Monday 28 April 2014

A Syrian monk as educator

John of Ephesus is an important source for information about the non-Chalcedonian communion during the 6th century. He was born in about 507 AD in the area which is now the eastern border area of Turkey, and was at the time under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Amida in Mesopotamia, the present day Diyarbakir. As a young boy he was placed in the monastery of the Maro the Stylite, who saved his life as an infant. He joined the community in due course and entered into a period of exile with the other brothers as they were driven from place to place by the Imperial authorities.

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In 529 AD he was ordained a deacon by the non-Chalcedonian leader John of Tella, and eventually settled in Constantinople among the refugees sheltered there by the Empress Theodora. In 558 AD, while acting on behalf of the Emperor Justinian, he was consecrated titular bishop of Ephesus by Jacob Burd’aya. In the last decades of his life he faced constant persecution, exile and imprisonment, and had to smuggle his Ecclesiastical History out of prison, where he died in about 589 AD.

In the late 560’s he published his narrative account of fifty-eight Mesopotamian and Syrian ascetics whom he had personally known or met. It is with this work that the present notes are concerned. In particular we turn our attention to the chapter concerned with Simeon the Recluse and his disciple Sergius. They lived outside a village in the area where John of Ephesus had been brought up, and were obviously well known to him.

There are several passages in the account of this ascetic which allow us to reconstruct the appearance of his monastic retreat. In the first place John of Ephesus writes,

This man, because of the great hospitality that existed in him, used not to shut himself up in a hut like all the others, because as I have said, he would not endure to do so, since he used to perform the ministration to the brothers who resorted to him... On this account he made himself some small huts, and a little enclosed court and garden without a gate; and thus he was shut up within them with one disciple or two; and at one place he made for himself a way of ascending and descending the wall, on account of the strange brothers who resorted to him; and thus therefore he fulfilled in himself two purposes, both that of seclusion and that of the entertainment of strangers.

This passage shows us that whereas many of the hermits in the area appear to have secluded themselves within a small hut, Simeon, because he offered hospitality to those monks who came to visit him, had constructed a compound, surrounded by a wall. Within this compound were several huts and a garden for growing food. The only means of entry and exit was by some sort of staircase or ladder which allowed access over the wall.

In another passage John of Ephesus says,

That garden measured about ten cubits one way, and about twenty the other, and (and heavenly blessing rested upon the place to such an extent that what was sown in it was enough for forty men.

A Roman cubit was about 17.5 inches, therefore the garden area within Simeon’s compound was approximately 14.5 feet by 22 feet. If we allow space for 2 or 3 small huts as well, then the compound itself cannot have been much bigger than 22 feet by 22 feet.

When John of Ephesus describes Simeon’s practice of praying through the night while his exhausted disciples slept we are told,

He would stand up in the night and lift up the head of David (pray through the whole Psalter), and, until the day break, where he began, there he would end, an, if it happened that he had some time over, he would leave the brothers resting, and would himself go and recite the Gospel in the hut, weeping, until daybreak, and then he would rouse them to go and perform matins.

It would seem, therefore, that one of the huts in the compound was used as a small chapel, while one or two other huts had been constructed to provide accommodation for Simeon and his brothers. We learn in a later section of this narrative that a local community of Jews had attacked the compound on one occasion and had burned down the huts, but that Simeon looked on this as a blessing,

That the blessed man might have a little breathing-space in his huts, because he was much straitened in them.

We may take this as suggesting that either the huts had been constructed very badly, or were very small, or more likely that over time, and with many followers at one period or another, the space in the compound had become very cramped.

It is of course very interesting to read about the practical situation in which these Fathers chose to live, but Simeon is most interesting because of the means by which he chose to support himself. We know that in the Egyptian desert the production of baskets was often the means of employment chosen by monastics, but Simeon chose an occupation which appears to have been much less common. Certainly the narrative describes his compound as being quite close to the local village, and other studies in the monasticism of Palestine at this time also point to monasteries usually being a feature of a rural population rather than completely isolated. It is this proximity which offered a rather unusual means of employment.

John of Ephesus writes,

Since the task of performing anything in the way of manual work was not open to them, and that they might not continue to eat the bread if idleness, and be despised by themselves and their consciences, the blessed men formed a plan and chose for themselves to teach boys, and this they did out of the window, since a seat was placed inside the window, and hours were appointed for the boys to come, that is, in the morning and in the evening, and when they had taught one class to read the Psalms and Scriptures, and they had withdrawn after being strengthened, another came in of little infants, thirty or forty of them, and they would learn and go to their homes, because it was a populous village and many people used to come out from it. And so the old man continued doing until the time of his end, and the boy-pupils supplied their needs.

This passage shows us that Simeon, and Sergius his disciple, chose to become educators of the local community, as a means of providing for their own needs. It would seem that several classes were organised, of both younger and older boys, who were organised by age. The older boys were taught to read both the Psalms and the Scriptures, while we can imagine the youngest children having an easier course of study, perhaps the alphabet. The numbers of boys attending these classes is significant, and would suggest that a large proportion of the boys from the local village had a relationship with Simeon, and knew him as a teacher, as well as a holy man.

We learn that there was a window constructed in the wall, and that it was possible for Simeon and Sergius to sit by the window and speak with those outside.  We know, from elsewhere in John of Ephesus’ account, that Simeon had constructed a guest house outside his compound, and it would be reasonable to assume that some sort of shelter was erected by this window to allow the children who came to be taught to be protected from the elements.

During the early period of the Desert Fathers there had been a concern about the presence of children near the monastic settlements, and even women who were family members tended to be received with a great degree of caution. But Simeon, while he seems to have been no less strict in his own ascetic practices, also seems to have been much more welcoming to both children and women, who we learn were allowed to stay in his guesthouse.

This does seem to represent a development in monastic practice, which can be found elsewhere at the same time, by which monastic communities and holy men became a feature of the rural and suburban environment, and more easily accessible to the lay community. The monasteries were becoming, in many places, part of the local Christian context and not completely isolated from it.

It might seem a little surprising that such a committed monastic as Simeon should make himself so much available to the local community. But he was obviously a most holy man, as John of Ephesus was willing to travel all the way from Constantinople to visit him when he was near death. The role of educator which he took upon himself certainly allowed him to develop a relationship with the local village which provided material support in return for the provision of teaching in literacy. But it also ensured that a generation of boys grew up having seen him as an exemplar of the monastic way of life.

There are two other characters in John of Ephesus’ work who have used education in some manner in the working out of their Christian life. But it is likely that many others also became educators, while also being entirely monastic in the character of their spiritual ascesis. Further studies will show how far this form of service characterised monastic life at this time, and in which places. Certainly Simeon saw no contradiction between his very severe spiritual life and his service to his local lay community as a teacher.

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