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The Paradise Of The Holy Fathers Volumes 1 and 2 by Saint Athanasius Of Alexandria

ABOUT a generation ago several scholars of eminence devoted much time and labour to the study of the Paradise of Palladius, and some of them arrived at the conclusion that it was neither more nor less than a work of fiction, in fact, a “pious fraud,” perpetrated by a writer who was not called Palladius, who had never been to Egypt or seen the people whom he described, and whose knowledge of the “true history” of the period was incomplete and inaccurate. Others took the view that Palladius had never existed, and even supposing that he had, that he had never been made a bishop. There is no need to discuss here in detail the statements of these writers, for Dom Cuthbert Butler, in his work on the Lausiac History, has shown that there are very good reasons for believing that Palladius did exist, that his book Paradise rests on a historical framework, and that a great portion of his work has come down to us substantially in the form in which he wrote it. Moreover, the evidence on the subject which is to be derived from a study of the great mass of literature written in Coptic, Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopic, which has been published during the last twenty years, supports or confirms his statements on many points, and justifies us in accepting what he says about matters for which proofs cannot be given from extraneous sources. On behalf of those who denied the existence of Palladius, and the genuineness of his work, it must be pointed out that they had never read the documents which excavators have unearthed since 1885, and knew nothing of the investigations which travellers have made in Egypt and Mesopotamia in recent years. They had, moreover, no practical knowledge of the regions of Egypt wherein Christian monasticism took root and flourished, and even the conditions under which the monks and ascetics live in that country in our own times were unknown to them.

From the Paradise we learn that Palladius visited Egypt for the first time in 387, and that he lived there for twelve years; from other sources we know that he passed another six years in the country, i.e., from 406 to 412. During these two periods he travelled all over Egypt, from Alexandria to Syene, and his work contains abundant evidence that he saw every phase of the ascetic life of Christian recluses and coenobites. Many were the cities and villages through which he passed, and every cave and hole in the earth, and every tabernacle in the desert which sheltered a monk, for a distance as far as a monk could walk, did he visit. With several hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of monks he talked face to face, and the truth of this assertion appears, in my opinion in every page of his work. When he writes about the “athletes” who were dead, he takes care to give the source of his information, and in nearly every case we find that his informant was some one who had known personally the man whose life he describes. The amount of the material which he collected must have been enormous, and we may well believe that his work only contains “very few of the very many exceedingly great triumphs” of the holy men whom he knew and heard of. The toil and labour involved in the desert journeys which he undertook were very great, and they must, at times, have been accompanied by much physical pain. Most of his journeys he performed on foot, for there was no fodder to be obtained for asses or camels in the arid wastes where the monks lived. Whenever possible he, no doubt, obtained a passage on some cargo boat sailing up or down the Nile, but all who have travelled on such know how uncomfortable they are for those who are not in the most robust health. The cold of the night, the chills of the dawn, and the blazing heat of the early afternoon, must often have given Palladius sleepless nights and fever, especially after his health broke down. In spite, however, of sickness and fatigue, he clung to his work, and he succeeded in producing a book which has been the guide in all fundamental matters for those who have followed the ascetic life for hundreds of years.

A perusal of the book Paradise shews that Palladius does not describe one side only of the life of the monks, and that he sets before his readers a story which illustrates both their strength and their weakness. The histories of those who have tripped and fallen are given by him as warnings to monks that spiritual excellence may itself become the occasion of stumbling. Thus he tells plainly how Valens the Palestinian, who had been educated in Corinth, became so proud and arrogant that he thought scorn of the Body and Blood of Christ, and at length fell down and worshipped a phantom in the form of anti-Christ. The pious and learned Hero, who only partook of a meal once every three months, was tormented by lust, and then he went to Alexandria and fell into a life of debauchery and drunkenness. His sin, however, brought its own punishment, for he was smitten with a loathsome disease, and he returned to Scete a broken man. Ptolemy, the Egyptian, after living a life of the sternest self-denial for fifteen years, gave himself up to prodigal and riotous living, and “never more spake a word of excellence unto any man.” The failings of the nuns are described as impartially as are those of the monks, and Palladius makes it quite clear that spiritual pride was the chief cause of them all. The great merit of Paradise is that the Histories make the reader feel when reading them that he has not before him narratives of the lives of a set of beings of a supernatural character, but stories of men who were trying to lead superhuman lives, and Palladius shews clearly how far they succeeded, and in what they failed. He was no mere panegyrist of the monks, but a patient, sober, and impartial critic of their lives, words, and deeds. One by one he makes to pass before us the various types of men with which all are familiar, and his character-sketches enable us to see in our imagination every kind of monk and recluse, from the kindly Anthony to the stern, self-tormenting Macarius. As Palladius composed Paradise about thirty-three years after his first visit to the monks in Egypt, it is possible that his remembrance of some of them may be a little blurred, and that some of his statements contain mistakes from a chronological point of view. On the other hand, we must remember that his judgement was more matured, and that he was, so far as knowledge and experience are concerned, betterable to write impartial histories of the holy men in 420 than he would have been when he left Egypt for Palestine in 399 or 400. His wide grasp of the subject enabled him to consider the Christian monasticism of Egypt as a whole, and to present to his patron Lausus an account of it, in which the truth was set forth without exaggeration of detail or extravagant praise. Throughout the work Palladius says but little about himself, and although there is never room for doubt as to the side to which his sympathies leaned, his narrative is singularly free from denunciation of his religious opponents. Those who will take the trouble to read the biographies of holy men, written by their disciples and admirers in later centuries, will appreciate the calm and almost judicial manner in which Palladius arranges and states his facts, and keeps himself and his opinions in the background.

