Rise of the Cult of Saints

Written by on September 6th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Christianity, about Christianity hagiography

|||Deferrari, Roy Joseph. Early Christian Biographies. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2001.|||

The Desert Fathers It has been a subject of wide-spread and frequent discussion what monk was the first to give a signal example of the hermit life. For some going back too far have found a beginning in those holy men Elias and John, of whom the former seems to have been more than a monk and the latter to have begun to prophesy before his birth. Others, and their opinion is that commonly received, maintain that Antony was the originator of this mode of life, which view is partly true. Partly I say, for the fact is not so much that he preceded the rest as that they all derived from him the necessary stimulus. But it is asserted even at the present day by Amathas and Macarius, two of Antony’s disciples, the former of whom laid his master in the grave, that a certain Paul of Thebes was the leader in the movement, though not the first to bear the name, and this opinion has my approval also. Some as they think fit circulate stories such as this–that he was a man living in an underground cave with flowing hair down to his feet, and invent many incredible tales which it would be useless to detail. Nor does the opinion of men who lie without any sense of shame seem worthy of refutation. So then inasmuch as both Greek and Roman writers have handed down careful accounts of Antony, I have determined to write a short history of Paul’s early and latter days, more because the thing has been passed over than from confidence in my own ability. What his middle life was like, and what snares of Satan he experienced, no man, it is thought, has yet discovered. p. 225.

S. Anthony was born in Egypt of good and religious father and mother, and when he was but twenty years old, he heard on a time in the church read in the gospel, that said: If thou wilt be perfect go sell all that thou hast and give it to poor men; and then according thereto he sold all that he had, and gave it to the poor people and became an hermit. He had over many temptations of the devil. Then on a time when he had overcome the spirit of fornication which tempted him therein by the virtue of his faith, the devil came to him in the form of a little child all black, and fell down at his feet and confessed that he was the devil of fornication, which S. Anthony had desired and prayed to see him, for to know him that so tempted young people. Then said S. Anthony: Sith I have perceived that thou art so foul a thing I shall never doubt thee.

After, he went into a hole or cave to hide him, and anon he found there a great multitude of devils, that so much beat him that his servant bare him upon his shoulders in to his house as he had been dead. When the other hermits were assembled and wept his death, and would have done his service, suddenly S. Anthony revived and made his servant to bear him into the pit again where the devils had so evil beaten him, and began to summon the devils again, which had beaten him, to battles. Then our Lord said: I was here but I would see and abide to see thy battle, and because thou hast manly fought and well maintained thy battle, I shall make thy name to be spread through all the world. S. Anthony was of so great fervour and burning love to God, that when Maximus, the emperor, slew and martyred christian men, he followed the martyrs that he might be a martyr with them and deserve it, and was sorry that martyrdom was not given to him. p. 133.

This three part essay will explore the emergence of cult of saints1 in the religion of the late-antique Mediterranean world,2 by considering two sources of inquiry, namely, the Life of St. Anthony3 by St. Athanasius and the Life of St. Paul the First Hermit4 by St. Jerome. It will examine these sources in three parts corresponding to different questions relevant to their source, authorship, and content. Our primary goal in this essay is to understand the development of cult of saints, and to do this, we will seek to answer some important questions about how the life of the holy man leads to the development of saints’ cults and whether the development of saints’ cults brings about the desire to go off to the desert or something else? Peter Brown,5 for instance, notes that the cult of the saints developed out of a particular devotion to the holy sites and burial shrines of these men and that the lives are, in fact, the result of a certain outgrowth or continuation of the practice of honoring the heroic lives of the men of antiquity. He notes its beginnings during the times of persecution in which martyrs’ lives became the new heroism of Christianity.6 While this is certainly true, persecutions had all but ceased by the late fourth century,7 and thus, something more is needed to explain its growth after Christianity was freed. Why, for instance, do the Lives tell of these men being visited by brethren8 who wanted to become holy and live their life in the desert? Why, when we read St. Paul’s life, is there so much mention of Anthony, including such intimate details as their talking and eating together? The texts seem to indicate that Paul’s vocation in the ascetical life of the desert greatly influences Anthony’s asceticism. In short, what do these questions reveal about life in the desert?

