Syriac Monasticism: Individualism, Asceticism, and Symbolism
He said to them, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they
left their nets and followed him. - Matthew 4:19-20
Introduction: The Three Types of Monasticism
Every man and woman who has committed their lives to the monastic life, have heard the apostolic calling: “come follow me” (Matthew 4:19). As the pagan stadiums drenched with the blood of the first Christian martyrs began to recede into the collective memory of the Church. The next generation of those filled with Christian zeal and the desire to die to self, embraced their share of the cross in the monastic life.
Christian Monasticism began in the ancient Near East of Egypt, Greater Syria, and Greater Persia. Saint Anthony the Great, of Egypt (251-356AD) who was himself a disciple of Saint Paul of Thebes (d.339AD), began a spiritual movement that later became known collectively as that of the Desert Fathers; remembering that women were also part of this vast movement. Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (ca.296-373AD) who wrote about the life of Anthony, tells us that so many men and women followed him into the monastic life that, the desert became a city.
Eventually the three pillars of monasticism emerged, each embraced by men and women. First was the hermit or solitary, called the eremitic. Second was the formal monastery life, living in common under a rule and directed by an Abbot or Abbess, and this was called cenobitic. Third was the life of many individual hermitages, living in close proximity thus allowing for some common times of prayer, and this was called the skete.
The Three Characteristics of Syriac Monasticism
Individualism was the first characteristic of Syriac Monasticism; playing a greater role in the shaping of a monk’s spirituality, as compared to the Roman/Latin or Byzantine/Greek traditions.
While exact historical information on the formation of the Syriac Christian world that emerged from Edessa and Adiabene is scant until the fourth century. We see with the emergence of the writings of Saint Ephrem (306-373AD) and the History of the Monks of Syria, by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (ca.393-ca.466AD), a somewhat fractured and contentious religious environment due to the extreme individualism of its members.
The hermit (anchorite/solitary) monk seems to have dominated in the Syriac Church as the preferred way of life until the fourth century. Monks like Jacob of Nisibis were known to live in the wilderness, far from others, living with very few material goods. During the fourth century there emerges the other forms of monasticism but still with the characteristic individualism playing a central role. Even by the time of the great mystic Saint Isaac of Nineveh (ca.613-ca.700AD) in the seventh century, he was known to have lived at times alone for many years, and at times in a monastic community.
This individualism in some areas reached an extreme form of spirituality called Messalianism, a term taken from the Syriac language that expressed the emphasis on personal prayer over sacramental/liturgical prayer. Stephen bar Sudaili (late 5th century), typified this extreme interiorized, personalized approach to the spiritual life, as he came to influence many monastic communities with his spiritual approach.
What is unique and challenging about the individualism of Syriac monasticism is that it was also a missionary spirituality. We see in the writings of John of Ephesus (ca.507-ca.588AD) who was a leader of the early Syriac Orthodox Church in the sixth century and one of the earliest and the most important historians to write in Syriac, that these monks were teachers, missionaries, healers, settlers of disputes; while at the same time living in the world but not being of it.
Asceticism is a life of simplicity, poverty, self-denial, a life of rigorism. One fascinating fact for the origins of the ascetical approach in Syriac spirituality was the use of the Diatessaron. This was a harmonizing of the Four Gospels into a single Gospel, done by Tatian of Adiabene (120-180AD) an Assyrian who studied and lived in Rome. In 172AD he returned to Assyria because he sought the rigorism of the East over what he felt was the Christian laxity of the West. Tatian kept revising the Diatessaron, to make it more ascetical. He changed passages to support his views that most should seek celibacy, and Christians should abstain from meat, owning property, and drinking wine.
There were many Syriac writings from monastic theologians that stressed the asceticism that should be attached to baptism. The Acts of Judas Thomas and the Odes of Solomon stress that one should seek perpetual virginity, chastity in marriage, etc.; basically all baptized Christians should seek to live like monks and nuns.
Within this context of asceticism there began a unique religious community called the Sons of the Covenant. These were men and women, and the great Syriac writer Aphrahat (ca.270-ca.345AD) seems to have been a member, who did not marry, sometimes lived in small communities, sometimes with their parents, sometimes in their own homes. They were unique to the Syriac tradition and represent a merger of individualism and asceticism in a loose communal context.
The long tradition of extreme asceticism and disdain for the world, lead to a reformation with the Syriac monastic world, with Ephrem in the fourth century, Philoxenus of Mabbug (449-532AD) in fifth century, and John of Ephesus in the sixth century, a reformation that combined asceticism with an affirmation that God created all things, and therefore creation is good.
The Syriac ascetic, like Aphrahat, Ephrem and others came to realize that the goal of asceticism was to control the body that leads to sin, so that the mind will rise to the contemplation of higher things, the things of God; an approach that will be promoted in Latin Christianity by Saint Bonaventure in the thirteenth century.
Symbolism is the third characteristic of Syriac Monasticism. The spirituality of symbolism expressed itself in poetry and music. It is not by chance for example that the founder of Byzantine hymnology was Saint Romanos the Melodist (ca.490-ca.566AD) a native of Beirut, who lived a monastic life in Constantinople.
Saint Ephrem is known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” and Jacob of Serug (451-521AD) “the flute of the Holy Spirit and the harp of the believing church.” Using the images supplied by Sacred Scripture and with firm faith in the epiphany of God in the Incarnation of Christ, poetry became their vehicle of expressing the inexhaustible truths of the Christian faith.
Syriac Christianity formed the “Light of the East.” Within its dynamic Monasticism which only became stifled in its expansive missionary activity by the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries; there was given the witness of countless men and women who followed the call of the Lord to come and follow him. Through lives of simplicity, prayer, theological reflection, and missionary activity, they carried the gospel to the ends of the earth.
“A handful of sand, thrown into the sea, is what sinning is, when compared to God’s Providence and mercy. Just like an abundant source of water is not impeded by a handful of dust, so is the Creator’s mercy not defeated by the sins of His creatures” - Saint Isaac of Nineveh
- (Rev.) David A. Fisher