[St. Pachomius Library]

St. Pachomius Library


(Translated Texts for Historians, Volume 53). Liverpool University Press, 2010.
Reviewed by Norman Hugh Redington, 2012 July 5.

Although the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai is often depicted as a kind of ecclesiastical living-fossil, it has not escaped entirely from the vicissitudes of history, and has drawn on several occasions very nigh to extinction. Like the geological record of life on earth, the record of monastic life at the Burning Bush is full of gaps. It is ironic indeed that the origins of the very institution which, by preserving some of the oldest icons of the Saviour and earliest copies of the Scriptures, has revealed so much about the dawn of Christianity should be veiled in darkness, but such is the case. Most of the few surviving texts from the monastery's formative era in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries have been gathered in the volume under review, the only notable omission being the already widely-available Ladder of Divine Ascent. Professor Caner and his colleagues translate in full the Narrations attributed to St. Nilus of Ancyra, the Report of Ammonius, the Tales of the Fathers by St. Anastasius (the Elder) of Sinai, and several shorter works, along with relevant excerpts from Procopius, Egeria, and others. (Texts in Syriac and Arabic were translated by Sebastian Brock and Kevin van Bladel; the letter of Emperor Marcian to the bishop of Sinai was translated and annotated by Richard M. Price.)

The extensive scholarly commentaries accompanying the translations naturally address the concerns of professional historians more than those of theologians, much less of ordinary Christians. Byzantinists are interested in these texts for what they say about the social and economic life of Palestine III, as the Sinai was known to late-Roman bureaucrats; Arabists for what they say about the pre-Islamic culture of the bedouin. Of course, such historical data are of value only if the sources themselves are reliable, and this has been a subject of controversy. Professor Caner takes a middle ground between those who accept Ammonius and "pseudo-Nilus" as simple pilgrims reporting their observations and those who regard them as pious forgers -- albeit Late Antique ones -- creating works of historical fiction.

The main original scholarly contribution of this commentary is a very strong argument that the author of the Narrations was consciously imitating the novel Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius, and also the Fourth Book of Maccabees (as interpreted by St. Gregory the Theologian). That these were the prototypes seems undeniable, as does the conformity of the Narrations to the conventions of the Hellenistic romance genre. Professor Caner goes so far as to argue that "pseudo-Nilus", not Heliodorus, should be considered the last novelist of antiquity.

He then makes a point obvious to most book-shop patrons but rarely so to historians: a work with the form of a novel is not necessarily a work of fiction, any more than a work with the form of a scholarly monograph is necessarily a work of fact. All one can say is that the authors of the more sophisticated early texts about Sinai were skilled writers who on the one hand used the format of the romantic adventure to draw in their audience, and on the other included accurate information about distances, prevailing winds, and the like to create verisimilitude. Absent outside corroboration, it is impossible to do more than guess whether the content of such works is factually true: "... the safest course may be to use early Sinai history to understand the Narrations and the Report rather than the other way around."

Professor Caner evinces the same reasonable caution and scepticism throughout his notes, even on subjects where the scholarly consensus is strong. He refers to the author of the Narrations as "pseudo"-Nilus in deference to majority opinion, but admits the cases for and against St. Nilus of Ancyra as the author remain open. He displays the contradictions between various sources, but rarely sides with one over another. It is refreshing to encounter a scholar with so much humility and common sense.

Nevertheless, Professor Caner seems to me to misunderstand fundamentally several of the writings which he discusses. He believes that monastic authors were primarily trying to Christianise the landscape in which they had settled, first superimposing Biblical mythology arbitrarily on a country with no genuine prior associations, then adding further Christian colour by encouraging the veneration of local saints, real or invented.

Both parts of this contention strike me as unlikely. It is true that surviving pre-Christian Jewish sources have remarkably little to say about the earthly location of Mount Sinai, but Professor Caner seems willing to accept that today's Arabic place-names preserve those of Late Antiquity. The period from then till now during which this tradition survived is not so very much less than the period from ancient Israel till then, and I see no obvious reason why the bedouin would be less likely to remember for centuries the name of the oasis Kadesh Barnea than that of the oasis Pharan.