Another important fact made clear by Palladius is the toleration shown by the early monks in respect of nuns, and holy women, whether married or single, and he shews clearly the important part which devout women played in the Christian world of the fourth century. Of the sixty-eight histories which are given in the first book of Paradise, according to the Syriac version, nineteen are devoted to the lives of women. From these we see that women lived stern, strenuous lives, like the monks, and that some died for their religion. Thus Potamiaena suffered martyrdom by being plunged up to the neck into a cauldron of boiling pitch. A nameless virgin of Alexandria lived secluded in a tomb, and saw neither man nor woman for twelve years. Piamon, the virgin, worked at the weaving of linen by day, kept vigil by night, and ate once a day in the evening; she possessed the gift of prophecy, and had the power of casting spells on men at a distance, which rendered them helpless. Emmâ (i.e., “Mother”) Talîdâ was the head of a house of sixty virgins, and very old when Palladius saw her; he relates that when he sat down by her, “in the boldness and freedom which she had acquired in Christ,” she stretched out her hands and laid them on his shoulders. Taor, another virgin of Antinoë, wore neither veil nor sandals, dressed in rags, and worked always. Colluthus had lived for sixty years in her nunnery and had never gone down to the market.

Next we have a group of devout women headed by Melania the Elder, who had visited many recluses in their abodes. She was of Spanish origin, and was the daughter of a man who had held consular rank, and was left a widow at the age of twenty-two. She left her native land, having realized much of her property, and came to Alexandria, whence she went into the desert and lived in Nitria for six months. Here she met Pambo, Arsenius, Serapion, Paphnutius, Isidore, Dioscurus, and many others. She next went to Jerusalem, where she dwelt for twenty-seven years, and there she spent large sums in supporting the faithful and in receiving strangers. She studied and read the works of the Fathers with great diligence, and was a wise and understanding woman; her generosity was boundless, and she gave everything she could to help her religion. Melania the Younger withdrew from the world at the age of twenty, and she gave 35,000 darics to the churches in Egypt, Palestine, and Antioch; Palladius estimates that in other ways she must have given away four times this amount of money. And she set free eight thousand of her slaves. Olympias also, another patrician lady, set free her slaves, gave all her silk apparel to cover the altars in the churches, and spent her wealth lavishly on the brethren. Her garments were the worst to be seen, and she ate the food which her own servants rejected. Palladius knew this woman well, and was, “as it were, a member of her household,” and on his advice “she made gifts unto many.” Candida, another patrician lady, gave all her possessions to the poor, and night after night she left her bed, ground the corn, made the bread for the Offering, and heated the oven and baked it. She ate no meat, and her food on ordinary days consisted of dry bread dipped in vinegar; on festival days she ate fish, vegetables, and oil. Juliana of Caesarea hid Origen in her house for two years, and kept him at her own expense.

