The Example of Christ in Early Syrian Christianity

Of all the places in early Christianity one is drawn to the to Syrian desert, mostly the Scetes, where the Christians fathers and mothers fled from human contact and the trials and tribulations of the time.  We know that many fled because of the inner need to live the life of silence and meditation, in endless conversation with the Master; but just as many if not more fled from the persecutions of Christians in their times.    The times were brutal, ravaged by plagues, butchery, and a sick disregard for the poor and the needy.

This of course occurred in many parts of the world, and not particularly Egypt or Syria.  But it is the kind of practices that the desert hermits undertook on thier mental and physical existence that inspires the modern being, fills us with awe, and gives us greater thoughts to meditate upon.

The role that early Syrian Christianity took could be traced back to the Gospel of St. Mathew.  Of all the gospels, it seems that it was St. Mathew’s that inspired the Christian hermits.  We must understand that many of these hermits were from high and noble classes, they were not simple-minded folks with little education, but many of them had classical educations, and therefore their convictions are all the more sincere.

It was the Gospel of St. Mathew that appealed to the motivations of the early monks and desert dwellers.  Particularly the on the theme of discipleship, on the following of Christ involving celibacy, poverty and homelessness, in the service of announcing the kingdom, in a proclamation to be accompanied by miraculous signs of exorcism and healing.

The inspiration can also be found in the writings of  the apostle Thomas, where in his acts he writes:

he goeth about the cities and countries, and whatsoever he hath he giveth unto the poor, and teacheth of a new God, and healeth the sick, and driveth out devils, and doeth many other wonderful things; and we think him to be a sorcerer. Yet his compassions and his cures which are done of him freely, and moreover the simplicity and kindness of him and his faith, do declare that he is a righteous man or an apostle of the new God whom he preacheth; for he fasteth continually and prayeth, and eateth bread only, with salt, and his drink is water, and he weareth but one garment alike in fair weather and in winter, and receiveth nought of any man, and that he hath he giveth unto others

– Acts of Thomas Judas, 20

It is within the Acts of Thomas Judas and in the Apochrophal Acts of the Apostles that we the ascetic’s inspiration.  More then anywhere else in the Bible the Acts are challanging the Christian to renounce the wold, to become an onlooker, to celebrate in celibacy.   There was an element of extremism to salvation that appealed to the wise men and women of the time.  Some saw this as too extreme and proclaimed them heretics.  Even the Church itself, at the Council of Trent in the mid 1500s, declared the Acts of Thomas heretical.

But we must understand the times again, and see the world from their eyes.   Most Christian ascetics choose a life of penance and mortification of the soul not out of masochist leanings, but for the imitation of Christ in real-life.  We see this with such brave souls as Simeon Stylites, who often spoke to his disciples about his immitation of the Lord through worldly acts, we see this in the nature of the great Syrian ascetic Marcianus, and even modenr Christian ascetics such as Matt Talbot and Charles de Foucauld:

You have only one model, Jesus. Follow, follow, follow him, step by step, imitating him, sharing his life in every way.

To give away your possessions to the poor was an ideal, because the Lord preached it.  To become one with life, to embrace compassion, and to live humbly and in constant meditation on God in prayer and daily actions was an ideal.  But it was not that alone which drove them to asceticism, it was also understood that through such actions, over control of the body one could reach the “life of angels” upon the Earth.  To be an example to all that to become higher was possible and to enjoy the abode of the heavens here on the Earth.   There was simply no logical need for angels to have sex, or care for possessions, or for long nourishment.  These men and women lived on a completely angelic diet.

It is because of such humble actions and such a holy existance that many of the ascetics became mediators between men.  We all know of how people from far and wide came to them for advice.  Soon these recluse’s became mediators not just between men, but between men and God.

I will have more on this topic in the coming days.


~ by alexmalina on February 11, 2009.

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