Rise of the Cult of Saints Part II

Written by on October 9th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Christianity, about Christianity hagiography

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

Read Part I of The Rise of the Cult of Saints

The Communion of Saints 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. p. 225.

Before beginning this section, I wanted to acknowledge that there is some discrepancy over who actually wrote the Lives. That being said, however, the issue of discrepancy is outside the scope of my inquiry. While this section will discuss authorship broadly speaking as well as the lives of both Jerome and Athanasius, it is not particularly relevant for our purposes whether or not Jerome and Athanasius actually wrote the biographies. They are only relevant in so far as they were clerics (and hence need to be examined for elitism). The stories could have been written by Augustine or John of Damascus and our inquiry would still be the same. I am, therefore, accepting the tradition that the works were written by Jerome and Athanasius, and will thus proceed as if they did. This is in no way to give discredit to those scholars whose dealing with authorship naturally leads back to the issue of discrepancy. It is not, however, one of our main concerns here.

St. Athanasius lived between 296 and 3731 and was bishop of Alexandria. He is probably most known for his stance against the Arian Heresy for which he was exiled between the years of 353 to 361 by Constantius II2, and during which time many of his better known works were written. Cornelius Clifford notes that very little is actually known of Athanasius’ early life, but what is known comes to us from his writings.3 From them, we are able to note that his education, family life, and religious upbringing indicate some type of family prominence within Alexandria, for only people of means could be educated in the way Athanasius was.4 He was schooled in “Greek learning” by his parents with an early emphasis placed on grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy.5 Alexandria, according to Clifford, was an intellectual, moral, and political center of the Roman world, and after the Edict of Milan allowed Christians freedom to exercise their faith openly, it began to rise in prominence as one of the great centers of Christianity.6 Despite Christianity’s growing importance, though, paganism was still very much alive within the empire.7 Keenan notes that by reading Athanasius’ writings, we “clearly see the antithesis that exists between pagan and Christian thought and this despite his distinctive Greek culture and education.”8 Furthermore, Athanasius is very much concerned with defining and defending the two natures of Christ, noting very correctly that Arianism’s de-emphasis of Christ’s divinity was an attack on His human nature as well.9 I note this because it is important in trying to understand why men like Anthony would go into the desert to lead such severe lives of penance and prayer, often subjugating their bodies to what by modern standards would be considered torture. If, however, Christ could suffer and die for our sins, and He was both human and divine, then we should be willing to suffer as for Christ’s sake like early martyrs who gave everything, including their bodies, over to their executioners. Although persecutions had essentially ceased by this time, as noted above, the Christian sought a new executioner, that of the desert.10 Anthony, then, in wanting to imitate Christ, goes into the desert to find God and hopefully die for His glory.

St. Jerome was the most learned of the Church Fathers.11 He was born in Dalmatia around 340 and died in 420.12 According to the tradition of the Church, Jerome, like Athanasius, had a very broad education, was trained in classical rhetoric and languages, and had family resources upon which to travel and learn.13 Like Athanasius, not much is known about his early life. We know from sources that he traveled to Rome where he studied scripture and theology and then to Trier, finally arriving in Antioch where he was ordained a priest after first spending some time as an ascetic in the desert.14 During his time as an ascetic, he began to comment on theological matters as well as compile the Scriptures into the common language of the Empire.15 Tradition tells us that he was a close confidant of St. Gregory of Nazianzus with whom he studied, conferred, and prayed.16 Jerome’s contribution to historical Christian writings cannot be underestimated. While most consider the Vulgate his greatest literary achievement,17 he, nonetheless, wrote numerous letters, poetry, and biographies, all significant for their contribution to understanding monasticism of the fourth century.18 As an ascetic, he was intimately familiar with the practice of eremeticism, and at the end of his life retired to a cave in Palestine, only to be called upon when the Pelagian heresy ravaged the Church.19 Both Athanasius and Jerome were Church-men, that is, they were both clerics with some considerable influence in the fourth century Church.20 We can, as stated earlier, gather from the sources that they were both from relatively affluent families who spared no expense in their education. We can also gather that they were both very fond of the ascetical life and the saints of the desert. Peter Brown’s statement, then, that they (Jerome in particular, but Athanasius by association) represented a clerical elite, an uptight and self-conscious generation,21 is perplexing. By clerical elite, Brown is talking about the reaction such men as Jerome, Ambrose, Athanasius (although he doesn’t specifically mention him), and Augustine had to the “superstitions of the religious majority of their fellow Christians.”22 Their status as clerics of ascetical backgrounds makes them dismissive of the practices, some pagan but most not, of the Christian communities around them. While I am not trying to quibble, I think the sources provide a radically different picture than the one Brown is trying to paint. The sources show authors who are intimately involved in the lives of every day Christians, not just ascetics. The sources we are examining, as noted above, although generally intended for monks going into the desert, could also have been used by those ordinary Christians Brown seems to opine the authors are dismissing.

