony of the Desert.  But after living as a hermit for a few years, he felt called to something different.

St. Pachomius liked the idea of having monasteries as St. Macarius had set them up, but he added a different spin to them.  He is credited with founding cenobitic monasticism, which is similar to our approach to religious life today.  Rather than living by themselves, the monks lived in community, sharing their resources and property, praying together, and promising obedience to their abbot or abbess.  (“Abbot” sounds a lot like “abba”, am I right?)  These monks didn’t train to become priests, despite some encouragement by others to do so, but they lived in communal religious life together.

St. Pachomius served as the abbot of his community for 40 years before dying around 348.  By the time of his death, there were eight monasteries under his care, each holding hundreds of monks.  His life and leadership attracted a lot of attention from other influential figures of the time.  St. Athanasius and St. Basil, two Doctors of the Church, took St. Pachomius’ model and brought it back with them to their own homes.  Eventually, cenobitic monasticism spread to Palestine, Syria, and eventually, Western Europe.

We’ll soon see what an impact this had on the world!  St. Pachomius the Great, pray for us!

The Communion of Saints: St. Melania the Elder

So far, most of these Desert Fathers and Mothers have come from Egypt or thereabouts, but as we’ll soon see, this radical witness of simplicity and prayer was very attractive to Christians seeking to deepen their faith after it had become legalized.  The movement soon began to influence the world outside Egypt as well.

St. Melania the Elder was one of those combinations of the East (Egypt) and West (Rome).  She was actually born in 325 in one of the Roman colonies in Spain to a Roman noble family called the Valerii.  This is important background information, because the Valerii were one of the most ancient and wealthiest families in the Empire, and several emperors had even come from the family.  Melania married a man named Valerius Maximus Basilius at the age of 14, and moved to Rome, where he became the Praefectus Urbi – essentially the mayor or city administrator of Rome, a very influential position.

Of course, wealth and power doesn’t ensure immortality.  Valerius died, followed quickly by two of her three sons as disease spread through the city.  Overwhelmed by her grief and loss, Melania ensured the care of her remaining son, and much to the disdain of her wealthy family, went off to Alexandria in Egypt to mourn and learn the ways of the Christian monks.

St. Melania spent her time praying and learning from the Desert Fathers.  However, there was a period of upheaval in Egypt, and many of the monks were deported out of the desert to Palestine.  Melania secretly went with them, disguising herself as a slave and caring for their needs.  After about five years, when she was free to live her faith openly again, she joined some of the other monks in establishing a monastery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

After so many years, Melania rejoined her family, bringing her new ascetic spirituality to them.  She cared for her son and his new wife, and became a big influence for her granddaughter, who was also named Melania after her.  In fact, the granddaughter was so inspired by St. Melania the Elder that she took up the same calling and herself became a saint, known as St. Melania the Younger.

St. Melania the Elder lived a happy and complete life close to the Lord, and near the end of her life, moved back to Palestine, where she died in 410 in Jerusalem.  Her life gives us a great lesson in priorities.  She forsake the wealth and influence of her family to be consoled by Christ and to embrace the Gospel, then spreading that to her family and the world.  St. Melania the Elder, pray for us!

The Communion of Saints: St. Syncletica

www-St-Takla-org--St-Syncletica-03I got to thinking recently: so far, I might have given you the impression that all these people who went off to the desert were crazy men. But in reality, this was a large movement that attracted all number of people, both men and women.

After a while, these hermits became widely known as spiritual leaders, and even spiritual fathers and mothers. Thus, most of them acquired the title of “Abba” (father) or “Amma” (mother). Many people wanted to keep and treasure the spiritual counsel and advice that these mothers and fathers had to offer, so they jotted them down. These were all compiled into the Apophthegmata Patrum – don’t worry about the pronunciation, just call it the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers).

This book was a compilation of advice, anywhere from small sentences to whole paragraphs on a number of spiritual topics, mostly having to do with simplicity, prayer, and the life of a hermit. Of these sayings, 47 of them are attributed to the Desert Mothers, and a historian named Palladius mentioned that almost 3,000 Christian women were living in the desert at one point, choosing to live a life of simplicity in the desert.

One of these was St. Syncletica of Alexandria, born around 270. Amma Syncletica was blessed with both beauty and wealth as a young woman, but even from her childhood, she was drawn to the things of God, and desired to dedicate her life completely to him. After the death of her parents, for whom she had cared for many years, she received all their property and affairs. She chose to give it away to the poor, and left everything behind to live the life she had longed for in the desert.

She lived in an ancient Egyptian tomb in the desert, and quickly gained the attention of many locals, gathering many more women who came to live with her as disciples of Christ. In all her sayings, it is very clear that Amma Syncletica was blessed with the gift of discernment and counseling. Although many of these women came to her enthusiastically and authentically desiring the monastic life, she was able to encourage them to direct their gifts and desires in other ways if they were not yet prepared to take on the rigorous life of the desert.

After a life of service to God through her asceticism, she died around the year 350. St. Syncletica is an example of many virtues, but one that stood out to me in reading her sayings was her humility. May we all imitate her gift of self as we strive to follow Christ!

“Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.” –Saying 26 from Amma Syncletica

Updates Coming!

So for those who read this who aren’t members of my parish, I have received a new assignment from His Excellency, the Lord Archbishop of Saint Louis.  Because of that, my time has been soaked up a lot lately with the business of moving.  However, I am going to try to get current, at least with my saint bios on the Desert Fathers.  Also, because I don’t know the practice of my new parish, I might be changing the way I do some things on here (audio maybe?!?).  I also might have to take a break from the saints until I get settled in.  Please stay tuned, pray for me, and keep the faith!