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

The Communion of Saints: St. Pishoy

saint-bishoy2The next Desert Father, St. Pishoy, is a rather under-recognized saint, especially in the Western Church, but I find him to be one of the more inspiring and exemplary saints in this time period. St. Pishoy was born around 320 in Shansa, northern Egypt. He was the youngest of seven brothers, and was of very poor health as a child. The story goes that an angel appeared to his mother, asking her to dedicate one of her sons to the Lord. She tried to look past the weak and frail Pishoy to give the Lord one of her stronger sons, but the angel told her that the Lord had indeed chosen Pishoy to be his disciple.

Pishoy grew up a man of faith, and left to enter the wilderness around the age of twenty. She settled in Skete, which would become one of the centers of monastic life in the Nitrian Desert. It was there that he learned the ways of the monastic life under a man named Pambo (First Pishoy and now Pambo! And you thought Chrysogonus was a weird name!).

Pishoy became a hermit, and was famous for his spirituality, kindness, wisdom, and simplicity of life. Many of the hermits nearby would come to meet with him regularly for counsel, causing him to eventually form the Monastery of St. Pishoy (the name didn’t come until later, obviously), which still exists in Skete today.

As we will hear in the coming days after Easter, the disciples of Jesus encountered the Risen Jesus in a number of ordinary ways. St. Mary Magdalene encountered him in the garden outside his tomb, the two disciples met him on the road to Emmaus, and the Eleven encountered him cooking breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. St. Pishoy is also known for his encounters with the Risen Christ, again under ordinary circumstances.

On one occasion, as Pishoy’s fellow monks were going to prayer in the monastery, there was an old visiting monk who was calling for their help. All the monks ignored him on their way to prayer, but St. Pishoy saw him and generously helped him return to his room. He then washed the old man’s feet, imitating the gift of Christ to his apostles at the Last Supper. It was then that the old man revealed his true identity as the Risen Christ, filling St. Pishoy with the joy of the Resurrection.

I think the life of St. Pishoy is a reminder for us during the season of Easter. We recognize that although we formally celebrate Easter this Sunday, we are invited to welcome the Risen Christ into our midst every day, through prayer and acts of love, especially in our brothers and sisters who are weak, poor, or lonely. As we celebrate the joy of Easter, let us continue to celebrate by recognizing the presence of the Risen Christ in others!

The Communion of Saints: St. Macarius

Coptic Icon of St. Macarius
Coptic Icon of St. Macarius

As we’ve seen, this movement by St. Anthony and the monks had been very influential, and soon, a large number of men and women sought to imitate his life of simplicity and prayer. One of these men was St. Macarius of Egypt.

St. Macarius was born in Upper Egypt around 300 AD, and he would have been around 13 years old when St. Anthony retreated to the desert. He made his living as a smuggler of saltpeter, also known as niter in Egypt, which is where the Nitrian Desert gets its name. Saltpeter was used for many different things in the ancient world – for preservation, as a form of soap, and for various other health remedies.

As requested by his parents, he married, but shortly after the wedding, his wife passed away. Not long after that, his parents died as well, leaving Macarius completely alone. It was at this point that he decided to change his life, so he sold his inheritance and journeyed to the desert outside his town, where he studied under an anonymous hermit living just outside the city. Macarius learned the spiritual disciplines from this monk, as well as the spiritual merits of a life of fasting, prayer, and asceticism. He even learned the art of basket weaving (because why not?) in order to make some money to buy food and give to the poor. Not all of us can have ravens bring loaves of bread like St. Paul the Hermit, right?

St. Macarius became very highly regarded for his virtue, and the people of his village recommended him for ordination to the priesthood. But of course, with fame also come a lot of enemies. As he was ministering to his people in the village as a priest, a pregnant woman accused him of breaking his vows and committing adultery. Out of humility, Macarius refused to defend himself, and quickly became a hated man. When the woman’s pregnancy became difficult, however, she recognized that she had done wrong and confessed his innocence. When people came to Macarius to ask his forgiveness for their mistreatment of him, he fled into the desert to avoid the temptation to vanity.

St. Macarius spent the rest of his life in the desert, but this time, he did so presiding over a community of other monks. To give themselves a home, he and the monks built a huge monastery, which still exists today. The Monastery of St. Macarius the Great has been continually inhabited by monks since the 300’s, and is still operational today! People used to call Macarius “the glowing lantern” because he was radiant with the joy of a life with Christ, but this name was eventually transferred to the monastery, which has become known as “the glowing lantern in the wilderness.” So the next time you take a vacation to the Nitrian Desert of Egypt, be sure to stop by the monastery!