I would argue that both Athanasius and Jerome are presenting the ideal rather than the rule of monasticism in their biographies, although the lives of the men they wrote about formed the basis for similar monks going into the desert. This is not insignificant since, I would assert, the ideal is the basis of the spiritual life in Christianity. Very few ever reach the ideal, but those who do are to us a light which we should seek and emulate. There are clearly admonishments for both ascetics and laity in the two Lives. Quoting St. Anthony, Athanasius writes that, “by the providence of God, the Lord is not unmindful of those who hope in Him.”23 This is a statement both monk and layman alike could understand and embrace. Likewise, there are examples that Anthony directs at children as ascetics, and ascetics as children. While some references to ascetics are made after those to children, they nonetheless are not specifically directed at monks. He states, “therefore children let us not be faint-hearted nor think that we have labored a long time, nor that we are doing anything great…”24 Here the use of children is broad enough to include monk and layman alike. He is speaking as a father with love and compassion directing all of his children, not just some, to trust in the Lord, even though he (the child) is weary from toil. Further on he states, “do not be fearful when you hear perfection, nor be surprised at the word, for it is not far from us, nor does it exist outside of us.”25 Here, Anthony offers a general statement about perfection which could be practiced by cleric and layperson alike. Contrast these, however, with the times he is obviously addressing ascetics, when he says, “let us hold fast to the practice of asceticism and not grow careless.”26 And, later on, “we must not attach great importance to these matters (being judged), nor live a life of self-denial and toil in order to know the future…as a reward for our austere life.”27 Here specific mention is made of ascetical practices, and hence were intended to be read by a desert monk.

St. Jerome’s biography of St. Paul captures two distinct images that both layman and ascetic could appreciate. He tells the story of Anthony traveling great distances to meet the holy man Paul to receive his counsel and blessings. Like the Christian journeying through the faith, Anthony’s journey could present a maxim. An ordinary Christian could have seen a little of himself in Anthony’s persistence to find the holy man. “Perhaps,” he thought, “I too could find holiness like that.” Likewise, the monk or ascetic could find in St. Paul the ideal of the desert life, an example upon which he could build his own spiritual life. Unlike the ordinary layman on a journey, his course is more determined. “If I want to be holy in the desert, I should live my life like Paul’s, after all, St. Anthony himself sought his wisdom!”

Both authors note that Anthony and Paul were from families of considerable means, yet, they stress the fact in their commentary that both rejected their family’s wealth when they went into the desert to be alone with God. While Athanasius was a bishop and hence precluded by his office from ever going into the wilderness, at least for any extended period of time, Jerome, as noted above, went several times throughout his life to be alone with God. It is, thus, not a valid conclusion for me to accept that both men’s status as clerics made them self-conscious and uptight, that is, disassociated from the majority of their fellow Christians. If anything, they were hyper-concerned about their flock, a flock which included both ascetic and layman, or in Brown’s own words, ascetics and those of the majority.