Even were one to concede that the Biblical associations of the southern Sinai peninsula are manufactured, one would quite mistake the nature of hagiography by considering a saint's life merely some "edifying tale" of days gone by, a piece of religious propaganda, or an entertaining romance. Hagiographers, being human, have naturally been interested to varying degrees in writing accurate history, telling good stories, sacralising the landscape, providing moral uplift, and recruiting new monks, but all of these are secondary aims; the goal of the best hagiographers (and both "pseudo-Nilus" and St. Anastasius belong to this elite) is to create a window through which the Uncreated Light shines onto the reader.

There are many ways in which this can be done, and the Sinai literature collected here illustrates two: one very common, one much less so but rising in popularity.

Beginning with the standard approach: Tales of the Fathers by St. Anastasius is a collection of Desert Father legends with an extreme bias toward the miraculous. It opens with several stories about the invisible or "true" community on Sinai, whose residents (even today) are occasionally supposed to manifest themselves; about angels on Jabal Musa; about the danger of visiting the peak, especially at night. Then follow various anecdotes set in the monastic cemetery: for example, when a lax brother's remains are piled on a great elder's, they keep rolling off until the hegumen exclaims: "Abba John, in your lifetime you were gentle and forbearing. Put up with the brother, Abba John!" Next come prophecies of several elders about their disciples and associates, miracles involving food, healing, foreknowledge of death, harmony with animals ... "A chapter worth telling and remembering" describes St. John the Sabaite, after a long retreat, asking about a brother of bad reputation and being told that his reputation was unchanged. St. John says "Humph", then immediately falls into a trance and finds himself at Golgotha but separated from the crucified Christ by a fence which snags his garment. "From that day on I passed seven years living in the desert without tasting bread or taking shelter or talking with any human being, until I saw the Lord likewise command that I be given back my cowl." The last story in the collection (based on a famous rumour, known in many other versions): one of the "murdered" sons of the Emperor Maurice survived, his nurse having substituted her own child. Coming to adulthood and learning his true identity, the prince is horrified and becomes a monk "to atone for the one who had been slain".

What are we to make of all this? Some of these stories are extremely moving and present deep truths about humility, non-judgement, the ascetic way. Others seem to have no point except to magnify the greatness of a particular hermit or the sanctity of the Mountain. All have an Arabian Nights atmosphere which Professor Caner calls "dreamlike", but to me does not seem dreamlike at all, merely fantastical -- yet undeniably it is an atmosphere common to the Christian monastic literature of many times and places, and to the reported experience of many contemporary monks and nuns.

One of the shorter pieces in the present volume is a (probably authentic) letter of the real St. Nilus to Heliodorus the Silentiary, a letter which played a role, centuries after its composition, in the battle over ikons. It, too, is a tale of the miraculous: a certain unnamed man from Asia Minor (whom tradition takes to be Nilus himself, modestly depicted in the third person) goes with his son to visit the monks of Sinai, only to be caught in a barbarian raid. The man's son is taken captive, but prays for the intercessions of St. Plato of Ancyra; soon that martyr of the previous century (recognisable from his ikon) appears with a horse, rescues the young man (but not his less-prayerful fellow-captives), and "as if on wings" brings him to the place where his father is. Nilus explains why he is telling the story: ""With every miracle that happens, where and whenever they occur, our Lord invites people of little or no faith towards a firm faith, while He increases the faith and hope of His faithful all the more ... "

No doubt such hagiography does indeed increase the faith and hope of many people, and for centuries, in the West as well as the East, the usual saint's-life has been of this sort. The hagiographer presents the saint as a model of transfigured human nature, and the saint's miracles as a continuation of Christ's, the pouring-out of divine love through the channel of the saint. "When God so wills" -- that is, by God's mercy -- "the order of nature is overturned", or better, restored to and improved beyond its pre-lapsarian state.

Modernity, however, has made this type of literature less accessible to many people. I confess that my own faith is rarely strengthened by reading such traditional vitæ; rather, I find myself in the dangerous position of John the Sabaite, saying "Humph!" Oddly, this is true even though I accept in principle that miraculous events sometimes take place, and have even personally witnessed occurrences which I am at a loss to explain otherwise: nevertheless, when I read someone else's description of such an event, I find it difficult to credit, and all the more so if close analogues may be found on Snopes or in the Motif-Index of Folk Literature.

