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Ch. 5: The Hermits of Asia

The impulse which, given by Antony, had been propagated in Asia by his great pupil, Hilarion, spread rapidly far and wide. Hermits took possession of the highest peaks of Sinai; and driven from thence, so tradition tells, by fear of those mysterious noises which still haunt its cliffs, settled at that sheltered spot where now stands the convent of St. Catharine. Massacred again and again by the wild Arab tribes, their places were filled up by fresh hermits, and their spiritual descendants hold the convent to this day.

Through the rich and luxuriant region of Syria, and especially round the richest and most luxurious of its cities, Antioch, hermits settled, and bore, by the severity of their lives, a noble witness against the profligacy of its inhabitants, who had half renounced the paganism of their forefathers without renouncing in the least, it seems, those sins which drew down of old the vengeance of a righteous God upon their forefathers, whether in Canaan or in Syria itself.

At Antioch, about the year 347, was born the famous Chrysostom, John of the Golden Mouth; and near Antioch he became a hermit, and dwelt, so legends say, several years alone in the wilderness: till, nerved by that hard training, he went forth again into the world to become, whether at Antioch or at Constantinople, the bravest as well as the most eloquent preacher of righteousness and rebuker of sin which the world had seen since the times of St. Paul. The labours of Chrysostom belong not so much to this book as to a general ecclesiastical history: but it must not be forgotten that he, like all the great men of that age, had been a monk, and kept up his monastic severity, even in the midst of the world, until his dying day.

At Nisibis, again, upon the very frontier of Persia, appeared another very remarkable personage, known as the Great Jacob or Great St. James. Taking (says his admiring biographer, Theodoret of Cyra) to the peaks of the loftiest mountains., he passed his life on them, in spring and summer haunting the woods, with the sky for a roof, but sheltering himself in winter in a cave. His food was wild fruits and mountain herbs. He never used a fire, and, clothed in a goats' hair garment, was perhaps the first of those Boscoi, or "browsing hermits," who lived literally like the wild animals in the flesh, while they tried to live like angels in the spirit.

Some of the stories told of Jacob savour of that vindictiveness which Giraldus Cambrensis, in after years, attributed to the saints in Ireland. He was walking one day over the Persian frontier, "to visit the plants of true religion" and "bestow on them due care," when he passed at a fountain a troop of damsels washing clothes and treading them with their feet. They seem, according to the story, to have stared at the wild man, instead of veiling their faces or letting down their garments. No act or word of rudeness is reported of them: but Jacob's modesty or pride was so much scandalized that he cursed both the fountain and the girls. The fountain of course dried up forthwith, and the damsels' hair turned grey. They ran weeping into the town. The townsfolk came out, and compelled Jacob, by their prayers, to restore the water to their fountain; but the grey hair he refused to restore to its original hue unless the damsels would come and beg pardon publicly themselves. The poor girls were ashamed to come, and their hair remained grey ever after.

A story like this may raise a smile in some of my readers, in others something like indignation or contempt. But as long as such legends remain in these hermit lives, told with as much gravity as any other portion of the biography, and eloquently lauded, as this deed is, by Bishop Theodoret, as proofs of the holiness and humanity of the saint, an honest author is bound to notice some of them at least, and not to give an alluring and really dishonest account of these men and their times, by detailing every anecdote which can elevate them in the mind of the reader, while he carefully omits all that may justly disgust him.

Yet, after all, we are not bound to believe this legend, any more than we are bound to believe that when Jacob saw a Persian judge give an unjust sentence, he forthwith cursed, not him, but a rock close by, which instantly crumbled into innumerable fragments, so terrifying that judge that he at once revoked his sentence, and gave a just decision.

Neither, again, need we believe that it was by sending, as men said in his own days, swarms of mosquitos against the Persian invaders, that he put to flight their elephants and horses: and yet it may be true that, in the famous siege of Nisibis, Jacob played the patriot and the valiant man. For when Sapor, the Persian king, came against Nisibis with all his forces, with troops of elephants, and huge machines of war, and towers full of archers wheeled up to the walls, and at last, damming the river itself, turned its current against the fortifications of unburnt brick, until a vast breach was opened in the walls, then Jacob, standing in the breach, encouraged by his prayers his fellow-townsmen to stop it with stone, brick, timber, and whatsoever came to hand; and Sapor, the Persian Sultan, saw "that divine man," and his goats'-hair tunic and cloak seemed transformed into a purple robe and royal diadem. And, whether he was seized with superstitious fear, or whether the hot sun or the marshy ground had infected his troops with disease, or whether the mosquito swarms actually became intolerable, the great King of Persia turned and went away.