I will examine the Lives of St. Anthony and St. Paul the Hermit and seek to discover what type of literature they represent. This may seem like a peculiar way to begin, since they are, after all, lives of two holy men written by men of the church. But this is not all they are; for while they are, broadly speaking, Christian biographies, and hence give us a glimpse into the life of two holy men, two friends of God as Brown calls them,9 it is not so clear, from the texts themselves, that this was their only purpose. We are thus forced to delve deeper into the writings themselves. In seeking to understand the texts, we must, for instance, try to discover whether or not there are any similarities between the two sources, what types of relationships, if any, the men had to the world in which they lived, and finally, whether or not they share elements which distinguish them as biographies and not some other form of literature? Here, I am thinking specifically of the spiritual counsels which occupy the last part of St. Anthony’s Life and which form a quasi-rule of life not unlike some chapters from the later medieval life of St. Columbanus.10 To whom, for instance, were these counsels addressed, and why were they written? Is categorizing them in the broad category of biography sufficient enough to explain all of these inquiries, or is there something more that should be considered?

Also considered in the essay will be the authorship and audience of the texts, and the importance of their having been written by Athanasius, a bishop,11 and Jerome, a priest.12 Here I will consider their sources of inspiration, their education, and position in the Church. Did their status as clerics, for instance, place them in a group of ecclesiastical elites, and did this status have any bearing on the writings themselves? Is there any form of elitism in the works which places them out of the grasp of the ordinary Christian? Likewise, do they have a particular audience in mind in writing the Lives, and if so, what bearing does that have on our bigger inquiry into the rise of cult of saints? Furthermore, who are the children Anthony refers to throughout the work when giving spiritual counsels?13 If the texts were only written for monks, why doesn’t he call them sons or brothers as a father or an abbot might call his brethren? Is it perhaps an indication that such counsels were written for more than just a person of the desert? I will address the broad issue of audience by appealing to a double interpretation of the texts in noting that while both Lives appear primarily to be addressed to monks,14 both have elements which could be addressed to any man15 who wants be holy.

Finally, I will explore some of the peculiar images of the Lives and discuss the allegorical expressions used in the stories. This will perhaps be the most subjective part of the essay, as I will note certain things which I find particularly interesting. What, for example, is the nature of the ascetical life as proposed in the texts? Also, what do the images of the desert, the devil, and spiritual combat have to do with the development of the cult of the saints? Ramsay MacCullen notes that in the post-Constantine era, there had arisen a new institution of education, the Church,16 and that from pulpit and throne, noble and peasant alike could hear of the wondrous deeds of the holy men.17 The purpose, he says, was to encourage ‘popular’ religion,18 in the hearts of Christians. The idea of popular religion, versus some elite ascetical religion, is a necessary component, I contend, at the core of our current inquiry.

For purposes of clarification, understanding, and some conclusions, I will rely on the work of Peter Brown, whose scholarship concerning saints’ lives and their development within Christianity is widely accepted for its breadth of knowledge and careful craftsmanship,19 and also the work of Ramsay MacMullen whose insight into the religious transition from paganism to Christianity during the fourth century is excellent. But, I must remind readers that this is primarily a study in the sources, thus the bulk of material for consideration will be from the texts themselves.