Images within the Work

I would now like to focus on some of the peculiar images in the works which add to the overall genre we are discussing and the importance they play in the cult of saints. Of particular interest is the idea of the hero-cult,28 a pagan hangover which some believe spilled into the growing cult of Christian saints. At the heart of this issue is the idealization the pagan world gave to heroes29 and how that was replaced in Christian culture. I think I am correct in asserting that scholars like Brown believe the relationship is natural, that is, one naturally replaced the other as paganism was dying out and Christianity was flourishing.30As martyrs supplanted the ancient warriors in the minds of Christians, cults naturally developed around their burial sites of execution.31 While the hero-cult image gives us a good starting point, it does not explain how, as MacMullen notes, heroes in the Hellenic sense developed into the broader category of the lives of saints in the individual piety of the late antique world.32 The answer I propose is found in the writings of saints’ lives where analogies supply the Christian mind with holy and heroic images. These holy and heroic images led Christians to imitate the saints they read and heard about, and this imitation in turn produces the saint’s cult. Images such as the desert, the soldier of Christ or warrior, the spiritual contest, and the devil are used throughout the writings to cause wonder and awe in the Christian mind. Thus, in going back to our sources, we shall look at some of these images and see if our conclusion is correct.

Naturally, in writings about holy men of the desert, desert imagery is prevalent. The desert does not, I argue, necessarily mean an actual desert, although we are talking about Egypt and certain regions near the Holy Land in these writings. Desert analogously means any solitary place and could mean a physical as well as a spiritual place. In Chapter 3 of St. Anthony’s life, we read, monasteries were not yet common in Egypt and thus many seeking asceticism did so not far from his own house watching over himself and patiently training himself [emphasis mine].”33 We also learn in this chapter that monasteries were not yet common and no monk knew the great desert, thus, anyone who wanted to “attend to his own soul practice the ascetical life not far from his own village”34 could do so. The ascetical life is proposed as something not in some distant cave, but alone in the residence of one’s own soul. Of course, the image of the desert will develop in subsequent chapters, and Anthony does end up in a solitary cave, but it is peace in the soul that leads one into the solitude of the wilderness.35 Consider further the details from St. Jerome’s story of St. Paul. Jerome uses the term solitude to describe the physical and spiritual environment of both men.36 According to the story, as noted above, Anthony travels to visit Paul and learn the desert way from him. Analogically, however, it is something much deeper. By traveling to Paul’s hermitage, Anthony is not at all interested in seeing the physical environment, but in seeing the man of the desert, “Ho, there, where does the servant of God live?”37 Interestingly, the solitude Paul lives in is described as being beyond “open fields near a clear spring,”38 hardly a rocky, sandy desert. Thus, it is not insignificant to note that while desert could, and did mean the wilderness, it was also used analogously to mean the soul, and the spiritual desert one must enter into in order to become holy.

Next, I would like to consider collectively the images of the warrior, spiritual combat, and the devil in the texts. Building upon the previously mentioned hero-cult of the pagan world, the holy men are presented as new warriors engaged in spiritual combat against the devil. The designation of saints as “soldiers of Christ” gave them enormous power in the minds and hearts of Christians.39 This power, Noble and Hand state, made them capable of many miracles, made their prayers more efficacious, and gave them power over devils and demons.40 Thus, ordinary Christians, when trying to understand the difficulties of the spiritual life, could hear about or read about the saints to gain hope and consolation in their own spiritual development.

Each Life mentions the growth of the holy man analogously in terms of military training. In Athanasius’ account, we hear that Anthony spent twenty years disciplining himself in the way of the desert.41 Furthermore in the Life of St. Paul, we read that Anthony “like a good warrior seized the shield of the faith and did battle against his nature.”42 In his exhortations to others seeking the benefits of the desert, Anthony admonishes, that we should “take up the armor of God that we may be able to resist in the evil day.43 Tied to his training in the desert is the idea of spiritual combat with the devil. This combat, also referred to as a contest, is where the holy man or Christian makes progress. In Chapter 5 of St. Anthony’s story, we read, “blushing in shame from carnal feelings, he fortified his body by faith, prayers, and fastings.”44 In Chapters 34 and 35, he encourages those living in self-denial to do so for the glory of God, for even the Enemy will praise their asceticism to lure them away from the contest.45 The devil is portrayed as the enemy, deceiver, and corruptor of the spiritual life. Always, he presents himself as a friend, as in Chapter 35 when he “appears by night to tell the future.”46 The image of fortune-telling and prophecy is shown as a distraction from the immediate purpose of the Christian or monk whose reason for seeking after the spiritual life is to avoid the deceptions of the world.47 Furthermore, since the writings deal with men, the role of women is particularly precarious, as the devil will often appear as a woman to tempt the holy man into sin. This, again, is tied into the image of combat in that the devil takes the form of something appealing to the monk whose mind should be set on his salvation (the battle), not some immediate gratification.48 When the monk or Christian refuses such advances, he is beat down and buffeted by physical assaults.49 Despite the physical and sometimes brutal nature of the combat, both sources offer spiritual consolation. The Lord “is not unmindful of one’s conflict, but is on hand to aid you.”50 The reward for staying true to the fight is union with God to whom the Christian exclaims, “Woe to me a sinner!”51