Another woman of exceeding merit was Emmâ Sârâ, who lived in a cell above the Nile, and led a most strenuous life. She is one of the few women whose “sayings” were included in the books of The Sayings of the Fathers. Though she lived by the Nile all her life she never looked at the river (Vol. II, p. 46), and whensoever she was about to put her foot on the ladder to go to her roof, she set her death before her eyes (ibid., p. 61). She rebuked Paphnutius (ibid., p. 63), approved of the giving of alms (ibid., p. 99), and is said to have contended against the devil of fornication for seven years on her roof (ibid., p. 127). Her character and disposition are well illustrated by one of her Sayings to her brethren which runs: “It is I who am a man, and ye who are women” (ibid., p. 257). In his Histories of Virgins Palladius follows the same plan as when dealing with those of monks, and he records instances of women who, like men, tripped and fell into fornication. He shews also that some nuns were puffed up with spiritual pride, and what steps were taken by the Fathers to abate it. Thus we have the story of the Roman virgin who had lived in the strictest seclusion for twenty-five years, who had never seen a man, and who thought herself perfect. Serapion went to her house, and after waiting two days he was permitted to see her, and in the course of her talk with him she told him that she believed, by God, she was dead. “Then,” said Serapion, “come down, and get thee out of thine house”; and she did so, and followed him to a church. There Serapion told her that he would believe that she was dead if she would do one thing, and she said, “Tell me what it is meet for me to do, and I will do it.” Serapion said, “Take off thy garments, put them on thy head, and walk through the city, and I will do likewise, and will go in front of thee in the same guise.” The woman replied, “If I do this I shall offend many, and people would say, ‘This woman hath gone mad, and hath a devil.’ ” To this Serapion answered, “Since thou art a dead woman, why shouldst thou consider what people say?” The virgin would not, however, do as Serapion had said, and having shewn her that she had not died to the world, and was not as perfect in the spiritual life as he himself was, he left her (Vol. I, p. 192).

One other instance must be quoted to shew that women existed who were as well able to live the stern life of the solitary as any man. As some of the great sages of Scete were travelling through the desert one day they heard a sound like a groan of a sick person, and having searched they found a cave and a holy virgin lying in it. The cave was absolutely bare, and when the sages asked the woman why she was there, she told them that the place had been her home for thirty-eight years, and that during that period she had lived upon grass. She added, “I have never seen a man before to-day, and God hath sent you to me this day that you may bury my body”; having said these words she died (Vol. I, p. 240).

The histories related by Palladius excite curiosity on many points concerning which he gives us no information. Thus we know nothing of the reasons which caused him to dedicate his work to Lausus, and very little about the strong friendship which seems to have existed between the exalted court official and the friend and lover of the monks. It is possible that Lausus, in common with other highly-placed officials and nobles, wished sincerely to know what there was in the teaching of the desert Fathers which induced wealthy virgins and matrons, and nobles like Arsenius, to cast aside the world and to retire to the desert, in order to lead a life of fasting, prayer, and self-denial. That he should have chosen a man of such knowledge and sober judgement as Palladius says much for his sagacity, and we are justified in believing that, when he had received his friend’s report and read it, he felt he had before him the evidence of an experienced and truthful witness. Although Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire, many members of the governing class must have been alarmed at the number of wealthy and noble men and women who left their country and joined the armies of monks and nuns in Egypt.

It has already been said that the book Paradise has a historical framework, and it must now be stated that in the histories which may be safely attributed to Palladius there is evidence throughout that he was well acquainted with Egypt, and that the manners and customs of the people were known to him. His descriptions of the desert and mountains, and his reproductions of the beliefs, superstitions and traditions of the Egyptians, are full of local colour, and every one who has wandered about Egypt must feel that Palladius himself had travelled much in the country, and at all seasons of the year. Indeed, it is wonderful how well he succeeded in depicting so accurately a phase of life which to most men would have been difficult to appreciate and hard to understand. To those who have visited the hills and mountains of Upper Egypt it is easy to find caves and holes in the rocks similar to those described as the dwelling-places of the solitaries by Palladius, and in the neighbourhood of the Oases there are small isolated hills near the tops of which are still remains of small chambers which must have been inhabited at one time or another by monks. A visit to the “White Monastery” near Sûhâk at once makes known the character and plan of the buildings in which the coenobites of the fourth century lived, and the so-called Monastery of St. Simeon, on the left bank of the Nile, near Aswân, shews that the chief characteristics of such habitations of monks were preserved in the monasteries of later centuries. It is pretty certain that many monks lived in Nubia during the third and fourth centuries, and it is much to be regretted that neither Palladius nor the author of The Histories of the Monks visited that country to inspect their abodes and describe the manner of their lives.

On many points of a general character concerning which the modern student wishes for information Palladius is curiously silent. We know that many solitaries earned enough to keep themselves by weaving ropes of palm leaves, and by plaiting mats and baskets of palm leaves, but only the most strenuous workers could do this, and there must have been many who were obliged to live on alms. We wonder how the alms of pious women like Melania (Vol. I, p. 103) and well-to-do men in the towns were distributed among the scattered dwellers in the desert, and what proportion of the recluses needed assistance. In the case of the coenobites the matter was easy enough, for many of them worked at trades, and many of them possessed private means, and the wants of the rest were supplied by the stewards of the monasteries, who received the gifts of friends of the brotherhood, and managed all financial arrangements.