Part I: Sources For Interpretation

In his introduction to the text, St. Athanasius begins with an exhortation, a warning of sorts, to the reader that the contents of the sources are not to be taken lightly.20 The reader is immediately struck by the severity of his tone in which images of a contest, or a battle, are presented to the monk, or more specifically, the man who aspires to be a monk.21 It is not until we get to the first chapter that we are given Anthony’s 22 biographical information. We learn for instance that he was an Egyptian and that his family belonged to an elite class23 of Christians who encouraged but ultimately failed to send him to school because he did not like being around other children.24 Athanasius, in outlining Anthony’s early life, painstakingly highlights Anthony’s virtue by noting, for instance, his attention in church, his moderation with food, obedience to his parents, and temperance.25 I note this early only because it gives some credence to an initial idea that I mentioned in the introduction, namely, that St. Anthony’s story is a backdrop or outline to the Life but is not is the actual purpose of the work. By setting up for us the ideal that Anthony is temperate, obedient, un-worldly, and attentive in church, Athanasius is not only telling us a story, he is giving us counsel.

If we move now to the opening of Jerome’s Life of St. Paul the Hermit, we can note some initial differences. Jerome begins his work by placing Paul within the historical monastic tradition26 instead of addressing the work specifically to monks. Interestingly, he mentions Anthony as being the founder of the eremitical form of monasticism,27 a point that seems to be the general consensus of his time.28 Yet Jerome also notes that according to followers of St. Anthony, “a certain Paul of Thebes was the originator of the practice [of asceticism in the desert].”29 This presented me with an interesting observation. My initial assumption was that the Anthony who is mentioned by Jerome was the same Anthony of Athanasius’ Life, and while I have been unable to either confirm or deny historically that this was the case, outside of the glaring similarities present in the works, for purposes of this essay, I am positing that they are the same man. My reasons for this are a simple appeal to tradition, for as Jerome notes, the story of Anthony was “diligently handed down to posterity in both Greek and Latin,”30 and as such was important for telling the story of Paul’s life. There is, further, proof in the texts themselves which I will point out below.

Historically, Jerome places Paul as living during the persecutions of Decius and Valerian,31 approximately, in the mid-third century.32 We learn here, too, that while the persecutions were going on, Paul, “at about the age of sixteen, came into an inheritance and used his wealth to excel in education.”33 I note this again to highlight the similarities between Anthony and Paul’s social status. Both seem to be men of means, or, at least, to have come from families of means. As in Anthony’s Life, we learn that Paul was a man of virtue who loved seclusion, wisdom, and God, and whose overall piety led him to shun worldly pursuits and flee into the desert.34 As with Athanasius’ text, we are presented with a combination of biographical facts as well as spiritual maxims. If one wanted to be like Paul or Anthony, he should be moderate, temperate, chaste, and so on. Yet, it is true that St. Paul’s Life is closer to the genre of biography than that of St. Anthony’s. In fact, we learn very much about Anthony’s life within the story of Paul’s. Building on the earlier idea that Jerome’s Anthony is the same as that of Athanasius, I would here like to discuss briefly three different stories that appear in the texts which I think give some credence that Paul and Anthony could have known each other.

First, there is the story Jerome tells about Anthony having a dream in which it is revealed to him that there is another man of the desert whom he should seek.35 We know from the text that Paul is already “one hundred and thirteen years old and tarrying in another desert.”36 Anthony is led on his journey by the grace of God, avoiding wild beasts, finally arriving at the desert of Paul.37 Here, after a loaf of bread is miraculously provided by a raven, the two men share a meal by the stream.38 Ironically, St. Paul wants to know what is going on in the world by inquiring whether or not “there are any new roofs rising in the ancient cities.”39 Although Anthony is extremely fatigued from his journey, he obliges his host’s request and converses about the affairs of the world of which he is aware.40 Anthony is refreshed by Paul’s presence, declaring, “I have seen Paul in paradise!”41 After talking and having supper, Paul ends the conversation by exhorting Anthony to bring him a cloak “which Athanasius the bishop gave him to wrap his wretched body in after death.”42 Anthony is “amazed” that Paul knows of Athanasius, but does not allow his amazement to stop him from granting Paul’s wish.43

I would like to highlight two things, first, the interest Paul has for news of the world, and second, the deference Anthony has to Paul’s request. Both men are ascetics, but Anthony, in being the one who sought out Paul, treats him like the elder. Furthermore, Paul’s interest in the development of cities shows some concern for the affairs of the world, more than I expected for a man living in the desert. The fact that Anthony is able to oblige him shows us that despite their being away from the world, some knew details about how civilization was progressing. I could go one step further here by noting that the idea of being in the world but not of it is important in the development of cult of saints, for the fact that men like Anthony knew what was happening in the world shows some type of interaction with the world outside of the desert. Thus they were talking to others and others to them about the ordinary affairs of society.