This essay has examined two texts prominent in the rise of the cult of saints through their interpretation, authorship and content. It has concluded that the lives of the holy men of the desert were themselves examples to both Christians and monks about the ideals of ascetical living, and that while there were many different ways to follow Christ, all asceticism begins and ends in the soul of the one seeking holiness. It has tried to engage the sources themselves and pull out of them pertinent examples to illustrate the overall theme of development of the cult of saints within the ancient Mediterranean world. It has put forward the opinion that the lives of the saints were more than biographical, for within them are contained spiritual maxims which go beyond simple biographical facts. It has also attempted to address the issue of elitism on the part of the authors who were both Church-men and authors themselves. The writings were written for monk and layman alike, without regard for status within the Church. Rather than being part of some elite, both Jerome and Athanasius sought to advance the ideal of spiritual combat over mere worldly pursuits and in fact wrote against the dangers of elitism. Finally, it noted some of the interesting images present in the texts which build upon the idea of the hero-cult of paganism but which were more than simple stories of heroes. As MacMullen notes, the “sanctified dead were not seen as others”52 but were, instead, examples of real attainable Christian holiness of people who lived among the people of the village and helped forge a path into the solitude of Christian asceticism for others to follow.53 The rise of the cult of saints can be traced to more than Christians flocking to the tombs of martyrs,54 but to Christians imitating the ideal of the life lived by the holy men themselves. The life they offer is not something only available to the desert father, but also to Christians living in the world as well, since, what they offer is eternal life with God. Thus we are left to consider the most fundamental aspect of the rise of the cult of saints: the grace of God who desires our salvation. Left alone, we would be helpless, but with the saints to guide us, we too can achieve holiness and consolation in reading their lives, following their advice, and imitating their virtues.

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. 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). p. 127. 

  2. Noble, Thomas F. X., and Thomas Head. Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. p. 66. 

  3. Cornelius Clifford, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907, s.v. Athanasius

  4. ibid 

  5. ibid 

  6. ibid 

  7. ibid 

  8. Keean, introduction to Life of St. Anthony, p. 128. 

  9. ibid 

  10. Noble and Head, introduction to Soldiers of Christ, p. xix. 

  11. Ewald, introduction to Life of St. Paul, p. 219. 

  12. Louis Saltet, Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. Jerome

  13. ibid 

  14. ibid 

  15. ibid 

  16. ibid 

  17. Ewald, introduction to the Life of St. Paul, p. 219. 

  18. ibid 

  19. Saltet, Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. Jerome

  20. ibid 

  21. Brown, Cult of Saints, p. 28. 

  22. ibid 

  23. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, p. 143. 

  24. ibid, p. 151. 

  25. ibid, p. 153. 

  26. ibid, p. 152. 

  27. ibid, p. 166. 

  28. Brown, Rise of the Cult of Saints, pp. 5-6. 

  29. ibid 

  30. ibid 

  31. ibid, p. 6. 

  32. MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism, p. 119. 

  33. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, p. 136. 

  34. ibid 

  35. ibid, p. 146. 

  36. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, p. 229. 

  37. ibid 

  38. ibid, p. 233. 

  39. Noble and Head, introduction to Soldiers of Christ, p. xv. 

  40. ibid 

  41. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, p. 148. 

  42. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, p. 230. 

  43. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, p. 198. 

  44. ibid, p. 139. 

  45. ibid, p. 167. 

  46. ibid 

  47. ibid, p. 164. 

  48. ibid, p. 153. 

  49. ibid, p. 144. 

  50. ibid, p. 145. 

  51. Ewald, Life of St. Paul, p. 235. 

  52. MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism, p. 118. 

  53. Keenan, Life of St. Anthony, p. 138. 

  54. Brown, Rise of the Cult of Saints, p. 5.