Of the average duration of life among the ascetics also we know nothing. The men who lived on small rations, and who were exposed to the cold of the night and of the early morning, must have suffered from fever, even as men do now, and diseases of the eyes must have been common, especially among those who did not possess head-cloths. Of cuts, bruises, and chafing of the hands caused by excessive work at weaving palm leaves, the monks seem to have taken no notice, and one brother was rebuked by Palladius because he oiled his hands, which were so much cut by the palm leaves that the blood which ran out from them soaked the mat he was weaving (Vol. I, p. 314).The strenuous monk committed his hurts to God, believing that He would heal them, but, notwithstanding, there were in “Mount Nitria physicians for the use of the sick” (Vol. I, p. 100). Many recluses must have died, even as Pambo died, “whilst he was sewing palm leaves for mats, without fever and without sickness”; and Chaeremon died sitting on a chair and holding his work in his hand (Vol. I, p. 175). At Nitria lived the merchant Apollonius, who devoted his time and his money to providing eggs, raisins, and dried cakes for the sick folk among the five thousand monks who lived there (Vol. I, p. 107), but whether his ministrations extended to the dwellers in the desert is not said. The solitaries did not disdain the aid of the surgeon in certain cases, for we read that Ammonius and Evagrius, when they visited Stephen the Libyan, found him being operated upon by the physician. He was suffering from a cancerous sore, and whilst portions of his body were being cut off he quietly plaited palm leaves and conversed with his visitors (Vol. I, p. 131). According to one story, a certain old man who went naked and lived with the beasts was miraculously cured of a liver complaint which prevented him from standing upright, and he was therefore obliged to pray lying on the ground. One day a man appeared to him, and said, “What is thy pain?” and he said, “My liver troubleth me and causeth me pain.” And when the old man had pointed out the place where he felt pain, his visitor slit his body, as with a sword, and took out his liver and shewed him the sore on it, and having removed the [cause of] the pain he healed the wound in his body forthwith (Vol. I, p. 237).

Throughout Egypt the monks believed, like their pagan ancestors, that pains, and sicknesses, and diseases were caused by devils, but they knew that death would come to all of them, and that nothing could prevent it. Though men like Bessarion cured paralytics with a word, and, like Christ, walked on the water, and, like Joshua, made the sun to stand still, and, like Elisha, made bitter waters sweet, and added years of life to dying men (Vol. I, p. 368), and passed through fire unharmed (Vol. I, p. 370), and collected water from the air in their garments (Vol. I, pp. 244, 367), they died as all other men died. Some, however, reached a good old age in spite of their privations and self-denial, for we read that Pambo lived to the age of seventy, Didymus, Macarius of Alexandria, Dorotheos, Paul the Simple, and others to eighty, Isidore to eighty-five, Arsenius to ninety, Theodore of Parme and James the Less to nearly 100, Anthony to the age of 105, Elijah of Antinoë to 110, and Mâr Paule to the age of 113 years.

The bodies of many of the solitaries who lived in remote places and who died alone must have remained unburied, and have been eaten by the hyenas and jackals. Those who were fortunate enough to have friends near were buried by them in a simple manner, and without apparently service or ceremony. Each community of monks possessed a cemetery, and the excavations made in such burying-grounds during recent years shew that the shrouds of ordinary monks were made of coarse linen, and that it was customary to place at the head of each grave a stone recording the name of its occupant.

Sufficient has now been said to illustrate the main facts connected with the rise and growth of Christian asceticism in Egypt, and to shew that in many particulars the beliefs of its leaders resembled those of the early pagan inhabitants of the country. Moreover, it must always be remembered that the rise and progress of Christianity in that country were partly due to the fact that many of the doctrines of the old religion closely resembled those preached by Christ and the twelve Apostles, and by St. Paul. The system of morality made known to us by the Precepts of Ptah-Hetep, who flourished before B. C. 3000, is of a remarkably high character, and is in many respects equal to that formulated by the writers of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus. The monks held converse with their souls on spiritual matters, and so did the writer of the Dialogue between a man and his soul which we find in a papyrus at Berlin. The doctrine of rewards and punishments for deeds done in the body was well known to the Egyptians under the Eighteenth Dynasty (B. C. 1700–1400), and the belief that a god could put on human flesh and dwell in the form of a man on the earth also existed at this period. The belief in the judgement and in the resurrection of Osiris is as old as the dynastic history at least, and there are many proofs in the old literature of Egypt that one school of thought believed in the resurrection of a material body, and in the existence of a material heaven which was full of material delights, and that another proclaimed the resurrection of an immaterial or spiritual body, and the existence of a heaven in which the blessed lived with a god whose attribute was light. The denizens of this material heaven lived upon incorruptible food which proceeded from their god, and those of the immaterial heaven fed upon the light which emanated from their god. In each case the blessed succeeded to immortality, that is to say, to an existence which lasted for “hundreds of thousands of hundreds of thousands of years” (Book of the Dead, chapter clxxv, line 16). The heaven of the Christians was filled with saints and martyrs, who awaited the arrival of the blessed from the earth and welcomed them with gladness and songs of joy; and, similarly, the kingdom of Osiris in the Other World was filled with his loyal followers, and with those who had served and worshipped him upon earth. Both the pagan and Christian Egyptians believed in an individual existence in heaven, and each class thought that the blessed would be able to recognize each other and to enjoy each other’s society.