Turning again to Athanasius’ account, there is another story about the monk Amun of Nitria, whose death Anthony is aware of when it occurs.44 In this story, Athanasius tells us of a vision Anthony has of “a being borne along in the air with great rejoicing.”45 A voice reveals that this is Amun a hermit who has lived out the ascetical life for many years.46 Although Nitria is some distance from Anthony’s hermitage, he is nonetheless aware of the holy man’s death, and informs those around him, as well as others of his death. When the monks from Nitria arrive thirty days later, he is already aware of the purpose of their journey before they speak.47 Similarly, Athanasius recounts another story in which Anthony “goes forth with great zeal to meet an old man to live with in the desert, and when the man declines, sets off at once for the mountain by himself.”48 Although no mention is made of St. Paul’s name in these stories, they illustrate some very important considerations, namely, that Anthony was prone to travel to find men of holiness, that the monks of the desert knew of other ascetics in the desert, and that they often sought out each other for help and encouragement in the spiritual contest. It is, thus, at least probable that Jerome’s story of Anthony’s and Paul’s meeting is credible and that they had encountered each other at some point in their lives.

The texts highlight various stories of the desert men, adding further dimension to their status as biographies, yet there is still more to cover. I would like to change gears a little and shift to the elements of spirituality in the works, for they add yet another dimension to the genre of saints’ lives which demands our attention. The inclusion of spiritual maxims in the Lives will be treated as something connected but distinct from the biographical aspects of the works, which will be used to add further information to the development of the saints’ cults.

There are two different types of spiritual counsels in the texts, both the thoughts of the writers and the thoughts of those of whom they are writing. The majority of the spiritual maxims come from St. Anthony’s Life, which I noted above seems more directed at monks than ordinary Christians. But this may be somewhat misleading, for while Athanasius’ text has many different types of spiritual counsels, both the practitioner, that is, the monk and the ordinary Christian who happens to read the work could gain valuable lessons regarding the spiritual life.

In analyzing Athanasius’ text, I would like to differentiate between what I perceive as general spiritual maxims and hence meant for a general public, and ascetical spiritual maxims meant for monks. Some examples of each should help illustrate the differences. In Chapters 17 and 18, St. Anthony states that a man who owes service to his master should not take the acquiring of virtues lightly.49 He uses the terms man and servant generally and thus could be directed at any man or any servant who wishes to become holy, not necessarily a monk or ascetic.50 Later in the same chapter he uses the term children specifically when addressing the monks on ascetical matters, “children, let us hold fast to the practice of asceticism and not grow careless.”51 Here, I believe he is using the term children to denote all ascetics in the desert since the term children and asceticism are linked. Yet this is peculiar since he calls them children and not brethren or brothers. Also, in Chapter 23, he addresses both the Christian and especially the monk, who must both be on watch against the devil and his crafty deceits.52 Spiritual maxims in Paul’s Life, in addition to being fewer in number, are directed at a more general audience. For instance, when talking with Anthony, Paul states that one ought not to seek his own interests but those of his neighbor.53 But it is not so much what Paul says, but rather how he lives that becomes the spiritual counsel. The monk “had for a long time worn garments woven from palm leaves and forged his soul from fasting and prayers to triumph over the devil.” I was immediately struck by the similarities the monk Paul shares with the person of John the Baptist in the New Testament. The New Testament narrative calls John “the voice of one crying in the desert sent to prepare the way of the Lord.”54 This is very similar to Paul who is sent first into the desert, and hence it is he whom Anthony seeks out. After his visit with Anthony, Paul dies and is sent to his eternal reward as if clearing the way for other hermits like him.55 Like John, who wore “a hairshirt and ate locusts,”56 Paul is clothed “in palm leaves, and has, for sixty years, eaten nothing but bread for nourishment.”57 The story presents something more concrete to both the Christian and the monk. For the ordinary Christian, he might walk away with a new zeal for virtue, for the monk more zeal for asceticism. In short, all the stories have elements which could be adopted by any person seeking holiness.

