The Hermit Saint by Bosch

•March 11, 2009 • 1 Comment

This is one of my favorite paintings by one of my most favorite painters.

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Simeon Stylites on the Pillar, Image

•March 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I am not sure who created this image, but it is interesting and it is always good to see such figures.

Excess and Lust

•March 9, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I came to Ohio this week to do a few days of work. It’s a strange and bizarre business that I am in, working long 14 hour days. Weird rains and warm winds have invaded this part of the country, and for a while it felt as though I was not in the Midwest but perhaps in some tropical locale, where the constant rains and warm temperatures gave a dream-like ambiance to an entire existence.

I would awake early in the mornings and enter this odd world, where the rain fell not in tiny droplets but big puddles, and it splattered everywhere, getting on everyone. Everything was soaking it seemed, and the world had become something of a watery life, as if a unique film that was created under extreme conditions. Working under such conditions, in terribly bad lighting and ventilation, gave way to odd thoughts and conversations with fellow workmen, with little breaks for sitting, I would steal away ten or five minutes out of every two hours to run to the tent that was set up to read through the Religious History, and jot down a few notes on thoughts pertaining to excess and lust.

The few moments that life afforded me throughout the workday to break into solitude and quite observance of things aloft and much more higher then the worldly, gave me both strength and anxiousness; at times thinking of how despairing we creatures of the Earth are, in order to feed our daily bodies, and yet how low we bring ourselves to meaningless chores in order to provide for our own survival.  There was something both terrible and beautiful about it; the suffering of it all.

Talking with several men and women about our lives I came to see the suffering of it all much closer then I ever thought.  The terrible state of our nations economy has forced many who once lived a life of lust and excess to come much closer to reality, and at times shown the horrendous consequences, and sometimes allowed others to realize the tradgedy of forgetting those in need.

Under this economy some who once held high posts have fallen.  Those who flew to close to the sun, their wings have melted.  Others, who silently sighed and prayed and worked, and still remain on the bottom, can only see the new-found exhaustion on their faces, and bare with them the daily struggle.   And again society is begining to understand the value of decent work, and that charity and compassion are needed in this society, perhaps more then ever.

When people are out of hope, those who were not charitable and compassionate are begining to ask, “who would care for me when I lose my job? Who would feed me when I cannot find food?  Who would help me when I cannot find shelter?”

It is in such times when we can look back at the Desert Fathers and understand a few things much more clearly.  These men and women did not chose to wear the same cloaks for their entire lives to punish themselves.  They wore what they had and only what they needed because they understood that if they had anything else but the clothes they needed, those clothes could be worn by those who do not have them.   They chose to eat small doses of food because the extra food that they did not eat could be used to feed the poor.  They chose to ubstain from lust and excess because those energies and those bounties were all things that did not naturally belong to them, and to take use of excess meant to take away from others, and to take use of lust mean to betray ones own moral sense of compassion.

These are lessons we must take with us.

Finally though, these long days of work are over.  I am looking forward to finally begin publishing more of my essays on asceticism, which should be coming this whole week.

Hunger

•March 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The thirst for knowledge and enlightenment
should be reflected in the body.

Christian Ascetics: Domnina

•February 28, 2009 • 2 Comments

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.

Cobwebs Update

•February 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Hi everyone,

Just a quick update.  I know that there aren’t many articles up as usual.  This is because I am very busy with course work, but I have been doing research.  Expect more information on early and obscure asceticism this week, and the regular posts to start flowing once more very soon.

Thank you everyone, kind regards
Alex M.

Christian Ascetics: Grazers

•February 19, 2009 • 2 Comments

Among the fascinating men and women of early Christianity that I have come across in my studies of the subject matter of early Christian ascetics, perhaps the oddest and most intriguing would be what were later called “grazers.”  Put simply, grazers were men and women who renounced the life of humanity, left for the grassy hills, plains, and meadows, to live as the wild beasts of the Earth – walking only on all fours, in modest rags or naked, feeding off whatever they could find, often grass and raw foods, never speaking the human tongue, or acting human whatsoever.

There is very little information available today about the grazers.  We do know that such forms of penance, mortification, and asceticism existed in other religious cultures, most notably the Sufi ascetics in the East, also saw such “grazers” in the extreme of their religion.

We do know that grazers often chose to also wear heavy chains on their entire body, so as to never rise and walk like a human being, and to be constantly lowered like an animal towards the ground.  We know that the few people who did encounter grazers noted how shocking and strange they looked, that they often barked and ran off as if wild animals into the forests.   However, we do know that the people who chose to become grazers did so out of a religious passion, and not from some sort of disorder

Very little information exists, and there are no definitely “grazers” that have become Saints, or some that can be identified into a category, as could, for example, the “stylites.”   But we can look towards some ascetics from the antique period at such people as St. Fructousus who lived without any clothing and with no care for what he would eat or drink. People noted that he lived in a cave like an animal.

It is fascinating how very little information is found about such a bizarre and extreme form of Christian practice.  Perhaps the only antique texts that mention grazers, or “boksoi” as they were called in Greek and ancient texts, is found in John Moscho’s sixth century text, The Spiritual Meadow and The Life of Saba by Cyrill Scythopolis.  But even then the boksoi are mentioned simply as existing, and nothing is written about their existance, how they chose such a way life, what drove them to such a spiritual practice, what their daily lives were like, or even what their names were.

One comes to think that perhaps the men of the day were not as fascinated or intrigued by the grazers as they were with other ascetics, such as Simeon, Baradatus, and the other Desert Fathers?  Perhaps the grazers were simply too bizarre for the regular man to approach, perhaps because they chose to abandon all forms of their previous human life, and they seemed too frightening.  Even today such an existance seems wild, and it is difficult for us to comprehend how one lives in such a manner, or what draws one to live so removed from even your own human nature.