Thorns in the Flesh: Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion)

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The literature of late ancient Christianity is rich both in saints who lead lives of almost Edenic health and in saints who court and endure horrifying diseases. In such narratives, health and illness might signify the sanctity of the ascetic, or invite consideration of a broader theology of illness. In Thorns in the Flesh, Andrew Crislip draws on a wide range of texts from the fourth through sixth centuries that reflect persistent and contentious attempts to make sense of the illness of the ostensibly holy. These sources include Lives of Antony, Paul, Pachomius, and others; theological treatises by Basil of Caesarea and Evagrius of Pontus; and collections of correspondence from the period such as the Letters of Barsanuphius and John.

Through close readings of these texts, Crislip shows how late ancient Christians complicated and critiqued hagiographical commonplaces and radically reinterpreted illness as a valuable mode for spiritual and ascetic practice. Illness need not point to sin or failure, he demonstrates, but might serve in itself as a potent form of spiritual practice that surpasses even the most strenuous of ascetic labors and opens up the sufferer to a more direct knowledge of the self and the divine. Crislip provides a fresh and nuanced look at the contentious and dynamic theology of illness that emerged in and around the ascetic and monastic cultures of the later Roman world.

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About the Author:

Andrew Crislip is Associate Professor and William E. and Miriam S. Blake Chair in the History of Christianity at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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Introduction

The sick saint has long captured the western imagination. Take Anatole France's 1890 novel Thaïs. Although France is no longer fashionable (and is hardly in print in English), from the fin de siècle to the 1920s France spoke of the mentality of the times. He was considered by many "the greatest living author" in 1924 (the year he won the Nobel Prize for literature) and praised by such still-revered authors as Edmund Wilson and Henry James. In Thaïs, his most popular novel—an international bestseller translated into eighteen languages—France begins his tale of late ancient Egypt with a graphic, pathological image of the early decades of monastic life. Anchorites and cenobites suffer gladly through harsh ascetic behaviors, making themselves sick. This lifestyle transforms the monk into something injured yet aesthetically desirable: "Mindful of original sin, they refused to give to their bodies not only pleasure and satisfaction but even the care that is considered necessary by those who live in the world. They believed that physical affliction purified the soul and that the flesh could receive no more glorious adornment than ulcers and open sores. Thus was the word of the prophets observed: 'The desert shall be covered with flowers.'"


France's adaptation of the prophet Isaiah evokes the image of the desert as body, erupting with the bloom of diseased ascetics, much as each ascetic's body is adorned by the efflorescence of disease. France places the cultivation of illness at the heart of the nascent monastic movement, a distinctive feature of the exotic world of late ancient Egyptian asceticism. While Athanasius of Alexandria in his Life of Antony famously characterized the same period of monasticism's birth as a desert transformed into a city of health, led by Antony as a "physician (iatros) for Egypt," in Anatole France's version the desert becomes a garden of disease.

A generation later than France in his native Romania, E. M. Cioran too identified illness as central to the Christian ascetic project, drawing on the lives of the saints he had read as a child and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Genealogy of Morals is suffused with images of disease, sickness, wounds, quack healing, and self-destruction as characteristics of the ascetic. Cioran writes, "All saints are sick, but luckily not all sick people are saints. . . . Through sickness we understand the saints, and through them, the heavens." Sickness—whether of body, soul, or both he does not specify—is endemic among ascetics; it is also, for both the saintly and the not so saintly, a means of transcendence and gnōsis. Throughout his 1937 hagiographical meditation Tears and Saints, Cioran returns to the role of Christian asceticism ("saintliness" in Cioran's terminology) as the response—but not the cure, strictly speaking—to humanity's endemic illness. Asceticism embraces and transforms humanity's fallen putrescence: "Had there not been any illnesses in the world, there would not have been any saints, for until now there has not been a single healthy one. Saintliness is the cosmic apogee of illness, the transcendental fluorescence of rot. Illnesses have brought the heavens close to earth. Without them, heaven and earth would not have known each other. The need for consolation went further than any illness and, at the point of intersection between heaven and earth, it gave birth to sainthood." For both France and Cioran, ascetics willingly accept—and even court—disease's embrace as a form of ascetic practice and self-transformation.

Such a characterization of early Christian asceticism is echoed among later critics and historians, as it certainly is in numerous early Christian texts. The Syriac poet Jacob of Serug (c. 451-521) turns rot into an object of aesthetic (and ascetic) transcendence, comparing the stylite Simeon's rotting, gangrenous foot to "a tree, beautiful with branches." The literary theorist Geoffrey Halt Harpham characterizes this perspective well, observing, "For the Christian ascetic, pagan beauty was thematized as the demonic, while the disfigured was figured as the desirable."