The Communion of Saints: St. Paul the Hermit

Coptic Icon of St. Anthony Meeting St. Paul the Hermit
Coptic Icon of St. Anthony Meeting St. Paul the Hermit

As we heard last week, St. Anthony of the Desert went off to live his radically counter-cultural life of simplicity and prayer in the Nitrian Desert. Interestingly, however, he was the not the first to do so. Although St. Anthony didn’t know it at the time, he was doing the same thing as St. Paul the Hermit had done twenty years before him!

Paul was born in the city of Thebes in Egypt around 228, and lived with his married sister. When they lost their parents around the age of 22, their lives were thrown into turmoil. Paul’s brother-in-law saw an opportunity to seize Paul’s inheritance, and reported him as a Christian to the Roman authorities in Thebes.

St. Paul fled into the desert outside Thebes, and found a place to live in an oasis, complete with a comfy cave, palm trees, and a spring. While his original departure from civilization seemed to be out of desperation to flee the persecution of Emperor Decius, he grew into his new life of simplicity and prayer. The leaves of the palms gave him some shade, and he even wore a tunic out of them, almost like Adam in the Garden. Legends tell us that he lived almost exclusively on coconuts until the age of 43, at which point a RAVEN started bringing bread to him each day! Now that’s service. It may seem a little far-fetched, but it certainly gets the point across that St. Paul depended entirely on God for his existence, both physically and spiritually.

Remember St. Anthony? Well, at one point in his life, he became tempted to vanity in taking pride that he was the first to live this way. Thankfully, God gave him the opportunity to grow in humility, when someone told him about St. Paul.

When St. Anthony heard about this other monk who had been living the same way, he sought out St. Paul, and the two Desert Fathers famously met around the year 342. As they came together, they took the time to share bread, just as Jesus had done with his friends. Each invited the other to bless it, then held on to each side of the bread, tearing it in half. It might seem like a strange ritual, but this meeting showed their mutual respect and honor for each other, as well as their brotherhood in Christ.

That was the last time St. Anthony saw St. Paul the Hermit alive. When he returned a few years later, St. Paul had died. St. Anthony buried him (supposedly with the help of two lions!) and took St. Paul’s palm leaf tunic. He chose to wear the tunic twice a year on Easter and Pentecost in honor of St. Paul’s example of humility and holiness.

The Communion of Saints: St. Anthony of the Desert

st-anthony-the-greatToday’s saint is St. Anthony the Great/of Egypt/of the Desert/the Abbot.  No, this isn’t the St. Anthony you pray to in order to find your lost remote control.  If anything, I guess St. Anthony would be the one you pray to in order to become lost – lost in the love of Christ.

St. Anthony of the Desert was one of the most influential men in the early Church, but not for the typical reasons.  He wasn’t a great writer, a great speaker, or a martyr – he was the greatest of the Desert Fathers, a movement of people who sought solitude from the busy and corrupt life of the world to embrace simplicity and prayer.  Today, we would call this movement “monasticism” – monos is the Greek word for “alone.”  St. Anthony was far from alone; he just sought different company.

Most of what we know about St. Anthony comes from The Life of Anthony, a biography written by St. Athanasius, who knew and followed Anthony himself.  Anthony was born in Lower Egypt in 251 to wealthy landowners.  He was born and raised a Christian.  His parents died at an early age, and left him the wealth of the family, along with custody of his sister.

One day during Mass in 313, Anthony heard the famous quote of Christ speaking to the rich young man in the Gospel of Matthew: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The young man in the story turned away sad, but Anthony felt compelled to take his place and do as Christ asked. He gave away part of the family estate and sold the remaining 207 acres, donating the funds to his sister and to care for the poor.  He entrusted his sister to a community of Christian women, and went off to follow Christ in the solitude of the Nitrian Desert, where he spent the remainder of his life. Anthony wandered the deserts, living in an abandoned Egyptian fortress, absorbed in prayer and entirely dependent on God.  He spent his days practicing discipline (imagine a life-long Lent!), and with fasting and purity of heart, he faced his temptations.

Even though he longed to be alone, such an extreme example of asceticism, prayer, and dependence on God attracted a lot of followers.  People followed him out into the desert for a number of reasons. Some came to ask him questions and seek spiritual counsel.  Some sought to follow his example, and he encouraged others to form supportive monastic communities. Some travelled all the way out into the desert just to argue with him about the faith.  At one point, a group bishops even journeyed into the desert to summon him to the Council of Nicaea in 325 to give witness to his faith and inspire the Church.

St. Anthony, in drawing so close to Christ in solitude, chose to leave his earthly life the same way. He wanted to die alone – not out of a loneliness or depression, but to be in his uniquely intimate relationship with the one who created him.  Two other monks, Macarius and Amatas, were helping to take care of him by this point, and Anthony left what few belongings he had to them and his followers. He then gave them a blessing, they left him, and he died in 356 at the age of 105.

The truth is, not all of us are called to be monks – some are, but not all.  Still, there is something admirable and inspiring about St. Anthony’s radical dedication to prayer and love of Christ.