From the Book of Opening the Mouth we learn that at the time when the pyramids were built the Egyptians believed that, through the performance of certain ceremonies and the utterance of certain formulæ by properly qualified priests standing in places which had been made ceremonially pure, bread and meat and wine could be transformed into spiritual things which were of the nature of the disembodied spirit and of the divine being who was believed to be present at the final funeral ceremony. When the ancient Egyptians ate on this solemn occasion, they believed that they were partaking of food which had been transformed into the substance of their god, and that communion of themselves and their dead with the god was complete. The belief in transubstantiation was, in fact, a fundamental element of their belief in the efficacy of this ceremony. Now in the matter of the Eucharist we find that the monks held two opinions; some thought that the sacramental bread was only a “similitude” of the Body of Christ, and others thought that it was the actual Body. Among those who held the former view was “a man of Scete” (Vol. II, p. 159), and when two brethren heard of his opinion they went and reasoned with him, and tried to convince him that he was wrong. They told him that as man who was taken from the dust of the earth is fashioned in the image of God, so also, since He said of the bread, “This is My Body,” the sacramental bread is God. The old man, however, was not convinced, and at length they agreed to pray to God for a week that the difficulty might be made plain to him. At the end of the week the three men went to the church, and when the bread was placed on the table a Child appeared there at the same time. As the priest stretched out his hand to the bread, the Angel of the Lord came down and slew the Child, and pressed out His Blood into the cup, and when the old man from Scete drew near to partake, “a piece of living flesh smeared and dripping with blood was given to him. Then the old man cried out, ‘I believe, O Lord, that the bread is Thy Body, and that the cup is Thy Blood,’ and straightway the flesh which was in his hand became bread like unto that of the mystery.” In the pagan ceremony the flesh of the bull, the bread-cakes and the wine or beer, represented the material forms of Osiris, and the god was in all three; but in the Christian ceremony the two monks believed that the Body was turned into bread and the Blood into wine, because “God knew the nature of men, and it is unable to eat living flesh.” It is clear that the two monks who converted the old man of Scete believed that the Eucharist was “not to be regarded as a merely commemorative thing,” and that, like their pagan ancestors, “they could eat their God.”

The Christian monks of Egypt, however, lived and preached a religion which possessed characteristics unknown to that of the ancient Egyptians, and among these must stand first Faith, Hope, and Charity. The Egyptian never succeeded in freeing his mind from the idea that the resurrection of his body, whether material or spiritual, depended as much upon the efficacy of amulets, magical and religious formulæ, and the making of offerings, as upon his belief in Osiris, but the sublime Faith of the Christian monk, Anthony, made him declare that mummification was unnecessary, and that Christ would give him back his body, pure and undefiled, at the Resurrection. The pure Hope of the solitary of the mountain or desert was a far loftier conception than that of the pagan Egyptian, for it made him reject every worldly thing and live in and by his faith. Similarly his Charity, as exhibited in the Histories and Sayings of the Fathers, reached to lengths undreamed of by any except the most spiritually-minded of the ancient Egyptians. In all the known literature of pagan Egypt, no parallel to the following passage can be found: “Fasting is the subjugation of the body, prayer is converse with God, vigil is a war against Satan, abstinence is the being weaned from meats, humility is the state of the great man, kneeling is the inclining of the body before the Judge, tears are the remembrance of sins, nakedness is our captivity which is caused by the transgression of the command, and service is constant supplication to and praise of God” (Vol. II, p. 263). To Palladius we owe the oldest and best history of the lives, and words, and deeds of the solitaries and coenobites of Egypt, and every student of the history of religious thought should be grateful to him for a work which describes truly and impartially a great Christian movement, the effects of which exist even in our own days.

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