Such characterizations make meaning of the illness of saints or ascetics by reading it within the symbolic matrix of Christian salvation history and myth. The anthropologist and psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman notes that cultures make meaning out of illness by interpreting the signs of disease not just—or even primarily—on the plane of diagnostic nosology but within the matrix of shared symbols, principally of religious myth and ideology, forming a cultural meaning of illness that can exist independently of any professionalized medical diagnosis. These "cultural meanings," Kleinman says, "mark the sick person." But as he notes, these meanings are contentious, not automatic. They are the result of individuals reconstructing their own illness narratives within the symbolic matrix at hand. They can also be imposed on the sick unwillingly, "stamping him or her with significance often unwanted and neither easily warded off nor coped with," even as far as "stigma or social death." While the work of Kleinman and the field of medical anthropology have recognized and perhaps heightened the overriding concerns of postmodernity with the meaning of illness (both personal and societal), the meaning of illness posed serious interpretive problems in the symbolic world of late ancient Christians as well.

The symbolic world in question is a familiar one, shared in some measure by the modern writers just cited and the ancient ones who will be the focus of this book. In the early Christian tradition illness, bodily decline and decay, and pain, as Elaine Scarry and Teresa Shaw have variously argued, were understood as direct consequences of the first humans' ejection from Eden and god's curse upon the pair and their descendants. While the Genesis account, on which Scarry and Shaw base their readings, touches only indirectly on illness, as opposed to toil, pain, and ultimately death, the popular and widely translated parabiblical Life of Adam and Eve makes the causal connection between the fall and illness painfully clear. Probably written in the first century a.d. but widely read, adapted, and interpolated among Christians through the Middle Ages, the Life elevates the status of illness as the prime effect of the fall.

At the end of his 930 years Adam announces that he is sick, leaving his children bewildered, as they have never witnessed illness before. Seth then asks one of the most basic existential questions about being human: "What is pain and illness (ti estin ponos kai nosos)?" Adam responds by telling the familiar story of primal sin. But in the Life of Adam and Eve god's punishment is not mere toil, labor, and return to dust, as in Genesis 3:16-19, but disease. As god tells the couple, "Because you have forsaken my commandment and have not kept my word which I set for you, behold, I will bring upon your body seventy plagues (plagas); you shall be racked with various pains (diversis doloribus), from the top of the head and the eyes and ears down to the nails of the feet, and in each separate limb." Adam explains that the seventy plagues apply not only to the transgressors Adam and Eve but also "to all our generations."

The popular Life of Adam and Eve thus elaborates on the curse implied in the biblical account. Disease and decrepitude are neither "natural" components of the human body nor diabolical ruses by jealous gods unleashed on humanity (as in Hesiod's version of the Pandora's jar myth) but just punishment for humanity's sins, punishment that must be paid out throughout the generations, forever. Illness is the most visceral sign of humanity's fallenness.

The Life of Adam and Eve represents a distinctive emphasis on the part of early Christians, who interpreted illness not simply on the plane of physiology or in the common Greco-Roman "care of the self," but more profoundly within the context of a sacred history of decay, disease, and convalescence. Over a century ago Adolf Harnack well described the ideology that resulted from such an orientation: "Christianity never lost hold of its innate principle; it was, and it remained, a religion for the sick. Accordingly it assumed that no one, or at least hardly any one, was in normal health, but that men (Mensch) were always in a state of disability." The remedy for this illness, both psychic and bodily, naturally lay in the saving sacrifice of Jesus, which left for the church the healing sacraments of baptism ("the recovery of life" in Tertullian), the Eucharist ("the potion of immortality" in Ignatius and many after him), and penitence ("the true medicine derived from the atonement" in Cyprian). And while bodily healings could still function in the charismata of the postapostolic church, Christians were far more focused on awaiting the final cosmic healing promised at Christ's return.

Within the symbolic matrix of a fall into decrepitude and disease followed by the present, anticipatory state of convalescence, illness (and its absence) among ascetics—the focus of this book—could be read in a number of ways. As will be discussed in more detail in Chapters 2 and 3, early observers of Christian monasticism frequently understood the withdrawal to the desert to rectify the primordial lack on the planes of both morality and physiology: asceticism could restore the health enjoyed by Adam and Eve prior to their ejection from Paradise. In monastic narrative the saint frequently functions as an exemplar, as Peter Brown notes. In this capacity the saint (body and soul) symbolically marks the health made possible after the incarnation. H. J. W. Drijvers observes, "Saints' lives and related literature present conceptions of the person with a specific bodily symbolism that stands for a new relation of the individual to his society. The indwelling of Christ's spirit in each individual transforms him into a son of God, makes him return to his original paradisal state, changes his body into the condition it had before the fall." Early monastic literature luxuriates in such restorative rhetoric, as in the Letters and Lifeof St. Antony, the Asceticon of Abba Isaiah of Scetis, and the Life of St. Paul of Thebes. The very title of the popular aphoristic collections of the late ancient Syriac world, The Paradise of the Fathers, reflects this widespread understanding of Christian asceticism as remedy for postlapsarian maladies. Throughout, the saint's status as symbol and moral exemplar renders his or her health or illness especially meaningful within the symbolic matrix of late ancient Christianity.

