Christian Ascetics: Domnina

As most ascetics and solitaries of her time, there was a certain need to emulate the ideal life, life of the Apostles, and of Christ.  Back then Christianity was not simply a practice and a belief-system that one fitted in during the week to guard from damnation; it was a constant daily suffering and struggle to lead the perfect life, to renounce the world and step beyond it, and to become as the saints and the angels.  It was an endless spiritual battle that only ceased with the release of the soul from the body.   However stern and abstract the lives of extreme ascetics seem to be, we know from the writings of their contemporaries that they were incredibly calm, tempered, and sweet.  The word “sweet” appears often in the pages of antique memoirs, in the lives of early saints and martyrs.  Simeon Stylite, who after tying his feet to the pillars to practice perpetual standing developed an ulcer that oozed daily from his right foot, was seen in agony was still “extremely sweet and lovely”

While the villagers who lived near them saw them as holy men and women, the ascetics saw themselves as sinners in the modern world, unable to live amongst men and women.   And while there were many faces of Christian piety and experience in the 5th century of Syria, we are somehow closely drawn to these ragged hermits and solitaries, who had abandoned all the rewards of daily life, all the joys and loves of youth, and who committed their souls, minds, and bodies to perpetual suffering, exposed to both human torment and natural.    For some reason we seem closer to them when they are in distress, when they are in the most primitive of circumstances, when there is nothing between them and us, except perhaps centuries.

In the fascinating world of female asceticism in antique Christianity, the Saint and ascetic Domnina seems to stand out simply by her virtues and interesting lifestyle.  We do not know exactly when she was born, but it can be assumed that it was sometime in the late 390s, or early 400s, for we are certain that her death occured in 460 from natural causes.

Most of the information we have about Domnina is from the Syriac Life and from the interesting biography of the saint by Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who had seen her and spoke with her several times.  In his Religious History he gives us a haunting portait of a young woman who dedicated every single breath and step towards God.

We know that she was born in the region of Cyrrhus, and perhaps never left that area.  We can gather that Domnina grew up in a religious family and that her family supporterd her passage into this lifestyle.  From a young age Domnina decided to set up a small hut in the middle of her mother’s garden.  Theodoret describes the hut as barren and made from millet stalks.

We know that Domnina lived on a severe diet of lentil soaked in water.   Theodoret talks about her physical appearance:

. . . she endures all this labor with a body reduced to a skeleton and half-dead – for her skin is very thin, and covers her thin bones as if with a film, while her fat and flesh have been worn away by labors. Though exposed to all who wish to to see her, both men and women, she neither sees a face nor shows her face to another, but is literally covered up by her cloak and bent down onto her knees, while she speaks extremely softly and indistinctly, always making her remarks with tears.

Domnina was among the many hermits of the early period who practiced the penance of perpetual crying.  We know of some monks who practiced such extreme asceticism, and of one in particular who cried so much that his eyelashes fell out from so many tears.   It was said taht often Domnina touched other people’s hands, she would bring them close to her face which no one could see, and after whispering prayers she would let go of the hand, soaked in tears.

Domnina awoke before the sunrise, and would leave her tiny hut to attend Mass daily and the same with evening prayers.  We also know that many people came to see her, and that she often gave sermons and advice to anyone who wished.  Many people came to visit her and the local parish priest would put all of them up.

Domnina was among the thousands of virgins who chose a life of extreme asceticism.


~ by alexmalina on February 28, 2009.

2 Responses to “Christian Ascetics: Domnina”

  1. […] URL Shouter created an interesting post today on BChristian/B Ascetics: DomninaHere’s a short outline…in the modern world, unable to live amongst men and women.   And while there were many faces of BChristian/B piety and experience in the 5th… […]

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