In concluding this section, I would like to note the following regarding the sources and their genre. While both texts are biographical in nature, there are very important elements which lift them above the genre of simple biography. MacMullen notes that in writing the life of Anthony, Athanasius provided the right “length, tone, anecdotes, ornaments, and praise, to make the saint talked about.”58 It is an interesting point and helps build the case of the rise of cult of saints. It suggests that the Lives were multi-dimensional, that is, they were meant to be read, understood, talked about, and practiced, not by the monks alone, but by all who could read and hear them. This is a nice place, then, to conclude this part of the essay and move onto another topic, namely, the authorship of the texts. In Part II, I will explore the influence clerical status or clerical elitism59 played in the writings of the texts. I will once again be relying heavily on the texts themselves to counter the general claim of Peter Brown who states that “Jerome and his clerical colleagues were part of…an uptight generation, who formed a new clerical elite of clergymen of ascetic background and spiritual austerity;” this elitism, along with the growth of popular religion, is what accounts for the development of cult of saints.60

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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  1. Peter Brown, Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity* (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1981), 1. 

  2. Ibid, 2. 

  3. Mary Emily Keenan, S.C.N., trans., Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius, in Early Christian Biographies V. 15, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, et al. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1952). 

  4. Marie Liguori Ewald, I.H.M., trans., Life of St. Paul the First Hermit by St. Jerome, in Early Christian Biographies V. 15, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, et al. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1952). 

  5. Brown, Cult of Saints, 5. 

  6. Ibid

  7. Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eight Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 23. 

  8. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, 149. 

  9. Brown, Cult of Saints, 6. 

  10. Dana C. Munro, ed., The Life of St. Columban by the Monk Jonas in Medieval History Sourcebook, ed. Paul Halsall (New York: Fordham University, 1998), accessed on May 6, 2013, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/columban.asp 

  11. Keenan, introduction to Life of St. Anthony, 127. 

  12. Ewald, introduction to Life of St. Paul, 219. 

  13. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony ,151-152. 

  14. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, 161. 

  15. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, 227. 

  16. MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism, 89. 

  17. Ibid

  18. Ibid, 90. 

  19. Joseph M. Kitagawa, forward to Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, by Peter Brown (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1981), x. 

  20. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, 133-134. 

  21. Ibid

  22. Ibid, 134 

  23. Ibid

  24. Ibid

  25. Ibid, 135. 

  26. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, 225. 

  27. Ibid

  28. Ibid

  29. Ibid

  30. Ibid

  31. Ibid, 226. 

  32. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edition, s.v. “Valerian.” 

  33. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, 227. 

  34. Ibid

  35. Ibid, 229. 

  36. Ibid

  37. Ibid, 230-232. 

  38. Ibid, 233. 

  39. Ibid

  40. Ibid

  41. Ibid, 235. 

  42. Ibid, 234. 

  43. Ibid

  44. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, 188. 

  45. Ibid

  46. Ibid

  47. Ibid, 189. 

  48. Ibid, 145. 

  49. Ibid, 151-152. 

  50. Ibid

  51. Ibid

  52. Ibid, 156. 

  53. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, 234. 

  54. Mark 1:3 (Douay Rheims Version). 

  55. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, 234. 

  56. Mark 1:4 (Douay Rheims Version). 

  57. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, 233. 

  58. MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism, 134. 

  59. Brown, Cult of Saints, 28. 

  60. Ibid