I do not share the opinion of many traditionalists that this automatically sceptical response is of necessity bad. The hagiographic literature, like any other, is dominated by mediocre works, vitæ full of wrong theology, superstition, rumour, and outright lies. The Bollandists and their followers, despite frequent excesses of zeal, have been following a holy purpose in attempting to weed out the falsehoods. Unfortunately, their scientistic emphasis on "what really happened" suffers from limitations which the higher critics rarely admit. Even modern saints often leave few traces; attempting to decide "what really happened" to a solitary hermit in the dead of the night fifteen centuries ago is clearly impossible.

One response to this situation has been the literary one. With the official hagiographers restricting themselves to writing in the manner of academic historians, it is artists (sometimes unbelieving artists: Buñuel's surreal and "anti-religious" Simón del Desierto is as spiritually authentic a Desert Fathers movie as one can imagine) who have continued to strive after the original aims of hagiography. Not surprisingly, since they are themselves part of the modern world, writers and film-makers seem to be disturbed by the miraculous elements so important to the traditional vita, sometimes playing them down, sometimes describing them ambiguously, sometimes presenting them straightforwardly but in a clearly fictional context. Attention is turned also to the failings of the saint, or to the early, difficult stages of the rise to sanctity; when neither of these is emphasised, the work is usually less about the saint than about some weak disciple whose life the saint affects. Many of these characteristics can be seen in the greatest example of the genre, the "Russian Monk" section of The Brothers Karamazov: Father Zosima, although a saint, works no miracles; his body decays; the focus of the story is less on him than on young, confused Alyosha -- and yet, without question, this work of fiction is true Orthodox hagiography of very high order.

One tends to imagine that vitæ of this type are, as I have just implied, a modern development, and that ancient Christians were more at home in the world of Father Zosima's demon-chasing rival, Father Therapont. In fact, the literary approach goes back to far antiquity, which had its rationalists and its highly-cultured elites as much in need of the gospel as ours today. A striking example may be found in the present volume.

The Narrations of (pseudo-)Nilus tell almost the same story as the more-certainly attributed letter of Nilus to Heliodorus, but this time in the first person. The narrator, presumably Nilus although he does not identify himself, sets out with his son Theodulus to discover the joys of monastic life. Unfortunately, the community which he visits is almost immediately and quite unexpectedly attacked by pagans, Saracen marauders who kill most of the monks and abduct Theodulus, intending to offer him to the Morning Star. Nilus, who narrowly escapes, meets several other survivors of the catastrophe and records their stories. Against expectation, his son also turns up alive and well, the Saracens having overslept the propitious moment for human sacrifice. Father and son together take up the task of rebuilding the way of life which the raid has shattered. Except for some remarkable coincidences, nothing especially "miraculous" takes place; no doubt this is why the Narrations have often been taken as a pilgrim's straightforward, factual memoirs rather than an ancient thriller.

Professor Caner sees the thriller aspect, and rightly devotes much attention to the various literary conventions observed by the author. Unfortunately, he misses entirely one of the most important.

The Narrations begin in medias res with the father's superficially Job-like laments for his missing son, triggered by an encounter with enthusiastic would-be monks just arrived in Pharan. Unlike Job's comforters, however, Nilus's new friends are both wise and sympathetic, and he soon pours out his tale to them. He begins with his decision to leave his wife after they had had two children, lest "later, as one's potency wanes and appetites slacken with the cessations that inevitably accompany old age, one's accomplishment of self-control will be ascribed to force of age rather than an honourable resolve." Professor Caner takes this passage as commending a common "Stoic and Christian" attitude toward sex, ignoring the next paragraph: "But I was seized by a great desire for [the desert] ... For all are want to become slaves to desire; willfully tyrannized, they gladly submit to yoke of compulsion that is voluntary and self-imposed. And so, since this [desire] demanded my departure from home with tyrannical commands that allowed no refusal ... I told [my wife] my decision ... Do you have any idea how painful parting is for a couple ...? I was astounded." Moreover, this desire (or passion, really) driving Nilus away from his family does not seem to be desire for Christ, but for "tranquility", and he makes the curious remark that "its potency is proved by the fact that it broke unbreakable [marital] bonds that are only wont to be dissolved by death, which offers the absence of grief through the absence of sensation."