But clearly the ascetic reclamation of primordial health is not at work in France's or Cioran's vivid characterizations of ascetic illness. These ascetics do not accept the benefit of Christ's saving intervention. Rather, they emulate him, as well as the other afflicted saints, such as Job and Paul with his thorn and even Jesus on the cross, all righteously suffering the ills of the world. Within this symbolic matrix, the saint—also as symbol—creates a distinctively Christian meaning out of illness that is at odds with the prevalent restorative rhetoric.

Modernists such as Cioran and France and contemporary theorists such as Harpham reflect a notable trend in early Christian approaches to illness in ascetic practice when they point to the embrace of illness and suffering among the saints, their delight in debility, and the desirability of their disfigurement, as do those who note the paradisiacal, restorative rhetoric of late ancient ascetic discourse. But it would be a mistake to take such generalizations as normative, or even typical, of late ancient mentalities. Rather, these two traditions of making meaning out of illness persist in dialectic and tension. Health is the clearest signifier of the reclamation of paradisiacal wholeness, a garden home of the saint. At the same time illness is the great source of glory for the Christian, nothing short of a martyrdom, at the hands not of empire but of nature.

Ascetics and their followers thus made meaning of illness among the saints within the ambiguous territory of early Christian attitudes toward illness. For all the resonance of France's ulcered ascetics or Harpham's disfigured holy men, the sick ascetic did not presage any such stable meaning, whether reflected through saints' lives, rules, treatises, or letters, public or personal. Illness posed special difficulties for late ancient monks in interpretation and regulation; the following chapters will show that monastic writers read illness in a number of ways, denying any special meaning for monastic illness as well as elevating the health or illness of the monk as a most telling signifier of sanctity. Even among those who saw illness among monks as especially meaningful, monastic authors disagreed sharply over how to make meaning out of it. The following chapters contain an exploration of how late ancients used illness in constructing Christian asceticism and ascetic theology. Late ancient Christians presented asceticism as the cure of humanity's endemic illness and illness as asceticism's apogee, the most effective mode self-mortification. Health became one of the most telling features of monastic hagiography, and in return hagiographers resorted to constructing apologia for monastic illness. Illness points to ambiguities of embodiment: it threatens the ascetic's practice, yet could serve as the model and mode of ascetic transcendence and self-fashioning. Through the diverse perspectives from late antiquity discussed here, I hope to demonstrate that the early Christian ascetics understood the experience of illness as a profoundly problematic one, much like other areas of bodily practice, sex and eating most notably. The sustained debate over the practical, ascetical, and theological meaning of the illness experience opened up new ways for Christians to understand the self, the body, and ascetic practice.

Sources and Scope

I draw on a range of monastic and ascetic sources, from the earliest generations of documentary and literary evidence for Christian monasticism through the mid-sixth century. The focus has been primarily on sources from (or relating to) Egypt and to a lesser extent Cappadocia and Palestine. I have not aimed for comprehensiveness. There are, to be sure, relevant texts not treated here, either at all or in the detail that a given reader might prefer. The writings of Shenoute, for example, offer an as-yet-untapped resource for exploring how an ascetic used his own illness to establish his authority and discipline his community. Since the critical edition of the works of Shenoute, of which I am a contributor, is ongoing and Shenoute's Canons 6 and 8 (in which he discusses his illness at length) pose particular textual challenges, it seemed prudent to postpone a comprehensive study of Shenoute's illness (and "illness narrative") for a later opportunity. From the Apophthegmata patrum, whose complicated transmission and challenges for historical use too frequently go unrecognized, I have drawn sparingly and not systematically, generally when sayings are related intertextual...

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Book Description University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2012. Hardback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The literature of late ancient Christianity is rich both in saints who lead lives of almost Edenic health and in saints who court and endure horrifying diseases. In such narratives, health and illness might signify the sanctity of the ascetic, or invite consideration of a broader theology of illness. In Thorns in the Flesh, Andrew Crislip draws on a wide range of texts from the fourth through sixth centuries that reflect persistent and contentious attempts to make sense of the illness of the ostensibly holy. These sources include Lives of Antony, Paul, Pachomius, and others; theological treatises by Basil of Caesarea and Evagrius of Pontus; and collections of correspondence from the period such as the Letters of Barsanuphius and John. Through close readings of these texts, Crislip shows how late ancient Christians complicated and critiqued hagiographical commonplaces and radically reinterpreted illness as a valuable mode for spiritual and ascetic practice. Illness need not point to sin or failure, he demonstrates, but might serve in itself as a potent form of spiritual practice that surpasses even the most strenuous of ascetic labors and opens up the sufferer to a more direct knowledge of the self and the divine. Crislip provides a fresh and nuanced look at the contentious and dynamic theology of illness that emerged in and around the ascetic and monastic cultures of the later Roman world. Seller Inventory # AAJ9780812244458

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