So Nisibis was saved for a while; to be shamefully surrendered to the Persians a few years afterwards by the weak young Emperor Jovian. Old Ammianus Marcellinus, brave soldier as he was, saw with disgust the whole body of citizens ordered to quit the city within three days, and "men appointed to compel obedience to the order, with threats of death to every one who delayed his departure; and the whole city was a scene of mourning and lamentation, and in every quarter nothing was heard but one universal wail, matrons tearing their hair, and about to be driven from the homes in which they had been born and brought up; the mother who had lost her children, or the wife who had lost her husband, about to be torn from the place rendered sacred by their shades, clinging to their doorposts, embracing their thresholds, and pouring forth floods of tears. Every road was crowded, each person struggling away as he could. Many, too, loaded themselves with as much of their property as they thought they could carry, while leaving behind them abundant and costly furniture, which they could not remove for want of beasts of burden." {159}

One treasure, however, they did remove, of which the old soldier Ammianus says nothing, and which, had he seen it pass him on the road, he would have treated with supreme contempt. And that, says Theodoret, was the holy body of "their prince and defender," St. James the mountain hermit, round which the emigrants chanted, says Theodoret, hymns of regret and praise, "for, had he been alive, that city would have never passed into barbarian hands."

There stood with Jacob in the breach, during that siege of Nisibis, a man of gentler temperament, a disciple of his, who had received baptism at his hands, and who was, like himself, a hermit--Ephraim, or Ephrem, of Edessa, as he is commonly called, for, though born at Nisibis, his usual home was at Edessa, the metropolis of a Syrian- speaking race. Into the Syrian tongue Ephrem translated the doctrines of the Christian faith and the Gospel history, and spread abroad, among the heathen round, a number of delicate and graceful hymns, which remain to this day, and of which some have lately been translated into English. {160} Soft, sad, and dreamy as they were, they had strength and beauty enough in them to supersede the Gnostic hymns of Bardesanes and his son Harmonius, which had been long popular among the Syrians; and for centuries afterwards, till Christianity was swept away by the followers of Mahomet, the Syrian husbandman beguiled his toil with the pious and plaintive melodies of St. Ephrem.

But Ephrem was not only a hermit and a poet: he was a preacher and a missionary. If he wept, as it was said, day and night for his own sins and the sins of mankind, he did his best at least to cure those sins. He was a demagogue, or leader of the people, for good and not for evil, to whom the simple Syrians looked up for many a year as their spiritual father. He died in peace, as he said himself, like the labourer who has finished his day's work, like the wandering merchant who returns to his fatherland, leaving nothing behind him save prayers and counsels, for "Ephrem," he added, "had neither wallet nor pilgrim's staff."

"His last utterance" (I owe this fact to M. de Montalembert's book, "Moines d'Occident") "was a protest on behalf of the dignity of man redeemed by the Son of God."

"The young and pious daughter of the Governor of Edessa came weeping to receive his latest breath. He made her swear never again to be carried in a litter by slaves, 'The neck of man,' he said, 'should bear no yoke save that of Christ.'" This anecdote is one among many which go to prove that from the time that St. Paul had declared the great truth that in Christ Jesus was neither bond nor free, and had proclaimed the spiritual brotherhood of all men in Christ, slavery, as an institution, was doomed to slow but certain death. But that death was accelerated by the monastic movement, wherever it took root. A class of men who came not to be ministered unto, but to minister to others; who prided themselves upon needing fewer luxuries than the meanest slaves; who took rank among each other and among men not on the ground of race, nor of official position, nor of wealth, nor even of intellect, but simply on the ground of virtue, was a perpetual protest against slavery and tyranny of every kind; a perpetual witness to the world that, whether all men were equal or not in the sight of God, the only rank among them of which God would take note, would be their rank in goodness.

Charles Kingsley