This verbose discourse, typical of many throughout the Narrations, is clearly the work of a Stoic. Indeed, the secularism of this text is one of its most striking characteristics, going far beyond the absence of St. Plato and his flying horses. There are not even many references to Christ, and the desert monks are described by the narrator in terms which bring to my mind the Essenes of Josephus and the Gymnosophists of Strabo, ascetic philosophers in search of wisdom. Professor Caner, like others before him, has of course noticed all this; he describes the narrator's propensity for "action-killing" philosophical asides as a "stylistic tic" copied from Achilles Tatius (which it doubtless is). What he and his predecessors fail to see is that, far from testifying to Hellenism's conquest of Christianity as the notes to this edition suggest, the discourses are meant to be rejected by the reader. They are in effect a kind of satire directed at the insufficiently-Christianised narrator. This becomes ever more clear as the work continues.

Like so many spiritual beginners, Nilus finds the early sailing smooth, "until that gale burst upon us" -- the barbarian raid. In the aftermath of the attack, he sings elaborate threnodies accusing God of injustice: "Why didn't the Burning Bush burst into flame, as in the days of old? Why didn't it burn the accursed ones with fireballs as they approached?" But while thus playing Job, he becomes embarrassed, and justifies himself with line after line of Stoic psychology: "All of this was spoken in grief and rage, which can drive even those who strive for self-control to utter blasphemies in the face of misfortunes. In such cases, emotions dominate judgment ... " It is interesting, and a strong clue to the author's real meaning, that he has earlier described the behaviour of the senior monks of Sinai quite differently: "Even one who, perhaps because of his body's infirmity, fails in his efforts ... attributes his disability to a slackened resolve, and not to an infirmity of nature."

In a passage which can only be described as comic, Nilus greets the messengers he has sent to look for his missing son: "No need to speak," he tells them. "Your face portends misfortune in its countenance; it proclaims my sufferings before you open your mouth; it foretells by its expression what you are going to say in words... For the face is an image of the soul: its surface bears the distinct stamp of what is happening deep within ... It serves as a trusty informant on what cannot be seen; its countenance brings hidden intentions out to the open ... Therefore, please tell the unadulterated truth, realizing that it has already been foretold by your faces, as I've just said. What advantage is there in deluding a grieving person for a short time with false encouragement, if he will become even more distressed once the bitter truth is finally disclosed?"

What makes this long discourse (nearly a page, in translation) comic? The messengers report that his son his fine; he believes them, in spite of having repeatedly insisted that he would go by their long faces and not by their words; and, as it turns out, they are telling the truth.

The literary device which Professor Caner has missed is that the narrator's voice is not the author's. The narrator is (spiritually, though not chronologically) a young monk, caught up in pride and self-justification, an heroic Christian in his own mind but in fact a pagan philosopher who, faced with calamity, lives up neither to Christian nor to Stoic ideals. The author, however, is indeed a spiritual elder, the narrator after many years. He presents views which he himself perhaps once held, and which were doubtless common among his highly-educated readers, but not because they are true. A careful reader will quickly realise that, on the contrary, they are shallow and inadequate.

What about the reader who is not so careful? The genius of Nilus's approach is that readerly acuity does not really matter. The author of the Narrations is an ex-Stoic, but he does not consider Stoicism entirely false; it merely falls short of the full gospel. A beginner who fails to see the satiric intent of the embedded discourses and considers them wisdom is not deceived, but rather is being pointed along the same trajectory to higher things which Nilus himself followed. This is why the author submerges himself so completely in the narrator, and makes no direct comment about the shallowness of the narrator's views until the closing lines of the text; even then, he speaks indirectly, through an unnamed bishop.

The narrator's son, having escaped death on the sacrificial altar, is sold as a slave in the Negev border town of Shivta (apparently a detail of much interest to scholars) and resold several times. Eventually, he becomes the property of the Bishop of Elusa, an extremely kind master who trains him (and later Nilus) for the priesthood. At the conclusion of the story, this bishop sends the re-united and newly-ordained pair back into the desert: "He even made light of our supposed misfortune with his many exhortations, dispelling our deluded suppositions with an appropriate and moderate outlook. But let my words end here ... the beginning of a brighter life."

These lines, I believe, are the whole point of the Narrations. On the one hand, the bishop sees through the narrator's pomposity; on the other, he recognises the seeds of holiness beginning to germinate in this particular, unique soil. Nilus goes into the desert to renounce what is false in his past, but he retains (this time) what is good; the bishop dispells the Hellenist's "deluded suppositions", but does so in Stoic-friendly language ("appropriate and moderate outlook"). The words end; the life begins.